Wednesday, September 19, 2018

An Intel drone fell on my head during a light show

It didn’t hurt. I thought someone dropped a small cardboard box on my head. It felt sharp and light. I was sitting on the floor, along the back of the crowd and then an Intel Shooting Star Mini drone dropped on my head.

Audi put on a massive show to reveal its first EV, the e-tron. The automaker went all out, put journalists, executives and car dealers on a three-story paddle boat and sent us on a two-hour journey across San Francisco Bay. I had a beer and two dumplings. We were headed to a long-vacated Ford manufacturing plant in Richmond, CA.

By the time we reached our destination, the sun had set and Audi was ready to begin. Suddenly, in front of the boat, Intel’s Shooting Star drones put on a show that ended with Audi’s trademark four ring logo. The show continued as music pounded inside the warehouse, and just before the reveal of the e-tron, Intel’s Shooting Star Minis celebrated the occasion with a light show a couple of feet above attendees’ heads.

That’s when one hit me.

Natalie Cheung, GM of Intel Drone Light Shows, told me they knew when one drone failed to land on its zone that one went rogue. According to Cheung, the Shooting Star Mini drones were designed with safety in mind.

“The drone frame is made of flexible plastics, has prop guards, and is very small,” she said. “The drone itself can fit in the palm of your hand. In addition to safety being built into the drone, we have systems and procedures in place to promote safety. For example, we have visual observers around the space watching the drones in flight and communicating with the pilot in real-time. We have built-in software to regulate the flight paths of the drones.”

After the crash, I assumed someone from Audi or Intel would be around to collect the lost drone, but no one did, and at the end of the show, I was unable to find someone who knew where I could find the Intel staff. I notified my Intel contacts first thing the following morning and provided a local address where they could get the drone. As of publication, the drone is still on my desk.

I have covered Intel’s Shooting Star program since its first public show at Disney World in 2016. It’s a fascinating program and one of the most impressive uses of drones I’ve seen. The outdoor shows, which have been used at The Super Bowl and Olympics, are breathtaking. Hundreds of drones take to the sky and perform a seemingly impossible dance and then return home. A sophisticated program designates the route of each drone and GPS ensures each is where it’s supposed to be and it’s controlled by just one person.

Intel launched an indoor version of the Shooting Star program at CES in 2018. The concept is the same, but these drones do not use GPS to determine their location. The result is something even more magical than the outside version because with the Shooting Star Minis, the drones are often directly above the viewers. It’s an incredible experience to watch drones dance several feet overhead. It feels slightly dangerous. That’s the draw.

And that poses a safety concern.

The drone that hit me is light and mostly plastic. It weighs very little and is about 6-inches by 4-inches. A cage surrounds the bottom of the rotors though not the top. If there’s a power button, I can’t find it. The full-size drones are made out of plastic and Styrofoam.

Safety has always been baked into the Shooting Star programs but I’m not sure the current protocols are enough.

I was seated on the floor along the back of the venue. Most of the attendees where standing, taking selfies with the performing drones. It was a lovely show.

When the drone came down on my head, it tumbled onto the floor and the rotors continued to spin. A member of the catering staff was walking behind the barrier I was sitting against, reached out and touched the spinning rotors. I’m sure she’s fine, but when her finger touched the spinning rotor, she jumped in surprise. At this point, seconds after it crashed, the drone was upside down, and like an upturned beetle, continued to operate for a few seconds until the rotors shut off.

To be clear, I was not hurt. And that’s not the point. Drone swarm technology is fascinating and could lead to incredible use cases. Swarms of drones could quickly and efficiently inspect industrial equipment and survey crops. And they make for great shows in outside venues. But are they ready to be used inside, above people’s heads? I’m already going bald. I don’t need help.



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Committed to privacy, Snips founder wants to take on Alexa and Google, with blockchain

Earlier this year we saw the headlines of how the users of popular voice assistants like Alexa and Siri and continue to face issues when their private data is compromised, or even sent to random people. In May it was reported that Amazon’s Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random contact. Amazon insists its Echo devices aren’t always recording, but it did confirm the audio was sent.

The story could be a harbinger of things to come when voice becomes more and more ubiquitous. After all, Amazon announced the launch of Alexa for Hospitality, its Alexa system for hotels, in June. News stories like this simply reinforce the idea that voice control is seeping into our daily lives.

