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Mental health chatbot Woebot gets $90m boost

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Irish-founded Woebot built a chatbot that can bond with users and help them reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Irish-founded tech company Woebot Health has raised $90m in Series B funding, bringing the total investment in the company to $114m.

The company hopes to use the investment to expand its services to meet rising global demand for mental health care post-pandemic.

Headquartered in San Francisco, Woebot was founded by University College Dublin graduate Dr Alison Darcy. Digital treatment development caught her eye when she studied psychology at the university in the late 1990s.

“I always thought that technology would be able to solve some of the problems we have with access because most people aren’t getting in front of a clinician or a doctor when they need help,” she told Siliconrepublic.com last year.

Darcy went on to found Woebot in 2017. Using the power of AI, the company developed a chatbot that attempts to create a therapeutic bond with users and help them learn strategies to improve their mental health.

The company’s latest investment round was co-led by San Francisco-based Jazz Venture Partners and Singapore-based Temasek. The round also saw participation from VC firms BlackRock and Owl Ventures, among others.

Woebot said it will use the proceeds to accelerate further development of its relational platform and expand its team.

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“We’re at a moment when mental health issues are front and centre in a global conversation, and there’s incredible momentum to apply cutting-edge approaches to help solve real human problems,” Woebot CEO Michael Evers said.

“It’s gratifying that some of the world’s leading investment groups see the same potential for relational technologies to deeply engage people in their mental health at scale, and to transform care. We’re thrilled they are aligned on our core vision and energised by their commitment to advance the next frontier of technology-enabled mental health care.”

Ian Chiu, managing director at Owl Ventures, said that the stress of the pandemic has made an existing mental health crisis even more alarming. “We’re seeing this first-hand in adolescents in classrooms across the [US] and in adults who are reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression at a rate four times pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

Chiu said that Woebot’s innovative technology is well-positioned to meet increasing global demand for accessible mental health care as it continues to bring new digital therapies to the market.

Meghan Reynolds, a partner at Jazz Venture Partners, said that at a time when many people around the world lack critical mental health support, Woebot’s work to deliver accessible and quality care has been impressive.

“With this new funding accelerating growth, it will be easier than ever for people to get the on-demand support they need and deserve,” Reynolds said.

In May, Woebot’s digital therapeutic solution, WB001, was granted breakthrough device designation by the US Food and Drug Administration. WB001 combines cognitive behavioural therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy to reduce symptoms of postpartum depression. Patients interact with the digital therapeutic via a smartphone.

Woebot also published a study which provided evidence that its chatbot establishes a therapeutic bond with users, countering the notion that this can only be achieved in the human-to-human domain.

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TrueLayer achieves unicorn status after $130m round involving Stripe

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The British start-up plans to use the funds to expand after it announced the opening of a European HQ in Dublin last month.

TrueLayer has raised $130m in a funding round that saw participation from Stripe and gives the fintech start-up a post-money valuation of over $1bn.

The British company, which develops APIs to securely connect fintech platforms directly to banks, announced last month that it’s opening a European HQ in Dublin, hiring 25 people. TrueLayer has received authorisation from the Central Bank to operate in Ireland.

The round was led by Tiger Global Management, and comes after TrueLayer’s $70m Series D round in April of this year. The company has now raised about $272m in total.

Alex Cook, partner at Tiger Global Management, commented: “The shift to alternative payment methods is accelerating with the global growth of online commerce, and we believe TrueLayer will play a central role in making these payment methods more accessible.

“We’re excited to partner with Francesco, Luca and the TrueLayer team as they help customers increase conversion and continue to grow the network.”

Stripe, which last week announced its intention to grow its Dublin presence significantly, was already an investor in TrueLayer. The Irish-founded payments giant has invested numerous up-and-coming fintech ventures across the US and Europe, such as a renewed interest in Ramp in late August.

Speaking to the Irish Times, TrueLayer Ireland CEO and general manager for Europe Joe Morley said: “The fundraise allows us to commit even further to our markets in Europe…and allows us to start thinking about broader expansion.

“But our focus in the short to medium term is to make sure we win in Europe so we’re really doubling down on what we had already initiated with our last funding round.”

Morley formerly worked as an executive at Facebook and WhatsApp, and is joined by fellow Facebook alum Leigh-Anne Cotter as TrueLayer Ireland COO.

TrueLayer says that, during 2021, it has so far seen a 400pc increase in volume of payments and 800pc increase in total payment valuation through its APIs. It also claims to have “millions of customers” and more than 10,000 developers using its systems.

The company plans to use the fresh funding to expand into new markets and to increase the penetration of open banking services in regions in which it already operates.

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Big tech’s pro-climate rhetoric is not matched by policy action, report finds | Environment

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The world’s biggest tech companies are coming out with bold commitments to tackle their climate impact but when it comes to using their corporate muscle to advocate for stronger climate policies, their engagement is almost nonexistent, according to a new report.

Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook and Microsoft poured about $65m into lobbying in 2020, but an average of only 6% of their lobbying activity between July 2020 and June 2021 was related to climate policy, according to an analysis from the thinktank InfluenceMap, which tracked companies’ self-reported lobbying on federal legislation.

The report also sought to capture tech companies’ overall engagement with climate policy by analyzing activities including their top-level communications as well as lobbying on specific legislation. It found that climate-related engagement levels of three of the five companies – Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft – had declined compared to the previous year.

Tech companies, which have some of the deepest pockets in corporate America, have been racing to come out with increasingly ambitious climate pledges. Amazon has a target to be net zero by 2040 and to power its operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025, and Facebook has a target of net zero emissions for its entire supply chain by 2030.

