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2020: The triumph of science

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Believe it or not, 2020 gave us reasons to be hopeful.

2020 might be one many would like to forget, but there’s much worth remembering from a tumultuous year that undeniably left its mark on us all.

It was rough right out of the gates. In January, wildfires were raging across Australia and Brexit was threatening to blow up the Irish economy. We had a general election in February but no new Government until June. And, in that time, the world as we knew it was upended.

The threat of Covid-19 saw Indeed take the lead on sending Irish staff to work from home in February. Others followed, deeming it a temporary fix. But as remote working policies were extended and extended, it called into question whether the centralised office would even have a future.

A ‘new normal’ centred on flexible working had been proven possible by the pandemic. Fujitsu and Siemens ran with the idea, introducing permanent remote working plans for more than 200,000 employees between them.

The prescience of former Silicon Republic journalist Lisa Ardill has to be noted. In December 2019, she predicted that 2020 could become the year of working in our pyjamas. What she didn’t realise was that we’d be doing everything that way. Thankfully Disney+ had arrived in Ireland just in time, and by summer we had Animal Crossing to keep us from burning out.

Google Maps data revealed that recreation activity dropped 83pc in Ireland from February to March. Non-Covid healthcare was put on hold. Irish institutions had to radically change how research was conducted. A death knell was sounded for international business travel and supply chains were hit. The chip shortage was exacerbated, threatening the roll-out of the year’s anticipated gadgets and games consoles. There was a sharp rise in cyberattacks as malicious hackers targeted critical health infrastructure. Cinema had to pivot to streaming and there was such pressure on online networks that Netflix had to reduce its stream quality in Europe and Facebook and Instagram had to lower their video bitrates. Jobs were created, and jobs were lost. Recruitment, skills, lab work, drug manufacturing and life sciences in general – everything was affected.

2020 was such a rollercoaster that it makes for a pretty intense video game. And if you’re reading this, you made it. Though many didn’t.

The death toll from Covid-19 would be substantially higher if not for the triumph of science in 2020. Not only the record-setting development of a successful vaccine, but the science-led decision-making that protected people.

We were writing about “life after coronavirus” as early as April, and while it may have been premature, hope was key to resilience throughout 2020. And, thankfully, our faith in science was repaid.

Reflecting on 20 years in STEM, Prof Mark Ferguson, who served as director general of Science Foundation Ireland for half of this period, was incredibly hopeful in the wake of 2020.

“We have all witnessed first-hand the contribution made by science, research and innovation globally to managing the Covid-19 crisis: effective new vaccines delivered in less than one year – something previously thought impossible,” he said.

“We need to now work collaboratively to apply the same expertise, focus and dedication to deal with the many other challenges our world is facing from climate change to food security.”

The C-word

China confirmed human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on 20 January. Days later, Wuhan – the epicentre of the first Covid-19 outbreak – was quarantined and the WHO declared a public health emergency. By 11 March, it was officially a pandemic.

Elon Musk changed his stance from “the coronavirus panic is dumb” to getting SpaceX and Tesla to work on ventilators to treat severe cases of Covid-19. Irish-headquartered Medtronic also moved to meet the global demand for ventilators, doubling production at its Galway plant. Microsoft developed a chatbot to help the US Centers for Disease Control assess citizens reporting symptoms. Apple donated millions of masks to healthcare professionals and Jack Dorsey pledged $1bn to support relief programmes. Sci-tech was stepping up in a big way.

Contact tracing was crucial to quelling the spread of the virus, but apps developed for this purpose had to ensure data privacy. Whether contact-tracing data should be centralised or decentralised was debated even as the number of cases continued to multiply.

This was Irish open-source developer NearForm’s time to shine. Its Covid Green source code for Ireland’s contact-tracing app was publicly released and became part of the Linux Foundation Public Health initiative, supporting the build of privacy-conscious contact-tracing tech around the world.

Another Irish company was also working to help the HSE handle Covid. Trinity spin-out Akara Robotics began testing robotic disinfection in Irish hospitals, officially launching new healthcare robot Violet at the end of the year. Using UV light, Violet could disinfect an entire room in as little as five minutes.

