How an immigration crackdown is hurting UK startups

The two people who sat down in reception without an appointment would not leave the startup’s office until the end of the day.

Two months later, a letter followed informing the company it had been suspended from the United Kingdom’s register of licensed sponsors, the database of companies the government has approved to employee foreign workers. The business had 20 working days from the typed date to make “representations” and submit “evidence” and “supporting documents” to counter the “believed” infractions spread across 12 pages, threaded through with copious references to paragraphs, annexes and bullet points culled from the Home Office‘s official guidance for sponsors.

Early in the new year another letter arrived, and an assessment process that had begun with an unannounced visit one autumn morning delivered its final verdict: The revocation of Metail‘s sponsor license with immediate effect.

“There is no right of appeal against this decision,” warns paragraph 64 of the 22-page decision letter — in text which the sponsor compliance unit has seen fit to highlight in bold. “Whilst your client can no longer recruit sponsored workers under Tier 2 and 5 of the Points Based system, they can continue to recruit UK and EEA workers as well as non-EEA nationals that have the right to work in the UK. The revocation of the license does not stop a business from trading,” the letter concludes. Tier 2 is the general work visa for regular employees, while Tier 5 is for temporary workers.

The government department that oversees the UK’s immigration system gets to have — and frame — the last word.

London-based Metail is a decade-plus veteran of the virtual fitting room space, its founders having spied early potential to commercialize computer vision technology to enable individualized sales assistance for online clothes and fashion shopping. It now sells services to retailers including photorealistic 3D body models to power virtual try-ons; algorithmic size recommendations; and garment visualization to speed up and simplify the process of showcasing fashion products online.

In the story below, we’ll look at how Metail’s situation sits within wider issues facing startups in the United Kingdom today. We also dig into the details of the company’s encounters with immigration rules, and what startups in the UK can do to hire the people they need without similar problems, in this article for Extra Crunch subscribers.

Metail has approached research-heavy innovation in the field of 3D visualization with determined conviction in transformative commercial potential, tucking $32 million in VC funding under its belt over the years, and growing its team to 40 people (including 11 PhDs) at a head office in London and a research hub located close to Cambridge University where its British founder studied economics in the late ’90s. It’s also racked up an IP portfolio that spans computer vision, photography, mechanics, image processing and machine learning — with 20 patents granted in the UK, Europe and the US, and a similar number pending. Years of 3D modeling expertise and a substantial war-chest of patents might, reasonably, make Metail an acquisition target for an ecommerce giant like Amazon that’s looking to shave further friction off of online transactions.

Nothing in its company or business history leaps out to suggest it fits the bill as a “threat to UK immigration control.” But that’s what the language of the Home Office’s correspondence asserts — and then indelibly inks in its final decision.

“I took them into a meeting room. And at that point, they hand me a bunch of documents and say: ‘We’re here to see and understand about your sponsored migrants.’ So at the beginning, the language is all very dehumanizing,” says Metail founder and CEO Tom Adeyoola, recounting the morning of the unannounced visit. They hand me a bit of material which includes the sentence ‘you’ll be allowed a toilet break every two hours’. And I’m like, ‘am I being arrested?! What’s going on?’

“Then they ask ‘are your sponsored migrants here?’ I said I don’t know, I don’t manage them directly. I only had two.

“‘Can we see your lease? Can we see your accounts?’ Genuinely everything. ‘Can we see proof that this is your office?’ I was like, well you’re in the office… So [it was] very much a box-ticking exercise.

And then the interview process going through with [the HR manager] was effectively ‘why have you hired sponsored migrants over the settled workers? Talk me through your process about how you track everybody in the organization?’

“‘What happens when they are not in one day? What happens when they’re not in at work the second day?’

“A bit of this thing was like an assumption that they’re not human beings but they’re like prisoners on the run.”

Image via Getty Images / franckreporter

Immediate effects

The January 31 decision letter, which TechCrunch has reviewed, shows how the Home Office is fast-tracking anti-immigrant outcomes. In a short paragraph, the Home Office says it considered and dismissed an alternative outcome — of downgrading, not revoking, the license and issuing an “action plan” to rectify issues identified during the audit. Instead, it said an immediate end to the license was appropriate due to the “seriousness” of the non-compliance with “sponsor duties”.

The decision focused on one of the two employees Metail had working on a Tier 2 visa, who we’ll call Alex (not their real name). In essence, Alex was a legal immigrant had worked their way into a mid-level promotion by learning on the job, as should happen regularly at any good early-stage startup. The Home Office, however, perceived the promotion to have been given to someone without proper qualifications, over potential native-born candidates. We detail the full saga over on Extra Crunch, along with the takeaways that other startups can learn from.

For Metail, the situation suddenly became about its own existence and not just the fate of one hardworking younger employee.

Metail’s other Tier 2 sponsor visa was for Dr. Yu Chen, who is originally from China, and leads the startup’s research efforts based at its Cambridge office. Chen has been with the business for around seven years — starting his relationship with Metail projects while still working on his computer vision PhD at Cambridge University.

Adeyoola describes him as “critical” to the business, a sentiment Chen confirms when we chat — albeit more modestly summing up his contribution as “quite theoretically involved in all these critical algorithms and key technologies developed by this organization since the very beginning”.

A major first concern for Adeyoola was what the loss of Metail’s sponsor license meant for Chen — and by extension Metail’s ability to continue business-critical research work.

The Home Office letter provided no guidance on specific knock-on impacts. And the lawyers Metail contacted for advice weren’t sure. “Our lawyers told us that that was the implication. In their revocation notice, they do not tell you what it means explicitly. You have to figure that out for yourself,” says Adeyoola. “Hence it is confusing and unclear.”

The lawyers advised Chen’s employment be suspended to keep the rest of the company safe — which instantly threw up further questions.

“Can I suspend his employment with pay or not with pay? Because the Home Office had his passport and they’ve had his passport since he’d applied for indefinite leave to remain in October and in January he still hadn’t had his passport back. He can’t go anywhere or do anything, so backward and forth it worked out that, yeah, we could suspend him with pay. But he couldn’t be seen at that time to be doing any work — and he’s critical for us.

“We had government R&D grants, he runs all our research — so I was like well we’re going to have to talk to the government and add an extension to that project.”

They had to tell everybody in the office that while Chen’s employment was suspended they weren’t allowed to talk to him. “He wasn’t allowed to use Slack,” Adeyoola recounts. “So if you were going to talk to him you had to meet him off-premise.”

“Nobody knows whether you can normally work,” says Chen of the uncertainty around his status at that point. “Are you just allowed to stay at home legally but not allowed to work? Lot of question marks. It’s a very, very rare scenario I think.”

Image via Getty Images / Dina Mariani

Adeyoola says he was also concerned whether Metail having its sponsor license suspended might negatively impact Chen’s in-train application for ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in the UK — which he had applied for in October, before the sponsor license suspension letter landed, having been in the UK the requisite ten years by then. And because, ironically enough, he had been “panicking” a bit about his future status as a result of Brexit.

