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Laiye, China’s answer to UiPath, closes $50 million Series C+ – TechCrunch

Robotic process automation has become buzzy in the last few months. New York-based UiPath is on course to launch an initial public offering after gaining an astounding valuation of $35 billion in February. Over in China, homegrown RPA startup Laiye is making waves as well. Laiye, which develops software to mimic mundane workplace tasks like […]

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Robotic process automation has become buzzy in the last few months. New York-based UiPath is on course to launch an initial public offering after gaining an astounding valuation of $35 billion in February. Over in China, homegrown RPA startup Laiye is making waves as well.

Laiye, which develops software to mimic mundane workplace tasks like keyboard strokes and mouse clicks, announced it has raised $50 million in a Series C+ round. The proceeds came about a year after the Beijing-based company pulled in the first tranche of its Series C round.

Laiye, six years old and led by Baidu veterans, has raised over $130 million to date according to public information.

Leading investors in the Series C+ round were Ping An Global Voyager Fund, an early-stage strategic investment vehicle of Chinese financial conglomerate Ping An, and Shanghai Artificial Intelligence Industry Equity Investment Fund, a government-backed fund. Other participants included Lightspeed China Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Sequoia China and Wu Capital.

RPA tools are attracting companies looking for ways to automate workflows during COVID-19, which has disrupted office collaboration. But the enterprise tech was already gaining traction prior to the pandemic. As my colleague, Ron Miller wrote this month on the heels of UiPath’s S1 filing:

“The category was gaining in popularity by that point because it addressed automation in a legacy context. That meant companies with deep legacy technology — practically everyone not born in the cloud — could automate across older platforms without ripping and replacing, an expensive and risky undertaking that most CEOs would rather not take.”

In one case, Laiye’s RPA software helped the social security workers in the city of Lanzhou speed up their account reconciliation process by 75%; in the past, they would have to type in pensioners’ information and check manually whether the details were correct.

In another instance, Laiye’s chatbot helped automate the national population census in several southern Chinese cities, freeing census takers from visiting households door-to-door.

Laiye said its RPA enterprise business achieved positive cash flow and its chatbot business turned profitability in the fourth quarter of 2020. Its free-to-use edition has amassed over 400,000 developers, and the company also runs a bot marketplace connecting freelance developers to small-time businesses with automation needs.

Laiye is expanding its services globally and boasts that its footprint now spams Asia, the United States and Europe.

“Laiye aims to foster the world’s largest developer community for software robots and built the world’s largest bot marketplace in the next three years, and we plan to certify at least one million software robot developers by 2025,” said Wang Guanchun, chair and CEO of Laiye.

“We believe that digital workforce and intelligent automation will reach all walks of life as long as more human workers can be up-skilled with knowledge in RPA and AI”.

Leading investors in the Series C+ round were Ping An Global Voyager Fund, an early-stage strategic investment vehicle of Chinese financial conglomerate Ping An, and Shanghai Artificial Intelligence Industry Equity Investment Fund, a government-backed fund. Other participants included Lightspeed China Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Sequoia China and Wu Capital.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/04/20/laiye-rpa-50-million-funding/

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Maybe SPACs were a bad idea after all – TechCrunch

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter for your weekend enjoyment.

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

Hello friends, I was out yesterday with what I’m calling Moderna Syndrome. Basically I got whacked by my second vaccine dose, and instead of enjoying a day off eating candy and spoiling my dogs I spent the entire day on the couch unable to move. All that’s to say that I missed Coinbase and DoorDash earnings when they came out.

Catching us up, Coinbase met its forecasts that it had previously released (more here), and today its stock is flat. DoorDash, in contrast, beat market expectations and is currently up just over 25% as I write to you.

But despite huge quarters from each, both companies are far below their recently set all-time highs. Coinbase is worth around $265 per share today, off from an all-time high of $429.54, which it set recently. And DoorDash is worth $145 this afternoon, far below its $256.09 52-week high.