At year-end, there were more than 80m confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide, while a new highly-infectious variant of the virus led to Christmas lockdowns. But there was light at the end of the tunnel.

Victory for vaccines

Pfizer announced its partnership to develop a Covid-19 vaccine with German pharma company BioNTech in March. This would become one of the defining stories of the pandemic: that of the immigrant husband-and-wife team behind the first Covid-19 vaccine to secure regulatory approval.

Like Moderna, BioNTech founders Uğur Şahin and ‎Özlem Türeci‎ chose to develop a mRNA vaccine, which works by sending messenger RNA to the body so that cells can create a fragment of the targeted virus, teaching the immune system to recognise this foreign antigen. Other vaccine candidates used the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to help the body get to know the virus. One example of this, Covax-19, was developed by Australian biotech Vaxine with the help of Irish pharma research firm APC.

Oxford-AstraZeneca’s protein-based vaccine was advantageous in that it didn’t require cold storage so it was easier to store and distribute. These logistical challenges were just some of the issues leading to global vaccine inequality, and this outbreak of ‘vaccine nationalism’ would only serve to prolong the crisis.

The misinformation pandemic

Once we had vaccines, the question turned to whether we would get enough people to take them.

As Covid-19 spread around the world, an existing global ‘infodemic’ produced a wave of conspiracy theories. A battle commenced between science and misinformation and scientists got busy debunking claims that hydroxychloroquine or vitamin C could cure Covid-19.

Some people were even so convinced that 5G caused Covid-19 that they burned equipment and assaulted technicians. (A November survey in Ireland found 20pc of respondents associated health risks with 5G.)

Content platforms had already done good groundwork in tackling vaccine misinformation in 2019 and even stronger measures were introduced by WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter in 2020. Twitter also cracked down on the QAnon conspiracy group, banning 7,000 associated accounts.

Didn’t they do well?

It has long been observed that from crisis springs opportunity, and 2020’s travails were no exception.

Zoom was the word on everyone’s lips as the video-conferencing platform helped colleagues, friends and family stay connected during lockdowns. Pre-pandemic, Irishman Harry Mosely, Zoom’s CIO, described how he ran a distributed workforce, which eschewed business travel in favour of the company’s software. And in 2020 we were all eating Zoom’s dog food, driving a record year of 367pc revenue growth.

Zoom’s year was not without its challenges, though. As quickly as it became a household name, the terms Zoombombing and Zoom fatigue entered the lexicon. But the popular platform had plenty to celebrate, not least how it helped keep some working entertainers afloat. A group of Irish filmmakers even made a movie on it.

Some Irish companies also had a banner year. LetsGetChecked’s recent unicorn status can be attributed to rapid growth in 2020. It raised one of the biggest Irish funding rounds of the year for its home health testing kits, which included a two-part test for Covid-19. Online food-ordering platform Flipdish, which has also since become a unicorn, rolled out table ordering tech for reopening restaurants and announced hundreds of new jobs.

Overall, VC investment in Ireland hit a record high during the pandemic, with several innovative start-ups managing to raise funds during a very tough period.

2020 also saw two major Irish acquisitions. At the beginning of the year, chipmaker Decawave was snapped up in a mega deal worth $400m. And between being called on for his immunology expertise and his company’s €380m acquisition by Roche, Inflazome co-founder Prof Luke O’Neill spent a year in the spotlight. In November, he was recognised by Science Foundation Ireland for his Outstanding Contribution to STEM Communication.

To the future

As the pandemic rumbled on and major world events were cancelled, postponed or sent to the virtual world of video conferencing, it was decided that the successor event to the award-winning Inspirefest would go ahead in October, but with a twist.

Silicon Republic’s Future Human set out to be the first major international tech event in the world to go hybrid. From a physical stage to a virtual audience, event founder Ann O’Dea welcomed Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, investor Brad Feld, former NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham and more. On the agenda was all the year’s hot STEM topics, from remote working and healthcare, to lockdown creativity and vaccines.

