Curated Insights 2017.12.24

Why Tesla wants a piece of the commercial trucking industry

But above all, it’s business opportunity—and trucking is the physical embodiment of a thriving economy. Trucks moved more than 70% of all U.S. freight and generated $676 billion in revenue in 2016, according to the American Trucking Associations. Some 33.8 million trucks were registered for business purposes in 2016. Almost 4 million of them were categorized Class 8, denoting the largest freight trucks.

Other autonomous trucking startups are in hot pursuit. TuSimple, a company that has operations in China and San Diego and is backed by Nvidia and Sina Corp., plans to test fleets on two routes: one 120-mile stretch between Tucson and Phoenix and another segment in Shanghai. Meanwhile Nikola Motor is designing and building its own driverless, hydrogen fuel cell–powered Class 8 truck—“the iPhone of trucking,” says CEO Trevor Milton. “In the next eight years, you’re going to see a complete transformation of trucking,” he adds.


In China, a three-digit score could dictate tour place in society

In 2015 Ant Financial was one of eight tech companies granted approval from the People’s Bank of China to develop their own private credit scoring platforms. Zhima Credit appeared in the Alipay app shortly after that. The service tracks your behavior on the app to arrive at a score between 350 and 950, and offers perks and rewards to those with good scores. Zhima Credit’s algorithm considers not only whether you repay your bills but also what you buy, what degrees you hold, and the scores of your friends. Like Fair and Isaac decades earlier, Ant Financial executives talked publicly about how a data-driven approach would open up the financial system to people who had been locked out, like students and rural Chinese. For the more than 200 million Alipay users who have opted in to Zhima Credit, the sell is clear: Your data will magically open doors for you.

Zhima Credit is dedicated to creating trust in a commercial setting and independent of any government-initiated social credit system. Zhima Credit does not share user scores or underlying data with any third party including the government without the user’s prior consent.”

The State Council has signaled that under the national social credit system people will be penalized for the crime of spreading online rumors, among other offenses, and that those deemed “seriously untrustworthy” can expect to receive substandard services. Ant Financial appears to be aiming for a society divided along moral lines as well. As Lucy Peng, the company’s chief executive, was quoted as saying in Ant Financial, Zhima Credit “will ensure that the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction.”

For those with good behavior, Zhima Credit offers perks through cooperation agreements that Ant Financial has signed with hundreds of companies and institutions. Shenzhou Zuche, a car rental company, allows people with credit scores over 650 to rent a car without a deposit. In exchange for this vetting, Shenzhou Zuche shares data, so that if a Zhima Credit user crashes one of the rental company’s cars and refuses to pay up, that detail is fed back into his or her credit score. For a while people with scores over 750 could even skip the security check line at Beijing Capital Airport.


Tencent and Alibaba go abroad to push for growth and know-how

“[Tencent] are willing to look at anything they think will help them to export what they know in China to other countries,” he says, describing the company’s efforts as a China-inspired “third way” of doing M&A. “The deals they are doing tend to be very strategic, and the size of the deals is typically hundreds of millions of dollars or single-digit billions, whereas those by Anbang, HNA and the rest are tens of billions of dollars and unrelated with nothing strategic about it,” says one banker.

Meituan-Dianping, the biggest company in food delivery, ticketing and other services that was valued at $30bn in its latest fundraising, gives Tencent access to swaths of merchants and customers in physical restaurants and stores. “This capability is not something Tencent has in-house, but it’s something that will be beneficial to help it grow its ecosystem. We can push Tencent payments, and small merchants to work with Tencent platforms. And Tencent can bring their traffic to us, provide infrastructure, mapping, cloud services. So this is very complementary.”


Facebook: The bear case will only gain momentum, says Moffett Nathanson

Bull case is predicated on its massive scale […] 2.1 billion monthly users and 1.4 billion daily active users, representing 58% and 39% of the globe’s Internet users […] the level of scale, reach and gigantic trove of data that comes with it clearly has immense value for targeted marketers […] still growing MAUs at respectable rates […] growth is even more impressive in the developing regions [….] 17% CAGR in the Rest of World over the past three years has and has sourced more than a third of its growth from here over that period […] immense base of advertisers […] staggering 6 million advertisers in November of 2017 […] this diversification is a huge asset […] very different than traditional media where, in areas like Network TV, the top 100 clients generally represent 2/3 of ad dollars […] still has a huge opportunity in international and messaging […] in every country except France, Canada, China, the U.S., and the U.K., WhatsApp is the dominant IM platform with more than 60%+ penetration […] We think that if it can get the formula right, it already has a significant user foothold and runway for ramping revenue quickly […] Street estimates look too conservative [for 2018] Street’s conservatism in forecasting despite years of outperformance is a result of Facebook’s aggressive expectation management […] It’s still really cheap! Facebook currently trades at 19x 2018 EV/Ebitda […] By comparison, Priceline (PCLN) is trading at 18X.

Facebook’s video strategy remains a mystery [….] It hosts this content in its standalone Watch Tab […] We don’t think it has been terribly successful here, and wonder how many users even realize or opt to click the Watch Tab when on Facebook […] Facebook hasn’t been aggressive in approaching studios or smaller video creators for content. It appears that Facebook is slowly trying to tiptoe […] Facebook has really frustrated producers by continually changing what it is looking for […] Engagement amongst younger demos has been waning […] Facebook’s video push is more than simply nice to have, it’s now a must have if it wants to stave off further engagement declines […] Facebook has apparently hit the upper bound of its ad load on core Facebook […] The story has moved from a largely volume driven one to a largely pricing driven one […] businesses that have years of significant double digit volume growth ahead of them certainly look more appealing and greenfield other things being equal than those that have moved into the pricing growth phase of their lifecycle […] Despite the significant traction for Messenger and WhatsApp globally, Facebook’s ability to meaningfully monetize them still remains a major question mark […] [Congressional investigations into Russian advertising, etc.] are just the beginning of a bigger regulatory review of Facebook’s influence on our society and political process. As a result, it could spell years’ worth of incremental investment to help police the problem […] With 82%+ of analysts with a Buy rating on Facebook for the last 3.5 years […] any hiccups in growth or profitability could lead to a downside reaction that is amplified.