Metail used an online email checking service, available via a Home Office portal, which suggested Chen could, in fact, work while the company license was suspended. At the same time Adeyoola had reached out to Chen’s local MP for help confirming his status — and with the aid of a political side-channel did manage to get it firmly confirmed in writing from the Home Office that Chen could still work while the license was suspended.

“We had to operate on lowest common denominator basis until we had written notice. Because systems operate on a ‘with prejudice’ basis,” says Adeyoola of the week Chen had been suspended from work.

“It was not in the letter. There was nothing in the letter about what it means for your people. Again, the human aspect of it seems to be the last thing on their mind. I think that’s part of the indoctrination of the people there — so they’re highly process-ified and trained so that they do their job.”

Chen’s period of suspension turned out to be mercifully brief, although that was purely due to lucky timing. Had he waited a month or so longer to lodge the original paperwork for his indefinite leave to remain, then his situation and Metail’s could have panned out very differently.

“In my case, I was just lucky because I started to apply for indefinite leave to remain before this stuff blew up,” he says, saying he filed the application around nine months before his Tier 2 visa was due to apply.

Nearly six months after filing for it in October, Chen’s indefinite leave to remain came through.

But by that time Metail’s sponsor license had gone. Now they wouldn’t be able to hire more people like Chen without overcoming major hurdles.

A hostile environment for immigration

Image via Toby Melville / WPA Pool / Getty Images

A photograph of the UK prime minister, Theresa May, smiles down at the reader of the Wikipedia page for the Home Office hostile environment policy.

As smiles go, it’s more rictus grin than welcoming sparkle. Which is appropriate because, as the page explains, the then-home secretary presided over the introduction of the current hostile environment, as the coalition government sought to deliver on a Conservative Party manifesto promise in 2010 to reduce net immigration to 1990 levels — aka “tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands”.

The policy boils down to: deport first, hear appeals later. One infamous application of it during May’s tenure as home secretary saw vans driven around multicultural areas of London, bearing adverts with the slogan ‘Go Home’. The idea, criticized at the time as a racist dog-whistle, was to convince illegal workers to deport themselves by making them feel unwelcome.

Summarizing the broader policy intent in an interview with the Telegraph newspaper in early 2012, May told the right-leaning broadsheet: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”

Associated measures introduced to further the hostile environment have included a requirement that landlords, employers, banks and the UK’s National Health Service carry out ID checks to determine whether a tenant, worker, customer or patient has a legal right to be in the UK, co-opting businesses and non-government entities into policing immigration via the medium of extra bureaucracy.

But in seeking to make life horribly difficult for workers who are in the UK without authorization, the government has also created a compliance nightmare for legal migration.

A Channel 4 TV report last year highlighted two cases of highly skilled Pakistani migrants who, after more than a decade in the UK had applied for indefinite leave to remain — only to be told they must leave instead. The Home Office cited small adjustments to their tax returns as grounds to order them out, apparently relying on a clause that allows it to remove people it decides to be of ‘bad character’.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg where the human impact of the Home Office’s hostile environment is concerned. There have been a number of major scandals related to the policy’s application. The most high profile touches Windrush generation migrants, who came to the UK between 1948 and the early 1970s — after the British Nationality Act gave citizens of UK colonies the right to settle in the country but without providing them with documentary evidence of their permanent right to remain.

The combination of thousands of legal but undocumented migrants — many originally from the Caribbean — and a Home Office instructed to take a hostile stance that pushes for deportations in order to shrink net migration has led to scores of settled UK citizens with a legal right to be in the country being pushed out or deported illegally by the government.

PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

The Windrush scandal eventually claimed the scalp of May’s successor at the Home Office, Amber Rudd, who resigned as home secretary in April 2018 after being forced to admit to “inadvertently” misleading a parliamentary committee about targets for removing illegal immigrants.

Rudd had claimed the Home Office did not have such targets. That statement was contradicted by a letter she wrote to the prime minister that was obtained and published by The Guardian newspaper — in which she promised to oversee the forced or voluntary departure of 10% more people than May had during her time at the Home Office by switching resource away from crime-fighting to immigration enforcement programs.

May chose Sajid Javid to be Rudd’s replacement as home secretary. And while he has sought to distance himself from the hostile environment rhetoric — saying he prefers to talk about a “compliant environment” for immigration — the reality is the architect of the policy remains (for now) head of the government in which he serves.

Her government has not directly repeated the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto pledge to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”. But an immigration white paper published at the end of last year retraced the same rhetoric — talking about reducing “annual net migration to sustainable levels as set out in the Conservative party manifesto, rather than the hundreds of thousands we have consistently seen over the last two decades”.

It’s clear that controlling immigration remains right at the top of the government’s policy agenda, and is bearing out in how policies are enforced today.

Austerity and the Brexit divide

Image via Amer Ghazzal / Getty Images

As UK prime minister, May is also in charge of delivering Brexit. And here she has made ending freedom of movement for European Union citizens another immutable red-line of her approach — repeatedly claiming it’s necessary to ‘take back control’ of the UK’s borders to deliver on the Brexit vote.

Brexit the UK’s 2016 referendum to exit the European Union saw around 52% of those who cast a ballot voting to leave, or around 17.4 million people out of a total population of approximately 65.6M.

May’s interpretation of that result has been to claim citizens voted to end free movement of EU people and workers, despite there being no such specific detail on the ballot paper. (The referendum question simply asked whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union or leave.)

So her vision of a post-Brexit future will require UK businesses which want to recruit EU workers needing a sponsor license and relevant visas for all such hires. This will mean UK businesses hiring from outside the settled worker pool will have to expose more of their inner workings to the rules and regulations of the immigration system — with all the compliance cost and risk that entails.

From the outside looking in it might seem odd that the Conservative Party a formidable political force that likes to claim it can be trusted to manage the economy, and which is traditionally associated with being more closely aligned with the interests of the private sector is presiding over policies that drive up compliance bureaucracy for companies while simultaneously increasing their recruitment costs and squeezing their ability to access a broader talent pool.

But the traditional politics of right and left do seem to be in flux in the UK, as indeed they are elsewhere.

This is perhaps in part linked to the aging demographic of the Conservative Party’s base. (One disputed guesstimate, put out by a right-leaning think tank in 2017, suggested that the average age of a member of the party is 72; whatever the exact figure, no one disputes it skews old.)

The UK’s position in Europe as a major economy, with a low unemployment rate and English as its first language has also historically served to make the country an attractive destination for EU workers to settle. Hundreds of thousands of EU migrants arrived in the UK annually between mid 2014 to mid 2016, prior to the Brexit vote. Post-referendum, EU immigration dropped to 74,000 last year (even as net migration to the UK has not reduced).

