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Extra Crunch’s Top 10 stories of 2020

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I edited hundreds of stories in 2020, so choosing my favorites would be an exercise in futility.

Instead, I’ve tried to gather a sample of Extra Crunch stories that taught me something new. (Which means this top 10 list betrays my ignorance, a humbling admission for a know-it-all like myself.)

While narrowing down the field of candidates, I realized that we’re covering each of the topics on this list in greater depth next year. We already have stories in the works about no-code software, the emergence of edtech, proptech and B2B marketplaces, to name just a few.

Some readers are skeptical about paywalls, but without being boastful, Extra Crunch is a premium product, just like Netflix or Disney+. I know: We’re not as entertaining as a historical drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II or a space western about a bounty hunter.

But, speaking as someone who’s worked at several startups, Extra Crunch stories contain actionable information you can use to build a company and/or look smart in meetings — and that’s worth something. Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a very happy new year.


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1. The VCs who founders love the most

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Managing Editor Danny Crichton spearheaded the development of The TechCrunch List earlier this year to help seed-stage founders connect with VCs who write first checks.

The TechCrunch List has no paywall and contains details and recommendations about more than 400 investors across 22 verticals. Once it launched, Danny crunched the data to pick out 11 investors for which “founders were particularly effusive in their praise.”

2. API startups are so hot right now

Conceptual photo of a cup with clouds. It seems to say, take a break and dream

Image Credits: Juana Mari Moya(opens in a new window)/Getty Images (Image has been modified)

Alex Wilhelm uses his weekday column The Exchange to keep a close eye on “private companies, public markets and the gray space in between,” but one effort stood out: An overview of six API-based startups that were “raising capital in rapid-fire fashion” when many companies were trying to find their COVID-19 footing.

For me, this was particularly interesting because it helped me better understand that an optimal pricing structure can be key to a SaaS company’s initial success.

3. ‘No code’ will define the next generation of software
4. Tracking the growth of low-code/no-code startups

A green sphere stands on top of a pedestal surrounded by a crowd of multicoloured spheres

Image Credits: Richard Drury(opens in a new window)/Getty Images

Two stories about the advent of no-code/low-code software that we ran in July take the third and fourth position on this list.

I have been a no-code user for some time: Using Zapier to send automated invitations via Slack for group lunches was a real time-saver in the pre-pandemic days.

“Enterprise expenditure on custom software is on track to double from $250 billion in 2015 to $500 billion in 2020,” so we’ll definitely be diving deeper into this topic in the coming months.

5. ‘Edtech is no longer optional’: Investors’ deep dive into the future of the market

Point of view, looking up ladder sticking through hole in ceiling revealing blue sky

Image Credits: PM Images(opens in a new window)/Getty Images

Natasha Mascarenhas picked up TechCrunch’s edtech beat when she joined us just before the pandemic. Twelve months later, she’s an expert on the topic.

In July, she surveyed six edtech investors to “get into the macro-impact of rapid change on edtech as a whole.”

  • Ian Chiu, Owl Ventures
  • Shauntel Garvey and Jennifer Carolan, Reach Capital
  • Jan Lynn-Matern, Emerge Education
  • David Eichler, TCV
  • Jomayra Hererra, Cowboy Ventures

6. B2B marketplaces will be the next billion-dollar e-commerce startups

High angle view of Male warehouse worker pulling a pallet truck at distribution warehouse.

Image Credits: Kmatta(opens in a new window)/Getty Images

In 2018, B2B marketplaces saw an estimated $680 billion in sales, but that figure is expected to reach $3.6 trillion by 2024.

As companies shifted their purchasing online, these platforms are adding a range of complementary services like payment management, targeted advertising and logistics while also hardening their infrastructure.

7. Facebook’s former PR chief explains why no one is paying attention to your startup

Caryn Marooney, right, vice president of technology communications at Facebook, poses for a picture on the red carpet for the 6th annual 2018 Breakthrough Prizes at Moffett Federal Airfield, Hangar One in Mountain View, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017. (N

Caryn Marooney, right, vice president of technology communications at Facebook, poses for a picture on the red carpet for the 6th annual 2018 Breakthrough Prizes at Moffett Federal Airfield, Hangar One in Mountain View, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017. Image Credits: Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

Reporter Lucas Matney spoke to Caryn Marooney in August at TechCrunch Early Stage about how startup founders who hope to expand their reach need to do a better job of connecting with journalists.

“People just fundamentally aren’t walking around caring about this new startup,” she said. “Actually, nobody does.”

Speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of this equation, I most appreciated her advice about focusing on “simplicity and staying consistent” when it comes to messaging.