Following a successful, albeit very different conference, Future Human will return on 12 and 13 May 2022. Sticking with the hybrid format, attendees both in person at the Trinity Business School in Dublin and online from around the world will hear from leading thinkers in science, robotics, AI, climate action, security, health and the arts.

We can’t wait to welcome you to the most inclusive and forward-looking event in the world, where we can raise a toast to a bright future.

In other news

12 January: Scientists report that microstructures within some remarkably well-preserved fossilised dinosaur cartilage could be DNA, prompting inevitable Jurassic Park references.

15 January: The EU Parliament votes in favour of the European Green Deal.

11 February: Samsung adds more polish to its foldable smartphone range with the launch of the Galaxy Z Flip.

30 April: Huawei completes construction of the world’s highest base station, bringing 5G to the summit of Mount Everest.

15 May: Researchers in Argentina announce they have discovered the fossilised remains of a lethal 10m-long ‘megaraptor’.

1-4 June: Planned launch events from Sony, Google and EA are postponed so as not to detract from Black Lives Matter protests across the US.

2 June: A $5bn class action lawsuit against Google alleges that Chrome tracks users even in incognito mode.

15 July: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Kanye West and more see their Twitter accounts hacked in the name of a bitcoin scam.

29 July: Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg face hours of questioning from US lawmakers in an antitrust hearing.

6 August: TikTok selects Ireland as the location of its first data centre in Europe, adding to the trust and safety hub established in Dublin earlier in the year.

13 August: Fortnite creator Epic Games files antitrust suits against Apple and Google after it was banned from their app stores for creating its own in-app payments system to circumvent the 30pc cut they take for each transaction.

28 August: At a livestreamed event, Elon Musk introduces Gertrude the pig, one of the first living things to have a Neuralink chip implanted in its brain.

19 September: Donald Trump gives his blessing for Oracle and Walmart to take a combined 20pc stake in TikTok Global Business so that the Chinese-owned company can continue operating in the US. (TikTok-owner ByteDance later dropped the deal when Trump failed to get re-elected.)

21 September: Microsoft announces a $7.5bn deal to acquire ZeniMax, the parent company of game publisher Bethesda Softworks.

7 October: Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier win a Nobel Prize for their discovery of CRISPR-Cas9.

20 October: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx briefly touches down on Bennu to retrieve samples from the surface of the asteroid.

10 November: Apple unveils the first Mac computers powered by its own M1 chip, marking its move away from Intel processors.

10 November: Microsoft releases the Xbox Series X and Series S consoles.

12 November: Sony releases the PlayStation 5.

17 November: Apple celebrates 40 years in Cork.

30 November: DeepMind announces that its AI has solved the puzzle of protein folding, a biological mystery that has perplexed scientists for 50 years.

1 December: The Arecibo Telescope, recognisable from appearances in GoldenEye and Contact, collapses two weeks after it was announced that the observatory would be decommissioned.

1 December: Salesforce agrees to buy Slack for $27.7bn, its largest ever acquisition.

26 December: Getting ahead of a coming trend, Bloomberg dubs 2020 ‘year of the meme stock’.

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Brace for a shock: cost-of-living crisis drives up price of electric car charging | Electric, hybrid and low-emission cars

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While petrol price rises may have made the headlines, the energy crisis has also been hitting owners of electric cars in the pocket. The cost of charging at home has risen by 43% for some drivers, while the already higher cost of on-the-road recharges has gone up 25%.

As energy prices are forced up due to rising costs for suppliers, specialist charging deals for drivers have become more scarce. And now there are suggestions that people may put off the purchase of an electric car as the cost-of-living crisis takes hold.

Although demand for vehicles is high, a new report to be released this week from Volkswagen Financial Services suggests that fewer people might commit to buying electric vehicles (EVs) as belts tighten and the cost of energy increases.

“The cost-of-living squeeze will probably mean some potential EV purchasers may not commit to a switch this year, particularly as such vehicles are perceived to be more expensive in relative terms when compared to combustion engine alternatives,” says the report.