That locus has long been a major benefit to UK businesses and startups, and so to the wider economy. But once it got geared into years of austerity politics — also introduced by the Conservative-led government in the wake of the 2008 financial crash — the country’s success as a worker and talent magnet started to butt up against and even drive rising resentment among sections of the population that have not felt any economic benefit from the concentrated wealth of high tech hubs like London.

Against a backdrop of growing inequality in UK society and sparser access to publicly funded resources, it has been all too easy for right-wing populists to re-channel resentment linked to government austerity cuts — framing immigration as a drain on services and pointing the finger of blame at migrants by encouraging the idea that they have a lesser claim than natural UK-born citizens to essential but now inadequately resourced public services. 

This cynical scapegoating glosses over the fact that public services have been systematically and deliberately underfunded by austerity politics. But, at the same time, research that suggests EU migrants are in fact a net benefit to the UK economy has little comfort to offer those who feel economically excluded by default. 

Image via Getty Images / Daniel Limpi / EyeEm

One interesting component of the UK’s Brexit vote split is that it appears to cut not so much along traditional left/right political lines but across educational divides, with research suggesting that pro-Brexit voters were more likely to live in areas with lower overall educational attainment.

High tech hubs and startup businesses are therefore in the awkward position of risking exacerbating the same sort of societal divide. They can be seen as driving the automation of traditional jobs, creating work that’s more specialized which in turn makes employable skills harder to attain from a low skills base, and concentrating opportunity and wealth in the hands of fewer people. Hence the needs of startups are becoming more difficult for politicians to prioritize. 

There’s no doubt the politics of austerity has supercharged UK inequality as service cuts have hit hardest at the regional margins where wider economic gains were always the least profound and first to evaporate under pressure. While rising competition for scarcer state-funded resources has created perfect conditions for scapegoating migration.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank earlier this month, at the launch of a five-year review into factors driving UK societal inequality, also warned that widening inequalities in pay, health and opportunities are undermining trust in democracy.

All of which makes responding to Brexit a political minefield for the UK government. The Brexit crisis seems to require a bold, society-wide re-engineering that attacks inequality of opportunity, radically invests in education, reskilling and upskilling to grow participation in the digital economy, and a tax policy that works to dilute concentrated wealth to ensure economic benefits are more fairly redistributed. None of which, it’s fair to say, is terrain traditionally associated with Conservative politics. (Though, in recent years, there have been attempts to claw in more tax from profit-shifting tech giants.)

Instead, the government’s top-line answer to the Brexit conundrum has, first and foremost, been to attack immigration. Playing to the lie that inequality is a simple numbers game based on population figures.

It’s not a strategy that properly addresses the question of how to manage wealth, resources and opportunity in an increasingly digital (and divided) world — to ensure it’s more equally and fairly distributed so that society as a whole benefits, rather than just a fabulously wealthy techno-elite getting richer.

Yet the government is badging its planned post-Brexit immigration reforms as a ‘Britain first’ overhaul that will create a system that’s “fair to working people here at home”, as the prime minister puts it. “It will mean we can reduce the number of people coming to this country, as we promised, and it will give British business an incentive to train our own young people,” runs her introduction to the immigration white paper published at the back end of last year, when Brexit was still marching towards a March 29 deadline.

The government making reducing net migration both flagship policy and political success metric has the knock-on effect of heaping cost, administrative burden and operational risk on UK startups — which rely, like all high tech businesses, on access to skills and talent to develop and scale commercial ideas.

Image via Getty Images / TwilightEye

But in the new austerity-fuelled Brexit political reality, the UK government not being overly supportive of the needs of talent-thirsty businesses seems to be the order of the day. Even as, on the other hand, other bits of opportune government rhetoric talk about Britain being “open for business” — or wanting the country to be the best place in the world to build a tech business.

Another government claim — that the planned “skills-based” future approach to immigration will allow businesses to cherry pick the very best talent from all over the globe — does not credibly stack up against the Conservative Party’s overarching push to shrink net migration.

The political reality, certainly for now, is that the ‘compliant’ environment approach to immigration is a euphemist label atop the same openly hostile policy that has slammed doors on people and businesses.

“I want to be able to hire great talented people with drive, enthusiasm and dynamism. I don’t want my choices to be restricted and if they are going to continue to be restricted we’ll have to look at other ways of maintaining the talent pool” says Adeyoola, discussing how he feels after Metail’s brush with the ‘compliant environment’.

“I’d love to just be able to hire the best person for the job… often a lot of that comes from people who want to come and make a life here. They have greater drive. So you get higher quality so you want to be able to hire those people if they come up.

“I think, unfortunately for us, we’re going to see fewer and fewer of them. Because if stuff continues the way it’s continuing, well we’ve already seen net migration from Europe fall dramatically over the last three years. In part that’s Brexit, in part that’s also because eastern European nations are flourishing… so the prospects are the other way. That’s just generally how things work. Great people move to great places.

”Just through going through this process it’s cost me money,” he adds of the audit and everything it triggered. “Real money in legal fees… lost time through weeks of work and effort from people inside the organization… We’re having to restrict the talent pool we can hire from… We’re going to have to spend more money on recruiters to find the right people… It is all just negative… The Brexit argument has always been Brexit will mean fewer EU which means we can have more people from outside… Well, that’s not how the immigration rules work now.

“You’re trying desperately to keep people from outside out. So I can’t believe that, post-Brexit you’re going to loosen the rules… So this whole thing about ‘fewer EU, more commonwealth and more everywhere else’ is not believable.”

Towards politically charged borders

Image via Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Change is coming for the UK’s immigration system. But if the government executes on May’s version of Brexit — which intends to end freedom of movement for EU citizens — it will require UK businesses to interface with the Home Office if they wish to recruit almost any skilled individual from overseas.

Simply put, the same set of rules will apply to EU and non-EU migrants in the future. With the caveat that it remains possible for any post-Brexit trade deals that the UK might ink to include agreements with certain countries to carve out distinct offers related to work visas.

Per its white paper, the government has said it will simplify immigration requirements, as part of the shift to a single, “skills-based future immigration system” post-Brexit, slated from 2021 onwards.

Planned changes include removing the cap on skilled workers, which has — in years past — put another hard limit on startups hiring skilled migrants as, up until doctors and nurses were excluded from the quota last summer, it kept getting hit each month — limiting how many visas were available to businesses.

The government has also said it will do away with the requirement that employers advertise jobs to settled workers. So no more resident labour market test — aka the process which helped skewer Metail’s sponsor license.

Instead, for skilled workers, the plan is to apply a minimum salary threshold of £30,000 (including those with lower, intermediate level skills than now) — using pay as a lever to discourage migrant workers from being used to undercut wages. So no more forcing businesses to undertake an arduous, lengthy and risky (from a compliance point of view) process of advertising to settled workers in case one can be found for a vacancy.

Although the 2021 timeline for introducing the skills-based system that’s written into the immigration policy paper was contingent on the UK leaving the EU on March 29 this year.  Whereas Brexit still has yet to happen. So the implementation date for any post-Brexit immigration reforms remains as equally uncertain and moveable a ‘feast’ as Brexit itself.

