Alphabet invests $375 million in Oscar Health

Google parent Alphabet has invested $375 million in next-gen health insurance company, Oscar Health. Google has been a longtime supporter of the six-year-old New York company, having previously invested in Oscar through its Capital G investment wing and Verily health and life sciences research wing. “Alphabet has invested in Oscar over many years and has […]

Google parent Alphabet has invested $375 million in next-gen health insurance company, Oscar Health. Google has been a longtime supporter of the six-year-old New York company, having previously invested in Oscar through its Capital G investment wing and Verily health and life sciences research wing.

Alphabet has invested in Oscar over many years and has seen the company and its team up close. We’re thrilled to invest further to help Oscar in its next phase of growth.” an Alphabet spokesperson told TechCrunch.

That $165 million round raised back in March valued the health startup at around $3 billion. The new round maintains a similar valuation, while giving Alphabet a 10 percent share in Oscar. The deal also finds longtime Google employee and former CEO Salar Kamangar joining Oscar’s board.

Oscar co-founder and CEO Mario Schlosser announced the news in an interview with Wired, telling the site, “We can hire more engineers, we can hire more data scientists, more product designers, more smart clinicians who can think about health care a different way. It’s the acceleration of that product roadmap that fascinates us the most. The second, more tangible piece, is that we’re launching new product lines.”

Part of that product expansion includes getting into Medicare Advantage in 2020, which is a deviation from the current offerings in the individual and employer insurance markets. Oscar started out by offering insurance for individuals, growing rapidly during the launch of the Affordable Care Act and then rolling into small business offerings with its product Oscar for Business. Medicare represents a new vertical for the company, adding to its existing focus on both the individual and employer insurance markets.

“Oscar will accelerate the pursuit of its mission: to make our health care system work for consumers,” Schlosser said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We will continue to build a member experience that lowers costs and improves care, and to bring Oscar to more people — deepening our expansion into the individual and small business markets while entering a new business segment, Medicare Advantage, in 2020.”

Otto co-founder Lior Ron is back at Uber

Lior Ron, the co-founder of the controversial self-driving technology company Otto, is returning to Uber to head up its trucking logistics company, Uber Freight, TechCrunch has confirmed. Both Ron and his co-founder and ex-Googler Anthony Levandowski went to Uber after it acquired Otto in August of 2016. However, Levandowski was fired from Uber after pleading […]

Lior Ron, the co-founder of the controversial self-driving technology company Otto, is returning to Uber to head up its trucking logistics company, Uber Freight, TechCrunch has confirmed.

Both Ron and his co-founder and ex-Googler Anthony Levandowski went to Uber after it acquired Otto in August of 2016. However, Levandowski was fired from Uber after pleading the Fifth Amendment to his accused involvement in stealing Google’s self-driving car trade secrets for use in Otto’s technology. Ron exited Uber a month after the company settled with Google parent company Alphabet for $245 million over the dispute.

Now, after some reportedly intense, month-long negotiations, Lior plans to return to Uber pending acquisition of Otto Trucking. The self-driving trucking company is a separate entity from Otto, and the deal to purchase Otto’s other units never fully closed, leading to continued negotiations.

Ron is an obvious pick to run Uber Freight as he helped “lay the groundwork” for the momentum the company has seen since its founding, according to Uber. He’s also managed to negotiate a deal with his employees in mind. The new deal would allow Uber Freight to be a standalone business within Uber and give Otto Trucking shareholders an equity stake in Uber Freight.

However, Levandowski will sell his shares in the freight company to an undisclosed VC firm, according to Bloomberg. Uber did not comment on which firm that might be. Meanwhile, Uber, which owns a majority stake in Freight, plans to double its investment in the company over the next year.

Everything old is new again as demand response comes to real estate with Blueprint Power

Real estate developers and their properties are getting an opportunity to cash in on power management and surplus energy production thanks to a new company called Blueprint Power. It’s a new twist on an old idea dating back to the first clean tech boom based on ideas of demand response and power management. Companies like […]

Real estate developers and their properties are getting an opportunity to cash in on power management and surplus energy production thanks to a new company called Blueprint Power.

It’s a new twist on an old idea dating back to the first clean tech boom based on ideas of demand response and power management.

