The Week in Tech: Facebook reveals Vote Leave ads, Improbable doubles its valuation and more

Hello and welcome to the Week in Tech, your weekly roundup of some of the top technology news stories from across the globe.

This week, Facebook disclosed to parliament the targeted ads that the Vote Leave campaign used during Brexit, Improbable raised investment from Chinese gaming giant NetEase, Google warned against facial recognition software and a whole range of UK startups raised funding.

M&S joins Founders Factory in digital-first drive

At the start of the week, Founders Factory announced that they were partnering with retail brand M&S. Dubbed ‘Founders Factory Retail’, the joint venture partnership forms part of M&S’ goal of becoming digital-first.

M&S will become Founders Factory’s exclusive UK retail partner and will invest in a number of startups sourced through Founders Factory’s global network. 

Steve Rowe, chief executive at M&S, commented on the news: “Founders Factory have a great track record in creating successful businesses and by investing in new innovative technologies and products we hope to change the way we work and operate.”

Co-founder and chief executive of Founders Factory Brent Hoberman added: “We are excited to partner with M&S as our exclusive retail investor in the UK and combine the company’s scale and experience to support early-stage founders.”

Bristol founded Brightpearl raises $15m

Also this week, Cipio Partners led a $15m investment round in Brightpearl. Brightpearl automates ‘back office’ services such as  replenishment, financial management, inventory, warehousing and more.

The company, which was founded in 2007, also provides financial insights for inventory, sales and purchasing within businesses.

Existing investors MMC Ventures, who invested in 2014, and Notion Capital also contributed.

Derek O’Carroll, the company’s CEO, said Brightpearl’s mission was to deliver intelligent retail. He added: “We’ve experienced tremendous growth over the last year because of our ability to service the need from fast-growing brands for a solution that automates their operational processes and supports real-time decision making, which is absolutely vital in today’s culture of immediacy for retailers and wholesalers.”

By Miles drives onward with £1m Seed

Pay-as-you-drive insurer By Miles closed a £1m Seed, only a week after launching in the UK.  

By Miles offers insurance for casual drivers who travel under 7,000 miles a year or 140 miles per week in their cars.

Car owners are charged a fixed annual fee to cover their cars while parked. Then, they are billed monthly, based on the number of miles that they actually drive – which is measured using a Miles Tracker device plugged into the car.

Annual charges start at £150 a year and driving is billed from 3p a mile. The idea is that this will save care owners money and also be beneficial to the environment. 

This funding round was led by JamJar Investments, the venture capital fund of the Innocent drinks founders. Existing investors InsurTech Gateway, the insurance-focused incubator set up by investor Hambro Perks and Lumleys, and InMotion Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover’s venture capital fund, also contributed.

James Blackham, co-founder and CEO of the London-based firm, said he is delighted to receive new backing from JamJar Investments and explained why the company began: “We started By Miles two years ago because we believed drivers like us were being charged way too much to insure cars they rely on but don’t drive that often, so we built a simpler and smarter way of pricing car insurance.”

$10m to fight rare diseases with AI

Also this week, Cambridge-founded HealthTech company Healx closed a $10m (£7.6m) Series A funding round.

The firm uses AI to help discover new uses of drugs, which could then potentially treat rare diseases. The company states that such a technique helps to slash the time it takes to get a new drug to market.

Healx has mapped more than a billion data points that connect diseases, patients and drugs, in a database called Healnet. Healnet uses machine learning to mine data from scientific literature, patents, clinical trials, disease symptoms, drug targets, and underlying chemical structures.

The firm was founded in 2014 by the inventor of Viagra, Dr David Brown, Dr Tim Guilliams and Dr Andreas Bender.

David Brown explained how tech can help in disease treatment: “The traditional drug discovery process takes 10 to 15 years at a cost of $2 billion per new drug and with a failure rate of 95 per cent – it’s broken, it’s slow, it’s high failure, and it’s not economic for rare diseases.

“However, today’s technology can change that and help 350 million under-served rare disease patients. Healx is showing that we can massively transform the rate of discovery of new medicines, reducing timelines and costs,” he added.

The $10m round was led by Balderton Capital, the European early-stage venture investor. Existing investors, Jonathan Milner and Amadeus Capital, also participated.

Largest ever Series A for Scottish digital firm

A Edinburgh-founded company closed a £8.5m funding round this week – making it the largest ever Series A funding round to be received by a digital tech company in Scotland.

Care Sourcer was the recipient of the funds, which came from Legal & General and ADV.

The startup has built a care comparison and matching site that allows anybody to request care for older people. They will then receive offers from local care providers within 48 hours.

This latest funding will be used to roll the company out nationwide throughout the year, as it currently only operates in London, Edinburgh and Gloucester. It will also be used to develop the technology and expand its team of care experts and technologists.

Improbable’s $50m from Chinese gaming giant

British tech startup Improbable doubled its valuation this week following a strategic investment from Chinese gaming giant NetEase.

In May 2017 the firm was valued at around $1bn after it received a $502m injection from Japanese tech giant SoftBank. This new funding has been said to place Improbable’s valuation at around $2bn.

The company, which is backed by SoftBank, raised $50m (£38m) from issuing new shares, Business Insider reported. NetEase also acquired some existing shares.

Improbable plans to open offices in China as part of the deal, which will see the firm help to develop and launch new NetEase games running on the technology. CEO Herman Narula said: “It will probably be one of our larger presences outside the UK.”

Other investments:

Facebook hands over Vote Leave ads to Parliament

The Vote Leave campaign spent more than £2.7m on targeting ads at specific groups of people on Facebook during the Brexit referendum, it has been revealed.

Facebook have finally disclosed the ads used by the the Vote Leave campaign, which covered everything from immigration to animal rights. The now widely discredited ‘£350m being paid to the NHS every week’ ad was also included.

The ads were shown to certain groups of people based on things such as age, where they lived and other personal data taken from social media. This targeting was carried out on Facebook’s platform by AggregateIQ, a Canadian data firm that has been linked to Cambridge Analytica.

There was often no indication that these were actually ads; no imprint, or admission of who paid for them.

The adverts contained in the Facebook data set were seen more than 169 million times in total. Nine of the adverts that Vote Leave paid for were viewed between two and five million times. Five of the nine adverts focused on immigration.

In 2016 AggregateIQ was paid £3.5M by Brexit supporting campaigns to spend on targeted social media advertising using Facebook as the primary conduit.

Facebook disclosed the ads to the Government as part of an enquiry investigating fake news.

Face ID diversity woes

A top Google executive has warned that facial recognition software could be inherently biased and hasn’t yet grasped the diversity that it needs to progress.

The warning was given by Diane Greene, the firm’s director of cloud computing.

It was prompted by the news that Amazon’s software wrongly identified 28 members of Congress, disproportionately people of colour, as police suspects.

Google has not yet released its facial recognition software to the public. Greene said the company is working to gather vast sums of data in order to first improve reliability.