“Cost certainly won’t go away,” says Charlie Pring, a senior counsel who specializes in immigration work for law firm Taylor Wessing, of the planned reforms. “The red tape will go away a little bit from 2021 when they rework this new one-size fits all system that will cover Europeans and non-Europeans — because they’re going to scrap the cap and they’re going to scrap advertising. And they’re also going to lower the skill level as well — so almost like A-level qualified jobs rather than graduate one jobs. So it’ll be mid-level jobs as well as graduate ones. But that’s still best part of two years away — so until then employers have got to lump it.”

The immigration system that remains in force has been designed to make the process of sponsoring migrant workers akin to a tax on businesses — with associated cost, complexity and uncertainty designed to discourage recruitment of non-UK workers.

PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images

For startups, Pring (who to be clear did not advise Metail) sees costs as the biggest challenge — “because the visa fees are so high”. He also points out the fees scale with the company. Once a startup is “no longer deemed to be a small” by the Home Office there’s “a higher skills tax to the government as well. So that’s a real issue”.

Startups don’t get any kind of compliance break based on the fact they’re trying to be innovative, develop new skills, tap novel technologies and create new business models. The same skeptical compliance can also be seen operating across the board — whether a business entails low tech seasonal fruit picking or is a high growth potential AI startup with a wealth of PhD expertise and patented technologies.

Nor does the Home Office have any remit to actively support sponsors to help them understand how to fulfil all the various knotted requirements of an immigration system that can be charitably described as opaque and confusing.

On the contrary, the government’s goal of shrinking annual migration creates a political counter-incentive for immigration rules to be complex and unclear. Encouraging enforcement to be aggressive and confrontational — and for compliance officers to hunt for reasons to find and penalize failure.

UK startups that sponsor migrants should understand they remain at risk of falling foul of the charged politics swirling around immigration — and having all their sponsored visas liquidated and business penalized by a system that, parts of which the government’s own policy plan concedes are not working as intended.

Even with reform looming, the future for entrepreneurs in the UK looks no less uncertain — if, as the government intends, free access to the EU talent pool goes away after Brexit. That will give the Home Office far greater control over migration, and therefore a much bigger say over who businesses can and cannot hire — putting its hands on cost and skill levers which can be used to control migrant flow.

Here’s Pring again: “The government is deliberately funneling people through into Tier 2 [visas]. If they push everybody through Tier 2, which is what they want, that’s the way they control skill level and salary level because you can only get a Tier 2 visa if the job is skilled enough and you’re paying enough for it. So it enables the government to put an element of control onto the visa numbers. And even though they’re not [generally] capping the numbers… they are through the backdoor deterring people from applying by making it difficult to qualify and ramping up the visa fees.”

The UK’s future immigration system is also being fashioned by a Conservative government that sees itself under siege from populist, anti-immigration forces, and is led — at least for now — by a prime minister famed for her frosty welcome for migrants.

Without a radical change of government and/or political direction it’s hard to imagine those levers being flipped in a more startup-friendly direction.

Entrepreneurs in the UK should therefore be forgiven for feeling they have little reason to smile and plenty to worry about. Rising costs for accessing talent and growing political risk is certainly not the kind of scale they love to dream of.

How to navigate the UK’s immigration compliance nightmare

The United Kingdom’s current government has ended up restricting high-skill immigration as part of its larger drive to decrease all immigration. While it pays lip service to being a startup hub, we just published an article examining how one promising high-profile startup, Metail, has been cut off from hiring more key workers over a rather dubious set of accusations by the Home Office.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the regulations themselves, and what founders need to know to avoid the many potential pitfalls put in their way — using Metail’s situation as the case study.

The Home Office’s guidance document for employers sponsoring workers on Tier 2 (general employment) and Tier 5 (temporary work) visas runs to 207 pages. It explains that Tiers 2 and 5 of the UK’s points-based system are the primary immigration routes for non-European Economic Area (EEA) migrants who wish to work in the UK. And that such migrants require the sponsorship of an organization or company which holds the relevant sponsor license. Most migrant tech workers also come into the UK via an employer on a sponsored Tier 2 visa with only a very limited number of Tier 1 “exceptional talent” visas per year, with extremely demanding qualification criteria.

A sub-section on sponsor duties covers record keeping; reporting information and events via a dedicated sponsorship management system portal, including “non-attendance, non-compliance or disappearance” of migrants (so the Home Office can “take enforcement action against them”); compliance with UK immigration law; and the question of what is and isn’t a genuine vacancy where the Home Office warns that the jobholder is required to perform “the specific duties and responsibilities for the job and meets all of the requirements of the tier and category.”

Clutter has picked up Omni’s storage business; Omni to focus on rentals

On the heels of Clutter announcing a large growth round of $200 million earlier this year, the storage startup is cleaning up the competitive field. TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Clutter has purchased the storage business of erstwhile rival Omni.

Omni will remain an independent company, which will now instead focus on rentals of personal items. That business was originally built around renting out items that you had stored with Omni itself. In recent months, however, the company had been transitioning that model to one where you used local businesses as the hub for handing over or picking up rented items. (It’s also been dabbling in cryptocurrency, offering to pay users in XRP instead of cash for renting out items.)

The companies had been working on the acquisition for the past two months, and Ari Mir, CEO and co-founder of Clutter, told TechCrunch it closed today.

While we were writing this story, Omni also posted a short note announcing the deal. “This deal allows us to double down on our rentals business and focus 100 percent of our efforts on empowering everyone to access the items they need when they need them,” it notes.

Mir said the two are not discussing the financial terms of the acquisition, which will give Omni customers 90 days under their current plans before being offered alternatives from Clutter, or a free delivery of their items elsewhere.

That free delivery might be to a company that rents out those possessions — such as bikes or furniture — that owners are not currently using but still want to keep. That’s because unlike Omni, Clutter will not be offering those customers the option to rent out items through Clutter itself. It’s an area that Mir said the company does want to move into one day, but it’s focussing on expanding the storage business first.

Clutter was last valued at around $600 million in its most recent deal, with backers including Softbank, Sequoia, Atomico and GV.  Omni has raised around $33 million.

The acquisition and spinning out of the service underscores a wider shaking out of startups that had emerged over the last several years to disrupt the incumbent storage market.

Tapping into a changing tide of how we live today — smaller dwellings, and more movement especially for younger working people — many startups saw an opportunity to provide more flexible solutions to modern consumers built on the on-demand model.

For Clutter, Omni and a number of competitors, their target users are consumers based in urban areas who live in smaller spaces with less storage options; have the disposable income not only to buy stuff but to pay to keep it somewhere else; and likely already use of other app-based on-demand services for food, transport, work-space and so on, making them familiar and ready to work with startups offering the same services to manage their material possessions.

But as we have noted before, the business of storage on demand is nothing short of, well, cluttered.