The French startup Snips thinks it might have an answer to the issue of security and data privacy. Its built its software to run 100% on-device, independently from the cloud. As a result, user data is processed on the device itself, acting as a potentially stronger guarantor of privacy. Unlike centralized assistants like Alexa and Google, Snips knows nothing about its users.

Its approach is convincing investors. To date, Snips has raised €22 million in funding from investors like Korelya Capital, MAIF Avenir, BPI France and Eniac Ventures. Created in 2013 by 3 PhDs, and now employing more than 60 people in Paris and New York, Snips offers its voice assistant technology as a white-labelled solution for enterprise device manufacturers.

It’s tested its theories about voice by releasing the result of a consumer poll. The survey of 410 people found that 66% of respondents said they would be apprehensive of using a voice assistant in a hotel room, because of concerns over privacy, 90% said they would like to control the ways corporations use their data, even if it meant sacrificing convenience.

“–°onsumers are increasingly aware of the privacy concerns with voice assistants that rely on cloud storage — and that these concerns will actually impact their usage,” says Dr Rand Hindi, co-founder and CEO at Snips. “However, emerging technologies like blockchain are helping us to create safer and fairer alternatives for voice assistants.”

Indeed, blockchain is very much part of Snip’s future. As Hindi told TechCrunch in May, the company will release a new set of consumer devices independent of its enterprise business. The idea is to create a consumer business that will prompt further enterprise development. At the same time, they will issue a cryptographic token via an ICO to incentivize developers to improve the Snips platform, as an alternative to using data from consumers. The theory goes that this will put it at odds with the approach used by Google and Amazon, who are constantly criticised for invading our private lives merely to improve their platforms.

As a result Hindi believes that as voice-controlled devices become an increasingly common sight in public spaces, there could be a significant shift in public opinion about how their privacy is being protected.

In an interview conducted last month with TechCrunch, Hindi told me the company’s plans for its new consumer product are well advanced, and will be designed from the beginning to be improved over time using a combination of decentralized machine learning and cryptography.

By using blockchain technology to share data, they will be able to train the network “without ever anybody sending unencrypted data anywhere,” he told me.

And ‘training the network” is where it gets interesting. By issuing a cryptographic token for developers to use, Hindi says they will incentivize devs to work on their platform and process data in a decentralized fashion. They are starting from a good place. He claims they already have 14,000 developers on the platform who will be further incentivized by a token economy.

“Otherwise people have no incentive to process that data in a decentralized fashion, right?” he says.

“We got into blockchain because we’re trying to find a way to get people to participate in decentralized machine learning. We’ve been wanting to get into consumer [devices] for a couple of years but didn’t really figure out the end goal because we had always had this missing element which was: how do you keep making it better over time.”

“This is the main argument for Google and Amazon to pretend that you need to send your data to them, to make the service better. If we can fix this [by using blockchain] then we can offer a real alternative to Alexa that guarantees Privacy by Design,” he says.

“We now have over 14000 developers building for us and that’s really completely organic growth, zero marketing, purely word of mouth, which is really nice because it shows that there’s a very big demand for decentralized voice assistance, effectively.”

It could be a high-risk strategy. Launching a voice-controlled device is one thing. Layering it with applications produced by developed supposedly incentivized by tokens, especially when crypto prices have crashed, is quite another.

It does definitely feel like a moonshot idea, however, and we’ll really only know if Snips can live up to such lofty ideals after the launch.



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Facebook job ads 'discriminated by gender'

Women in three US states were allegedly not shown job ads for certain "male-dominated professions".

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The Punkt MP02 inches closer to what a minimalist phone ought to be

There’s an empty space in my heart for a minimalist phone with only the most basic functions. Bad for my heart, but good for a handful of companies putting out devices aiming to fill it. Punkt’s latest, the MP02, goes a little ways to making the device I desire, but it isn’t quite there yet.

Punkt’s first device included just texting and calling, which would likely have worked as intended if not for the inconvenient choice to have it connect only to 2G networks. These networks are being shut down and replaced all over the world, so you would have ended up with a phone that was even more limited than you expected.

The MP02 is the sequel, and it adds a couple useful features. It runs on 4G LTE networks, which should keep it connected for years to come, and it has gained both threaded texting (rather than a single inbox and outbox — remember those?) and Blackberry encryption for those sensitive communications.

It has nice physical buttons you can press multiple times to select a letter in ye olde T9 fashion, and also lets you take notes, consult a calendar, and calculate things. The battery has 12 days of standby, and with its tiny monochrome display and limited data options, it’ll probably stay alive for nearly that even with regular use.

