COVID-19 crisis spurs triple-digit growth for refurbishing startup Back Market

While a number of startups have been hard hit by efforts to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, refurbishing firm Back Market is showing increased growth globally.

The Paris -based startup encourages customers to send in their old devices so they can be refurbished and resold into the e-commerce secondhand market. The growth achieved in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis is partly due to increased laptop sales as people seek better devices to work remotely.

For people who are unsure whether refurbished products are reliable, Back Market permits customers to send in old devices, exchange them for newer versions and pay the difference. CEO Thibaud Hug de Larauze said this payback service is currently possible only in France, but starting in Q2, it will be available in other markets.

Founded in 2014, Back Market has raised a total of €48 million in funding over two rounds, most recently a Series B in June 2018. The company is profitable and reportedly still has money to spend from its last funding round.

“We don’t release the gross merchandise volume, but it’s a three-digit growth rate,” Hug de Larauze told TechCrunch. “We saw an increase in demand for laptops, printers and other devices needed for working at home. Demand for refurbished phones is going down as people seek to get the first necessity items, like food for their situation.”

Over the past two weeks, Back Market saw skyrocketing demand from Italy, a nation with a high coronavirus death toll where citizens were warned they would be confined to their homes for four weeks.

Another factor that helped the platform’s growth: Smartphone brands like Apple and Samsung closed their retail stores, a move that turned Back Market into a major supply channel. While offline retailers and carriers are shut down in Europe, Hug de Larauze says Chinese offline retailers and refurbishing factories are starting to get back to work.

Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.

The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety of its workers. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.

Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.

COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including in Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop-up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.

It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced; Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe, followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”

The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34-kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)

But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.

Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

Tree planting search engine Ecosia is getting a visibility boost in Chrome

Ecosia, a not-for-profit search engine which uses ad generated revenue to fund planting trees, is set to get a visibility boost in Chrome. A change Google is making to its chromium engine will see it added as a default search engine choice in up to 47 markets for the version 81 release of Google’s web browser.

Ecosia will soon be included on Chrome’s default search engine list in several major markets, including the UK, US, France and Germany — alongside the likes of Google Search, Bing, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo!

It’s the first time the not-for-profit search engine will have appeared in Chrome’s default search engine choice list. And while users of Chrome can always navigate directly to Ecosia to search, or download an extension to search via it directly in the browser’s URL bar, those active steps require prior knowledge of the product. Whereas being listed as a default option in Chrome means Ecosia will be put in front of people who aren’t yet familiar with it.

The Berlin-based search engine said Google Chrome’s selection of default search engines is based on search engine popularity rankings in different markets.

The full list of markets where it will be offered as a choice in the v81 release is: Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bahrain, Brunei, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Switzerland, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, Denmark, Ecuador, Spain, Faroe Islands, France, Guatemala, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Oman, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Paraguay, Sweden, El Salvador, Taiwan, United States, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Venezuela and Vietnam.

The shift comes after what Ecosia said was a record year of usage growth for its search engine — with monthly active users rising from 8 million to 15 million during 2019.

The company dedicates 80% of advertising profits to funding reforestation projects in biodiversity hotspots around the world, and says it has planted 86 million+ trees since it was founded back in 2009 — a total it’s expecting will grow as a result of Google’s decision to include Ecosia as a default choice.

Commenting in a statement Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll said: “Ecosia’s growth over the last year shows just how invested users are in the fight against the climate crisis. Everywhere, people are weighing up the changes they can make to reduce their carbon footprint, including adopting technologies such as Ecosia. Our addition to Chrome will now make it even easier for users to help reforest delicate, at-risk and often devastated ecosystems, and to fight climate change, just by using the internet.”

“It’s also good news for user choice and fairness,” he added, pointing to recent research which he said indicates that providing a choice of search engines has the potential to increase the collective mobile market share of Google alternatives by 300-800%.

“It’s important that there are independent players in the market that don’t just exist for profit. We put our profits into tree planting and we are also focused on privacy, so users can have a positive impact on the environment while having greater control over their personal information.”

The chromium update will also see rival search engines DuckDuckGo and Yahoo added as a default in more markets when the v81 release of Chrome is pushed out.

These are the latest revisions to Chrome’s search engine defaults. But in a major shift this time last year Google quietly expanded the choice of search product in a way that gave the biggest single boost to the visibility of pro-privacy search engine rival DuckDuckGo.

It said then that the changes derived from “new usage statistics” from “recently collected data.”

But the company’s business had been facing rising attention over privacy and competition concerns.

As, indeed, Google still is…

In Europe, meanwhile, antitrust enforcement around how Google operates its Android smartphone platform has already forced the tech giant to offer a choice screen that surfaces alternative search engines and web browsers alongside its own products.

In 2018 the EU’s competition competition concluded Google had violated antitrust rules by requiring Android device makers pre-install its own search and browser apps. It was fined $5BN and ordered to cease the infringement — initially responding with a choice screen prompt that appeared to select products based on marketshare. Before announcing it would move to a ‘pay-to-play’ auction model to assign the non-Google slots on the screen starting early this year.

