YouTube quietly added free, ad-supported movies to its site

YouTube quietly added around 100 ad-supported Hollywood movies to its site, beginning last month, according to a new report from AdAge. The titles include a mix of classics like “Rocky” and “The Terminator,” as well as other family fare like “Zookeeper,” “Agent Cody Banks,” and “Legally Blonde,” among others.

Before, YouTube had only offered consumers the ability to purchase movies and TV shows, similar to how you can rent or buy content from Apple’s iTunes or Amazon Video.

Currently, YouTube is serving ads on these free movies, but the report said the company is open to working out other deals with advertisers – like sponsorships or exclusive screenings.

YouTube’s advantage in this space, compared with some others, is its sizable user base of 1.9 million monthly active users and its ability to target ads using data from Google .

The addition of a an ad-supported movies marketplace on YouTube follows Roku’s entry into this market, which began last year with the launch of its free collection of movies, called The Roku Channel.

This year, Roku has been expanding the type of content on that channel to also include things like live news from ABC News, Cheddar, Newsmax, Newsy, People TV, Yahoo and The Young Turks, and – more recently – entertainment and live sports. 

Walmart also offers its own free movies collection through Vudu, and recently teamed up with MGM on original content for the service. Tubi operates a streaming service with free, ad-supported content, too. And Amazon is rumored to be working on something similar.

Blockchain gaming gets a boost with Mythical Games’ $16M Series A

Fortnite, the free multi-player survival game, has earned an astonishing $1 billion from in-game virtual purchases alone. Now, others in the gaming industry are experimenting with how they too can capitalize on new trends in gaming.

Mythical Games, a startup out of stealth today with $16 million in Series A funding, is embracing a future in gaming where user-generated content and intimate ties between players, content creators, brands and developers is the norm. Mythical is using its infusion of venture capital to develop a line of PC, mobile and console games on the EOSIO blockchain, which will also be open to developers to build games with “player-owned economies.”

The company says an announcement regarding its initial lineup of games is on the way.

Mythical is led by a group of gaming industry veterans. Its chief executive officer is John Linden, a former studio head at Activision and president of the Niantic-acquired Seismic Games. The rest of its C-suite includes chief compliance officer Jamie Jackson, another former studio head at Activision; chief product officer Stephan Cunningham, a former director of product management at Yahoo; and head of blockchain Rudy Kock, a former senior producer at Blizzard — the Activision subsidiary known for World of Warcraft. Together, the team has worked on games including Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, Marvel Strike Force and Skylanders.

Galaxy Digital’s EOS VC Fund has led the round for Mythical. The $325 million fund, launched earlier this year, is focused on expanding the EOSIO ecosystem via strategic investments in startups building on EOSIO blockchain software. Javelin Venture Partners, Divergence Digital Currency, cryptocurrency exchange OKCoin and others also participated in the round.

It’s no surprise investors are getting excited about the booming gaming business given the success of Epic Games, Twitch, Discord and others in the space.

Epic Games raised a $1.25 billion round late last month thanks to the cultural phenomenon that its game, Fortnite, has become. KKR, Iconiq Capital, Smash Ventures,Vulcan Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Lightspeed Venture Partners and others participated in that round. Discord, a chat application for gamers, raised a $50 million financing in April at a $1.65 billion valuation from Benchmark Capital, Greylock Partners, IVP, Spark Capital and Tencent. And Dapper Labs, best known for the blockchain-based game CryptoKitties, even raised a VC round this year — a $15 million financing led by Venrock, with participation from GV and Samsung NEXT.

In total, VCs have invested $1.8 billion in gaming startups this year, per PitchBook.

Walmart passes Apple to become No. 3 online retailer in U.S.

Walmart has overtaken Apple to become the No. 3 online retailer in the U.S., according to a report this week from eMarketer. While Amazon still leads by a wide margin, accounting for 48 percent of e-commerce sales in 2018, Walmart – including also Sam’s Club and Jet.com – is poised to capture 4 percent of all online retail spending in the U.S. by year-end, totaling $20.91 billion.