Its most immediate competition is probably the Light Phone, which also has a second iteration underway that, if I’m honest, looks considerably more practical.

Now, I like the MP02. I like its chunky design (though it is perhaps a mite too thick), I like its round buttons and layout, I like its deliberate limitations. But it and other would-be minimal phones, in my opinion, are too slavish in their imitations of devices from years past. What we want is minimalism, not (just) nostalgia. We want the most basic useful features of a phone without all the junk that comes with them.

The Light Phone 2 and its nice e-ink screen.

For me, that means including a couple things that these devices tend to eschew.

One is modern messaging. SMS is bad for a lot of reasons. Why not include a thin client to pass text to a messaging service like WhatsApp or Messenger? Of course iMessage is off limits — thanks, Apple — but we could at least get a couple of the cross-platform apps on board. It doesn’t hurt the minimalist nature of the phone, in my opinion, if it connects to a modern messaging infrastructure. No need for images or gifs or anything — just text is fine.

Two is maps. We sure as hell didn’t have maps on our featurephones back in the day, but you better believe we wanted them. Basic mapping is one of the things we rely on our phones for every day. Whatever’s on this minimal phone doesn’t have to be a full-stack affair with recommendations, live traffic, and so on — just location and streets, and maybe an address or lat/long lookup, like you’d see on an old monochrome GPS unit. I don’t need my phone to tell me where to eat — just keep me from getting lost.

Three, and this is just me, I’d like some kind of synchronizing note app or the ability to put articles from Pocket or whatever on there. The e-ink screen on the Light Phone is a great opportunity for this very specific type of consumption. Neither of the companies here seems likely to add this feature, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the few things I regularly use my phone for.

Light Phone 2 is possibly getting music, weather, and voice commands, none of which really screams “minimal” to me, nor do they seem trivial to add. Ride-share stuff is a maybe, but it’d probably be a pain.

I have no problem with my phone doing just what a pocketable device needs to do and leaving the more sophisticated stuff to another device. But that pocketable device can’t be that dumb. Fortunately I do believe we’re moving closer to days when there will be meaningfully different choices available to weird people like myself. We’re not there yet, but I can wait.



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Nuclear pasta, the hardest known substance in the universe

A team of scientists has calculated the strength of the material deep inside the crust of neutron stars and found it to be the strongest known material in the universe.

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Microsoft is putting HoloLens to work with new Dynamics 365 applications

Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality glasses have always been interesting technology, but it’s never been clear how the company would move from novelty device to actual viable business use cases. Today, it made a move toward the latter, announcing a couple of applications designed to put the HoloLens to work in Dynamics 365, giving it a real business purpose.

Dynamics 365 is Microsoft’s one-stop shop for CRM and ERP, where a company can work on some of its key business software functions including field service in an integrated fashion. The company has been looking at for HoloLens to bring computing power to a group of field workers like repair technicians for whom even a tablet would be awkward because they have to work with both hands free.

For these people, having a fully functioning Windows 10 computer you can wear on your face could be a big advantage and that’s what Microsoft is hoping to provide with HoloLens. The problem was finding use cases where this would make sense. One idea is providing remote assistance for people out in the field to get help from subject experts back at the office, and today the company announced Dynamics 365 Remote Assist.

In this scenario, the worker is wearing a HoloLens either to understand the repair scenario before they go to the site or to get remote help from a subject expert while they are at the site. The expert  can virtually see what the technician is seeing through the HoloLens, and walk them through the repair without leaving the office, even circling parts and providing other annotations in real time.

Microsoft Remote Assist in action with expert walking the technician through the task. Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft is not the first company to create such a solution. ScopeAR announced RemoteAR 4 months ago, a similar product, but Microsoft has the advantage of building it natively into Windows 10 and all that entails including data integration to update the various repositories with information after the repair is complete.

The other business scenario the company is announcing today is called Dynamics 365 Layout. A designer can create a 3D representation of something like a store or factory layout in CAD software, view the design in 3D in HoloLens, and adjust it in real time before the design goes live. As Microsoft’s Lorraine Bardeen, who has the cool title of General Manager for Microsoft Mixed Reality says, instead of creating cardboard mockups and adjusting your 3D CAD drawing on your computer as you find issues in your design, you can put on your HoloLens and make adjustments in a virtual representation of the layout and it adjusts the CAD drawing for you as you make changes.