The wide array of rivals include incumbents like Public Storage, U-Haul and other older businesses that offer services to clear away your possessions and/or store them in lockers. Newer startups still active in storage include MakeSpace, Livible, and Closetbox.

But there is now also a growing list of companies that have tried to build storage businesses, and have thrown in the towel. They include Trove (which was acquired by Nextdoor and has transferred its storage business to “trusted partners”), Handy (which was acquired by ANGI Home Services), and now Omni.

One of the reasons it’s been difficult to build startups in this space is because storage is a little bit like logistics: it requires scale for the economic and operational models to be more viable, and so if the business isn’t growing fast enough, it can be too hard to sustain it.

If some businesses haven’t been scaling fast enough, it seems that Clutter is emerging as a consolidator that has: in addition to buying Omni’s storage business, it had also acquired Handy’s storage business. (Mir described the two acquisitions as “very similar” in how they were structured.) Clutter had been offered Trove’s business as well, he added, but declined to take it.

“Our business has the capital and operational intensity of an Amazon,” Mir said. “We’re consumer-facing, but we also are building a big backend, complete with trucks and warehouses. It requires lots of capital and being good at operations. Not a lot of teams have the appetite for it. It’s incredibly challenging.”

The parallel with logistics is not one to be ignored. Like logistics, storage involves three key elements: the building of smart platforms to optimise the routing of goods, pricing of services and other features; the use of warehouses as start, middle and endpoints in the movement of goods, spaces where items can be both kept and moved; and a network of reliable people to operate the delivery and distribution aspects of the business.

From what we understand, the second of those — the physical storage spaces — is an area that Clutter will be looking to develop more in the coming months, with its next funding round likely to be structured to help it start to take on more property of its own to build out its operations.

Additional reporting Josh Constine

Zipline’s new $190 million funding means it’s the newest billion dollar contender in the game of drones

With a valuation of over $1 billion and $190 million in new financing, Zipline has become the latest contender to be the leader in the game of drones.

The competition to be a leading vendor of delivery drone services is fierce, but Zipline has already built its billion-dollar business selling its hardware and services as a supplier of medical supplies across emerging markets. It may be among the most tested drone delivery services in the world.

Zipline said it will use the new funds to expand its medical supply delivery services across Africa, the Americas, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The company said it aims to serve 700 million people with its drones within the next five years.

“There is a growing feeling around the world that technology is not benefitting the vast majority of people, said Zipline chief executive Keller Rinaudo in a statement. “The old conventional wisdom has been that building a successful technology company requires exploiting people’s personal information or hijacking their attention. Zipline wants to establish a new model for success in Silicon Valley by showing the world that the right technology company with the right mission and the best team can help improve the lives of every person on the planet.”

Zipline has done the bulk of its work in Africa. The company recently announced a national program in Ghana, which adds to its work with the Rwandan government — one of the company’s first customers.

Zipline intends to expand its drone delivery services into the U.S. this year, beginning with pilot programs in North Carolina.

The Rise Fund, a global impact investment vehicle managed by the multi-billion dollar private equity firm TPG, joined previous investors Baillie Gifford, GV, Katalyst Ventures, Temasek, Bright Success Capital, Goldman Sachs, Oakhouse Partners, Toyota Tsusho Corp, and the Design to Improve Life Fund, in committing to the $190 million financing.

The capital came in two closes. The first in 2018 and another earlier this year.

In all Zipline has raised $225 million since it was founded to increase access to medical supplies around the world. The company’s service works by enabling healthcare workers to order supplies by text message and have them delivered by drones dispatched from central distribution centers.

The company’s drones have a range of 160 kilometers, a cruising speed of 110 kilometers per hour, and can carry 1.75 kilograms of cargo.

 

As Quibi reportedly seeks another $1 billion, Fiction Riot fills the programming slate for its rival service

Even as Quibi, the short form video platform from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s WndrCo, reportedly looks to raise another $1 billion, rival service Fiction Riot continues to steadily build out its pipeline of short form serials.

The Los Angeles-based company has already launched a beta version of its streaming service, Ficto, and yesterday announced a host of new shows that will appear on the app later this year.

Ficto is bringing to market adaptations of bestselling books and original productions which will be released with theatrical films and has plans in the pipeline for other forms of scripted and unscripted entertainment.

On the back end of its service, Fiction Riot is using blockchain-based tools to create a more transparent way to share revenue and manage payments among writers, artists and producers of new series, according to company founder and chief executive Mike Esola.

Meanwhile, Quibi is reportedly looking to raise another $1 billion to keep up the pace of spending big dollars for big names to draw new audiences to its service. The company is reportedly spending $5 million per hour of storytelling for some of its titles.

Both services are entering a highly competitive and increasingly fragmented entertainment landscape with many big studios building moats around their content in the form of exclusive subscription-based streaming services. Both Quibi and Ficto see short form as a way to break through with a new kind of storytelling built for mobile media first.

Alongside the series sourced from Ficto’s online “Million for Million campaign“, which will reward $1 million to the first producer of an episode that reaches 1 million unique views on the site.

“Within a week of publicizing our Million for Million campaign, we received over 400 submissions from professional and aspiring filmmakers with premium content,” said Mike Esola, Fiction Riot co-founder and chief executive. “From those, we accepted 20 outstanding series that rival anything we’ve seen across streaming services today, and are now scheduled to become available on Ficto in the coming months”

Through Ficto, Fiction Riot plans to premiere more than 50 series at launch and will release new shows weekly.

The slate of programming in development includes:

  • The Hating Game – A Sally Thorne bestseller that’s also being adapted into a film later this year starring Lucy Hale and Robbie Amell.
  • Language of Flowers – With over two million copies sold this book by Vanessa Diffenbaugh also has a film adaptation in the works that will star Nick Robinson and Kiersey Clemons.
  • Pure – A part teen fantasy in the tradition of Edward Scissorhands, the series by Julianna Baggott will be adapted into a live-action hybrid (but won’t star Johnny Depp or Winona Ryder).
  • The Killing Moon – A “Game of Thrones” for the young adult crowd N.K. Jemisin’s book is another feature in the Ficto slate. The company is currently interviewing showrunners for the series.
  • Legend – This internationally bestselling franchise turned its author, Marie Lu, into an overnight celebrity in China at the age of 26. The series from Ficto will concentrate on the first book in Lu’s trilogy.
  • Lion of Ireland – Combining historical events with magical realism this book from Morgan Llywelyn has sold over 40 million copies sold worldwide.  Michael Scott is simultaneously writing a pilot for linear television.
  • Riftwar Saga – One of the longest-running fantasy book franchises, these Raymond E. Feist novels have sold over 20 million copies. Atomic Blonde and 300 screenwriter Kurt Johnstad is adapting a series for Ficto which will focus on the first three books.