Home charging

Electric car owners who are charging their vehicle at home will usually find the most cost-efficient option is one of the specialist tariffs on offer. “Two-rate” tariffs offer one price for electricity used during the day and another for night-time use. When prices are much lower you can top up your battery cheaply.

For example, comparison site Love My EV lists the rates for EDF’s GoElectric 35 as 44.69p per kilowatt hour (p/kWh) during the day and 4.5p/kWh at night. The Octopus Go tariff costs 35.04p/kWh during the day and 7.5p/kWh at night. Both figures are based on supplying a home in south Wales.

Three electric cars charging at a roadside station with an attractive yellow zig-zag canopy sheltering the chargers
A public charging station in Sunderland: many electric vehicle owners cannot charge at home and must pay on-the-road rates. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Since energy prices have increased, the number of specialist deals on the market has dropped, says Laura Thomson, co-founder of Love My EV. While they are usually the best deals for drivers who charge overnight, the day rate and standing charge can be expensive, which consumers need to take into account when working out what is best for their situation.

“For most people who have an EV to charge at home, it does make sense, but there is a high standing charge and a high day rate to factor in,” says Thomson. If you use a lot of electricity during the day, this may not be your best option.

The site has a comparison tool for tariffs. Beware of promises of “free miles” within tariffs as these savings may be outweighed by higher charges, it says.

The rising price of EV tariffs means drivers now face paying 43% more than a year ago. This amounts to a rise of about £75 a year for an average vehicle such as a Nissan Leaf or a Renault Zoe, says Ben Nelmes of transport research company New AutoMotive.

In 2021, the cost of recharging an EV that covered 7,400 miles a year – the average mileage – and was recharged mostly at night was £174. This was based on an overnight rate of 4p/kWh and a day rate of 18p/kWh. By last month, this same charging practice cost £249 a year, based on the best prices then available – 5p/kWh at night and 28p/kWh during the day.

“Someone driving a bigger EV, such as a Kia e-Niro or Tesla, will find that this underestimates what they’ll be paying. Similarly, someone in a Smart car will find they spend a bit less than this,” says Nelmes.

On the road

Rising costs have also become apparent at public chargers. Instavolt, which operates a charging network across Britain, has increased its prices twice so far this year, first from 45p/kWh to 50p/kWh and then to 57p/kWh. Ubitricity, one of London’s largest charging networks, increased prices from 24p/kWh to 32p/kWh last month.

Data company Zap Map, which maps public charge points, found that, on average, charging costs increased from 24p/kWh in December to 30p/kWh in February for slow and fast chargers, and from 35p/kWh to 44p/kWh for rapid and ultra-rapid chargers.

“The price of charging your EV on the public network, or at home, has risen substantially over the past few months with the general increase in electricity prices,” says Melanie Shufflebotham from Zap Map.

There are 460,000 EVs currently in the UK, according to the Volkswagen Financial Service report, and just 300,000 home charger points installed. Those who don’t have a home charger end up paying more, according to Keith Brown of Paythru, a payments technology company. “One of the big inequities of the emerging EV charging market is the price ‘premium’ electric vehicle drivers pay if they don’t or can’t have a home charge point,” he says. “Domestic supply is taxed at a VAT rate of 5% whereas public charge-point supply is taxed at a VAT rate of 20%.”

Shufflebotham has called for the rates to be made equal. “Equalising the VAT rate for both public and home charging would be a great example of levelling up, and encourage more people to make the transition to electric vehicles,” she says.

The advantages

Despite increasing prices, EV drivers still face much lower bills than those with petrol or diesel cars, using figures based on the same annual mileage for all types of vehicle.

Nelmes says that while the rises in the costs of EV charging at home are high, they are dwarfed by the costs of filling a car with fuel.

“We estimate the average UK motorist would spend £1,028 per year on petrol and £987 per year on diesel. That’s up from £796 a year on petrol and £747 a year on diesel a year ago,” he says. “That means that the fuel cost savings available to petrol and diesel drivers who switch to EVs this year are £779 for petrol drivers and £738 for diesel drivers.”

Case study: positives and negatives

Having bought a Nissan Leaf in the last few weeks, Philip Ingram looks back at the deals that were available last year with some annoyance.