Companies like EnerNOC and Comverge, pitched ways for manufacturers to make money by reducing power consumption during times of peak demand and getting paid for it by energy companies. In the wake of the massive blackout that hit the U.S. in the early 2000s and decades of concerns around failing energy infrastructure in the U.S., the notion of having some way to respond more flexibly to changes in demand from the grid seemed to make sense.

Now, as more residential and commercial buildings install actually renewable generation capacity and have more robust digital networks, these buildings can themselves become power generators or local points for gird power management — all in an effort to make the grid more responsive, according to a statement from Blueprint.

The company’s pitch was able to compel investors including Congruent Ventures, MetaProp Partners, Fred Wilson and Brad Burnham to throw $3.5 million to the company.

The company’s founding investors, Lennar and Fifth Wall Ventures also returned with new investors including Hanwha Energy subsidiary, 174 Power ; Urban.us, and URBAN-X (an accelerator backed by BMW and the Mini Cooper.

According to a statement from the company, the business uses by monitoring onsite demand and measuring the output from onsite renewable power assets like solar panels, any energy storage devices, waste heat product, fuel cells and load balancing or controllable load features.

Additional software to monitor pricing allows the company to dynamically pitch energy sources to the various markets that would need it.

“Until very recently, buildings were not able to proactively sell excess energy capacity in the same way that traditional power plants do,” said Robyn Beavers, the chief executive of Blueprint Power, and a former vice president of innovation at Lennar and an assistant to the founders of Google Inc. — the search engine giant that is now a subsidiary of Alphabet .  “Now in states like New York they can. We are helping buildings connect to and transact in these markets in a scalable way.”

Waymo partners with Walmart, Avis, AutoNation and others to expand access to self-driving cars

Waymo, Google’s former self-driving project that’s now an Alphabet company, announced today a new series of partnerships aimed at giving more people access to its autonomous vehicles. Through deals with Walmart, AutoNation, Avis and others, Waymo will pick up customers and drive them to businesses in the Phoenix area. The company already had existing relationships with […]

Waymo, Google’s former self-driving project that’s now an Alphabet company, announced today a new series of partnerships aimed at giving more people access to its autonomous vehicles. Through deals with Walmart, AutoNation, Avis and others, Waymo will pick up customers and drive them to businesses in the Phoenix area.

The company already had existing relationships with AutoNation and Avis Budget Group. The former helps Waymo to service and maintain its vehicles in Phoenix, while the latter helps to charge, refuel and clean its cars. So it made sense to bring these two on board in a more expanded role as partners, who can now benefit from the technology to serve their own customers.

AutoNation will now begin to offer customers a Waymo vehicle instead of a loaner, while their own car is serviced. Meanwhile, Avis customers in Phoenix will be able to get into a Waymo when dropping off or picking up their rental car, starting with Avis’ two Chandler locations.

Walmart is another high-profile partner. Starting later this week, the two will begin a test pilot that offers members of Waymo’s early rider program grocery savings when they shop from Walmart.com. The riders will be able to take a Waymo car to their nearby Walmart store for grocery pickup, when the order is ready.

Two other partnerships involve DDR taking shoppers to the Ahwatukee Foothills Towne Center in Chandler and the Element Hotel in Chandler offering select guests – like business travelers – access to Waymo cars for commuting during their hotel stay.

Waymo says it decided on these partnerships after seeing how early riders were using its vehicles. Many of its riders were taking Waymo cars in order to run errands, grocery shop, commute to work, go to dinner, or while having their own vehicles repaired. The resulting partnerships represent eight of the top ten activities Waymo riders do, it says.

The company also hints that the partnerships in the Metro Phoenix area could be expanded further if all goes well, given that its partners operate across the U.S.

The launch of the partnership program follows last week’s news that Waymo cars are now driving 25,000 miles per day, and have completed 8 million miles on public roads to date.

Alphabet earnings and the jaws of antitrust

It pays to be a monopolist. Alphabet’s earnings were stellar, and that is truly saying something. Just a few weeks ago, the European Union placed a record €4.34 billion fine on the Mountain View-based company, a penalty for the company’s payments to OEMs to include Google Search as the default search option in order to […]

It pays to be a monopolist.