What’s impressive is that Fiction Riot is signing all of these deals without the over $1 billion Quibi is raising for its own app-based service, whose launch date had been something of a moving target. The company initially planned to launch in late 2019, before pushing that date back to April 2020.*

“We’ve raised under $15 million,” says Esola of Fiction Riot’s financing.

In some cases, Esola said, it’s as easy as picking up shows from the cable companies that can no longer afford them. He points to the success of Netflix’s hit “You”, which the streaming service picked up from Lifetime.

“I call it the great migration of content,” Esola says.

For Fiction Riot the pitch is better revenue sharing and economics for the people involved in the productions and better tools for fan engagement that are native to mobile devices.

Things like click to purchase, push notifications for announcements of live streams or special features, and opportunities for greater interactivity for audiences with shows, are all options on mobile platforms that are much harder to pull off with linear television, or streaming, says Esola.

“It’s up to startups like us to address the grassroots movement,” for content creators, Esola says. “It will never happen from the dinosaurs. They’re never going to agree to it.”

*An earlier version of this article cited a moving target for Quibi’s launch date. That date was confirmed in March at South by Southwest.

Powerbeats Pro are the Bluetooth earbuds to beat

Let’s get the bad out of the way first, shall we?

For starters, that charging case is huge. There’s no way around it. It’s something that’s become more and more apparent as the weather is warmer and I no longer have jacket pockets to carry it around in. If you shell out the money for these, you’ll be thinking about this a lot, too. How long you plan to be out versus the added pocket bulk.

There’s also the issue of cost. A few years ago, $250 might not have seemed crazy for a pair of wireless earbuds. When you’re out-pricing Apple’s primary earbuds, however, it might be time to reconsider.

Those are really the big strikes in what’s been an otherwise wholly enjoyable review process. I’ve been eager to put these through their paces since the day they were announced, and haven’t been disappointed. Given the choice between the AirPods and Powerbeats Pro, I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment.

The Powerbeats Pro are a wholly different take on the category, and that’s precisely where they succeed. Sure, Beats has been operating under the Apple banner for more than a third of its existence, but the company’s fully wireless headphones are probably the best example to date of how to run a sub-brand with minimal interference.

That’s not to say that Apple wasn’t involved. The company’s fingerprints are here, but that’s largely a good thing, honestly. The inclusion of the H1 chip is the clearest example. Using the same silicon found in the latest AirPods, the initial pairing process is as simple as opening up the case. From there, a large window will show the case and two headphones, along with corresponding battery levels.

Assuming, of course, you have an iPhone. You can pair them up to an Android handset and just about anything else with Bluetooth, but you’ve got to go through the more traditional rigmarole. The flip side of all of this is that the Pros only ship with a Lightning port. I’ve expressed my frustration with Apple’s proprietary connector in the past, but honestly, it mostly comes down to the fact that Apple seems to have finally started following the rest of the industry down the USB-C rabbit hole. At this point it feels inevitable.

And, of course, the Pro case isn’t wireless yet. Gotta save something for the second gen, I guess.

As for the clear advantages Beats has over the AirPods, that’s three-fold. First is battery life. The upshot to the massive case is a ton of time on a charge. Beats puts them at nine hours on the earbuds, with a full 24 hours all told, when the case is factored in. I never found myself short on juice, and I’m pretty psyched to take them on the next cross-country plane ride.

That means, in most instances, you’re totally fine to leave home without the case. Though beware that both the case and the buds tend to scuff easily, so I’d use it when possible. The buds’ placement inside the case is also a little tricky. Unlike the AirPods, I found myself repositioning them the first few times.

While the case itself sports a small light that goes either red or white, depending on whether they’re charging, there’s no light on the buds themselves, meaning you’re primarily dependent on iOS to let you know where things stand.

The design of the buds themselves isn’t for everyone — but the same can certainly be said for AirPods. It’s true that the over the ear hooks are probably ideally suited for the gym, but in black these are subtle enough for most people to wear out undetected. More importantly, there are quite comfortable. Apple is still kicking and screaming against silicone tips, and that’s made AirPods particularly divisive. Like many of the company’s headphones before, they simply don’t fit in a lot of ears.

Removable silicone tips offer a more adaptable fit, coupled with a better seal. That, in turn, means less sound leak. The headphones might be tuned a little high for some tastes, but it honestly beats the old days when the company leaned entirely too heavily on bass to make up for other shortcomings. As is, the sound is quite good, so far as fully wireless Bluetooth earbuds go.

I will say that the design wore on one of my ears a bit after a marathon listen while working at my desk, but I was able to wear them for a lot longer than most of the earbuds I’ve tested, with minimal annoyance.

Also impressive is the distance they’ll work. I routinely walked into the other room while leaving my phone charging on the desk with no problem. I did run into the occasional connection problems here and there, where one headphone conked out, but again, that unfortunately is pretty in-line with the current limitations of Bluetooth technology. Putting the earbuds in the case and pulling them back out seemed to address the problem just fine.

The Pros are generally less concerned with appearance than their Apple brethren. A bit ironic, perhaps, for a brand that was seemingly built around image. They’re a pretty good indicator of how far Beats has come as a brand, making for a much more utilitarian product than AirPods — and for a constant companion, that’s a good thing.

Assuming you can stomach the high price and massive case, for a majority of users, the Powerbeats Pro are probably the way to go.

Starbucks’ Chinese nemesis surges 20% in public debut

Shares of Luckin Coffee jumped 20% in its first day of trading on the Nasdaq stock market.

After opening at $17.00, shares of the Chinese Starbucks competitor climbed as high as $25.96, or more than 50%, before settling back down to $20.38 at the market’s close. The company has a market cap north of $5 billion after its first day of trading.

The brick-and-mortar coffee chain has achieved major success in China by offering speedy delivery services to Chinese consumers. The company has nearly 2,400 stores compared to Starbucks’ 3,500, but it has plans to more than double that number by the end of the year as it seeks to become the country’s coffee king.

Luckin’s success doesn’t immediately seem to be thwarting the stock market success of Starbucks, which has had a glowing 2019. The company hit another all-time high Friday, closing out the day at $78.91, up more than 35% from a year ago, giving the Seattle company a market cap of nearly $96 billion.

Starbucks and Luckin Coffee may seem like mortal enemies, but their rivalry is more complicated than one might immediately think. Check out our Extra Crunch deep dive from earlier this week on the Xiamen-based company’s financials.

‘Crypto exchange’ Goxtrade caught using other people’s photos on its staff page

Alleged cryptocurrency exchange Goxtrade bills itself as a “trusted platform for trading bitcoins,” but its staff page is filled with photos of people pulled seemingly at random from the internet.

The alleged exchange, which claimed to debut in 2017 yet its website is only a little more than a week old, used photos taken from social media profiles and other company websites not associated with the company.

Bizarrely, the alleged exchange didn’t bother to change all of the names of the people whose photos it used.

Amber Baldet, co-founder of Clovyr, a prominent figure in the blockchain community, and listed in Fortune’s 40 Under 40, was one of the people whose name and photos appeared on the site.