Laying out the pieces on a factory floor using Dynamics 365 Layout. Photo: Microsoft

Bardeen says the company has worked with customers to find real-world use cases that would save time, effort and money using mixed reality with HoloLens.  They cite companies like Chevron, Ford and ThyssenKrupp Elevators as organizations actively embracing this kind of technology, but it still not clear if HoloLens and mixed reality will become a central component of business in the future. These two solutions GA on October 1st and we will begin the process of finding out.



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Microsoft launches new AI applications for customer service and sales

Like virtually every other major tech company, Microsoft is currently on a mission to bring machine learning to all of its applications. It’s no surprise then that it’s also bringing ‘AI’ to its highly profitable Dynamics 365 CRM products. A year ago, the company introduced its first Dynamics 365 AI solutions and today it’s expanding this portfolio with the launch of three new products: Dynamics 365 AI for Sales, Customer Service and Market Insights.

“Many people, when they talk about CRM, or ERP of old, they referred to them as systems of oppression, they captured data,” said Alysa Taylor, Microsoft corporate VP for business applications and industry. “But they didn’t provide any value back to the end user — and what that end user really needs is a system of empowerment, not oppression.”

It’s no secret that few people love their CRM systems (except for maybe a handful of Dreamforce attendees), but ‘system of oppression’ is far from the ideal choice of words here. Yet Taylor is right that early systems often kept data siloed. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft argues that Dynamics 365 does not do that, allowing it to now use all of this data to build machine learning-driven experiences for specific tasks.

Dynamics 365 AI for Sales, unsurprisingly, is meant to help sales teams get deeper insights into their prospects using sentiment analysis. That’s obviously among the most basic of machine learning applications these days, but AI for Sales also helps these salespeople understand what actions they should take next and which prospects to prioritize. It’ll also help managers coach their individual sellers on the actions they should take.

Similarly, the Customer Service app focuses on using natural language understanding to understand and predict customer service problems and leverage virtual agents to lower costs. Taylor used this part of the announcement to throw some shade at Microsoft’s competitor Salesforce. “Many, many vendors offer this, but they offer it in a way that is very cumbersome for organizations to adopt,” she said. “Again, it requires a large services engagement, Salesforce partners with IBM Watson to be able to deliver on this. We are now out of the box.”

Finally, Dynamics 365 AI for Market Insights does just what the name implies: it provides teams with data about social sentiment, but this, too, goes a bit deeper. “This allows organizations to harness the vast amounts of social sentiment, be able to analyze it, and then take action on how to use these insights to increase brand loyalty, as well as understand what newsworthy events will help provide different brand affinities across an organization,” Taylor said. So the next time you see a company try to gin up some news, maybe it did so based on recommendations from Office 365 AI for Market Insights.



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Nintendo is offering an exclusive Fortnite bundle with the Switch

Fortnite has taken the world by storm. In fact, the game is so popular that Epic has released versions for PC, Xbox, PS4, iOS, Android and the Nintendo Switch, making the game about as accessible as possible.

The popularity of the game stems from the general popularity of the Battle Royale genre and popular streamers like Ninja, who have made the game so much fun to watch. But it also comes from the fun, and often fleeting, skins, dances and pick axes the game offers in its Item Shop.

On October 5th, folks interested in the Switch can pick up some extra Fortnite swag.

Nintendo is releasing a bundle that will include an exclusive Fortnite skin, glider and pick-axe, as well as an extra 1,000 V-Bucks. To be clear, 1,000 V-bucks is the equivalent of $10 and won’t get you much from the Item Shop.

Plus, as pointed out by the Verge, Nintendo has offered several different bundles which would allow customers to pick up a Switch for $329 alongside one of a few games. In most cases, those games cost money, whereas Fortnite is a free to play game.

But the Nintendo Switch bundle is the only way to get your hands on the Switch gear that comes with it.

This isn’t the first time that Epic has given out exclusive gear to players using different hardware or services. There is an exclusive Twitch Prime skin, a Sony PS4 skin, and even a skin for Galaxy Note 9 owners.

The Bundle is available for $329 on October 5.



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Nintendo is offering an exclusive Fortnite bundle with the Switch

Fortnite has taken the world by storm. In fact, the game is so popular that Epic has released versions for PC, Xbox, PS4, iOS, Android and the Nintendo Switch, making the game about as accessible as possible.

The popularity of the game stems from the general popularity of the Battle Royale genre and popular streamers like Ninja, who have made the game so much fun to watch. But it also comes from the fun, and often fleeting, skins, dances and pick axes the game offers in its Item Shop.