Alphabet’s earnings were stellar, and that is truly saying something. Just a few weeks ago, the European Union placed a record €4.34 billion fine on the Mountain View-based company, a penalty for the company’s payments to OEMs to include Google Search as the default search option in order to access Google Play, the company’s App Store.

The acrimonious feud with the EU has become such a constant financial concern for the company that it now includes a “European Commission fines” line item in its consolidated statements of income.

Yet, one can’t help but stand back in awe at a company whose results show the complete lack of teeth of existing antitrust law, whether here in America or anywhere else globally. Alphabet’s revenues grew by $6.6 billion, far more than the record fine the EU laid on the company. Net income for the quarter was $3.2 billion even after the fine was deducted as an expense. The Alphabet cash machine remains as strong as ever.

The EU fine was of course one component in the plan of the antitrust authorities. There are structural remedies, namely that Alphabet needs to cease and desist on leveraging Android to cement its market share in search. But at this point, what exactly are the alternatives for handset manufacturers? DuckDuckGo? Bing?

My colleague Natasha Lomas, along with many other journalists, discussed the potential of the EU demanding that Alphabet being broken up. Yet, even such a meat cleaver of a structural remedy would seem to be useless at this juncture. Google Search essentially has no peer, and isn’t likely to have one in the near future. It has brand equity, data equity, extensive capital investments and trade secrets. No amount of structural remedies save the complete destruction of the company is going to reduce those burdens to competition.

These fines then are less about punishing behavior — after all, they aren’t deterring would-be monopolists from their activities. Instead, they essentially act as an excess profits tax, a way to uniquely target extraordinarily profitable tech companies without changing general business taxes.

Even when we expand the lens beyond just these anticompetitive enforcement actions to include data sovereignty issues like GDPR, Alphabet is once again positioned to be a winner. As I have written before, Alphabet and Amazon are likely the only companies with sufficient scale to even begin to handle the myriad laws and regulations emanating around the world on data sovereignty. Far from empowering consumers, these laws essentially ensure that there is now an added “regulatory network effects” barrier to competition in these markets.

The next billion internet users will ultimately determine the ceiling for Alphabet’s revenues

To me, there is only one force today that has any potential to threaten Alphabet’s complete and ongoing dominance, and that is China and its ambitious tech industry. Transsion’s subsidiaries dominate in the African smartphone market, and it along with other smartphone players like Xiaomi have targeted India and its quickly burgeoning middle class. If the next one to two billion internet users come to rely on Chinese internet services instead of Alphabet, that could prove a serious competitive headwind for the company.

One legacy of GDPR may simply be that it forced large tech companies to double down on the U.S. and Europe at a time when they should have been focused on global expansion. Alphabet broke the $5 billion revenue barrier for the Asia-Pacific region for the first time this quarter, but that amounts to only 15.6 percent of the company’s revenues. Meanwhile, Facebook, dealing with its Cambridge Analytica imbroglio, has started to curtail the expansion of its Free Basics internet access scheme.

Those distractions provide a rare opportunity for Chinese companies to focus exclusively on global expansion. Certainly Huawei and ZTE have taken that course. While broadly blocked from the U.S. market and with Australia preparing to ban 5G deployments, the two have had tremendous success in developing markets, with infrastructure and handset products that are often significantly cheaper than competitors.

All of that might mean little to the U.S. or European consumer, but it does potentially put a ceiling on the growth of Alphabet and other large tech companies. As TechCrunch pointed out yesterday, there has been a race to see who will break the trillion-dollar market cap barrier first among the major tech players. Alphabet is sitting at $865 billion and a trillion isn’t far away. But could it grow much beyond that? That to me depends on these new, developing markets, and there the race is much more competitive.

As these earnings show, the jaws of antitrust have no teeth, and competitive dynamics might constrain Alphabet to merely be a trillion-dollar company. It pays — over and over again — to be a monopolist.

The death and life of the tech press

Why do I write about tech? For James Ball, it’s because I want to write “soap-bubble light coverage” and “glossy coverage” “to counterbalance the ‘serious’ news of the day.” Ball, a former editor at The Guardian and the author of “Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World,” has a few choice words to say to reporters, […]

Why do I write about tech? For James Ball, it’s because I want to write “soap-bubble light coverage” and “glossy coverage” “to counterbalance the ‘serious’ news of the day.” Ball, a former editor at The Guardian and the author of “Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World,” has a few choice words to say to reporters, columnists and analysts like me who cover the tech industry.