The news of the shift in e-commerce rankings comes alongside Walmart’s strong earnings which saw the retailer reporting a 43 percent increase in online sales and upping its year-end forecast for both earnings and sales.

The company had beat Wall St.’s expectations in its fiscal third quarter, with $1.08 earnings per share instead of the expected $1.01. However, it fell short on revenue with $124.89 billion versus the $125.55 billion expected, due to currency complications, it said.

eMarketer had estimated in July that Walmart would capture a 3.7 percent e-commerce share in the U.S. this year, but increased that to 4 percent based on its quickly growing online sales.

This year, Walmart’s online sales will grow by 39.4 percent – just slightly behind the growth rate for online furniture and home goods retailer Wayfair, which is expected to see sales grow by 40.1 percent, the firm also noted.

Apple, meanwhile, will grow just over 18 percent in 2018 – a slowdown related to slowing domestic sales for smartphones and other devices. Its portion of the e-commerce market is relatively unchanged from 2017 to 2018, going from 3.8 percent to 3.9 percent.

Walmart, by comparison, is increasing its share from 3.3 percent to 4.0 percent.

But both are behind eBay, now at 7.2 percent. And they’re both vastly outranked by Amazon, which will account for a whopping 48 percent of the U.S. e-commerce market in 2018, up from 43.1 percent last year.

Amazon will take in more than $252.10 billion domestically this year, eMarketer said.

“Walmart’s e-commerce business has been firing on all cylinders lately,” said eMarketer principal analyst Andrew Lipsman, said in a statement. “The retail giant continues to make smart acquisitions to extend its e-commerce portfolio and attract younger and more affluent shoppers. But more than anything, Walmart has caught its stride with a fast-growing online grocery business, which is helped in large part by the massive consumer adoption of click-and-collect.”

The Boring Company goes brick-and-mortar with The Brick Store

Elon Musk has shot out some crazy, unbelievable tweets over the last year, but he wasn’t joking about the bricks. Musk has started a company called The Brick Store LLC to produce and sell bricks, according to public documents obtained by TechCrunch.

The new company, which was founded in July, will be managed by Steve Davis, the ex-SpaceX engineer who is also running The Boring Company (TBC).

TBC is developing new tunneling and transportation technologies, and the bricks will be made from soil displaced by the company’s tunnel-boring machines. Elon Musk has tweeted that the bricks could cost as little as 10 cents each, and might even be given away to affordable housing projects.

The Brick Store’s first physical outlet will be a far cry from Tesla’s sleek, designer showrooms. Planning documents submitted to Hawthorne, a city in southwestern Los Angeles County, show a rundown stucco building about a mile from TBC and SpaceX’s headquarters. Forbidding black steel security grilles “will be utilized … to accent the entrances and windows,” TBC wrote in its application to repaint the building.

Despite these design flourishes, TBC did not select the building for its aesthetic appeal. The building — formerly housing a kitchen cabinet business — is located above an exit tunnel that TBC is digging to extract the boring machine from its first test tunnel. This is intended to showcase Loop, a proposed underground transportation system carrying people or cars on self-contained electric skates traveling at up to 150 miles per hour.

The tunnel was originally planned to stretch around two miles under public roads from a parking structure next to SpaceX. However, in April this year, TBC used a subsidiary to quietly buy the Hawthorne corner lot, which sits about halfway along the planned route, for $2 million.

In July, TBC asked Hawthorne for permission to use that lot to build an access shaft to extract its tunnel-boring machine, which, because it cannot move backwards, would otherwise have been abandoned at the end of the excavation.

The same month, Musk founded The Brick Store, whose purpose, according to state filings, is the “manufacture and sale of bricks.” TBC has already produced some structures from bricks made from tunnel spoil, and Musk tweeted yesterday that they would be used to build a watchtower at the entrance to the tunnel.

Turning tunnel waste into a valuable commodity fits in with Musk’s environmental leanings — and will save TBC from the cost of disposing all that dirt. TBC has even suggested that the bricks could potentially be used as part of the tunnel lining itself. Musk has previously said that the tunnel would officially open on December 10.

TBC did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.