On October 5th, folks interested in the Switch can pick up some extra Fortnite swag.

Nintendo is releasing a bundle that will include an exclusive Fortnite skin, glider and pick-axe, as well as an extra 1,000 V-Bucks. To be clear, 1,000 V-bucks is the equivalent of $10 and won’t get you much from the Item Shop.

Plus, as pointed out by the Verge, Nintendo has offered several different bundles which would allow customers to pick up a Switch for $329 alongside one of a few games. In most cases, those games cost money, whereas Fortnite is a free to play game.

But the Nintendo Switch bundle is the only way to get your hands on the Switch gear that comes with it.

This isn’t the first time that Epic has given out exclusive gear to players using different hardware or services. There is an exclusive Twitch Prime skin, a Sony PS4 skin, and even a skin for Galaxy Note 9 owners.

The Bundle is available for $329 on October 5.



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Old media giants turn to VC for their next act

The Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 eras weren’t kind to the world’s largest media conglomerates, throwing their business models into question, creating whole new categories of content consumption, and bringing online competition to subscription and ad pricing. Many of the media giants from the 1990s and early 2000s remain market leaders with multi-billion dollar valuations, however, and have become active investors in startups as a tactic to help themselves evolve.

Of the traditional media companies that have committed to corporate venturing, there are two distinct strategies: those whose investing seems to be about replacing the historic classifieds section of newspapers and diversifying into a range of consumer-facing marketplaces, and those whose investing is concentrated on capturing an early glimpse (and early equity stake) in startups reshaping media.

Replacing Classifieds, Investing in Marketplaces

Mathias Doepfner, CEO of Axel Springer. The company’s startup accelerator is one of the most active in Europe. (Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)

Given the first crisis newspaper groups faced from tech startups in the 1990s and early 2000s was the rise of online classifieds sites (like Craigslist) and transactional marketplaces (like eBay and Amazon), the disruption of their lucrative classified ads revenue stream drove their attention to e-commerce.

Aside from Hearst, the major US newspaper and magazine chains – like Gannett, News Corp, Meredith Corp / Time Inc, and Digital First Media – haven’t made many investments in startups. Perhaps the financial straits of most US newspaper companies have left little cash for VC investments that won’t pay off for years in the future.

But in Northern and Central Europe, where news readership and even print publishing remain healthy by comparison, the leading media groups have been aggressively investing in marketplace and e-commerce startups across the continent over the last decade.

Europe’s leading publisher, Axel Springer has made itself an established player in the European startup scene. Axel Springer’s Digital Ventures team has backed marketplaces from Caroobi (for cars) to Airbnb, and their Berlin-based accelerator (run in partnership with Plug & Play) has invested in over 100 young startups, like digital bank N26, boat rental marketplace Zizoo, and influencer-brand marketplace blogfoster. In a move more strategic to its business, the 15,000-employee group made a large investment in augmented reality unicorn Magic Leap this past February as well, forming a partnership to leverage its content IP in the process.

Meanwhile, Norway’s Schibsted, Sweden’s Bonnier, and Germany’s Hubert Burda Media (best know to many in tech for their annual DLD conference in Munich) and Holtzbrinck Publishing are each globally active, multi-billion dollar publishers who operate active early- or growth-stage VC portfolios comprised mainly of e-commerce brands and marketplaces.

The most iconic corporate venture investment by a newspaper conglomerate (or any company for that matter) is without question the $32M check written into 3-year-old Chinese social web startup Tencent in 2001 by the South African publishing group Naspers (founded in 1915). Tencent, now valued around $400B, is Asia’s largest and most powerful digital media company and Naspers’ 31% stake was worth roughly $175B in March 2018 when it sold $10B in shares.

As a result, Naspers has transformed into a holding company that incubates, acquires, and invests in online marketplace businesses around the globe (though it still maintains a relatively small publishing unit).

The challenge for traditional media companies investing in startups beyond the realm of media is that even if wildly successful, those investments neither give them a distinct advantage in media itself nor make their business model like that of a tech company by way of osmosis. These investments can be flashy distractions to make management and shareholders call the company innovative while it fails to actually re-envision its core operations. Investing in Airbnb or BaubleBar doesn’t address the key challenges or opportunities a traditional publishing group faces.

Therefore the best case scenario in this strategy seems to be that these companies find enough financial success that they just transition out of the content game and become holding companies for other types of consumer-facing brands the way Naspers has. But even then the path seems uncertain: despite all its other activities, Naspers’ market cap is less than the value of its Tencent shares…it’s not clear that the best case scenario necessarily transforms the core organization.

