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Plume picks up $270M at a $1.35B valuation to power smart home WiFi for broadband providers

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The last year of life under a global health pandemic has seen a massive surge of people working from home — a shift that has thrown a stark light on the iffy quality of our broadband networks. Today a startup called Plume — which has built a mesh-WiFi platform that helps optimize broadband connectivity and then uses it to deliver a range of smarter home services to some 22 million homes globally — is announcing a major funding round of $270 million that underscores the opportunity to fix that, and more.

“We’re the best at optimizing WiFi connectivity in the home, but that is not what we’re about,” said Fahri Diner, Plume’s co-founder and CEO, in an interview with TechCrunch. “We see it as the foundation. We cut our teeth on it but have gone way beyond that to services like advanced parental controls, secure access controls, which devices can access networks and what passwords they use. We focus on sophisticated security, which we believe will be the next big area that consumers will start paying attention to.

“The ultimate product for Plume is a comprehensive, cloud-driven platform that enables consumers to curate, manage and deliver these services. That’s what the company is about.”

The investment, a Series E, is coming from a single investor, Insight Partners, and values the company at $1.35 billion. This is a significant step up for the company, which almost exactly a year ago raised $85 million in a combination of equity and debt at a valuation of $510 million.

Unless you have been following the business of home broadband networking, you may not be familiar with the name Plume. But if you are not already be using it, chances are that you may be getting pitched a service using its technology, or will be soon.

The company, based out of Palo Alto, has deals in place with some 170 carriers around the globe that provide residential broadband services, reselling Plume’s mesh technology as a way to improve home WiFi connectivity — especially critical in older or bigger homes, and dwellings where you have many people connecting to and straining your broadband network — providing Plume-powered services like network security, parental access controls and motion awareness on top of that.

Plume brands those added services as HomePass, and on top of this it also provides a cloud-based operations tools to carriers, Haystack and Harvest, which help them with customer support, to manage their networks, glean better performance analytics and provide insights on customer usage and churn.

Plume also works with a number of big and less well-known hardware makers who design the routing devices and the processors and related software that power them.

Some of its customers, like Comcast, Charter, Qualcomm, Belkin, Cablevision, Liberty Global and Shaw Communications have become strategic investors in the company over the years, which speaks to its traction with the big players in the market. (It has raised $397 million to date.)

There have been a number of efforts over the years to improve WiFi in the home, from faster networks through to better routers and WiFi extenders.

Plume’s technology is based on one of those alternatives, mesh architecture — also used by others like Google in its Nest WiFi system — which uses a single router and then a series of nodes that operate as if they are a single device on the network (extenders by contrast use different SSIDs and passwords).

On top of the mesh architecture, Plume then runs a software-defined network to identify and better measure the traffic, using automation to, for example, then detect and fix when a device is on the network, may need more power to work properly, and so on.

In all, it appears that Plume has some 170 patents and patent applications in play to underpin what it has built.

It’s interesting to note that at one time Plume was compared to Eero, the mesh-based wifi router startup that was eventually acquired by Amazon, which now resells its routers as part of its own mesh WiFi solution.

But the two have some critical differences, based mainly on the business premise behind the two. As Diner points out, Plume’s service stack is based not around a router (as Eero’s primarily was) but on mesh technology that plus an open source silicon-to-cloud framework platform for building services to run on the mesh network that it calls OpenSync. This essentially allows service providers to build their own services on top of Plume’s mesh architecture.

(Diner, I should point out, has a pretty long-standing and deep understanding of what carriers need, what they actually use and also how they think. He himself trained as an engineer and worked in increasingly senior roles at a number of vendors at the cusp of when carriers were making their switch from legacy copper to fiber and optic networks. In the heyday of telecoms capital expenditures, he sold a previous company that he founded, Qtera, a pioneer in long-haul photonic networking solutions, to now-defunct Nortel for $3.2 billion. He’s also a long-standing investor and board member at a range of major next-generation communications vendors.)