Amazon hasn’t figured out drugstores yet. But it will have to

Even so, many shoppers prefer get their medications from a store, which offers peace of mind that their order is correct and the opportunity to speak with a pharmacist. Mail-order prescriptions fell 23 percent from 2012 to 2016, according to Adam Fein, CEO of the Drug Channels Institute, with mail pharmacies dispensing only 10 percent of all 30-day equivalent prescriptions in 2016. And the cash generic-drug market for the uninsured — once eyed by Wal-Mart — is considerably smaller thanks to Medicare Part D and Obamacare. The cash market makes up about 7 percent to 8 percent of all prescriptions, and has been declining slowly along with the number of uninsured people, according to Fein. Revenues from cash-paid prescriptions are about $25 billion a year, he said.The most promising window for Amazon may be the rising out-of-pocket costs shouldered by those with prescription-insurance plans. About half of all insurance plans had deductibles on prescription drugs in 2016, up from 23 percent in 2012, according to Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. If insured drug-takers become more cost-conscious, Amazon could attempt to bring convenient online price transparency to a complex industry that makes it difficult for customers to shop around. Amazon could be encouraged to push through the complexities to increase the value of Prime membership. Two-thirds of Prime members would fill prescriptions through Amazon if the company offered them, according to research by Cowen Inc.

The loopholes drug companies use to keep prices high

The expiration date for the main Revlimid patent will be 2019. But Celgene’s business tactics, also used by other drugmakers, could allow the company to put off unrestricted competition from generics until 2026. That would cost Americans an extra $45 billion just for Revlimid, according to I-MAK, a consumer advocate.

Among the shenanigans: Securing new patents that extend old ones. Keeping brand-name drugs under wraps so generic makers can’t copy them. Filing so-called citizen petitions that gum up the FDA approval process for rivals. Negotiating restrictive deals with drug plans that crowd out less expensive drugs.

Citizen petitions are another way brand-name drug companies delay approval of competitors’ products. The petitions were designed to elicit public concerns about the drugs. The FDA is required to divert resources to address each one. From 2011 to 2015, brand-name drugmakers filed 108 citizen petitions during the approval process for cheaper versions, and 91 percent were denied, according to a paper by Rutgers University Law Professor Michael Carrier. The petitions “can play a crucial role in delaying generic entry,” he wrote. The introduction of cheaper generics can be delayed even after a brand-name patent has been invalidated in court.


A hospital giant discovers that collecting debt pays better than curing ills

The amount of past-due medical debt in the U.S. is about $75 billion, spread among 43 million people, according to estimates from economists at MIT, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

As Tenet and other hospital companies struggle to make money providing medical care, they are turning to the profitable and growing business of collecting debt. Most hospitals have finance departments or outside companies that try to ensure they get paid by insurers and patients. But Tenet has gone a step further than most, turning its operation into a separate business line called Conifer and contracting its services to other medical providers.

Collecting payment has become more important as hospitals’ traditional revenue streams come under pressure. Looming cuts to Medicare reimbursements may make as many as 60 percent of U.S. hospitals unprofitable, compared with about 25 percent currently, according to a 2016 Congressional Budget Office analysis.


Blow to Uber in Europe as top court rules it’s a transport service

The judgement means Uber must comply with individual Member States’ transportation regulations, and cannot claim its p2p ride-hailing services are only governed by less restrictive EU-wide ecommerce rules.

In its ruling the court writes that Uber’s “intermediation service… must be regarded as being inherently linked to a transport service and, accordingly, must be classified as ‘a service in the field of transport’ within the meaning of EU law. Consequently, such a service must be excluded from the scope of the freedom to provide services in general as well as the directive on services in the internal market and the directive on electronic commerce. It follows that, as EU law currently stands, it is for the Member States to regulate the conditions under which such services are to be provided.”


Asimov: Engineering biology

Not only do such biological circuit design automation tools give bioengineers the ability to debug biological circuits much like we debug software — with complete detail of what the simulated circuit is doing — but Asimov engineers have also developed modular biological circuit components that don’t have adverse reactions to other parts of the cell. Why does this matter? It’s akin to a computer programmer designing code that is then injected into a running program or existing operating system. These biological building blocks can be easily used downstream by circuit designers — the bio advance in turn facilitates the computer science advance, namely the accurate simulation of biological circuits.

With Asimov’s approach, high-accuracy simulation, and circuit building-blocks, we can greatly speed the development of biological circuits — decreasing their cost, and greatly increasing their sophistication and complexity.

Because biology is everywhere, living cells have applications in everything from food and materials to agriculture to healthcare. In fact, 7 of the top 10 drugs today are biologics, i.e., proteins that have therapeutic properties. These proteins are manufactured in cells at the cost of billions of dollars. Asimov’s technology could drive a dramatic reduction in cost to patients — enabling these drugs to be in the hands of more and more people.

Auctions & power

This results in decaying economics to the advertisers, as more advertisers join the auction to bid on keywords and clicks become more expensive. Google hides behind the overall statistic that its cost-per-click has been routinely getting cheaper on the aggregate even though this is a direct result of the mix shifting from desktop to mobile, where clicks are nearly ⅔ lower than on desktop.

Since Google is effectively a toll road on the internet, capturing over 90% of the searches performed in nearly every country it touches, advertisers are forced to play ball. But they’re not happy. Not many bidders to an auction come away saying, “wow, we got such a great deal.” In fact, the entire online travel industry is starting to find television advertising an equally compelling offer for their businesses over time. Even in real estate transactions, even if there are just two parties bidding on the property, the auction is designed to capture the highest value from the buyers.

The worst case scorched-earth scenario is far worse for Priceline. It’s a particularly bad time for booking.com to open up space for hotels to be bidding on clicks in TripAdvisor’s auctions. At the same time, ctrip.com is getting more aggressive in western markets and third party OTA supply on TripAdvisor has been building, with >80% of listings having a third, fourth or fifth OTA option. Because booking.com charges considerably higher commissions than TripAdvisor, hotels are highly incentivized to divert traffic away from Priceline’s channels.