They are not alone amongst recent public offerings that have lost steam. Many SPAC-led combinations are tanking. But while Coinbase and DoorDash are still richly valued at current levels and worth far more than they were as private companies, some startups that took SPAC money to float are not doing well, let alone as well.

As Bloomberg notes, five electric vehicle companies that SPAC’d their way to the public markets were worth $60 billion at one point. Now the collection of mostly revenue-free public EV companies have shed “more than $40 billion of market capitalization combined from their respective peaks.” Youch.

And SPAC hype-man and general investing bon vivant Chamath Palihapitiya is taking some stick for his deal’s returns as well. It’s all a bit messy. Which, to be fair, is pretty much what we’ve expected all along.

Not that there aren’t some SPAC-combinations that make sense. There are. But mostly it’s been more speculative hype than business substance. Perhaps that’s why Coinbase and DoorDash didn’t need to lean on crutches to get public. Sure, the market is still figuring out what they are actually worth, but that doesn’t mean that they are in any real trouble. But consider, for a moment, the companies that have agreed to go public via a SPAC before the correction and are still waiting for their deal to complete.

TFW ur forecast is conservative

The Exchange has been on the horn recently with a few public company CEOs after their earnings report. After those conversations, we have to talk a bit about guidance. Why? Because it’s a game that I find slightly annoying.

Some public companies simply don’t provide forecasts. Cool. Root doesn’t, for example, provide quarterly guidance. Fine. Other companies provide guidance, but only in a super-conservative format. This is in effect no guidance at all, in my view. Not that we’re being rude to companies per se, but they often wind up in a weird dance between telling the market something and telling it something useful.

Picking on Appian’s CEO as he’s someone I like, when discussing his own company’s forecasts Matt Calkins said that its guidance is “unfailingly conservative” — so much so that he said it was nearly frustrating. But he went on to argue that Appian is not short-run focused (good), and that if a company puts up big estimates it is more judged on the expectation of those results versus the realization of said results. That line of thinking immediately makes ultra-prudent guidance seem reasonable.

This is a philosophical argument more than anything, as Wall Street comes up with its own expectations. The financial rubber hits the road when companies guide under Wall Street’s own expectations or deliver results that don’t match those of external bettors. So guidance matters some, just not as much as people think.

BigCommerce’s CEO Brent Bellm helped provide some more guidance as to why public companies can guide a bit more conservatively than we might expect during our recent call. It helps them not overspend. He noted that if BigCommerce — which had a super solid quarter, by the by — is conservative in its planning (the font from which guidance flows, to some degree) it can’t deploy too much near-term capital.

In the case of BigCommerce, Bellm continued, he wants the company to overperform on revenue, but not adjusted profits. So, if revenue comes in ahead of expectations, it can spend more, but won’t work to maximize their near-term profitability. And he said that he’s told analysts just that. So keeping guidance low means that it won’t overspend and blast its adjusted profitability, while any upside allows for more aggressive spend?

Harumph, is my general take on all of the above. It’s very fine to have public company CEOs play the public game well, but what I’d greatly prefer is if they did something more akin to what startups do. High-growth tech companies often have a board-approved plan and an internal plan that is more aggressive. For public companies this would be akin to a base case and a stretch case. Let’s have both, please? I am tired of parsing sandbagged numbers for the truth.

Sure, by reporting a guidance range, public companies are doing some of that. But not nearly enough. I hate coyness for coyness’s sake!

That’s enough of a rant for today, more on BigCommerce earnings next week if we can fit it in. You can read more from The Exchange on Appian and the larger low-code movement here, if that’s your jam.

Never going back

We’re running a bit long today, so let me demount with some predictions.

Nearly every startup I’ve spoken to in the last year that had 20 or fewer staff at the time of the chat is a remote-first team. That’s due to their often being born during the pandemic, but also because many very early-stage startups are simply finding it easier to recruit globally because often the talent they need, can afford or can attract, is not in their immediate vicinity.

