The move by Elon Musk to try and buy Twitter has proved polarizing. Not that we should be surprised; mega-deals are always clarifying moments. But the Musk-Twitter saga has also brought with it enough external that the discussion on the proposed transaction can be a little hard to parse.
Perhaps no commentary has been more humorous than Marc Andreessen’s recent barrage of tweets on the matter, inclusive of visual and written memes. It appears that Andreessen has decided that Twitter is too censorious, and that if Musk bought the company, it would become a land of freer speech.
That’s a concept.
We don’t have time to wade through all of Andreessen’s elliptical political meanderings. Perhaps another time. A sample of the more plainly worded missives:
There does seem to be a sort of collection of venture players congregating in Florida — where @pmarca recently dropped a reported quarter-billion on real estate — with a certain philosophical bent that’s worth examining. What I am starting to view as the Thiel-Musk-Andreessen viewpoint is somewhat simple: Anything that impedes the ability of a select group of billionaires to do whatever they want is tyranny.
This means that Twitter — which has a long history of making mistakes but is working toward a platform that is at once pretty open and not so toxic as to become unusable — is in their sights. How free Twitter is or isn’t in your view will depend somewhat on your priors; mostly I think that the service has done a pretty good job balancing things out over time.
So, whither the criticism? I figured I would take a look. Some notes from the field:
- Substack, backed by Andreessen’s venture capital firm, has a somewhat strict set of content guidelines — things that you are not allowed to say or publish on its service. Most of it is pretty standard. No inciting hate against protected classes? Reasonable. A blanket ban on porn? That’s far more censorious than Twitter, frankly. You can post all the visual smut you want on Twitter.com, to pick an example.
- Rumble, backed by Thiel, has an extensive set of content notes as well. Indeed, the right-wing favored, soon-to-go-public-via-SPAC service says that its users “may not post or transmit any message which is abusive, inciting violence, harassing, harmful, hateful, anti-semitic, racist or threatening.” I mean, that’s pretty broad and cuts against the view that free speech is something that you cannot enjoy on Twitter!
- Facebook is the final piece of data for this chat. Marc Andreessen is on Facebook’s board. And while Facebook’s terms are myriad, its views on speech are somewhat constrained — show a nipple on Instagram and watch what happens — and yet Andreessen has been content to cash Facebook checks since time immemorial.
How can the Miami venture cohort find such annoyance with Twitter when they are backing or helping run services with similar or stricter terms of service? Apart from the fact that they may not give a shit about being hypocritical, I think instead they are merely worried about something that they want to say becoming censored.
Musk tweets incessantly, and to apparently no censorship. (Is this all about bringing Trump back to Twitter? Recall that the former president is also banned from Facebook, where Andreessen currently works part time.)
Part of me wants Musk to buy Twitter so that he can struggle to handle the complex social dynamics of moderating content. It’s not easy or simple. And it’s not something you can get right all of the time — all you can hope for is a balance of open conversation and the minimum regulations needed to keep the commons clear of most forms of abuse. This means that you can’t threaten to kill people on Twitter, but you can TERF it up all you’d like.
I don’t think that what the collection of mega-wealthy techies wants really free speech. I think, instead, they want to be able to express their views without any public pushback. I am reading between the lines, but after tracking the folks in question through myriad news cycles and reading their missives, I keep wondering if free speech to them simply means not being forced to absorb feedback about their provincial ideas.
None of the folks in question need any more money. And they also don’t lack conviction in their beliefs. So why not just say all the things? That would be using their own right to free speech — the government can’t say a damn thing about their perspectives, so pop off, yeah? See what happens. I doubt their views would get them booted off Twitter. They might engender some disgust from folks who disagree, but, well, so what?
Remember when Andreessen defended colonialism and then had to eat crow publicly? I doubt he would backtrack now. So if everyone’s so worried about being censored, let’s put some speech cards on the table. Let it rip!