China’s $189 billion giant of finance reveals a huge bet on tech

In the first nine months of 2017, Ping An got more than 70 percent of its earnings from insurance, with banking and asset management each contributing about 15 percent. Profit from its fintech units amounted to 1 percent of the group’s total, a proportion that Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Steven Lam estimates could increase to 3 percent to 5 percent in five years.

One risk for Ping An is that China’s tech companies are building their own financial services ecosystems. Alibaba and Tencent already dominate the online payments industry and are expanding rapidly into areas including asset management, lending and insurance. Ping An’s Tan argues that the company’s massive cache of financial data (it has nine petabytes of the stuff), combined with its offline resources, make the company’s products “fairly difficult” to replicate.


Beijing’s electric-car push could produce a world-class Chinese auto brand

China already leads globally in EV sales, passing the U.S. in 2015. Sales of new-energy vehicles, or NEVs (EVs, plug-in hybrids, and fuel-cell vehicles), may top 700,000 units in 2017 and 1 million in 2018, says Xu Haidong, assistant secretary-general of the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Almost all those cars are Chinese brands. The government has set a target of 7 million vehicles by 2025. To reach that goal, it’s doling out subsidies and tightening regulations around fossil-fuel cars.

“With electric cars, the cards are being reshuffled,” says Wolfgang Bernhart, a senior partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants in Munich. “We’ll see significantly more competition.” That could happen far from the mainland. “It’s obvious that Chinese carmakers want to sell their cars abroad,” says Klaus Rosenfeld, chief executive officer of German parts maker Schaeffler AG. “China’s manufacturers know that it will be tough for them to compete on combustion engines in our home market. But the shift to more and more electric cars may become an opportunity for them.”


China is building some of the world’s biggest packaged food companies

Having American brands gives WH Group a way to reach upscale consumers in the country that eats about half of the world’s pork, said Kenneth Sullivan, chief executive officer of Smithfield Foods and an executive director of Hong Kong-listed WH Group.

Chinese per-capita consumption is 39.4 kilograms (87 pounds) a year, and domestic hog farms can’t keep up with demand. U.S. pork exports to China and Hong Kong totaled 545,000 metric tons last year, a 61 percent increase from 2015, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Smithfield can’t export sausage, ham and bacon from its U.S. factories because China prohibits imports of processed meat. So WH Group opened an 800 million-yuan ($116 million) factory in Zhengzhou that will produce 30,000 metric tons of those meats when it reaches full capacity next year.

Truth from zero?

The achievements in Go and Shogi—the Japanese game whose higher depth in relation to Western chess we discussed three years ago—strike us as greater than AlphaZero’s score of 28 wins, 72 draws, and no losses against the champion Stockfish chess program. One measure of greatness comes from the difference in Elo ratings between the machine and the best human players. AlphaGo Zero’s measured rating of 5185 is over 1,500 points higher than the best human players on the scale used in Go. In Shogi, the paper shows AlphaZero zooming toward 4500 whereas the top human rating shown here as of 11/26/17 is 2703, again a difference over 1,500. In chess, however, as shown in the graphs atop page 4 of the paper, AlphaZero stays under 3500, which is less than 700 ahead of human players.

Although AlphaZero’s 64-36 margin over Stockfish looks like a shellacking, it amounts to only 100 points difference on the Elo scale. The scale was built around the idea that a 200-point difference corresponds to about 75% expectation for the stronger player—and this applies to all games. Higher gains become multiplicatively harder to achieve and maintain. This makes the huge margins in Go and Shogi all the more remarkable.

Bitcoin billionaires may have found a way to cash out

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rejected the use of the Gemini exchange to determine bitcoin prices — which Cboe is using for the daily settlement of bitcoin futures — and has expressed doubts about using an index of exchanges — which CME is using. This creates the possibility that a few million dollars of actual bitcoin transactions, assembled in untested ways, will drive hundreds of millions of dollars of derivative settlement payments, which in turn could set the price for potentially tens of billions of dollars of ETFs.

If, say, 1 percent of all bitcoin were taken off the market and held as option collateral, 4 and financial investors put up cash in one-year derivatives, that could do a lot to stabilize the market. That means both reducing price volatility and giving confidence that market prices represent true trading prices for institutional quantities of bitcoin. This, in turn, could make Cboe and CME cash-settled futures more attractive, and thereby represent a solid base for bitcoin ETFs.

On the other hand, if bitcoin billionaires stay out of the market, institutional investment in bitcoin will remain problematic. Individuals will be able to trade small amounts in a fragmented market of loosely regulated exchanges, but futures and ETFs will not be securely backed by physical bitcoin — their prices will be pushed around by betting sentiment of people who own no bitcoin.

What Is Ethereum?

Note that because every single operation on the EVM is executed by every node, computing on the EVM is expensive. Therefore — and according to Ethereum’s development tutorial — the best current use-cases for Ethereum are for running business logic: “if this, then that.” Other use cases might be prohibitively expensive. Due to current issues around scalability and the size of Ethereum’s blockchain, more computationally-intensive programs will find it difficult and expensive to operate on the EVM.

Here’s another way to think about it: where Bitcoin could help users avoid banks, Ethereum could help users bypass platforms like Facebook, Amazon, or any number of more complex middlemen. Once upon a time, developers of a game or a collectible like CryptoKitties might have launched a Farmville-style game on Facebook, or a physical product on Amazon. Today, instead of doing that or building their own blockchains from scratch, developers can use the EVM to create their own decentralized applications – like Cryptokitties.

Can this man build a better bitcoin?

Vitalik Buterin grasped the significance immediately. Prior to creating Ethereum, Buterin covered the San Jose Bitcoin conference as a correspondent for Bitcoin Magazine, a publication he cofounded. The wunderkind programmer interviewed Ben-Sasson about his breakthroughs, and it left an indelible impression. “Personally, I think zk-SNARKs are a hugely important, absolutely game-changing technology,” Buterin tells Fortune. “They are the single most under-hyped thing in cryptography right now.”