Startups are simply finding it critical to have relaxed work location rules to snag and, we presume, retain the talent that they need. And they are not alone. Big Tech is in similar straits. As The Information reported recently:

An internal Google employee message board lit up last Wednesday morning as news of what many staff perceived as a more relaxed policy for working remotely circulated. One meme shared on the board showed a person crying, labeled “Facebook recruiters.” Another showed a sad person labeled “San Francisco landlords.”

If you aren’t laughing, maybe you have a life. But I do this for a living, and I am dying at that quote.

Look, it’s clear that lots of people can do lots of work outside of an office, and even though labor purchasers (employers) want to run 1984-style operations on their employees (labor sellers) to ensure that they are Doing Precisely Enough, the actual denizens writing code are like, naw. And that’s just too much for Big Tech to handle as they are literally just cash flows held up by people who type for a living.

What this means is that tech is not going back to 100% in-office work or anything close to. At least not at companies that want to actually ensure that they have top-tier talent.

It’s a bit like when you see a company comprising only white men; you know that it doesn’t have nearly the best team that it could. Firms that enforce full-office policies are going to overindex on a particular demographic. And it won’t be to their benefit.

Alex

Catching us up, Coinbase met its forecasts that it had previously released (more here), and today its stock is flat. DoorDash, in contrast, beat market expectations and is currently up just over 25% as I write to you.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/15/2152389/

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Leveling the playing field – TechCrunch

There is an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition, around the creation of hardware for gamers within the assistive technology community.

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Williesha Morris Contributor

Williesha Morris has been a journalist and freelancer off-and-on for over a decade. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, playing video games or chatting about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 2011, a product developer named Fred Davison read an article about inventor Ken Yankelevitz and his QuadControl video game controller for quadriplegics. At the time, Yankelevitz was on the verge of retirement. Davison wasn’t a gamer, but he said his mother, who had the progressive neurodegenerative disease ALS, inspired him to pick up where Yankelevitz was about to leave off.

Launched in 2014, Davison’s QuadStick represents the latest iteration of the Yankelevitz controller — one that has garnered interest across a broad range of industries.

“The QuadStick’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Davison told TechCrunch. “And I get a lot of feedback as to what it means for [disabled gamers] to be able to be involved in these games.”

Laying the groundwork

Erin Muston-Firsch, an occupational therapist at Craig Hospital in Denver, says adaptive gaming tools like the QuadStick have revolutionized the hospital’s therapy team.

Six years ago, she devised a rehabilitation solution for a college student who came in with a spinal cord injury. She says he liked playing video games, but as a result of his injury could no longer use his hands. So the rehab regimen incorporated Davison’s invention, which enabled the patient to play World of Warcraft and Destiny.

QuadStick

Jackson “Pitbull” Reece is a successful Facebook streamer who uses his mouth to operate the QuadStick, as well as the XAC, (the Xbox Adaptive Controller), a controller designed by Microsoft for use by people with disabilities to make user input for video games more accessible.

Reece lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident in 2007 and later, due to an infection, lost the use of his upper body. He says he remembers able-bodied life as one filled with mostly sports video games. He says being a part of the gaming community is an important part of his mental health.

Fortunately there is an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition, around the creation of hardware for gamers within the assistive technology community.

But while not every major tech company has been proactive about accessibility, after-market devices are available to create customized gaming experiences for disabled gamers.

Enter Microsoft

At its Hackathon in 2015, Microsoft’s Inclusive Lead Bryce Johnson met with disabled veterans’ advocacy group Warfighter Engaged.

“We were at the same time developing our views on inclusive design,” Johnson said. Indeed, eight generations of gaming consoles created barriers for disabled gamers.