In a telecoms world that has long fretted over the idea of being cannibalized and relegated to the role of a “dumb pipe”, it provides a way for those carriers to build services — apps, as it were — on top of that WiFi connectivity.

That existential crisis has been even more compounded as the promise of “triple play” — carriers selling voice, broadband and video services to their customers — has failed to deliver not least because no one is particularly interested in using or keeping their fixed landlines, and carriers have been completely outplayed on content by the giant rush of tech and media companies building their own, more attractive alternatives for consumers.

That has left carriers with a focus on broadband, which itself then gets commoditized on price, with everyone more or less offering the same speeds and reliability.

“How to differentiate?” is the question they all ask now, said Diner. Plume’s answer: “We differentiate inside the home, with a new bundle of services.”

Realistically, however, Diner points out that only the very biggest carriers (and not even all of them) might have the resources and appetite to do so. Of the 170 customers it has today, only five are building their own customized services on top of the platform, he said.

This is why Plume builds services that it white-labels and resells to carriers to sell on to consumers, and why those services have seen a lot of traction among those service providers. OpenSync, Plume says, now covers some 26 million access points and is seeing a sharp rise as more people fill out their homes with more equipment that they use throughout the day.

You might argue that those home services will also start to look too similar to each other as well, and so frankly the hope is that the open platform will eventually lead to more companies and services innovating around it.

In the meantime, it’s a win-win for Plume.

“Growth in the smart home category is exploding, but the quality of consumer experience has fallen short,” said Insight Partners Managing Director Ryan Hinkle, in a statement. “We are convinced that Plume, with its scalable cloud data platform approach, highly efficient go-to-market strategy, strong momentum, top-quartile financial performance across all SaaS KPIs – including revenue, growth rates, gross margin, efficiency and retention metrics – and world class team is transforming this category. We’re delighted to join and support this exciting journey.” Hinkle is joining Plume’s board with this round.

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

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Israel’s “green pass” is an early vision of how we leave lockdown

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The commercial opens with a tempting vision and soaring instrumentals. A door swings wide to reveal a sunlit patio and a relaxed, smiling couple awaiting a meal. “How much have we missed going out with friends?” a voiceover asks. “With the green pass, doors simply open in front of you … We’re returning to life.” It’s an ad to promote Israel’s version of a vaccine passport, but it’s also catnip for anyone who’s been through a year in varying degrees of lockdown. Can we go back to normal life once we’ve been vaccinated? And if we can, what kind of proof should we need?

Although there are still many unknowns about vaccines, and many practical issues surrounding implementation, those considering vaccine passport programs include airlines, music venues, Japan, the UK, and the European Union

Some proponents, including those on one side of a fierce debate in Thailand, have focused on ending quarantines for international travelers to stimulate the hard-hit tourism industry. Others imagine following Israel’s lead, creating a two-tiered system that allows vaccinated people to enjoy the benefits of a post-pandemic life while others wait for their shots. What is happening there gives us a glimpse of the promise—and of the difficulties such schemes face.

How it works

Israel’s vaccine passport was released on February 21, to help the country emerge from a month-long lockdown. Vaccinated people can download an app that displays their “green pass” when they are asked to show it. The app can also display proof that someone has recovered from covid-19. (Many proposed passport systems offer multiple ways to show you are not a danger, such as proof of a recent negative test. The Israeli government says that option will come to the app soon, which will be especially useful for children too young to receive an approved vaccine.) Officials hope the benefits of the green pass will encourage vaccination among Israelis who have been hesitant, many of whom are young. 

“People who get vaccinated need to know that something has changed for them, that they can ease up,” says Nadav Eyal, a prominent television journalist. “People want to know that they can have some normalcy back.”