In January 2009, Wilcox became perhaps the first person ever to blog about Bitcoin in a post titled “Decentralized Money” on his personal blog, Zooko’s Hack Log. Satoshi Nakamoto returned the favor several weeks later, linking to Wilcox’s write-up in an addendum to a preliminary release of the Bitcoin software on Bitcoin.org, the newly created project’s home page. Wilcox was one of only three people to receive an honorable mention in the “related links” section. (The others were Nick Szabo, inventor of “bit gold,” and Wei Dai, creator of “b-money.”)

Curated Insights 2017.10.29

How Intuitive Surgical turned medical sci-fi into reality

Intuitive’s devices are now used at all of the top-ranked U.S. hospitals for cancer, urology, gynecology, or gastroenterology—including venerable institutions like New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and the Cleveland Clinic. More than 4,100 da Vinci base units have been installed worldwide as of June 30, including 2,703 in the U.S., 698 in Europe, 538 in Asia, and 210 in the rest of the world.

The systems aren’t cheap: The list price for the fourth-generation da Vinci Xi is $1.9 million, and that doesn’t include the cost of various surgical appendages, which can add tens of thousands of dollars more to the price tag. Still, the robots keep selling—and surgeons are increasingly adopting them in their practices.

The company says that more than 4 million minimally invasive surgeries have been performed with da Vinci systems since 2000—a new one begins every 42 seconds somewhere around the globe, Intuitive CEO Gary Guthart tells Fortune. The number of those procedures done worldwide spiked 15% in 2016 compared with the previous year, and Intuitive pro­jects an additional 14% to 15% rise in the number by the end of 2017. Indeed, for certain more complicated procedures, such as radical prostate removal, robotic-assisted surgeries now account for nearly 90% of operations.

The boom has driven Intuitive to $2.7 billion in 2016 global revenue, with more than 70% of sales being recurring in nature—a fact that underscores the advantage that comes from being the first major player in a rapidly growing market.

It isn’t clear whether robotic surgery uniformly leads to better outcomes. (Don’t look to the extensive medical literature for a clear-cut answer; conclusions differ from study to study.) But surgeons who swear by their robotic arms tend to return to the same words of praise: They tout the “speed of recovery” for patients, who typically don’t need to spend days or weeks in a hospital as they might after traditional open surgery. They speak of the “clarity” of its camera, the “flexibility” of its instruments.

A survey by investment and research group RBC Capital last year found that American surgeons think that within five years, 35% of operations will involve robots in some form, compared with 15% today.

 

Shake Shack founder on changing the way restaurants do business

And I think what fine-casual is doing is, “If you’re willing to give up waiters and waitresses and bartenders and reservations and table cloths and flowers, we’re gonna s– we’re gonna give you about 80 percent of the quality that you would have gotten in a fine-dining restaurant. We’re gonna save you about 80 percent of the money you’d spend in a fine-dining restaurant. And we’re gonna save you about 60 percent of the time.”

So by saying, “Hospitality included,” it’s basically saying, “You see that price that it costs to get the chicken? That includes everything. That includes not only the guy that bought the chicken and the guy that cooked the chicken, but it also includes the person who served it to you and how they made you feel.”

 

AlphaGo Zero: Learning from scratch

Previous versions of AlphaGo initially trained on thousands of human amateur and professional games to learn how to play Go. AlphaGo Zero skips this step and learns to play simply by playing games against itself, starting from completely random play. In doing so, it quickly surpassed human level of play and defeated the previously published champion-defeating version of AlphaGo by 100 games to 0.

It is able to do this by using a novel form of reinforcement learning, in which AlphaGo Zero becomes its own teacher. The system starts off with a neural network that knows nothing about the game of Go. It then plays games against itself, by combining this neural network with a powerful search algorithm. As it plays, the neural network is tuned and updated to predict moves, as well as the eventual winner of the games.

 

Nike’s focus on robotics threatens Asia’s low-cost workforce

For Nike, the shift to greater automation has two huge attractions. By driving down costs, it could lead to a dramatic improvement in profit margins. It would also allow the company to deliver new designs more quickly to fickle, fashion-conscious customers at a premium. A pair of Nike Roshe shoes costs $75 without Flyknit uppers, compared to as much as $130 with Flyknit.

The potential upside for Nike of greater automation is immense. Analysts at Citibank estimate that by using the Flex manufacturing process to produce Nike’s 2017 Air Max shoes, one of its top-selling lines, the cost of labour would decrease 50 per cent and materials costs would fall 20 per cent. That would equate to a 12.5 percentage point increase in gross margins to 55.5 per cent, according to analysts Jim Suva and Kate McShane. If Flex were to produce 30 per cent of Nike’s North American footwear sales, Nike could save $400m in labour and material costs, representing a 5 per cent benefit to earnings per share, according to Citibank estimates.

Traditional shoe production has required as many as 200 different pieces across 10 sizes, often cut and glued together by hand. The new manufacturing process being developed by Flex has introduced two ideas once thought impossible: the gluing process has been automated and lasers are used to cut the Flyknit material. Lead times in the shoe industry once ran to several months: Flex has promised to help Nike speed up lead times, which can be three to four weeks for a customised pair of sneakers.

Nike has reduced its supply chain by nearly 200 factories in the past five years to focus on fewer “quality, long-term partnerships”. However, the process of closing a factory, including those with compliance issues, can be a long and costly process for “brand-sensitive companies like Nike” to mitigate the disruption to local economies.


Birth of a Hidden Champion: TSMC & Morris Chang

Morris Chang said Intel’s advantage lies in its robust technological power and strong business operation foundation, having maintained No. 1 in the global semiconductor for decades. But its biggest drawback rests with its inexperience in the wafer foundry sector that highlights a service-oriented corporate culture, as Intel’s technology departments have long served the company’s own needs, totally different from the core culture of serving others seen in the pure-play foundry sector. With his 25-year experience at Texas Instruments before founding TSMC, Chang said he realized very well what kind of corporate culture was needed for the foundry sector. He said when establishing TSMC 30 years ago, he was able to easily inject the service-oriented culture into the TSMC at the very beginning.