In a piece entitled “We need a new model for tech journalism,” Ball calls for nothing less than the dismantling of the current tech press, and its replacement by one far more critical of the corporate interests that dominate the industry.

Okay. But here’s the challenge: The whole idea of a coherent “tech press” seems to miss that technology has completely taken over the world. Want to cover Washington? Well, Alphabet is now the heaviest corporate spender on lobbying in DC. Want to cover foreign affairs? Well, U.S./China relations are squarely focused on issues of tech industrial policies, like China’s Made in China 2025 plan.

Every sector, every industry, heck, every decision is increasingly one in which technology either plays the prime role, or at least has major influence. Ball grasps that the work of a tech journalist is hard, writing that “Tech reporters are often expected to cover all facets of the industry.” Frankly, that was easier just a couple of years ago, before the iPhone and the global smartphone revolution made tech companies not just interesting, but powerful as well.

That to me is the burden of covering technology today. Tech now spans a spectrum from the proverbial two tinkerers in a garage to the most powerful corporations in the history of the planet. Most startup founders are broke, yet Jeff Bezos is worth $150 billion. Journalists need an incredible dynamic range to cover the range of these stories effectively.

Take startup coverage, which has always had a sort of effusive optimism that Ball clearly dislikes. Here’s the reality: startup life is awful. It’s stressful, emotionally draining and exhausting. And even after the founders make a total physical and mental commitment to a new product — a new way to see the world — the most common case is for literally nothing to happen. The average startup dies an anonymous death, without even a Medium “It’s been an incredible journey” post.

That’s not news. In fact, tech journalists could write “ambitious startup fails again!” stories pretty much every hour of the workweek and not run out of companies and founders to write about.

The reason people read about early-stage tech startups, indeed, why they want to read any news, is to peer into the exceptional and differentiate it from the mundane. They want to know why this startup succeeded when more than a thousand others fell by the wayside. Tens of thousands of high-growth startups are founded every year across the world, and yet, only a handful represents the complete economic value of the industry. That’s the story. I remain unabashed about covering success over failure (although learning from defeat has its uses).

As startups grow, they should face more trenchant criticism about their effects on society. (Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)

Yet, our lenses need to change over time as these startups mature. It’s one thing to cover Airbnb back in 2008, and discuss this startup where a couple of founders are trying to help people attend the Democratic National Convention in Denver that year. But Airbnb is now a multi-billion dollar valued company, and deserves far more critical analysis than it did a decade ago. We saw this sort of narrative adaptation over time with Uber, and obviously with Theranos. But there are at least a dozen other companies that deserve fairly strict scrutiny of their actions on a daily basis, but often get limited attention.

To me, a renewed “tech press” needs to have both optimistic and pessimistic angles. It needs to cover very early startups with soft gloves while also knowing when to throw a punch as those startups mature and gain power.

Perhaps even more importantly, we need to start appreciating the complexity of our current environment. Alphabet can face a multi-billion dollar fine from the Europeans for antitrust, while also fighting a tooth-and-nail war with ISPs like Verizon and AT&T over net neutrality. These companies are so big, and touching so many facets of our lives, that there are no brushstrokes that can paint a simple abstraction of these companies. Some of their actions may be “good” or “bad,” but only deeper analysis is going to get us any purchase on the effects of these companies on our lives.

Ball and I completely agree that the coverage of technology increasingly requires specialization. No one can be informed about what is happening across the industry anymore, let alone cover it all. Indeed, I am not even sure a single human being can truly cover companies like Alphabet and Facebook. I am not sure their executives and boards know the complete extent of what is happening at their companies. We need more depth, more focus and more quality criticism if we are to build an effective press.

I am reminded a bit of Sara M. Watson’s work around “constructive tech criticism.” She wrote in her report, “Acknowledging the realities of society and culture, constructive criticism offers readers the tools and framings for thinking about their relationship to technology and their relationship to power.” To me, that’s a great mission statement for what coverage should do today. It requires us to renew our focus: to inform, to simplify and complicate as necessary, and to bring attention to the most salient issues of the day. That’s why I write, and why we should all be writing.