Despite the flashy ads, however, it’s still too early to tell how well Israel’s program will work in practice—or what that will mean for vaccine passports in general. Some ethicists argue that such programs may further entrench existing inequalities, and this is already happening with Israel’s pass, since few Palestinians in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank have access to vaccines

The green pass is also a potential privacy nightmare, says Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at Haifa University and a board member of Privacy Israel. He says the pass reveals information that those checking credentials don’t need to know, such as the date a user recovered from covid or got a vaccine. The app also uses an outdated encryption library that is more vulnerable to security breaches, Orr says. Crucially, because the app is not open source, no third-party experts can vet whether these concerns are founded.

“This is a catastrophe in the making,” says Ran Bar Zik, a software columnist for the newspaper Haaretz. 

Zik recommends another option currently available under the green pass program: downloading a paper vaccination certificate instead of using the app. Although that’s possible, the app is expected to become the most widespread verification method.

Unnecessarily complicated

In the US, developers are trying to address such privacy concerns ahead of any major rollout. Ramesh Raskar runs the PathCheck Foundation at MIT, which has partnered with the design consultancy Ideo on a low-tech solution. Their prototype uses a paper card, similar to the one people currently receive when they’re vaccinated. 

The paper card could offer multiple forms of verification, scannable in the form of QR codes, allowing you to show a concert gatekeeper only your vaccination status while displaying another, more information-heavy option to health-care providers. 

“Getting on a bus, or getting into a concert, you need to have a solution that is very easy to use and that provides a level of privacy protection,” he says. But other situations may require more information: an airline wants to know that you are who you say you are, for example, and hospitals need accurate medical records. 

It’s not just about making sure you don’t have to hand over personal information to get into a bar, though: privacy is also important for those who are undocumented or who mistrust the government, Raskar says. It’s important for companies not to create another “hackable repository” when they view your information, he adds. 

He suggests that right now commercial interests are getting in the way of creating something so simple—it wouldn’t make much money for software companies, which at least want to show off something that could be repurposed later in a more profitable form. Compared with Israel, he says, “we’re making things unnecessarily complicated in the US.” 

The way forward

It’s unclear what the US—which, unlike Israel, doesn’t have a universal identity record or a cohesive medical records system—would need to do to implement a vaccine passport quickly. 

But whichever options eventually do make it into widespread use, there are also aspects of this idea that don’t get laid out in the ads. For example, proposals have been floated that would require teachers and medical staff to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain admittance to their workplaces. 

That could be overly intrusive on individual privacy rights, says Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. Still, he says, “most people understand that there is a logic in that people who are vaccinated will have less limitations.”

Despite the progress in delivering vaccines, all these passport efforts are all still in the early stages. PathCheck’s idea hasn’t rolled out yet, although pilots are under discussion. In Denmark, vaccine passports are still more a promise than a plan. And even in Israel, the vision put forward by government advertising is still just an ambition: while pools and concert venues may be open to green pass holders, dining rooms and restaurants aren’t open yet—for anybody.

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

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Hyzon Motors’ hydrogen fuel ambitions include two US factories

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Hyzon Motors plans to produce fuel cells, including a critical component required to power hydrogen vehicles, at two U.S. factories in a move aimed at kickstarting domestic production at a commercial scale.

The hydrogen-powered truck and bus manufacturer has already leased a 28,000-square-foot facility in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook and plans to expand it by an additional 80,000 square feet. Production at the Chicago facility is expected to begin in the fourth quarter of 2021. The announcement comes just three weeks after Hyzon announced it would become a publicly traded company through a merger with Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corporation in a deal valued at $2.1 billion, and a little over one week after revealing plans to renovate a 78,000-square-foot factory in Monroe County, New York.

Hyzon is a new name with a nearly two decades of experience. The company was established in March of last year after spinning off from Singapore’s Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, which has been developing commercial applications for fuel cells since 2003. Hyzon inked a deal in February with the New Zealand company Hiringa Energy for up to 1,500 fuel cell trucks on New Zealand’s roads by 2026. Now it is setting its sights on the North American hydrogen fuel cell vehicle market. Due to the lack of an established domestic hydrogen fueling network, the company is targeting heavy-duty vehicle customers that have a “back-to-base” business model.