Apple’s COO Jeff Williams recounts how business with TSMC began with a dinner at the founder’s home

Williams said that in the next 10 years, the biggest problem lies not in computing performance, but in the lack of sufficient visions to apply new advanced technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence) as well as how to safeguard privacy.

He said Apple has many expectations for AI applications, but what the company needs is neither to make chips with faster computing performance or to make cars able to fly, but to utilize advanced technologies to change the world, such as making use of semiconductors to achieve medical technology innovations.”


Apple supplier TSMC says Moore’s Law is no longer valid

Chang said that the time frame set in Moore’s Law is no longer applicable. He said TSMC has kept increasing transistor density, but not at a pace according to the law. Chang continued by noting that discussions about the applicability of Moore’s Law in recent years have often focused on ASML, a leading semiconductor lithography equipment supplier, because the company is now the world’s only supplier of EUV (extreme ultraviolet) lithography equipment and EUV technology bears a great responsibility of keeping Moore’s Law valid. Chang said major semiconductor firms have been keen to incorporate EUV technology into their 7nm process.


ChowNow, a GrubHub competitor, raises $20 million Series B round

ChowNow prides itself on being different from the likes of GrubHub and Seamless. ChowNow’s flagship service offers restaurants a white-label platform that enables restaurants to own their customer data, and feel confident their customers aren’t constantly fending off menus and discounts from competitors. Unlike its competitors, ChowNow charges an upfront monthly cost of $150/month per location instead of taking a commission on all orders.

“Yes, our software supports delivery but we have a unique place in the restaurant where we don’t play in the delivery space outright,” Webb said. “We’re also not a traditional marketplace either. Shopify for restaurants is an accurate way to describe us. Restaurants can plug in to our system and integrate it into their delivery backend.”

In charts: has the US shale drilling revolution peaked?

Throughout its existence, the shale oil industry has consumed cash. Companies have been unable to cover their drilling costs from their incomes, and have needed constant infusions of debt and equity financing. They have had little difficulty in raising that money, in part because investors wanted to share in the productivity miracle that the companies represented. If the miraculous days are over, and a more humdrum reality is setting in, will investors still be prepared to back the industry so willingly? Already equity raising by US exploration and production companies has slowed sharply this year. Plenty of attractive investment opportunities still exist in shale: internal rates of return of 30 per cent and higher are available in the Permian Basin, according to S&P Global Platts Well Economic Analyzer. Will there be enough of those attractive opportunities to keep US oil production rising, as the government’s Energy Information Administration and others expect? The industry says yes, but the drilling and productivity numbers will be worth watching closely over the months to come.

 

Australia’s got a lock on supply of the metal used for EV batteries

“Australia’s importance has been cemented by offtake deals and equity investments in mines,” Alice Yu, a Hong Kong-based consultant at CRU, said by phone. Backing from major battery manufacturers and auto producers could also see the nation add processing facilities to develop exports of higher-value lithium chemicals, she said.

Still, Macquarie Group Ltd. has warned there’s a bearish outlook for lithium prices in the short-to-medium term as “too many Australian rock producers are crowding in” with new projects. The surge is threatening to create a period of oversupply before rising demand for electric vehicles clears the surplus from about 2021, the bank said in a note this month.

Even with a wave of new supply, including from Australia, the lithium market is likely to remain tight with a stronger demand outlook than anticipated, according to Melbourne-based UBS Group AG analyst Lachlan Shaw. “We have had increased supply this year, and all the while lithium prices have kept going up,” he said. “The market is probably underestimating demand.”

How Saudi Arabia is building its $2 trillion fund

The kingdom plans to transfer ownership of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, to the PIF. An initial public offering of a small Aramco stake — probably just under 5 percent — will provide investment cash. That sale could raise about $106 billion, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute. Transferring Aramco to the PIF would allow the government to get its revenue from investments, rather than oil, according to the Prince, and along the way transform the PIF into the world’s biggest sovereign fund.

 

Bogle: Vanguard’s Size a Worry

The economies of scale just can’t keep going on much longer. We’ve only got 12 basis points to go, and let me say it: There’s an irreducible minimum, no matter how big you are, just for the fun of it, 8 basis points, cost a lot of money to run this business. We’re now talking about a 4 basis point improvement in cost. I just don’t think it’s worthwhile, hyping and trying to bring in more and more money.

The David Rubenstein Show: Masayoshi Son

On his US$100bn Vision Fund: He thinks that machines will become more intelligent than humans across a wide range of subjects within the next 30 years, an event referred to as the singularity. This will have a profound and largely positive impact on humankind. The fund will invest in companies that underpin the global shifts brought on by artificial intelligence.

On the Alibaba investment: Invested US$20m early on in the company’s history. He met with Jack Ma, who at the time had no business plan, zero revenue and only 35-40 employees. Still, he could tell from the way he talked (with “strong, shining eyes”) that he had a vision and impressive leadership skills. Similar story with Jerry Yang and the Yahoo! investment.

On his recent investment in ARM: Biggest investment to date. UK-based semiconductor company that has an overwhelming market share for semiconductor designs used in mobile phones and other mobile devices. He says they will ship more than 1 trillion IoT chips in the next 20 years.

Chinese women are getting rich by simply livestreaming their days

In China, young women like 23-year-old Huan Huan can earn up to $20,000 a month livestreaming themselves just doing regular things. That’s about 30 times more than the average college graduate makes at their first job.

In China, which banned online porn in 2000, PG-rated livestreaming has become a $4 billion-a-year industry with nearly 350 million followers — more than the entire population of the United States.


How do I get my daughter interested in computers?

