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How did VC funding stack up in August?
Morning Brew September 03, 2021

Emerging Tech Brew

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Happy Friday. If you’re based in the US, we hope you’re preparing for a relaxing Labor Day weekend as you read this newsletter. By the time it hits your inbox, the Emerging Tech Brew team will be offline, touching grass.

Oh, and as a reminder, no newsletter on Monday. See you all back here next Wednesday.   

In today’s edition: 

Smart grids
Stalkerware ban
VC funding roundup

Jordan McDonald, Dan McCarthy

CONNECTIVITY

Grid, be dumb no more

power grid

Vasil Dimitrov/Getty Images

From Texas’s winter blackouts to NYC’s late-July heat wave-driven “conserve energy” alert, it’s clear that American power grids need help. Cue the tech experts, who say the solution is making the grid “smart.” 

Context, please: Smart grids are a management system that use a combination of sensors and AI to distribute and conserve energy. Iterations of the concept already exist across the country in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where utilities can use smart meters to monitor energy consumption and allow customers to sell surplus energy back to the grid if they so choose.

  • With the bipartisan infrastructure bill likely to inject $3 billion into the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Investment Matching program, it’s likely we'll see greater adoption of such technologies in the near future. 

How it works

The current electric grid is built to deliver electricity from power sources like dams, coal, nuclear, and gas plants to consumers directly at home. The smart grid is designed to flip this transaction, allowing energy to flow both ways, from the plant to the home and back again. 

Under this decentralized, bidirectional model, utilities can pay their customers for surplus energy at peak-demand hours to bolster the broader grid, and, ideally, use AI and sensors to more closely match energy supply with demand. 

“Let’s say you go on a trip to Europe for a couple of weeks. Your solar panels are still producing power. Your batteries are still storing that energy,” Mike Bates, global GM of energy at Intel, told Emerging Tech Brew. “If you have a relationship with these local utilities, you can then open up that power while you’re out of town to the utility as they need it. Then you come home and you find a check in the mail from the utility to pay you for the energy that they used.”

But, but, but… For all of the potential benefits, building a smart grid is not foolproof. For one, with more connectivity comes more cybersecurity concerns and privacy considerations. It also requires significantly more coordination.

“Instead of one nuclear power plant which is perfectly controllable, where you have engineers who are smart or intelligent, who know how this equipment works, you have to roughly coordinate 50,000 solar panels,” Yury Dvorkin, assistant professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, said. “That’s a big challenge because you no longer have onsite engineers. You no longer have perfect controllability. And most importantly, you have no control over the sun or wind.”

Click here to read the full story.—JM

PRIVACY

Stalker stopper

Radar tracking surveillance system to identify smartphones, on a smartphone

Francis Scialabba

In a first for the Federal Trade Commission, the agency voted unanimously to ban the stalkerware app SpyFone. 

How it earned the ban: SpyFone allegedly allowed people to purchase real-time data on the physical movements, phone use habits, and online activities of individuals. The tool enabled “stalkers and domestic abusers to stealthily track the potential targets of their violence,” according to the FTC’s statement. 

  • The app also had poor security practices, exposing the data of victims to hackers, in addition to the person explicitly tracking them. 
  • In August 2018, someone hacked into the company’s server and stole personal data on 2,200 consumers. The FTC alleges that SpyFone never remedied the vulnerability that led to this issue, despite promising to. 

The FTC barred the app’s CEO, Scott Zuckerman, from the surveillance industry. Additionally, the company has to delete info collected by SpyFone and let all potential victims of the app know they may have been monitored. 

Looking ahead… SpyFone is not the only stalkware app, and the use of such tech by abusers is not an isolated incident. FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra issued a separate statement encouraging federal and state law enforcement agencies to consider criminal penalties for similar cases in the future. 

“While this action was worthwhile, I am concerned that the FTC will be unable to meaningfully crack down on the underworld of stalking apps using our civil enforcement authorities,” Chopra wrote.—DM 

        

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VC

Deal days > dog days

An illustration of a stack of $100 bill wads in front of a peachy background. A red ghost pepper is sitting on top of the money stack.