Bricks made from everyday soil, usually called compressed earth blocks (CEB), date back to ancient times. CEBs are still used in developing countries today, and are part of building codes in California and New Mexico. But even there, the market for them is tiny — possibly because CEB buildings can be awkward to build, wire and insulate. BC has even suggested that the bricks could potentially be used as part of the tunnel lining itself.

Dwell Earth sells machines that produce CEBs by applying pressure to a mixture of earth and a little cement.

“Elon seems to have a way of bringing energy and talent to big challenges, and we are happy to see that he may be as excited about [CEBs] as we are,” Dwell Earths founder Bob de Jong told TechCrunch.

The Boring Company

TBC received around $112 million from Musk earlier this year. These funds will be used to build a number of tunnels around the country, including a Loop to connect Dodger Stadium to the subway in L.A., one that would link Chicago and O’Hare airport, as well as an ambitious commuter Loop between Washington, D.C. and Maryland.

These projects could be thwarted, or at least delayed, because of an increasingly heated trade war between the U.S. and China.

TBC lawyers wrote to the United States Trade Representative in July that the tariffs imposed by President Trump on Chinese-tunneling machine parts, among other products, would delay its projects by up to two years and mean lost job opportunities. The company asked for an exemption from the tariffs that has not yet been granted.

If there’s anyone who can re-brand dirt and build a market for CEBs, it’s Elon Musk. But even if The Brick Store’s bricks don’t raise enough money for a Mars mission or save the planet, at least they are a little more practical than a novelty “not a flamethrower.”

University students hit by wave of fake tax refund emails

Students in lectureImage copyright Getty Images

University students have been bombarded with fake tax refund emails in the last month, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has warned.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of students have been targeted in a bid to steal their banking and personal details.

The fraudsters appear to be using .ac.uk email addresses that look genuine, in order to avoid detection.

HMRC said email, text or voicemail would never be used for real refunds.

“Although HMRC is cracking down hard on internet scams, criminals will stop at nothing to steal personal information.

“I’d encourage all students to become phishing-aware – it could save you a lot of money,” said financial secretary to the Treasury, Mel Stride.

The tax authority said it was the first time it had seen a tax-scam attack directly targeting university students in such high volumes.

In common with other tax scams, fraudsters send a message – complete with HMRC, Gov.uk, or credit card branding – supposedly telling the recipient about a tax refund.

The recipient’s name and email address may be included several times within the email itself.

If tricked, the victim then clicks on a link, into which they enter their banking and personal details.

Fraudsters can use this information to steal money from bank accounts, or to sell on to other con-artists.

Between April and September this year, HMRC requested that 7,500 of these phishing sites be deactivated.

Which universities are being targeted?

Thousands of students have reported cases at certain universities, particularly in the past three or four weeks, but institutions across the country have been targeted.

HMRC said that it was calling on particular universities to raise awareness of the dangers.

They were Aberdeen, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Imperial College London, King’s College London, Manchester Metropolitan, Newcastle, Nottingham, Plymouth, Queen Mary (London), Queen’s (Belfast), Southampton, Sussex, University College London, and Warwick.

It is not known how many students have fallen for the scam or how much they have lost. HMRC believes cases are under-reported.

Pauline Smith, director of Action Fraud, said: “Devious fraudsters will try every trick in the book to convince victims to hand over their personal information, often with devastating consequences.

“It is vital that students spot the signs of fraudulent emails to avoid falling victim by following HMRC’s advice.”

Anyone targeted should not click on any links but can report cases to HMRC by forwarding the emails to HMRC or texts to 60599. Anyone who has lost money should contact Action Fraud.

Unicorns aren’t special anymore

When Aileen Lee, the former Kleiner Perkins partner and founder of the seed-stage venture capital firm Cowboy Ventures, coined the term “unicorn” in 2013 on this very site, there were just 39 companies that had earned the title.

She called them “the lucky/genius few.” Her definition: U.S. software startups launched since 2003 worth more than $1 billion. When she authored the viral post, just four companies were garnering valuations that high each year, according to her calculations. Five years later, the rate at which startups are becoming unicorns has increased 353.1 percent, according to PitchBook’s latest research.