Amazon-owned MGM makes a viral video show with surveillance footage from Amazon-owned Ring
MGM (which is owned by Amazon) is making a viral video show based on footage from Ring security cameras (also owned by Amazon). The syndicated television show, “Ring Nation,” is poised to be a modern-day, surveillance-tinged spin on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with Wanda Sykes as host.
According to a report in Deadline, the show will feature Ring footage of “neighbors saving neighbors, marriage proposals, military reunions and silly animals.” Ring is also known for activities like accidentally leaking people’s home addresses and handing over footage to the government without users’ permission.
Between January and July of this year, Amazon shared ring doorbell footage with U.S. authorities 11 times without the device owner’s consent. Ring has been critiqued for working unusually closely with at least 2,200 police departments around the United States, allowing police to request video doorbell camera footage from homeowners through Ring’s Neighbors app. Like Citizen and Nextdoor, the Neighbors app tracks local crime and allows users to comment anonymously — plus, Ring’s police partners can publicly request video footage on the app.
An executive at MGM, Barry Poznick, praised the new show: “From the incredible, to the hilarious and uplifting must-see viral moments from around the country every day, Ring Nation offers something for everyone watching at home.”
But perhaps what viewers at home really want is data privacy.
Ring only started disclosing its connections with law enforcement after fielding demands for transparency from the U.S. government. In a 2019 letter, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said that the company’s relationship with police forces raise civil liberties concerns.
“The integration of Ring’s network of cameras with law enforcement offices could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities,” Sen. Markey wrote. “In light of evidence that existing facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifies African Americans and Latinos, a product like this has the potential to catalyze racial profiling and harm people of color.”
Amazon bought the smart video doorbell company in 2018 for $1 billion, then bought MGM for $8.5 billion earlier this year. Now, these two investments — which seemingly have nothing to do with each other — are merging to create a late-capitalist dystopian spectacular that we couldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares. Amazon also just spent $1.7 billion on iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum, but we will not dare to imagine how that acquisition may one day inspire a horrifying TV show.
Aramco’s Prosperity7 powers AI drug firm Insilico’s $95M round
Hong Kong-based drug discovery and development company Insilico has secured fresh capital at a time that its CEO described as a “biotech winter.”
The firm has raised $35 million on the heels of its last tranche in June, bringing its total Series D investment to $95 million. The new round was “oversubscribed”, the firm’s founder and CEO Alex Zhavoronkov told TechCrunch, declining to disclose the company’s valuation.
Prosperity7, the venture capital arm of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Aramco, led the new capital infusion. The fund has been actively scouring for opportunities in and around China that can scale globally and particularly in the Middle East.
Insilico, which operates R&D teams across Hong Kong, Shanghai, and New York, seems to be a good fit for Prosperity7.
“Prosperity7 inspired us to look into sustainable chemistry,” said Zhavoronkov. Insilico uses machine learning to identify potential drug targets and eventually create the drug. The same technology can also be applied to find novel and useful molecules for sustainable chemistry, an emerging area to which Aramco has devoted much effort, the founder explained.
Sustainable chemistry, as defined by OECD, is “a scientific concept that seeks to improve the efficiency with which natural resources are used to meet human needs for chemical products and services.” It “encompasses the design, manufacture, and use of efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes.”
Other investors from the round include an unnamed “large, diversified asset management firm on the U.S. West Coast,” and an assortment of financial and strategic investors like BHR Partners, Warburg Pincus, B Capital Group, Qiming Venture Partners, Deerfield, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, BOLD Capital Partners, and Pavilion Capital.
Zhavoronkov himself also invested in the Series D financing.
When asked why the company straddles China and the U.S., the founder compared the drug discovery space to the early semiconductor industry where research was done mostly in the U.S. while hardware production happened in China.
AI drug discovery relies on a massive amount of investment in so-called contract research organizations (CROs), which provide support to pharmaceutical or medical device companies in the form of outsourcing. China, exemplified by cities like Wuxi, has in recent years emerged as a popular CRO hub for international pharma companies.