“Don’t let the complexity of your intellect cloud what needs to be simple,” she said.

8. You need a minimum viable company, not a minimum viable product

Team of engineers working on a new mechanical model. Multi-ethnic group of young people building an new technology in office.

Image Credits: alvarez(opens in a new window)/Getty Images

In a guest post for Extra Crunch, seed-stage VC Ann Miura-Ko shared some of what she’s learned about “the magic of product-market fit,” which she termed “the defining quality of an early-stage startup.”

According to Miura-Ko, a co-founding partner at Floodgate, startups can only reach this stage when their business model, value propositions and ecosystem are in balance.

Using lessons learned from her portfolio companies like Lyft, Refinery29 and Twitch, this article should be required reading for every founder. As one commenter posted, “I read this thinking, ‘I need to add some slides to my deck!’

9. 6 investment trends that could emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic

10 January 2020, Berlin: Doctor Olaf Göing, chief physician of the clinic for internal medicine at the Sana Klinikum Lichtenberg, tests mixed-reality 3D glasses for use in cardiology. They can thus access their patients’ medical data and visualize the finest structures for diagnostics and operation planning by hand and speech. The Sana Clinic is, according to its own statements, the first hospital in the world to use this novel technology in cardiology. Image Credits: Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty Images

During “the early innings of this period of uncertainty,” an article we published offered several predictions about investor behavior in the U.S.

Although we posted this in April, each of these forecasts seem spot-on:

  1. Future of work: promoting intimacy and trust.
  2. Healthcare IT: telemedicine and remote patient monitoring.
  3. Robotics and supply chain.
  4. Cybersecurity.
  5. Education = knowledge transfer + social + signaling.
  6. Fintech.

10. Construction tech startups are poised to shake up a $1.3-trillion-dollar industry

Rebar is laid before poring a cement slab for an apartment in San Francisco CA.

Image Credits: Steve Proehl(opens in a new window)/Getty Images

I’ve always found the concept of total addressable market (TAM) hard to embrace fully — the arrival of a single disruptive company could change an industry’s TAM in a week.

However, several factors are combining to transform the construction industry: high fragmentation, poor communication, a skilled labor shortage and a lack of data transparency.

Startups that help builders manage aspects like pre-construction, workflow and site visualization are making huge strides, but because “construction firms spend less than 2% of annual sales volume on IT,” the size of this TAM is not at all speculative.

11. Don’t let VCs be the gatekeepers of your success

One blue ball on one right side of red line, many blue balls on left side

Image Credits: PM Images(opens in a new window)/Getty Images

As a bonus, I’m including a TechCrunch op-ed written by insurtech founder Kevin Henderson that describes the myriad challenges he has faced as a Black entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.

Some of the discussions about the lack of diversity in tech can feel abstract, but his post describes its concrete consequences. For starters: he’s never had an opportunity to pitch at a VC firm where there was another Black person in the room.

“Black founders have a better chance playing pro sports than they do landing venture investments,” says Henderson.

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

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Teach AIs forgetfulness could make them better at their jobs

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While modern machine learning systems act with a semblance of artificial intelligence, the truth is they don’t “understand” any of the data they work with — which in turn means they tend to store even trivial items forever. Facebook researchers have proposed structured forgetfulness as a way for AI to clear the decks a bit, improving their performance and inching that much closer to how a human mind works.

The researchers describe the problem by explaining how humans and AI agents might approach a similar problem.

Say there are ten doors of various colors. You’re asked to go through the yellow one, you do so and then a few minutes later have forgotten the colors of the other doors — because it was never important that two were red, one plaid, two walnut, etc, only that they weren’t yellow and that the one you chose was. Your brain discarded that information almost immediately.

But an AI might very well have kept the colors and locations of the other nine doors in its memory. That’s because it doesn’t understand the problem or the data intuitively — so it keeps all the information it used to make its decision.

This isn’t an issue when you’re talking about relatively small amounts of data, but machine learning algorithms, especially during training, now routinely handle millions of data points and ingest terabytes of imagery or language. And because they’re built to constantly compare new data with their accrued knowledge, failing to forget unimportant things means they’re bogged down by constant references to pointless or outdated data points.

The solution hit upon by Facebook researchers is essentially — and wouldn’t we all like to have this ability — to tell itself how long it needs to remember a piece of data when it evaluates it to begin with.

Animation showing 'memories' of an AI disappearing.

Image Credits: Facebook

“Each individual memory is associated with a predicted expiration date, and the scale of the memory depends on the task,” explained Angela Fan, a Facebook AI researcher who worked on the Expire-Span paper. “The amount of time memories are held depends on the needs of the task—it can be for a few steps or until the task is complete.”