“Controllers have been optimized around a primary use case that made assumptions,” Johnson said. Indeed, the buttons and triggers of a traditional controller are for able-bodied people with the endurance to operate them.

Besides Warfighter Engaged, Microsoft worked with AbleGamers (the most recognized charity for gamers with disabilities), Craig Hospital, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Special Effect, a U.K.-based charity for disabled young gamers.

Xbox Adaptive Controller

The finished XAC, released in 2018, is intended for a gamer with limited mobility to seamlessly play with other gamers. One of the details gamers commented on was that the XAC looks like a consumer device, not a medical device.

“We knew that we couldn’t design this product for this community,” Johnson told TechCrunch. “We had to design this product with this community. We believe in ‘nothing about us without us.’ Our principles of inclusive design urge us to include communities from the very beginning.”

Taking on the giants

There were others getting involved. Like many inventions, the creation of the Freedom Wing was a bit of serendipity.

At his booth at an assistive technology (AT) conference, ATMakers‘ Bill Binko showcased a doll named “Ella” using the ATMakers Joystick, a power-chair device. Also in attendance was Steven Spohn, who is part of the brain trust behind AbleGamers.

Spohn saw the Joystick and told Binko he wanted a similar device to work with the XAC. The Freedom Wing was ready within six weeks. It was a matter of manipulating the sensors to control a game controller instead of a chair. This device didn’t require months of R&D and testing because it had already been road tested as a power-chair device.

ATMakers Freedom Wing 2

Binko said mom-and-pop companies are leading the way in changing the face of accessible gaming technology. Companies like Microsoft and Logitech have only recently found their footing.

ATMakers, QuadStick and other smaller creators, meanwhile, have been busy disrupting the industry.

“Everybody gets [gaming] and it opens up the ability for people to engage with their community,” Binko said. “Gaming is something that people can wrap their heads around and they can join in.”

Barriers of entry

As the technology evolves, so do the obstacles to accessibility. These challenges include lack of support teams, security, licensing and VR.

Binko said managing support teams for these devices with the increase in demand is a new hurdle. More people with the technological skills are needed to join the AT industry to assist with the creation, installation and maintenance of devices.

Security and licensing is out of the hands of small creators like Davison because of financial and other resources needed to work with different hardware companies. For example, Sony’s licensing enforcement technology has become increasingly complex with each new console generation.

With Davison’s background in tech, he understands the restrictions to protect proprietary information. “They spend huge amounts of money developing a product and they want to control every aspect of it,” Davison said. “Just makes it tough for the little guy to work with.”

And while PlayStation led the way in button mapping, according to Davison, the security process is stringent. He doesn’t understand how it benefits the console company to prevent people from using whichever controller they want.

“The cryptography for the PS5 and DualSense controller is uncrackable so far, so adapter devices like the ConsoleTuner Titan Two have to find other weaknesses, like the informal ‘man in the middle’ attack,” Davison said.

The technique allows devices to utilize older-gen PlayStation controllers as a go-between from the QuadStick to the latest-gen console, so disabled gamers can play the PS5. TechCrunch reached out to Sony’s accessibility division, whose representative said there are no immediate plans for an adaptable PlayStation or controller. However, they stated their department works with advocates and gaming devs to consider accessibility from day one.

In contrast, Microsoft’s licensing system is more forgiving, especially with the XAC and the ability to use older-generation controllers with newer systems.

“Compare the PC industry to the Mac,” Davison said. “You can put together a PC system from a dozen different manufacturers, but not for the Mac. One is an open standard and the other is closed.”

A more accessible future

In November, Japanese controller company HORI released an officially licensed accessibility controller for the Nintendo Switch. It’s not available for sale in the United States currently, but there are no region restrictions to purchase one online. This latest development points toward a more accessibility-friendly Nintendo, though the company has yet to fully embrace the technology.