In 2020, Microsoft pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 to have removed all the carbon the company has ever emitted. Apple has committed to become carbon neutral across its whole supply chain by 2030.

And Google has pledged to power its operations with 100% carbon-free energy by 2030, without using renewable certificates to offset any fossil-generated power. “The science is clear, we have until 2030 to chart a sustainable course for our planet or face the worst consequences of climate change,” the Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai, said in a video announcing the policy.

Yet this strong pro-climate rhetoric is not being matched by action at a policy level, according to the report. “These gigantic companies that completely dominate the stock market are not really deploying that political capital at all,” said the InfluenceMap executive director, Dylan Tanner.

Tech companies have not been entirely silent. Apple, for example, has expressed support for the Biden administration’s proposed clean energy standard, which aims for all US-generated electricity to be renewable by 2035.

But these efforts are significantly outweighed by those of big oil and gas companies, which have ramped up their climate lobbying over the same timeframe, according to the report. “Most of their political advocacy is devoted to climate change and it’s negative,” said Tanner.

A lack of engagement is especially disappointing given the new momentum around climate action under the Biden administration, said Bill Weihl, a former Facebook and Google sustainability executive and now executive director of Climate Voice, which mobilizes tech workers to lobby their companies on climate action. “The dominant business voice on these issues is advocating against the kind of policies that we need,” he said.

Joe Biden’s $3.5tn budget reconciliation bill, which includes large investments for climate action, is facing fierce opposition from some industry groups. The US Chamber of Commerce, the country’s most powerful business lobbying group, has said it will “do everything we can to prevent this tax raising, job killing reconciliation bill from becoming law”. All of the tech companies, with the exception of Apple, are members of the Chamber.

“Our best chance to lead the planet to safety in the race against climate change is through this reconciliation bill, yet InfluenceMap has shown that big tech is still MIA on climate in Congress,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and longtime advocate for climate legislation.

Microsoft and Apple declined to comment on the report and Alphabet did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Amazon said the company engages at local, state and international levels to “actively advocate for policies that promote clean energy, increase access to renewable electricity, and decarbonize the transportation system”.

A Facebook spokesperson said “we’re committed to fighting climate change and are taking substantive steps without waiting for any legislative action”, adding that the company supports the Paris climate agreement goals and helped found the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance.

But these actions are not enough given the scale of the crisis, said Tanner. The UN warned in a report published on Friday that even if current climate emissions targets are met, the world is still on a “catastrophic pathway” for 2.7C of heating by the end of the century. “We’re running out of time,” Tanner said, “physically on climate but also on a public policy level.”

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Some of you have dirty green credentials • The Register

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TechUK – the UK’s digital trade association representing computer giants and start-ups alike – has called on firms to check their green credentials and make sure they stand up to scrutiny.

The warning comes as UK businesses were told to brush up on their eco-claims or risk public humiliation and enforcement action by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Businesses have until the New Year to make sure their environmental claims – such as those regarding energy consumption, packaging, recycling, and product lifecycle assessments – comply with the law and are not simply an exercise in greenwashing.

As part of its efforts to steer companies, the CMA has published a six-point Green Claims Code in a bid to make it clear that anyone spouting eco-friendly claims “must not omit or hide important information” and “must consider the full life cycle of the product.”

The CMA is targeting sectors that some onlookers may regard as low hanging fruit including textiles and fashion, energy-hungry travel and transport, and fast-moving consumer goods.

However, any sector and the companies that operate within it – including tech – could fall within the CMA’s crosshairs.

In a statement, Andrea Coscelli, chief exec of the CMA, said: “We’re concerned that too many businesses are falsely taking credit for being green, while genuinely eco-friendly firms don’t get the recognition they deserve. Any business that fails to comply with the law risks damaging its reputation with customers and could face action from the CMA.”

However, there are worries the new rules may lead to confusion. In its evidence to the CMA, techUK said the six principles set out in the guidance were “not specific enough” and also called for more information to help tech firms. It also warned that different variables made in lifecycle assessments could lead to misleading results [PDF].

In a statement, Susanne Baker, associate director for Climate, Environment and Sustainability, techUK, told us: “The CMA’s guidance is important for any company making a green claim about their services, products and company. With more green claims being made by the tech sector than ever before, it’s absolutely vital that these aren’t deemed to be greenwashing.

“Firms have until the new year to address this and will need to think carefully about any green claim they make, be sure they can substantiate them, that they aren’t misleading, and are truthful and accurate,” she said.

The CMA announced that it was investigating the impact of green marketing on consumers last year when it found that 40 per cent of green claims made online could be misleading – suggesting that thousands of businesses could be breaking the law.

In June, The Register reported how a shortage of plastics – rather than a desire to protect the planet — could be one reason why recycled plastics may be working their way into laptops and other gadgetry.

Amazon recently found itself fending off a whistle-blower’s claims alleging it dumped unsold goods to landfill, and later bragged that it had achieved lower carbon “intensity” in its business practices. The latter claim was shot down by an unimpressed scientist close to The Reg who remarked that the fact Amazon’s business was growing was not “helpful to Earth”, and the fact it polluted less per unit of activity didn’t change the bottom line “which is that they are polluting more this year than they did last year.”

Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently announced the electric car maker will stop accepting Bitcoin payments for its vehicles, due to the “increasing use” of fossil fuels, particularly coal, to support Bitcoin’s electricity-hungry mining and transaction processing.

An Intel sponsored report by non-profit Resilience First, highlighted in June the role of tech in reaching net-zero carbon emission goals. However, making chips has been a dirty business, with a 2002 study concluding that a single 2g semiconductor chip required a whopping 1.6kg of secondary fossil fuels and 72g of chemical inputs to be put into production. ®

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