Nobody becomes a software engineer because they love writing code; they become a software engineer because it allows them to build out ideas. This is a useful skill to have. Except that most software engineers aren’t realizing their own ideas. They’re getting paid to build someone else’s pet project. Software engineers are the wage labourers of the tech industry.

The most important tech skill, then, isn’t computers or engineering — It’s the art of getting paid to control vast amounts of money. Then you can make programmers build out whatever dumb ideas you like. Parents who want their daughters to succeed in Silicon Valley need not worry about teaching their girls to code: Teach them about capitalism instead.

Curated Insights 2017.08.20

Apple has the best business model for generating cash

Apple’s $64B of operating cash flow was nearly as much as that of Alphabet ($36B), Facebook ($19B), and Amazon ($17B) combined. In essence, Amazon is doing as well financially as Facebook. Google is generating as much cash as Amazon and Facebook put together. Apple is generating nearly as much cash as Amazon, Facebook, and Google combined.

Apple’s $51B of TTM free cash flow is $3B more than the free cash flow produced by Alphabet, Facebook, and Amazon combined. In what may come as a surprise, Apple is bringing in 70% more free cash flow than Microsoft, who is still considered to possess one for the more lucrative business models in existence.

Apple is a design company focused on selling tools capable of fostering superior experiences. Scale is considered a byproduct of a properly functioning business model. Facebook and Google are service companies focused on offering free, data-capturing services to as many people as possible. The business models are dependent on achieving scale in order to access as much data as possible. Amazon is a retail platform company focused on getting you to buy more stuff over time. Scale in terms of purchase volume is needed in order for the cash flow/reinvestment cycle to continue.

Instead, we have non-hardware companies pontificate how hardware won’t matter in the future. In reality, the opposite will likely occur. Hardware will matter more going forward. The wearables industry represents a good example of this in practice. Meanwhile, the way smartphone and tablet components are mattering more now than ever to AR and AI is another hole in the “hardware won’t matter” thesis.


No one knows how much money WeChat is making, and investors are too bullish to care

…the success of Honor of Kings as an example of WeChat’s indirect influence on Tencent’s revenue growth. “When you go into the game, it becomes all about playing with your WeChat friends, and looking at their scores and achievements,” he says. Honor of Kings is currently ranked the top-grossing game in China’s iOS App Store (registration required), and four other Tencent titles fill out the top 10.

…pointing to WeChat’s low take on payments (Stripe and PayPal each charge about 3%) and its aggressive discounts, speculates it’s a loss leader. Tencent executives, meanwhile, have downplayed its role in making money for the company. “We consider payment at this point in time as to [sic] infrastructure service rather than a service that generates profit for us. And I think that status will maintain for quite some time.”

“Payments are the gateway to lending. And because you’re tracking the same consumer across so many platforms, you know the credit score of the consumer and you have very few non-performing loans.”


How Baidu will win China’s AI race—and, maybe, the world’s

But to train the algorithms that will deliver the intelligence to transform our cities, it needs data. To wit: The company with the most data wins.

Clearly, he saw more opportunity across the Pacific: In China, 731 million people—nearly twice the entire population of the United States—are online. Says Lu: “China has the structural advantage.”

We’re the first major company to clearly separate the perceptual and the cognitive layer. Perceptive capability and the cognitive are related, but they are quite different. Most of the [other] AI platforms bundle them together.

But one thing I learned is that in this race to AI, it’s actually more about having the right application scenarios and the right ecosystems.

It’s just like the phone ecosystem today. The phone ecosystem is the largest silicon software ecosystem. I believe the same thing will happen for the autonomous system. The car is going to build a larger ecosystem. And the same set of capabilities—hardware, sensors, chip sets, software—will be used to build industry robots, home robots. We want to have hundreds of companies and universities all at work on this, building a very large ecosystem. Then we can build robots, build drones, and build all those autonomous systems. So, to me, autonomy is a key.

…because China is highly, highly fragmented. There’s more than 250 car OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], unlike the United States, which is a heavily concentrated industry. None of the OEMs will have the full capabilities to build out deep R&Ds. With our code base that we released on July 5, [we will make it possible for] one person to assemble a vehicle in three days that can do autonomous driving in limited forms and start on R&Ds.

We’re competing against nobody. We enable each OEM, whether it’s Bosch, Continental, or Nvidia, to be able to do more.


Amazon has largest A.I. platform in the world, its machine learning guru boasts

Despite the lack of notoriety, “inside Amazon we’ve been doing machine learning for over twenty years,” he notes, and anyway, “We have more machine learning running on the platform than anywhere else” he claims, meaning AWS is doing more A.I. than Google or any other facility in the world.

“Today, machine learning is very technical,” he says, but overtime, and with Amazon’s help, it is going to be simpler and simpler to apply machine learning to any number of different applications, “and to do it with high accuracy.”

Wood noted another important development, the shift from just the “training” phase of A.I., where a computer deduces patterns, to the “inference” stage, where it responds to user requests based on what it’s learned.

…what he thinks of machines making machines, meaning, machine learning being able to design new algorithms for machine learning, a kind of self-reflexive moment in A.I. “Absolutely,” says Wood, “It’s already happening. There are customers on AWS who are training bots to to make algorithms.” One example is something called Bandits, where machines face off against one another, with one machine trying to deduce learning models while the other is trying to trick it with falsehoods.

Amazon expands program that pays Alexa developers for top-performing voice apps

It’s notable that the Alexa platform has managed to attract a sizable group of developers ahead of any formal compensation program, or support for traditional app monetization business models, like freemium apps, paid apps, and advertising. Despite this, Alexa’s app store has grown to over 15,000 skills in a relatively short period of time – after all, the Echo speaker – Amazon’s first Alexa device – wasn’t even available to the public until July 2015.

That said, direct payouts for skills is a program that can only be sustained for so long. Eventually, developers will demand more control over their businesses, rather relying on some inscrutable algorithm. In the meantime, Amazon will face competition from rivals, including Google Home and Apple’s forthcoming HomePod – both from companies who have a better understanding of how an app store ecosystem works.


Amazon in talks to offer event ticketing in U.S.