He currently pays a flat rate throughout the day of 28.45p/kWh with British Gas, the best tariff available to him at home in Bordon, Hampshire. Last year, he could have taken advantage of deals of 5p/kWh overnight, he says. While there are deals with good night-time rates, now their high day rates mean they do not suit the family budget.

The annoyance is tempered by the savings from moving from a diesel VW Golf to an EV.

Ingram, who runs a cotton company called LittleLeaf Organic, used to pay nearly £90 to fill up with diesel but gets the same mileage for £20 of charging. This has to be balanced against the cost of the car: £24,000. “I wish we had done it a long time ago,” he says, “but the reason that we have been slower is … capital costs. Several times I have said to [my wife] Lisa the running costs are unbelievable, but then you look at the cost of buying this car, [which] is enormous.”

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Web ad firms scrape email addresses before you know it • The Register

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Tracking, marketing, and analytics firms have been exfiltrating the email addresses of internet users from web forms prior to submission and without user consent, according to security researchers.

Some of these firms are said to have also inadvertently grabbed passwords from these forms.

In a research paper scheduled to appear at the Usenix ’22 security conference later this year, authors Asuman Senol (imec-COSIC, KU Leuven), Gunes Acar (Radboud University), Mathias Humbert (University of Lausanne) and Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, (Radboud University) describe how they measured data handling in web forms on the top 100,000 websites, as ranked by research site Tranco.

The boffins created their own software to measure email and password data gathering from web forms – structured web input boxes through which site visitors can enter data and submit it to a local or remote application.

Providing information through a web form by pressing the submit button generally indicates the user has consented to provide that information for a specific purpose. But web pages, because they run JavaScript code, can be programmed to respond to events prior to a user pressing a form’s submit button.

And many companies involved in data gathering and advertising appear to believe that they’re entitled to grab the information website visitors enter into forms with scripts before the submit button has been pressed.

“Our analyses show that users’ email addresses are exfiltrated to tracking, marketing and analytics domains before form submission and without giving consent on 1,844 websites in the EU crawl and 2,950 websites in the US crawl,” the researchers state in their paper, noting that the addresses may be unencoded, encoded, compressed, or hashed depending on the vendor involved.

Most of the email addresses grabbed were sent to known tracking domains, though the boffins say they identified 41 tracking domains that are not found on any of the popular blocklists.

“Furthermore, we find incidental password collection on 52 websites by third-party session replay scripts,” the researchers say.

Replay scripts are designed to record keystrokes, mouse movements, scrolling behavior, other forms of interaction, and webpage contents in order to send that data to marketing firms for analysis. In an adversarial context, they’d be called keyloggers or malware; but in the context of advertising, somehow it’s just session-replay scripts.

Gunes Acar, one of the report co-authors, was also the co-author of a similar research project in 2017 that looked at data gathering by session-replay companies Yandex, FullStory, Hotjar, UserReplay, Smartlook, Clicktale, and SessionCam.

Evidently, not much has changed since then, except perhaps that email addresses have become more desirable as unique identifiers now that privacy-oriented browsers like Brave, Firefox, and Safari are taking more steps to block cookies and tracking scripts.

Email addresses, the researchers observe, represent a cookie replacement because they’re unique, persistent, and can be used to track people across applications, platforms, and even offline interactions that may be tied to an email address like loyalty card transactions.

The website categories with the most leaking forms include: Fashion/Beauty (11.1 per cent, EU; 19 per cent US); Online Shopping (9.4 per cent EU; 15.1 per cent US); and General News (6.6 per cent EU; 10.2 per cent US).

Websites categorized as Pornography had the best privacy when it comes to surreptitious form data harvesting.

“A somehow surprising result was the following: despite filling email fields on hundreds of websites categorized as Pornography, we have not a single email leak,” the researchers say, noting that previous studies of adult-oriented websites have relatively fewer third-party trackers than similarly popular general interest websites.