Investing in the Next Generation of Media

Thomas Rabe, CEO of German media group Bertelsmann. Bertelsmann is unique in treating startup investments as a dedicated division of the conglomerate. (TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The other track for “old media” giants has been to focus on venture capital as a means to uncover the future of the media business so the old guard can learn from the new generation of media entrepreneurs and react to market changes sooner than competitors. Intriguingly, it is consistent that the conglomerates who have taken this strategy are ones whose operations in television, radio, data, and telecom outweigh any involvement in newspapers.

Bertelsmann, Hearst, and 21st Century Fox have been the most aggressive corporate venture investors in startups working to shape the future of media, whether it be through streaming video services, crowdsourced storytelling platforms, or augmented reality.

With annual revenue over €17B, Bertelsmann is one of the largest media companies in the world, spanning television production and broadcasting (RTL Group), book publishing (Penguin Random House), newspapers, magazine publishing (Gr√ľner + Jahr), and education. Unlike of media companies though, it treats venture investments in media startups as a key division of its company rather than as a side project.

The company’s core Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI) invests across the US and Europe in companies like Audible, Mic, The Athletic, and Wondery (and in funds like Greycroft and SV Angel) but there are also the 3 regionally-focused funds investing in China, India, and Brazil plus the education-focused University Ventures fund it anchors in NYC. Collectively, Bertelsmann teams made 40 new startup investments in 2017 and generated €141M in venture returns, according to their 2017 Annual Report.

The investment arm of Hearst, one of America’s largest publishers with $10.8B in 2017 revenue, has likewise been a major backer of BuzzFeed, Pandora, Hootesuite, and Roku not to mention Chinese language app LingoChamp, live entertainment brand Drone Racing League, VR capture startup 8i, and dozens of other media-related startups. Hearst’s ownership in these ventures makes strategic sense: they provide market insights relevant to the core businesses, offer immediate partnership opportunities, and would be strategic acquisition targets that evolve the company’s position in a changing market.

21st Century Fox and Sky Plc (in which 21st Century Fox owns a 39% stake and is trying to acquire outright) have both made a whole slate of startup investments across the media sector in the last few years. In addition to its $100M investment in live-streaming platform Caffeine (announced on September 5) and similarly massive investment in WndrCo’s NewTV venture led by Meg Whitman, Fox has invested repeatedly in sports-centric OTT service fuboTV, hit newsletter brand TheSkimm, VR studio WITHIN, and fantasy sports app Draftkings with Sky often co-investing or building meaningful stakes in international startups like iflix (a leading streaming video service in Southeast Asia and the Middle East).

Since traditional media giants own extensive intellectual property of hit shows, films, and often exclusive rights to popular live events – not to mention established distribution channels to tens or hundreds of millions of people – there are immediate partnerships that can be signed to benefit both a startup and the incumbent. The incumbents often re-invest repeatedly to build their ownership and deepen the alignment between the companies, which rarely happens when media companies invest in marketplace startups.

Tencent’s always-be-evolving model

The new crop of digital media giants that includes Netflix, Snap, VICE, and BuzzFeed aren’t doing much if any strategic investing. Instead they’re keeping focused on growth of their core product offering. The notable exception is China’s Tencent.

In addition to dominating China’s booming messaging app sector with WeChat and QQ, owning 75% market share of music streaming in China, and being the world’s leading games publisher through its own studios (Riot Games, Supercell, etc.) and its minority stakes in Activision Blizzard, Epic Games, and others, Tencent has taken a strategy of investing often and early in promising digital media startups…and it has its tentacles in everything.

Based on Crunchbase data, Tencent has done over 300 investments in startups. It is likely the most active venture investor in China, where most of its portfolio is concentrated, but also backs Western media startups like SoundHound, Wattpad, Spotify, Smule, and Wonder Workshop.

Tencent can give distribution to these upstarts through its vast portfolio of digital properties and it can keep tabs on what new content formats or business models are gaining traction. It operates from a mindset of perpetually evolving, and trying to snatch up startups whose products could be key assets in the future of content creation, distribution, or monetization. This approach is one both old media giants and the next gen of unicorn media startups should consider.

The pace of innovation is moving so fast, and so many new doors are opening up – from subscription streaming and esports to voice interfaces and augmented reality – that corporate venture as a core strategy can unlock opportunities for the organization to evolve early, before it ends up being categorized as “old media”.



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