Today, there are 145 “active unicorns” in the U.S. alone, worth an aggregate valuation of $555.9 billion.

Why? A couple of reasons. Namely, because companies are staying private longer and longer, allowing the unicorn count to continue to swell with very few companies transitioning out and into another club — the public markets club. Plus, there is so much capital available in the market, $80.1 billion, to be exact, that late-stage companies are opting for “mini-IPOs” sponsored by SoftBank instead of airing their dirty laundry in an S-1 filing.

There are no signs pointing to a slowdown in new unicorns. The latest data shows that it only took the average U.S. unicorn six years to achieve such status, versus 7.5 years only three years ago. I can think of several examples of companies that did it much faster than that: Brex, Lime and Bird are some recent companies to be worth $1 billion or more in record time.

Valuation step-ups are meatier than ever, too. The median late-stage valuation has increased by 50.7 percent year-over-year. Meanwhile, early-stage and seed-stage median valuations have jumped roughly 28 percent and 12 percent, respectively. Not to mention venture capital investment in 2018 is expected to reach highs not seen since the dot-com boom.

At the end of the day, a startup’s valuation, regardless of how large it is or how quickly it reached the billion-dollar milestone, shouldn’t matter. But these are metrics in which others in the startup ecosystem measure success and they determine the worth of a company — or at least the amount an investor is willing to pay for a piece. 

As much as I’d like to do away with the term, even the concept entirely, the proliferation of billion-dollar companies isn’t something I can ignore.

‘God Is Surely Moving in This Nation’: Christian Musicians Worship Jesus at the White House

Several worship leaders and Christian artists have posted footage of a spontaneous praise session that took place in the White House this week. The “Faith Briefing” meeting was designed to give an update on all the faith-based initiatives that have been introduced by the Trump administration.

‘Intolerant Fringe Voices Must Be Challenged’: British Imams Blast UK Gov For Refusing Asia Bibi’s Asylum Request

In one clip posted by Christian singer Tauren Wells, a group of worship leaders can be seen belting out “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong Worship

Several worship leaders and Christian artists have posted footage of a spontaneous praise session that took place in the White House yesterday. The “Faith Briefing” meeting was designed to give an update on all the faith-based initiatives that have been introduced by the Trump administration.

‘Intolerant Fringe Voices Must Be Challenged’: British Imams Blast UK Gov For Refusing Asia Bibi’s Asylum Request

In one clip posted by Christian singer Tauren Wells, a group of worship leaders can be seen belting out “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong Worship.

The lyrics take on particularly poignancy when you think of the historic location in which they are being sung:

“What a beautiful Name it is
What a beautiful Name it is
The Name of Jesus Christ my King

What a beautiful Name it is
Nothing compares to this
What a beautiful Name it is
The Name of Jesus”

Bethel Music’s director of events, Dominic Shahbon, also took to social media to express his delight at the occasion.

“Wow. What a day,” he wrote on Instagram. “Had the honor to go the White House for a #FaithBriefing with key administration officials and faith leaders. Specifically, to hear about faith initiatives that are happening. Great things are taking place whether the media tells us or not! Let’s just say that I’m leaving Washington, D.C. stirred, hopeful, convicted and informed with TRUTH.

“God is surely moving in this nation and through His Church,” Shahbon continued. “Let’s be a people that are not letting a day go by without praying for our President and this incredible administration. Thank you @paulamichellewhite for all you do and for helping making this happen. It’s truly powerful to watch and I’m moved beyond words.”

Leaders could also be seen praying together.

The gathering appeared to be organized by Pastor Paula White, a megachurch pastor from Florida and the chair of President Trump’s faith advisory board. White’s husband is former “Journey” keyboard player, Paul Cain, who was also in attendance.

It was certainly cool to see the name of Jesus lifted high in the most famous building in America!

Feeling left out of a hot market? This new outfit has a fund with shares of 30 top ‘unicorns’ to sell you

When Equidate, a venture-backed secondaries marketplace based in San Francisco, closed its most recent round of funding with $50 million four months ago, it was hardly a surprising bet on the part of its backers. As startups linger ever longer as private companies, more people are looking to lock up shares wherever they can find them.