Those pesky regulations

The report authors say that EU websites practicing email exfiltration may be in violation of at least three GDPR requirements: transparency, purpose limitation, and prior consent. Firms found to be violating these rules can be fined up to $20m euros or 4 per cent of annual revenue, per Article 83(5).

The US doesn’t have a federal data privacy law, though it’s conceivable one of the handful of US states with applicable privacy rules could take action against pre-submission form harvesting. But given the toothlessness of US privacy regulation over the past decade, don’t expect much.

The authors say they attempted to contact 58 first-parties and 28 third-parties with GDPR requests. They report receiving 30 responses from the first-parties, which varied from surprise and remediation to justifications of one sort or another.

“fivethirtyeight.com (via Walt Disney’s DPO), trello.com (Atlassian), lever.co, branch.io and cision.com were among the websites that said they had not been aware of the email collection prior to form submission on their websites and removed the behavior,” the report says.

Marriott, meanwhile, said the information collected by digital analytics firm Glassbox helps with customer care, technical support, and fraud prevention.

Third-parties Taboola, Zoominfo, and ActiveProspect defended their data collection practices.

Facebook, aka Meta, is among the third-parties involved in this. The researchers say that email addresses or their hashes were spotted being sent to facebook.com from 21 different websites in the EU.

“On 17 of these, Facebook Pixel’s Automatic Advanced Matching feature was responsible for sending the SHA-256 of the email address in a SubscribedButtonClick event, despite not clicking any submit button,” the report says.

Advanced Matching – called out recently for harvesting student loan data – is designed to collect hashed customer data, such as email addresses, phone numbers, and names from checkout, sign-in, and registration forms. The researchers speculate that on these sites, Facebook’s script treats clicks on non-submit buttons as a click event for the submit button.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

The report concludes that browser vendors, regulators, and privacy tool makers need to deal with this issue because it isn’t going away. “Based on our findings, users should assume that the personal information they enter into web forms may be collected by trackers – even if the form is never submitted,” the report concludes. ®

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VC funding in Ireland rose in Q1, but not for deals under €10m

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A William Fry-commissioned report has found that funding deals under €10m have taken a big hit in the first three months of 2022.

Venture capital funding into Irish tech businesses was up by more than 50pc in the first quarter of this year, but there’s an unfortunate and potentially troubling caveat to that.

The Irish Venture Capital Association (IVCA) has published today (15 May) its latest report on VC funding into tech start-ups and SMEs in Ireland, which found that the investments increased by 52pc to €379.7m in the first three months of 2022, compared to the same period last year.

Future Human

But the report, commissioned by Dublin law firm William Fry, also found that VC funding in deals valued less than €10m have taken a hit.

IVCA chair Nicola McClafferty said that the headline figure of a funding boost conceals a “potentially worrying fall” of 30 to 50pc across all categories of deals under €10m – including seed funding.

“All the growth came from eight deals worth over €10m each, including three over €30m. While the momentum carried over from last year has continued for more established companies raising large rounds, some of that impetus seems to have stalled for earlier stage companies.”

Even the total number of deals overall fell by almost a third to 50 from 74 in the same period last year.

McClafferty said that this could be related to international trends affecting the business world right now, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“While challenging market conditions may continue, we also know that many great companies are started and built in times of downturn, so we await with interest the data in the coming quarters,” she added.

Deals in the €5m to €10m range fell in value by more than half, while those in the €1m to €5m range also halved from €70.3m last year to €34.5m in Q1 2022. The value of deals below €1m dropped by 31pc to €8.9m.

Seed funding also took a hit, falling by nearly 40pc to €22.3m from €36.5m last year.

Nearly four-fifths of all funding came from overseas sources, according to IVCA director-general Sarah-Jane Larkin.

“While this is to be welcomed and emphasises the quality of Irish tech firms and their appeal to international investors, we have expressed concern before about where any shortfall would be made up if the global economy contracts,” she said.

Wayflyer, Ireland’s latest tech unicorn, led the way in terms of total value of funding received with a $150m in Series B funding valuing the start-up at $1.6bn. Flipdish, another Irish tech start-up that became a unicorn this year, raised $100m reaching a $1.25bn valuation.

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