Hyzon’s decision to build factories in the United States is noteworthy because production of fuel cell materials in the country lags far behind Europe and Asia. The U.S. also lacks the kind of national hydrogen refueling and infrastructure network found abroad.

“Hydrogen is much more available in places like Germany or The Netherlands,” Hyzon CEO Craig Knight said in an interview with TechCrunch. “There’s already a number of commercial vehicle stations where you can just pull up and pay to fill up like you do with gasoline today in the U.S. It won’t be long before that is a reality, but for the moment we limit the dependence on networks of hydrogen stations by focusing on the customers that use back-to-base operating models, where you only need one piece of hydrogen infrastructure to fuel dozens or even sometimes hundreds of vehicles in a given area.”

Much of the hydrogen that’s produced in the U.S. is so-called “grey hydrogen,” or hydrogen that’s produced from natural gas. An increasing number of companies are pursuing “green hydrogen,” or hydrogen produced via electrolysis powered by renewable energy. Hyzon sources both types for its operations. Hydrogen production remains one of the main factors determining the rate of scale for fuel cell producers.

The Chicago facility will design, develop and produce the membrane electrode assembly, the fuel cell component that helps trigger the electrochemical reaction required to produce power. The company anticipates the new facility will be able to produce enough MEAs for up to 12,000 fuel cell-powered trucks annually.

Finished MEAs will be sent to the company’s recently announced fuel cell stack and system assembly plant in Monroe County, where the components will be assembled into complete fuel cells. From there, the fuel cells will be delivered to a partner truck manufacturer to be assembled into commercial heavy-duty vehicles. The company’s main assembly partner in the United States is Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary Fontaine Modification.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is finding use cases in heavy-duty vehicles because trucking companies are frequently paid by how much weight they can transport, and how quickly they can do it. The time investment of battery charging and the loss of carrying capacity makes fuel cells an attractive alternative for companies looking to decarbonize their vehicle fleets.

Hyzon sees positive network effects and economies of scale associated with hydrogen fuel cell adoption — and increasing marginal costs of electric battery adoption. Although the company has not announced plans to dive into the light-duty vehicle market, it remains bullish on the value proposition of hydrogen fuel cells.

“We think at some point it becomes an increasing marginal cost of adoption for battery electric, because you run into infrastructure limitations around the electricity grid, around the size of depots and the capacity to build the charging infrastructure,” Knight said. “We believe there’s a dis-economy of scale attached to going battery electric when you’ve got really high utilization. We believe that some of the lighter vehicles will also start to move onto hydrogen. We’re not totally dependent on that for our model, but that’s our belief.”

Hyzon, which expects to be listed on the Nasdaq in late May or early June, will be listed under the ticker HYZN.

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Donald Trump is one of 15,000 Gab users whose account just got hacked

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Promotional image for social media site Gab says

Enlarge (credit: Gab.com)

The founder of the far-right social media platform Gab said that the private account of former President Donald Trump was among the data stolen and publicly released by hackers who recently breached the site.

In a statement on Sunday, founder Andrew Torba used a transphobic slur to refer to Emma Best, the co-founder of Distributed Denial of Secrets. The statement confirmed claims the WikiLeaks-style group made on Monday that it obtained 70GB of passwords, private posts, and more from Gab and was making them available to select researchers and journalists. The data, Best said, was provided by an unidentified hacker who breached Gab by exploiting a SQL-injection vulnerability in its code.

“My account and Trump’s account were compromised, of course as Trump is about to go on stage and speak,” Torba wrote on Sunday as Trump was about to speak at the CPAC conference in Florida. “The entire company is all hands investigating what happened and working to trace and patch the problem.”

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