So in the case of the doors, the colors of the non-yellow doors are plenty important until you find the yellow one. At that point it’s safe to forget the rest, though of course depending on how many other doors need to be checked, the memory could be held for various amounts of time. (A more realistic example might be forgetting faces that aren’t the one the system is looking for, once it finds it.)

Analyzing a long piece of text, the memory of certain words or phrases might matter until the end of a sentence, a paragraph, or longer — it depends on whether the agent is trying to determine who’s speaking, what chapter the sentence belongs to, or what genre the story is.

This improves performance because at the end, there’s simply less information for the model to sort through. Because the system doesn’t know whether the other doors might be important, that information is kept ready at hand, increasing the size and decreasing the speed of the model.

Fan said the models trained using Expire-Span performed better and were more efficient, taking up less memory and compute time. That’s important during training and testing, which can take up thousands of hours of processing, meaning even a small improvement is considerable, but also at the end user level, where the same task takes less power and happens faster. Suddenly performing an operation on a photo makes sense to do live rather than after the fact.

Though being able to forget does in some ways bring AI processes closer to human cognition, it’s still nowhere near the intuitive and subtle ways our minds operate. Of course, being able to pick what to remember and how long is a major advantage over those of us for whom those parameters are chosen seemingly randomly.

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What The Conflict With Israel Looks Like To 2 Palestinians

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NPR’s Steve Inskeep talks to Omar Shaban, founder of a Gaza-based think tank, and Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu, about how this cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence plays out in their neighborhoods.

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Echelon exposed riders’ account data, thanks to a leaky API

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Image Credits: Echelon (stock image)

Peloton wasn’t the only at-home workout giant exposing private account data. Rival exercise giant Echelon also had a leaky API that let virtually anyone access riders’ account information.

Fitness technology company Echelon, like Peloton, offers a range of workout hardware — bikes, rowers, and a treadmill — as a cheaper alternative for members to exercise at home. Its app also lets members join virtual classes without the need for workout equipment.

But Jan Masters, a security researcher at Pen Test Partners, found that Echelon’s API allowed him to access the account data — including name, city, age, sex, phone number, weight, birthday, and workout statistics and history — of any other member in a live or pre-recorded class. The API also disclosed some information about members’ workout equipment, such as its serial number.

Masters, if you recall, found a similar bug with Peloton’s API, which let him make unauthenticated requests and pull private user account data directly from Peloton’s servers without the server ever checking to make sure he (or anyone else) was allowed to request it.

Echelon’s API allows its members’ devices and apps to talk with Echelon’s servers over the internet. The API was supposed to check if the member’s device was authorized to pull user data by checking for an authorization token. But Masters said the token wasn’t needed to request data.

Masters also found another bug that allowed members to pull data on any other member because of weak access controls on the API. Masters said this bug made it easy to enumerate user account IDs and scrape account data from Echelon’s servers. Facebook, LinkedIn, Peloton and Clubhouse have all fallen victim to scraping attacks that abuse access to APIs to pull in data about users on their platforms.

Ken Munro, founder of Pen Test Partners, disclosed the vulnerabilities to Echelon on January 20 in a Twitter direct message, since the company doesn’t have a public-facing vulnerability disclosure process (which it says is now “under review”). But the researchers did not hear back during the 90 days after the report was submitted, the standard amount of time security researchers give companies to fix flaws before their details are made public.

TechCrunch asked Echelon for comment, and was told that the security flaws identified by Masters — which he wrote up in a blog post — were fixed in January.

“We hired an outside service to perform a penetration test of systems and identify vulnerabilities. We have taken appropriate actions to correct these, most of which were implemented by January 21, 2021. However, Echelon’s position is that the User ID is not PII [personally identifiable information,” said Chris Martin, Echelon’s chief information security officer, in an email.

Echelon did not name the outside security company but said while the company said it keeps detailed logs, it did not say if it had found any evidence of malicious exploitation.

But Munro disputed the company’s claim of when it fixed the vulnerabilities, and provided TechCrunch with evidence that one of the vulnerabilities was not fixed until at least mid-April, and another vulnerability could still be exploited as recently as this week.

When asked for clarity, Echelon did not address the discrepancies. “[The security flaws] have been remediated,” Martin reiterated.

Echelon also confirmed it fixed a bug that allowed users under the age of 13 to sign up. Many companies block access to children under the age of 13 to avoid complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, a U.S. law that puts strict rules on what data companies can collect on children. TechCrunch was able to create an Echelon account this week with an age less than 13, despite the page saying: “Minimum age of use is 13 years old.”

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