…the U.S. ticketing market as ripe for attack. Consumers dislike ticket fees, and venue owners, sports leagues and teams want more distributors for their tickets as they seek to boost sales. Access to tickets could be another means to lure members to the Amazon Prime shopping club. For music acts and sports teams, selling tickets through Amazon could help sell their merchandise.

Amazon has had conversations to partner with Ticketmaster as a potential way to get into ticketing in the United States, but those conversations have stalled over who would control customer data, according to sources with knowledge of the conversations.

Ticketing would likely make money for Amazon, which has a patchy record of profitability. Ticketmaster generated $1.6 billion in revenue from initial sales of tickets to events in 2016, according to estimates by research firm BTIG. That figure does not include revenue from the reselling of tickets, which BTIG estimates at $250 million.


Amazon looks to new food technology for home delivery

If the cutting-edge food technology comes to fruition, and Amazon implements it on a large scale, it would be a major step forward for the company as it looks to grab hold of more grocery customers shifting toward quick and easy meal options at home.

The pioneering food-prep tech, known as microwave assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS… The method involves placing sealed packages of food in pressurized water and heating them with microwaves for several minutes, according to 915 Labs.

“They obviously see that this is a potential disruptor and an ability to get to a private brand uniqueness that they’re looking for. They will test these products with their consumers, and get a sense of where they would go.”

“They have to leapfrog to MATS because they don’t have the refrigerated supply chain like we have in the U.S.”

Facebook buys computer vision startup focused on adding objects to video

…could be useful as Facebook pursues additional video filter creation technology, both for its live streaming efforts, and for platforms like Instagram Stories.

…being able to add objects to live video and remove them or cover them over on the fly is also something that can be put to interesting use in the emerging field of augmented reality.

The world’s shipping companies are going super-sized

A massive consolidation is underway in the $500 billion global industry and the survivors now enjoy big economies of scale and increased demand, one year after excess capacity caused the sector’s worst-ever crisis — the bankruptcy of South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping Co.

These super-sized shipping companies wield much more pricing power over manufacturers and retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. The five biggest container lines control about 60 percent of the global market, according to data provider Alphaliner. Shipping rates are climbing, and an index tracking cargo rates on major routes from Asia is about 22 percent higher than it was a year earlier.

“Since the demise of Hanjin Shipping, flight to quality has become more noticeable in the container shipping business,” said Um Kyung-a, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities Co. in Seoul. “That’s why the market is becoming more and more dominated by top players with big ships and those that don’t have could become more and more obsolete.”


The awesome but mostly unknown story of Carlsberg beer in China (Part 1, Part 2)

It was a daring strategy. Inland China was the one region that was not yet dominated by the large SOE brewers. It was still open territory. But you also need to have a picture in your mind of Western China circa 2003. It was the poorest part of China. It was a massive and undeveloped territory. There was little infrastructure and even less money.

A review of Sunny’s Carlsberg presentation in 2006 is fascinating. Western China had exceptionally low per-capita beer consumption. In Eastern China in 2005, it ranged from 30-80 liters per person, but in Tibet and Ningxia it was only 10-15 liters. And in Yunnan and Xinjiang it was closer to 3 liters. That could of course mean big growth one day. More likely, it meant small money in difficult geographies for the foreseeable future.

Across the board, it was a strategy of regional dominance. They were building a competitive advantage based on local economies of scale in marketing, distribution and production. And they were racing to become a giant in the West.


Deep learning could discover new plant species hidden in centuries of herbarium data

…but the valuable info in these slowly vanishing temples to the plant kingdom needs to be modernized in order to be of use to an increasingly digital-first scientific community.

They trained a plant-identification algorithm on a quarter million images of plant samples, and set it to work IDing new sheets. It matched the species picked by human experts exactly 4 out of 5 times, and 90 percent of the time the correct species was in the algorithm’s next few guesses.

“People feel this kind of technology could be something that will decrease the value of botanical expertise,” study co-author Pierre Bonnet told Nature. “But this approach is only possible because it is based on the human expertise. It will never remove the human expertise.”

CRISPR’d pigs offer hope for the human organ transplant shortage

The findings represent an important breakthrough in the potential for xenotransplantation, or the use of animal organs in humans. Currently there are more than 117,000 men, women and children on the donor waiting list in the U.S., 22 of whom die each day from lack of a matching donor. The ability to use a pig heart, lungs or other body parts could shore up the shortage and save numerous lives.

This is the first time researchers have been able to demonstrate they were able to inactivate PERV and open the way for xenotransplantation without cross-species contamination.

CRISPR holds enormous potential to wipe out diseases in both humans and animals, upend our food system and has many other applications we likely don’t see yet. Just last week, U.S. scientists were able to demonstrate they could successfully CRISPR out a faulty heart gene mutation in human embryos. However, there is still a lot to take into account before applying the technology to fully formed human beings.


The death of the internal combustion engine

And then there is oil. Roughly two-thirds of oil consumption in America is on the roads, and a fair amount of the rest uses up the by-products of refining crude oil to make petrol and diesel. The oil industry is divided about when to expect peak demand…

Meanwhile, a scramble for lithium is under way. The price of lithium carbonate has risen from $4,000 a tonne in 2011 to more than $14,000. Demand for cobalt and rare-earth elements for electric motors is also soaring. Lithium is used not just to power cars: utilities want giant batteries to store energy when demand is slack and release it as it peaks. Will all this make lithium-rich Chile the new Saudi Arabia? Not exactly, because electric cars do not consume it; old lithium-ion batteries from cars can be reused in power grids, and then recycled.

Housing for the long run?

Housing beat stocks mostly because the returns were less than half as volatile. Thanks to the magic of compounding, this created a performance gap of more than 2 percentage points each year, on average, since 1950, with an even bigger gap if you start the clock in 1870.

Housing has beaten stocks since 1950 because rental income has been better than dividend income, not because house prices have grown more than stock prices.

It’s possible to imagine a world where most housing is owned by large diversified investment trusts that anyone can invest in, but until then, “housing for the long run” is not a practical investment strategy.