Nintendo’s accessibility department declined a full interview but sent a statement to TechCrunch. “Nintendo endeavors to provide products and services that can be enjoyed by everyone. Our products offer a range of accessibility features, such as button-mapping, motion controls, a zoom feature, grayscale and inverted colors, haptic and audio feedback, and other innovative gameplay options. In addition, Nintendo’s software and hardware developers continue to evaluate different technologies to expand this accessibility in current and future products.”

The push for more accessible hardware for disabled gamers hasn’t been smooth. Many of these devices were created by small business owners with little capital. In a few cases corporations with a determination for inclusivity at the earliest stages of development became involved.

Slowly but surely, however, assistive technology is moving forward in ways that can make the experience much more accessible for gamers with disabilities.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/15/leveling-the-playing-field/

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The energy ecosystem should move to make the ‘energy internet’ a reality – TechCrunch

Global trends make it clear that the Next Big Thing isn’t any single thing at all. Instead, the future is about open innovation and integration of elements across the entire energy supply chain.

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Brian Ryan is vice president of Innovation at National Grid Partners, the innovation and investment arm of multinational energy company National Grid.

As vice president of Innovation at National Grid Partners, I’m responsible for developing initiatives that not only benefit National Grid’s current business but also have the potential to become stand-alone businesses. So I obviously have strong views about the future of the energy industry.

But I don’t have a crystal ball; no one does. To be a good steward of our innovation portfolio, my job isn’t to guess what the right “basket” is for our “eggs.” It’s to optimally allocate our finite eggs across multiple baskets with the greatest collective upside.

Put another way, global and regional trends make it clear that the Next Big Thing isn’t any single thing at all. Instead, the future is about open innovation and integration of elements across the entire energy supply chain. Only with such an open energy ecosystem can we adapt to the highly volatile — some might even say unpredictable — market conditions we face in the energy industry.

Just as the digital internet rewards innovation wherever it serves the market — whether you build a better app or design a cooler smartphone — so too will the energy internet offer greater opportunities across the energy supply chain.

I like to think of this open, innovation-enabling approach as the “energy internet,” and I believe it represents the most important opportunity in the energy sector today.

The internet analogy

Here’s why I find the concept of the energy internet helpful. Before the digital internet (a term I’m using here to encompass all the hardware, software and standards that comprise it), we had multiple silos of technology such as mainframes, PCs, databases, desktop applications and private networks.

As the digital internet evolved, however, the walls between these silos disappeared. You can now utilize any platform on the back end of your digital services, including mainframes, commodity server hardware and virtual machines in the cloud.

You can transport digital payloads across networks that connect to any customer, supplier or partner on the planet with whatever combination of speed, security, capacity and cost you deem most appropriate. That payload can be data, sound or video, and your endpoint can be a desktop browser, smartphone, IoT sensor, security camera or retail kiosk.

This mix-and-match internet created an open digital supply chain that has driven an epochal boom in online innovation. Entrepreneurs and inventors can focus on specific value propositions anywhere across that supply chain rather than having to continually reinvent the supply chain itself.

The energy sector must move in the same direction. We need to be able to treat our various generation modalities like server platforms. We need our transmission grids to be as accessible as our data networks, and we need to be able to deliver energy to any consumption endpoint just as flexibly. We need to encourage innovation at those endpoints, too — just as the tech sector did.

Just as the digital internet rewards innovation wherever it serves the market — whether you build a better app or design a cooler smartphone — so too will the energy internet offer greater opportunities across the energy supply chain.

The 5D future

So what is the energy internet? As a foundation, let’s start with a model that takes the existing industry talk of digitalization, decentralization and decarbonization a few steps further:

Digitalization: Innovation depends on information about demand, supply, efficiency, trends and events. That data must be accurate, complete, timely and sharable. Digitalization efforts such as IoE, open energy, and what many refer to as the “smart grid” are instrumental because they ensure innovators have the insights they need to continuously improve the physics, logistics and economics of energy delivery.