“Fraud alert: I am not a developer at Goxtrade and probably their entire business is a lie,” she tweeted Friday.

Nearly all of the names are accurate but have no connection to the site (Image: TechCrunch)

Goxtrade claims to be an exchange that lets users “receive, send and trade cryptocurrency.” After we created an account and signed in, it’s not clear if the site even works. But the online chat room has hundreds of messages of users trying to trade their cryptocurrencies. The site’s name appears to associate closely with Mt. Gox, a failed cryptocurrency exchange that collapsed after it was hacked. At its 2014 peak, the exchange handled more than 70% of all bitcoin transactions. More than $450 million in bitcoins were stolen in the apparent breach.

Baldet isn’t the only person wrongly associated with the suspect site.

TechCrunch has confirmed the other photos on the site belong to other people seemingly chosen at random — including a claims specialist in Illinois, a lawyer in Germany and an operations manager in Melbourne.

Another person whose photo was used without permission is Tom Blomfield, chief executive of digital bank Monzo. In a tweet, Blomfield — who was listed on the alleged exchange as “Arnold Blomfield” — said his legal team has filed complaints with the site’s hosts.

But things get weirder than just stolen staff photos.

Hours after the site was first flagged, Cloudflare now warns users that the alleged exchange is a suspected phishing site (Image: TechCrunch)

Goxtrade lists its registered address as Heron Tower, one of the new skyscrapers in London. We checked the listings and there’s no company listed in the building of the same name. There’s also no mention of Goxtrade in the U.K.’s registry of companies and businesses. When we checked its listed registered number per its terms and conditions page, the listing points to an entirely unrelated clothing company in Birmingham that dissolved two years ago.

Later in the day, networking giant Cloudflare, which provides its service, flagged the site as a phishing site.

We reached out to Goxtrade by email prior to publication but did not hear back. When we checked, Goxtrade’s mail records was pointing to an email address run by Yandex, a Russian internet company.

It’s not the first time a cryptocurrency startup has been called into question for using other people’s photos on their staff pages. After raising more than $830,000, Miroskii was caught listing actor Ryan Gosling as one of its graphic designers. Almost every photo later transpired to have been lifted from another source. The company later claimed it was hacked.

Cryptocurrency-related scams are not rare. Many have taken what they’ve raised and gone dark, never to be seen again. We’ve covered a fair number here on TechCrunch, including a massive $660 million scam from 2018.

A fair warning with Goxtrade: all signs seem to point to yet another scam.

Read more:

Netflix takes on ‘Project Runway’ with new competition series co-hosted by Queer Eye star

Netflix is launching its own take on Project Runway, and it’s bringing in Queer Eye’s Tan France to host. While Project Runway has grown to become one of the most popular fashion-focused reality shows to ever hit TV, the franchise, now on Season 17, is getting a little long in the tooth — and in need of a makeover itself. With Netflix’s new series Next in Fashion, the streamer is targeting a younger demographic with talent like Tan who will co-host along with style icon, designer and model (and popular Instagrammer) Alexa Chung.

The prize?

Not a New York Fashion Week debut, but rather the chance to sell a collection with luxury e-retailer Net-a-Porter. (Oh, and $250,000, too.)

Much like Project Runway, the series will begin with 18 designers who will face challenges that center on a specific trend or design style. But unlike the Project Runway contestants, who can be virtual unknowns or even hobbyists lacking basic sewing skills, Next in Fashion’s contenders will have worked for major brands and dressed A-List celebrities.

It’s very much the Top Chef of the fashion design reality show world.

The first season will have 10 episodes, and will bring in guest judges like celeb stylist Elizabeth Stewart and director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, Eva Chen, among others. The series is created and produced by theoldschool and is executive produced by Robin Ashbrook and Yasmin Shackleton with co-executive producer Adam Cooper, says Netflix.

It’s also the latest to join Netflix’s growing lineup of reality TV. Having already produced hits and pop culture sensations like the new Queer Eye or Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up, the streamer is looking to broaden its reality lineup.

In doing so, it’s taking note of what works on cable television in order to come up with its own version of just about every top reality TV show out there.

For Million Dollar Listing fans, there’s Selling Sunset on Netflix. Say Yes to the Dress gets a frugal take with Cheapest Weddings. Cupcake Wars becomes Sugar Rush. Top Chef translates to The Final Table. The Bachelor fans can watch Dating Around, and The Real Housewives addicts get to follow the Yummy Mummies. Meanwhile, Fixer Upper fans can take inspiration from Stay Here, Instant Hotel or Amazing Interiors.

If Netflix could find its own Chip and Joanna Gaines and group of terrible Vanderpump Rules-esque 20-somethings, it would have it made.

Naturally, it was only a matter of time until Netflix turned its TV show formula photocopier to fashion competitions.

While not entirely original in concept, Next in Fashion may be able to capitalize on the star power of its co-hosts — and especially Tan, where there’s potential for cross-promotion with his other Netflix series, Queer Eye.

Now, who’s gonna give the rest of the QE team each their own series, too?

DNA Script picks up $38.5 million to make DNA production faster and simpler

DNA Script has raised $38.5 million in new financing to commercialize a process that it claims is the first big leap forward in manufacturing genetic material.

The revolution in synthetic biology that’s reshaping industries from medicine to agriculture rests on three, equally important pillars.

They include: analytics — the ability to map the genome and understand the function of different genes; synthesis — the ability to manufacture DNA to achieve certain functions; and gene editing — the CRISPR-based technologies that allow for the addition or subtraction of genetic code.

New technologies have already been introduced to transform the analytics and editing of genomes, but little progress has been made over the past 50 years in the ways in which genetic material is manufactured. That’s exactly the problem that DNA Script is trying to solve.

Traditionally, making DNA involved the use of chemical compounds to synthesize (or write) DNA in chains that were limited to around 200 nucleotide bases. Those synthetic pieces of genetic code are then assembled to make a gene.

DNA Script’s technology holds the promise of making longer chains of nucleotides by mirroring the enzymatic process through which DNA is assembled within cells — with fewer errors and no chemical waste material. The enzymatic process can accelerate commercial applications in healthcare, chemical manufacturing and agriculture.

“Any technology that can make that faster is going to be very valuable,” says Christopher Voigt, a synthetic biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, told the journal Nature.

DNA Script isn’t the only company in the market that’s looking to make the leap forward in enzymatic DNA production. Nuclear, a startup working with Harvard University’s famed geneticist, George Church, and Ansa Bio, a startup affiliated with Jay Keasling’s Berkeley lab at the University of California, are also moving forward with the technology.

But the Paris-based company has achieved some milestones that would make its technology potentially the first to come to market with a commercially viable approach.

At least, that’s what new investors LSP and Bpifrance, through its Large Venture fund, are hoping. They’re joined by previous investors Illumina Ventures, M. Ventures, Sofinnova Partners, Kurma Partners and Idinvest Partners in backing the company’s latest funding.