For many, August is often a month of rest, relaxation, and extended PTO. Not so for the VCs and founders: Global VC funding hit nearly $48 billion last month, down from the record high $61 billion in both July and June, per Crunchbase data, but still nearly double the $24 billion VCs spent last August. 

And the companies that netted the biggest funding rounds last month are each worth watching from an emerging tech standpoint:

  • SVolt is a Chinese electric vehicle battery maker that raised $1.6 billion. The company focuses on lithium-ion batteries and has a contract with Stellantis, which owns Jeep, Dodge, Fiat, among others. The Information’s Steve LeVine recently wrote about the crop of Western battery startups aiming to catch up to China’s EV battery dominance—SVolt is one of the players they’re chasing after. 
  • Databricks is a “data lake” company, which means it helps companies compile their disparate forms of unstructured data (e.g., text, images) into something intelligible for analysis. It’s among the most valuable private companies in the world: It raised another $1.5 billion last month, bringing its valuation to $38 billion—a shade lower than Instacart, but higher than Fortnite’s parent Epic Games.

There were around 41 new unicorns (companies valued at $1+ billion) added in August, down from a near record of 54 in July, but again, way higher than the norm in previous years. 

Big picture: 2021 has been a unicorn frenzy, pushing the total number of unicorns close to 1,000, per Crunchbase data. As a result, some members of the press have argued it’s time to focus on a more rarified sect, like “decacorns” ($10+ billion), or the more...oblique...“dragons” ($12+ billion).—DM

        

BITS & BYTES

A box of Amazon goods

Francis Scialabba

Stat: Amazon runs 164 flights per day to deliver its packages. 

Quote: “If we’re going to really change the carbon footprint of the vehicles in the United States, more is going to be needed after that to keep this thing going.”—Brendan Jones, president of Blink Charging, to Emerging Tech Brew re: the infrastructure bill’s EV charger funding 

Read: A TikTok user made an automated script to help people overwhelm a site created to facilitate Texas’s extreme new anti-abortion law. 

Sign up for our personal finance newsletter: Money Scoop has everything you want to know about student loans, mortgages, portfolio management, retirement planning, and like a million other things. It could just be the most lucrative newsletter you ever read. Subscribe to Money Scoop here.

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WHAT ELSE IS BREWING

  • Apple has convinced eight states to participate in its digital driver’s license program.
  • Google is pulling an Apple and developing its own ARM-based chips for its Chromebooks.
  • Amazon is planning to hire 55,000 people in corporate and tech roles in the coming months.
  • SEC Chair Gary Gensler said regulation is essential to crypto’s survival. 
  • WhatsApp was hit with a $266 million fine for violating the EU’s GDPR. It’s the second-largest fine under the privacy regulation.
  • The NHTSA asked Tesla for details on how its cars process crash scenes and low-light situations. 

GOING PHISHING

  1. The FTC is investigating McDonald’s because its McFlurry machines are always broken.
  2. Beleaguered Nikola founder Trever Milton has started a new company focused on 3D printing food. 
  3. A startup raised $27 million to fund its autonomous weeding robots.
  4. The founder of diapers dot com wants to build a 5 million-person city from scratch.  

MARKET RESEARCH

Nearly seven in 10 Americans believe retailers using facial recognition technology (FRT) should notify customers before they’re subjected to it, according to new data from Piplsay Research.

The research firm surveyed more than 30,000 US adults to find that 60% of Americans weren’t aware that some retail stores used facial recognition analysis. 

  • And though about four in 10 respondents said they support retailers’ use of FRT, 65% believe stores should allow customers to opt out if they’d rather not have their data stored.

FROM THE CREW

Illustration for Crypto Crash Course

As loyal readers of this newsletter, we know you know crypto. 

But perhaps you’ve been looking for easy-to-understand resources to share with a friend or family member who doesn't get it? Maybe you just want to brush up on your understanding? Or, maybe you just like reading stuff Morning Brew writes. 

In any case, we’ve got you covered—check out our crypto crash course. This was a joint effort between Emerging Tech Brew and the good folks over at the daily newsletter. 

ICYMI

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GOING PHISHING ANSWER

Trevor Milton is a bit tied up at the moment, and has not started a food-printing company, as far as we know. 

Written by Dan McCarthy and Jordan McDonald

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