Decentralization: The internet changed the world in part because it took the power of computing out of a few centralized data centers and distributed it wherever it made sense. The energy internet will do likewise. Digitalization supports decentralization by letting assets be integrated into an open energy supply chain. But decentralization is much more than just the integration of existing assets — it’s the proliferation of new assets wherever they’re needed.

Decarbonization: Decarbonization is, of course, the whole point of the exercise. We must move to greener supply chains built on decentralized infrastructure that leverage energy supply everywhere to meet energy demand anywhere. The market is demanding it and regulators are requiring it. The energy internet is therefore more than just an investment opportunity — it’s an existential imperative.

Democratization: Much of the innovation associated with the internet arose from the fact that, in addition to decentralizing technology physically, it also democratized technology demographically. Democratization is about putting power (literally, in this case) into the hands of the people. Vastly increasing the number of minds and hands tackling the energy industry’s challenges will also accelerate innovation and enhance our ability to respond to market dynamics.

Diversity: As I asserted above, no one has a crystal ball. So anyone investing in innovation at scale should diversify — not just to mitigate risk and optimize returns, but as an enablement strategy. After all, if we truly believe the energy internet (or Grid 2.0, if you prefer that term) will require that all the elements of the energy supply chain work together, we must diversify our innovation initiatives across those elements to promote interoperability and integration.

That’s how the digital internet was built. Standards bodies played an important role, but those standards and their implementations were driven by industry players like Microsoft and Cisco — as well as top VCs — who ensured the ecosystem’s success by driving integration across the supply chain.

We must take the same approach with the energy internet. Those with the power and influence to do so must help ensure we aggressively advance integration across the energy supply chain as a whole, even as we improve the individual elements. To this end, National Grid last year kicked off a new industry group called the NextGrid Alliance, which includes senior executives from more than 60 utilities across the world.

Finally, we believe it’s essential to diversify thinking within the energy ecosystem as well. National Grid has sounded alarms about the serious underrepresentation of women in the energy industry and of female undergraduates in STEM programs. On the flip side, research by Deloitte has found diverse teams are 20% more innovative. More than 60% of my own team at NGP are women, and that breadth of perspective has helped National Grid capture powerful insights into companywide innovation efforts.

More winning, less predicting

The concept of the energy internet isn’t some abstract future ideal. We’re already seeing specific examples of how it will transform the market:

Green transnationalism: The energy internet is on its way to becoming as global as the digital internet. The U.K., for instance, is now receiving wind-generated power from Norway and Denmark. This ability to leverage decentralized energy supply across borders will have significant benefits for national economies and create new opportunities for energy arbitrage.

EV charging models: Pumping electricity isn’t like pumping gas, nor should it be. With the right combination of innovation in smart metering and fast-charging end-point design, the energy internet will create new opportunities at office buildings, residential complexes and other places where cars plus convenience can equal cash.

Disaster mitigation: Recent events in Texas have highlighted the negative consequences of not having an energy internet. Responsible utilities and government agencies must embrace digitization and interoperability to more effectively troubleshoot infrastructure and better safeguard communities.

These are just a few of the myriad ways in which an open, any-to-any energy internet will promote innovation, stimulate competition and generate big wins. No one can predict exactly what those big wins will be, but there will surely be many, and they will accrue to the benefit of all.

That’s why even without a crystal ball, we should all commit ourselves to digitalization, decentralization, decarbonization, democratization and diversity. In so doing, we’ll build the energy internet together, and enable a fair, affordable and clean energy future.

Here’s why I find the concept of the energy internet helpful. Before the digital internet (a term I’m using here to encompass all the hardware, software and standards that comprise it), we had multiple silos of technology such as mainframes, PCs, databases, desktop applications and private networks.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/11/the-energy-ecosystem-should-move-to-make-the-energy-internet-a-reality/

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Maybe SPACs were a bad idea after all – TechCrunch

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter for your weekend enjoyment.

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