The founder was also keen to speak about the company’s new dual-CEO structure. He recently promoted GSK veteran Dr. Feng Ren to be his co-CEO, who is now overseeing Insilico’s R&D and drug business, while Zhavoronkov focuses on the firm’s AI platform.
“Ren generates a lot of proprietary data for us to train AI to do better than humans. We can use this internally for drug discovery and then export this tech to the rest of the industry,” Zhavoronkov said.
Egyptian startup Convertedin raises $3M, caters to e-commerce brands in MENA and Latin America
Convertedin, an Egyptian startup that operates a marketing operating system for e-commerce brands, has raised $3 million in a seed round led by Saudi Arabia-headquartered Merak Capital.
Other participating investors include 500 Global and MSAS. The company, in a statement, said it plans to utilize the funds for strategic hiring and further development of its platform.
When brands shift to e-commerce sales, they operate with vast amounts of fragmented data that need to be unified to drive informed decisions and growth. As such, platforms like Convertedin become essential because it caters to brands and businesses with one, some, or all of these objectives: drive personalized and scalable campaigns, convert customers, achieve measurable results and grow revenue.
CEO Mohamed Fergany founded the company with Mohamed Atef and Mustafa Raslan in 2019 after working with several brands in companies such as Speakol Ads and Vodafone. His time as an employee opened his eyes to the opportunity of helping offline stores retarget and retain their customers online while finding new ones to shop at their stores offline.
“If you work into IKEA and they take your phone number down. After that, our engine works to find a similar product you might buy and we retarget you online. If you went back to IKEA for that product, we can calculate the cost of online conversion,” the chief executive said in the interview. “This was the main idea at this time as we saw a huge problem where there was no analytics platform for the offline store or a retargeting mechanism.”
As the pandemic hit and offline stores were forced to close their doors, many of these brands turned to e-commerce, and as a result, Convertedin took its business online too.
Fergany argues that though online brands use CRM software to gather data, they do not utilize most of it. So Convertedin offers a solution where they can use their data best. It plugs into more than 10 major e-commerce platforms and ad networks — and brands, once connected, can place customers into different segments such as high- and low-value and categories like those looking for specific products and use these insights to create personalized multi-channel marketing and drive various campaigns on social media, SMS, email, search and other channels while having the ability to track and attribute revenue conversion.
Convertedin says SMB e-commerce marketers that use its platform increase their return on ad spend (ROAS) by 2x and reduce customer acquisition costs (CAC) by 40%. So far, the company partners with media buying and advertising agencies and works with over 100 local and multinational brands across Africa, the Middle East and South America in the automotive, healthcare and technology industries. Convertedin’s revenues from these businesses have been growing in “double-digits” month-over-month, Fergany said.
The three-year-old Egypt-headquartered company also has offices in Saudi Arabia and Brazil; it just recently opened one in the latter. The South American market is enormous, with e-commerce revenues reaching $160 billion by 2025 from over 200 million users. As a result, Convertedin plans to make its services available in Portuguese — in addition to English and Arabic — for brands in Brazil and also Mexico, another South American market. Fergany also said Convertedin is eyeing South Africa and India too.
“We focus on emerging markets and if you look at it from healthy unit economics, we can sell easily in those countries because there is low competition there,” said the CEO on the expansion to five new markets, including Saudi Arabia. “And customer acquisition cost is low compared to the U.S. or Europe markets.” The new investment will help Convertedin with this expansion in addition to R&D and hiring.
In a statement, Ahmed Aljibreen, partner at lead investor Merak Capital, addressing his firm’s investment, said the ever-changing landscape of digital marketing platforms adds a new layer of challenges for e-commerce companies — and that Convertedin solves that. Hence, the reason why Merak Capital backed the firm. “We are excited to back Convertedin, a martech company that has built a state-of-the-art platform to simplify digital marketing, improve customer acquisition and drive growth for its clients. Convertedin is led by a world-class team in which we have tremendous confidence as the company embarks on its next stage of growth in MENA and Latin America.”
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