Sustainability of hedge-fund reinsurers questioned

Such reinsurers generally engage in “low-margin and low-volatility (property/casualty) reinsurance business,” and try to generate returns for investors through hedge fund investment or other strategies.

The fund reinsurers’ strategy is a half success, as they outperform traditional reinsurers’ investment record. This is still not enough to offset underwriting losses, says S&P, leaving the fund reinsurers trailing their more established brethren in total return.

“We continue to believe that HFRs need to focus as much on the additional risks of their overall strategies as they do on the higher investment returns,” S&P said, adding that “HFRs will continue to evolve, learn from their earlier brethren’s mistakes, and nibble at the edges of the reinsurance market as they carve out a niche for themselves.


ASEAN at 50

Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most diverse regions. Its 640 million people include 240 million Muslims, 120 million Christians, 150 million Buddhists, and millions of Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists, and Communists. Its most populous country, Indonesia, is home to 261 million people, while Brunei has just 450,000. Singapore’s per capita income of $52,960 per annum is 22.5 times that of Laos ($2,353). This diversity puts Southeast Asia at a distinct disadvantage in terms of fostering regional cooperation. When ASEAN was founded in 1967, most experts expected it to die within a few years.

But ASEAN defied expectations, becoming the world’s second most successful regional organization, after the European Union. Some 1,000 ASEAN meetings are held each year to deepen cooperation in areas such as education, health, and diplomacy. ASEAN has signed free-trade agreements (FTAs) with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and established an ASEAN economic community. Today, ASEAN comprises the world’s seventh-largest economy, on track to become the fourth largest by 2050.

Yet ASEAN’s long-term progress is undeniable. Its combined GDP has grown from $95 billion in 1970 to $2.5 trillion in 2014. And it is the only reliable platform for geopolitical engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, unique in its ability to convene meetings attended by all of the world’s great powers, from the United States and the European Union to China and Russia.

Curated Insights 2017.07.23

The limitations of deep learning

…the only real success of deep learning so far has been the ability to map space X to space Y using a continuous geometric transform, given large amounts of human-annotated data. Doing this well is a game-changer for essentially every industry, but it is still a very long way from human-level AI.

To lift some of these limitations and start competing with human brains, we need to move away from straightforward input-to-output mappings, and on to reasoning and abstraction. A likely appropriate substrate for abstract modeling of various situations and concepts is that of computer programs.


Machines poised to take over 30% of work at banks, McKinsey says

Cognitive technologies — applications or machines that perform tasks once requiring human thought — are now cheap enough that banks can deploy them across operations facilitating trades or other capital-markets business. Automating tasks will “free up capacity” for staff to focus on higher-value work, such as research, generating new ideas or tending to clients.

Machine learning — which uses algorithms to identify patterns in large sets of data — can help sales and trading staffs understand positions faster and predict what flows will look like.

Natural language processing can perform legal and regulatory tasks by scanning through records, emails and recordings to translate them into structured data.

Cognitive agents can act as in-house personal assistants or service centers; think of help desks for trading staffs that have issues with their systems.

Robotic process automation — in which machines handle repetitive tasks — is particularly effective in banks’ middle offices, where it can help with end-of-day valuations and extract data.

Smart workflow tools — including document scanning and automated data entry — can speed the process of signing up new clients.

Netflix provided a new set of documentation, along with its customary earnings report, discussing how it accounts for its spending on content

Netflix surges 11%: sub adds crush estimates; discloses ‘content accounting’

“In continued success, we will deploy increased capital in content, particularly in owned originals, and, as we have said before, we expect to be FCF negative for many years. Since our FCF is driven by our content investment, particularly in self-produced originals, we wanted to provide some additional context on our content accounting at our investor relations website.”

Amazon Prime and other subscription businesses: How do you value a subscriber?

“[Understanding] the actual unit economics in the underlying business…requires analyzing the ‘true’ contribution margin of the business; not simply looking at gross or net revenue and the proper contra-revenue treatment, and not even looking just at gross margin as defined by the company. Many companies embed costs that are truly variable (for instance customer support, marketing, credit card processing) below the gross margin line. If you want to know if the business model truly hunts, you must pay careful attention. Otherwise, you may have simply found a company that is simply selling dollars for $0.85.”


Amazon is buying products from some US retailers at full price to build global inventory

The new program, which follows a similar rollout in Europe, is the latest move by Jeff Bezos to build up a complete catalog, even if Amazon can’t make much money on the products in question. In some cases, Amazon is approaching these third-party merchants after the manufacturer has declined to distribute the products through Amazon.

“When items are unavailable in a particular geography, we provide customers with selection from another marketplace. This offers customers a wider selection of great brands and helps sellers increase sales.”


Vanguard, the Amazon of asset management

What Vanguard’s founder, Jack Bogle, and company do have going for them is a unique ownership structure. Fund investors double as the shareholders. This allows Vanguard to essentially operate at cost, spending incremental profit on lower fees.

Vanguard has benefitted from a killer combination in recent years—low cost and quality performance. This is because although the firm distributes ETFs and actively managed funds, they specialize in passive, index-based investing—a style which has surged in popularity amid widespread underperformance across the active manager community.

Investing is a game of probability. Why would anyone want to pay 6x more for a product with a 90% likelihood of being inferior? The average actively managed mutual fund fee is 0.72%—6x higher than Vanguard’s 0.12% annual fee. And roughly 90% of those funds are underperforming Vanguard’s ultra-cheap option.


In urban China, cash is rapidly becoming obsolete

Ant Financial and Tencent were set to surpass credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard in total global transactions per day in the coming year. The key is that both companies are able to provide payments on the cheap, partly by allowing smaller vendors to make use of a simple printout of a QR code or their phone, instead of an expensive card reader. A back-end system that stores a record of user accounts, instead of having to communicate with a bank, also keeps costs down.

As the country builds its entire consumer economy around two private smartphone payment platforms, it is slowly locking out people unable to get onto those networks, and locking itself into those companies.