Investors have plenty of platforms from which to choose. In addition to Equidate, other companies that match investors with “pre-IPO” company shares include EquityZen, SharesPost, and Seedrs. Still, individual investors have mostly been relegated to choosing this or that company on a piecemeal basis as shares have become available. Among few exceptions to this rule include investors in venture funds like 137 Ventures, whose express aim is creating a portfolio of secondary shares that have been acquired from earlier investors, founders, and employees, or in Industry Ventures, which has been buying up later-stage secondary shares since its founding in 2000. (Investing in SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which is piecing together a portfolio of unicorn companies, might be another option for people with enough access, though it comes with certain strings attached.

No wonder Equidate thinks there’s a better way, And with the financial wind at its back, it just began testing out its theory. How? By spinning off a new asset management business whose sole purpose is to acquire shares in the “top” private companies that are currently valued at more than a billion dollars but that still trade privately.

It isn’t going to buy 5 or 20 or 100 stakes. Instead, the portfolio will maintain positions in exactly 30 companies, and these will be adjusted on a quarterly basis, led by the person leading this new spin-off: Ziad Makkawi, a longtime investment advisor who recently spent two years as CEO of Qatar First Bank.

As Equidate founder and President Sohail Prasad see it, his company is already spending time learning an awful lot about Palantir and Stripe and WeWork and Pinterest. It tracks bid and ask activity, along with how pricing and valuations are reflected by both new transactions and time decay. To underscore how much data is coursing through Equidate, he says that company now sees $1 billion in transaction volume on its platform annually.

After a point, he and the rest of Equidate’s management concluded that it made sense to create an index to track the health of these companies in a way that makes it easier to understand their performance relative to their peers (it rolled this out yesterday). It also decided to create a product around the index. Enter its new fund and accompanying asset management firm.

“We’re excited,” says Prasad. “This is going to let people buy for the first time a basket of all of these companies, which are vetted and that are already in their growth stages and in, really, in previous years, would have been public already.”

It’s easy to see other investors getting excited about a kind of exchange traded fund filled with unicorns, too. But first things first. The new fund is still being raised, sounds like. It’s looking to close with between $50 million and $100 million in capital. It’s also worth noting that although SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has said he’d like the agency to allow more retail investors a shot at companies that have been out of their reach, Equidate’s new spin-off, Equiam, will still only accept checks from accredited investors, and they need to invest at least $250,000 .

There’s also the prickly question of whether the companies that investors want most are accessible to Equiam. Unsurprisingly, Prasad, argues that it’s not an issue. “Because we’ll be a larger fund, we’ll be able to buy blocks of preferred stock where traditionally a person might not have access. We do have access at this scale.”

As for what Equiam is charging in management fees, the fund is “incredibly low cost,” says Prasad. Investors will have to decide whether they agree, but those who write the fund a $1 million or bigger check will pay a 1.5 percent management fee. Investors who come in at between $250,000 and $1 million will pay a 2.5 percent management fee.

If you’re curious about to learn more, you can learn more by checking out Equiam’s site here.

Kairos founder countersues his own company for $10 million

The turmoil continues at facial recognition startup Kairos. Last night, Kairos founder Brian Brackeen filed a counter lawsuit against Kairos and its interim CEO Melissa Doval that seeks $10 million in damages.

Kairos is a facial recognition startup that has become well-known for its stance to never sell to law enforcement. At Disrupt SF 2018, Brackeen showed his technology and spoke on a panel about the hazards of facial recognition and algorithmic bias.

This countersuit comes after Kairos terminated Brackeen from his role as chief executive officer, citing Brackeen misled shareholders and potential investors, misappropriated corporate funds, did not report to the board of directors and created a divisive atmosphere. Kairos followed that up with a lawsuit, alleging theft and breach of fiduciary duties — among other things.