The company said the money would be used to accelerate the development of its first products and establish a presence in the United States.

“As we announced earlier this year at the AGBT General Meeting, DNA Script was the first company to enzymatically synthesize a 200mer oligo de novo with an average coupling efficiency that rivals the best organic chemical processes in use today,”  said Thomas Ybert, chief executive and co-founder of DNA Script. “Our technology is now reliable enough for its first commercial applications, which we believe will deliver the promise of same-day results to researchers everywhere, with DNA synthesis that can be completed in just a few hours.”

Credder offers Rotten Tomatoes-style ratings for the news

In an age of online misinformation and clickbait, how do you know whether a publication is trustworthy?

Startup Credder is trying to solve this problem with reviews from both journalists and regular readers. These reviews are then aggregated into an overall credibility score (or rather, scores, since the journalist and reader ratings are calculated separately). So when you encounter an article from a new publication, you can check their scores on Credder to get a sense of how credible they are.

Co-founder and CEO Chase Palmieri compared the site to movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. It makes sense, then, that he’s enlisted former Rotten Tomatoes CEO Patrick Lee to his advisory board, along with journalist Gabriel Snyder and former Xobni CEO Jeff Bonforte.

Palmieri plans to open Credder to the general public later this month, and he’s already raised $750,000 in funding from Founder Institute CEO Adeo Ressi, Ira Ehrenpreis, the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Steve Bennet and others.

Palmieri told me he started working full-time on the project back in 2016, with the goal of “giving news consumers a way to productively hold the news producers accountable,” and to “realign the financial incentives of online media, so it’s not just rewarding clicks and traffic metrics.” In other words, he wanted to create a landscape where publishing empty clickbait or heavily slanted propaganda might have actual consequences.

If Credder gets much traction, it will likely attract its share of trolls — it’s easy to imagine that the same kind of person who leaves a negative review of “Captain Marvel” without seeing the movie (this is a real issue that Rotten Tomatoes has had to face), would be just as happy to smear The New York Times or CNN as “fake news.” And even if a reviewer is offering honest, good-faith feedback, the review might be less influenced by the quality of a publication’s journalism and more by their personal baggage or political leanings.

Palmieri acknowledged the risk and pointed to several ways Credder is trying to mitigate it. For one thing, users can’t just write an overall review of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or TechCrunch. Instead, they’re reviewing specific articles, so hopefully they’re engaging with the substance and specifics of the story, rather than just venting their preexisting feelings. The scores assigned to publications and to journalists are only generated when there are enough article ratings to create an aggregated score.

In addition, Palmieri said the reviewers “are also being held accountable,” because users can upvote or downvote their comments. That affects how the reviews get weighted in the overall score, and in turn generates a rating for the reviewers.

“It will take time for the weight of your reviews to be meaningful, and there will be a visible track record,” he said.

While I appreciated Palmieri’s vision, I was also skeptical that a credibility score can actually influence readers’ opinions — maybe it will matter when you encounter a new publication, but everyone already has set ideas about who they trust and don’t trust.

When I brought this up, Palmieri replied, “What we see in today’s media landscape is the left-wing media attacks the right-wing media, and vice versa. We never get a sense of what our fellow news consumers feel. What’s more likely to change your perspective and make you question yourself? It’s going to a rating page [for] an article, pointing out a specific problem in that article.”

To be clear, Credder isn’t hosting articles itself, simply crawling the web and creating rating pages for articles, publications and writers. As for making money, Palmieri said he’s considered both a tipping system and an ad system where publications can pay to promote their stories.

TechCrunch readers can check it out early by visiting the Credder website and using the promo code “TCNEWS”.

Rivian debuts a pull-out kitchen for its electric pickup truck

Sometimes you need scrambled eggs. And with that thought, today at the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, AZ, Rivian announced a major accessory for its electric pickup: A camp kitchen. The unit slides out from the Rivian R1T’s so-called gear tunnel that lives between the bed and cab. The kitchen includes storage and a stove that’s powered by the R1T’s 180kWh battery pack.

This kitchen unit is the first significant concept Rivian has unveiled for the pickup’s unusual gear tunnel. This space provides another locked storage compartment for the pickup — but why have it all, many asked when it was revealed? And now, with this kitchen unit, Rivian is responding to the questions. It seems Rivian wants to make its vehicles the center of an ecosystem of add-ons. The company already revealed racks, vehicle-mounted tents and even a flashlight that hides in the side of the driver’s door. Expect more camping and outdoor gear as Rivian cements its brand image around adventurers.

Rivian is positioning its products for a particular lifestyle. Think Patagonia-wearing, Range Rover-driving, outdoorsy types or at least those who aspire to have that image. It’s a smart play, and so far, Rivian has stayed true to this image. All of its advertisements, social media posts, and appearances make it clear that Rivian is carefully aligning its brand image.

Trucks and SUVs are generally marketed to workman and families. TV commercials feature dusty men hauling bails of hay and women unloading groceries and closing the rear tailgate with her foot. But not Rivian.

So far Rivian has shown its products in the backwoods, running trails and sitting next to campfires. The people in the commercials are on an adventure, wearing coats by The North Face and sleeping in REI tents. With the kitchen from today’s announcements, they can pull a kitchen out of their pickup and make some coffee.

Rivian tells TechCrunch this is just a concept, but the company intends to bring this unit to production. There are likely to be other units for the gear tunnel. I, for one, would love to have a slide-out dog washing and drying station because there’s nothing worse than putting a muddy dog in a truck.

Magic Leap buys Belgian startup building hologram teleconferencing software

Princess Leia’s hologram message to Obi-Wan is getting closer to reality, at least augmented reality.

Magic Leap announced yesterday that they’ve agreed to acquire Belgian startup Mimesys. The team has been working on bringing Star Wars-esque volumetric video calls to the Magic Leap platform, and it seems that the Florida AR startup liked what they were developing. We didn’t get any details on deal terms.

The team is joining Magic Leap but will continue to service their enterprise clients, including BNP Paribas and Orange, according to their website. The startup first showed off their video conferencing tech at CES this year, which allows someone in a Magic Leap One headset to visualize a 3D representation of a person during a “video” call.

Volumetric video can be fairly fickle; the solution Mimesys has been going after relied on Intel’s RealSense depth cameras to collect and stitch footage on PCs locally then stream it to a user’s headset. As is the case with almost all volumetric video footage, Mimesys’ early work appeared to suffer from some noisiness, though this acquisition makes one wonder whether Magic Leap will end up creating their own external depth camera hardware to appeal to enterprise customers.

It seems that almost every new platform promises to revolutionize video calls and yet hangups continue because it’s one of the more high-bandwidth activities we regularly do. This is only going to be more difficult in AR since you’re sending live 3D footage of people through the internet tubes. Like much of what Magic Leap is promising, the feasibility of pulling this off likely relies in no small part on 5G tech proliferating.