In a countersuit, Brackeen now “seeks to hold Kairos and Doval accountable for intentionally destroying his reputation and livelihood through fraudulent conduct, the publication of malicious falsehoods, and the commission of illegal corporate acts.” The suit also alleges Kairos refused to pay him the compensation to which he was entitled.

In one example, Brackeen alleges Kairos, under the leadership of board chairperson Stephen O’Hara, did not pay him a salary for 34 weeks in order for Kairos to have a better cash flow.

“We’ve come to expect this behavior on his behalf,” Doval said in an email to TechCrunch. “We stand firmly with our original complaint and the courts will rule in our favor once they are presented with the evidence for the case. Our fiduciary duty is to our stakeholders, and we remain dedicated to doing right by them.”

The lawsuit alleges O’Hara also did not share Brackeen’s commitment to ensuring Kairos’ technology did not contribute to racial bias and other social injustices. It also alleges O’Hara pressured Brackeen to retract his promise to never sell the technology to law enforcement. That clash, the lawsuit alleges, resulted in O’Hara seeking to push Brackeen out of the company. O’Hara, in an email to TechCrunch, denies those claims.

“Of note, as far as I know as chairman of the board, we are not trying to sell this to law enforcement and have no plans to do so until such time we can insure [sic] any biases of facial recognition are solved and all privacy issues addressed,” O’Hara wrote. “Frankly, we are focused on much more attractive opportunities now.”

Cash-strapped

In the coming weeks, Kairos will hold a meeting of the shareholders, where Brackeen hopes they will vote to remove the board and reinstate him as CEO. That meeting was supposed to happen last week, but has since been rescheduled. Brackeen says he’s currently trying to get enough shareholders on his side to force a vote. In the last week, however, the company presented an offering to shareholders that was fully subscribed.

“Meanwhile, thanks to a vote of support from all classes of shareholders this past week, Kairos under Melissa Doval is focused on building its business behind its new on-premise product,” O’Hara wrote. In a follow-up email, O’Hara said, “Shareholders voted to approve the Rights offering which was fully subscribed, and included ratification of the Board and Ms. Doval.”

That offering valued the company at $1.5 million — a significant drop from Kairos’ previous $120 million valuation. That means shareholders were able to purchase 43,366,780 shares at a price of just $0.01153 per share.

“Though the emergency nature of this offering and the Company’s precarious financial position have led the Company to offer common stock in this offering at a price well below that received in prior fundraising transactions, the structure of the offering as a rights offering to all existing investors in the Company will allow the Company to raise needed capital without subjecting participating investors to dilution of their ownership stakes in the Company,” the memo, obtained by TechCrunch, states.

One of the conditions of that offering is to reconstitute the Kairos board of directors as a three-person board that consists of O’Hara, Kairos Director Mike Gardner and Doval.

The point of this offering is to raise $500,019 in “emergency capital” to be able to pay its employees and continue operating into 2019. As O’Hara noted, the offering was fully subscribed.

Thanks to this current legal situation, which Brackeen refers to as a “cram down,” his ownership in the company has decreased by 90 percent, which “shows a disrespect for founders.”

Kairos is pretty cash-strapped right now. Even with the emergency capital in place, Kairos is only set up to be able to operate through Q1 2019, “by the end of which management believes that revenue growth through sales either will enable the Company to become financially self-sustaining or will place the Company on a more sound financial footing that allows it to conduct further capital-raising,” the memo states.

Meanwhile, however, Brackeen says he has been able to raise $3.5 million in venture funding, and is targeting a total of $5 million. This funding, he hopes, will be successful in convincing shareholders to vote to replace the board. Brackeen raised this funding from Beyond Capital Markets, an impact investment fund.

But convincing them to invest given the current state of Kairos was quite the feat, Brackeen said.

“It’s like riding a bike backwards with one arm — and blind,” he told me.

The lesson for founders, Brackeen told me, is “when you’re taking those first investments and you’re really excited, you need to have callouts for the founder versus the current CEO.”

He added that “angel groups shouldn’t have that kind of power too late in a company’s lifecycle.” Additionally, once founders are starting to raise a Series A, “you need to make sure your lawyers are not meeting them halfway on docs and not necessarily playing nice.”