Rival search engines including Ecosia, DuckDuckGo and French pro-privacy search engine Qwant have been highly critical of this pay-to-play switch — hitting out at the limited slots and sealed bid auction structure Google devised. And DuckDuckGo has remained critical despite winning a universal slot on the screen early this year.

Ecosia chose to boycott the auction entirely — telling the BBC in January it’s at odds with the spirit of the Commission ruling.

“Internet users deserve a free choice over which search engine they use and the response of Google with this auction is an affront to our right to a free, open and federated internet. Why is Google able to pick and choose who gets default status on Android?” Kroll said then.

Asked for current Android usage metrics the company told us Ecosia’s total daily active users on Google’s platform have grown from 489,422 this time last year to 1,245,777 now — a 155% year over year rise in DAUs.

Though it remains to be seen whether Google’s shift to a paid auction model which Ecosia is not participating in — given doing so would require the not-for-profit to spend money paying Google to appear as a choice rather than ploughing those revenues into planting more trees — will put a dampener on Ecosia’s Android growth this year.

A spokesman for Ecosia pointed us to statcounter figures that estimate it took a 0.22%market share of mobile search in Europe between February 2019 and February 2020.

On desktop the search engine takes a higher regional share, per statcounter, account for 0.5% of desktop searches.

Overall, across mobile and desktop, Google’s share of the European search market over the same period is 93.83% vs 0.33% for Ecosia.

Cloud gaming platform Shadow brings its new plans to the US

Blade, the French startup behind Shadow, announced plans to overhaul its subscription tiers back in October. The company is now bringing the new plans to the U.S. with a new entry tier at $11.99 per month as well as more powerful options in the coming months.

Shadow is a cloud computing service for gamers. For a monthly subscription fee, you can access a gaming PC in a data center near you. Compared to other cloud gaming services, Shadow provides a full Windows 10 instance. You can install anything you want — Steam, Photoshop or Word.

The current subscription tier, now called Shadow Boost, offers the same performance for a lower price. You get an Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU, 3.4GHz with 4 cores CPU, 12GB of RAM, 256GB of storage. It costs $11.99 per month if you sign up to a 12-month plan or $14.99 per month if you pay on a monthly basis.

Later this year, Shadow will also offer two additional plans:

  • Shadow Ultra: Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU, 4GHz with 4 cores CPU, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage
  • Shadow Infinite: Nvidia Titan RTX GPU, 4 GHz with 6 cores CPU, 32GB of RAM, 1TB of storage

These plans will cost $24.99 and $39.99 per month respectively if you subscribe to a 12-month plan — or $29.99 and $49.99 per month on a monthly basis.

Shadow Ultra and Shadow Infinite will roll out gradually starting this summer — only a limited number of users will be able to subscribe at first.

It’s worth noting that you’ll be able to add an option to get more storage with any plan. Storage plans include 256GB of SSD performance — anything above that will perform like a more traditional HDD.

The company now has four data centers in the U.S., which means that anybody in the U.S. can now access the service — not just people living on the West Coast or the East Coast.

In Europe, Shadow has had issues rolling out the new plans. While the company originally promised to deliver the new options in February, users who pre-ordered the new plans will only be able to access their new instance by the end of the summer.

Shadow offers apps for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android and Apple devices. Apple recently pulled Shadow’s apps from the App Store on iOS, iPadOS and tvOS. The company is still trying to find a solution with Apple to re-release the apps in the App Store.

In other news, the startup has signed a strategic partnership with LG Electronics. Details are thin, but LG is now a shareholder of the company. LG will also offer Shadow with some of its products.

European lawmakers propose a ‘right to repair’ for mobiles and laptops

The European Commission has set out a plan to move towards a ‘right to repair’ for electronics devices, such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops.

More generally it wants to restrict single-use products, tackle “premature obsolescence” and ban the destruction of unsold durable goods — in order to make sustainable products the norm.

The proposals are part of a circular economy action plan that’s intended to deliver on a Commission pledge to transition the bloc to carbon neutrality by 2050.

By extending the lifespan of products, via measures which target design and production to encourage repair, reuse and recycling, the policy push aims to reduce resource use and shrink the environmental impact of buying and selling stuff.

The Commission also wants to arm EU consumers with reliable information about reparability and durability — to empower them to make greener product choices.

“Today, our economy is still mostly linear, with only 12% of secondary materials and resources being brought back into the economy,” said EVP Frans Timmermans in a statement. “Many products break down too easily, cannot be reused, repaired or recycled, or are made for single use only. There is a huge potential to be exploited both for businesses and consumers. With today’s plan we launch action to transform the way products are made and empower consumers to make sustainable choices for their own benefit and that of the environment.”

The Commission said electronics and ICT will be a priority area for implementing a right to repair, via planned expansion of the Ecodesign Directive — which currently sets energy efficiency standards for devices such as washing machines.

Its action plan proposes setting up a ‘Circular Electronics Initiative’ to promote longer product lifetimes through reusability and reparability as well as “upgradeability” of components and software to avoid premature obsolescence.

The Commission is also planning new regulatory measures on chargers for mobile phones and similar devices. While an EU-wide take back scheme to return or sell back old mobile phones, tablets and chargers is being considered.

Back in January the EU Parliament voted overwhelmingly for tougher action to reduce e-waste, calling for the Commission to come up with beefed up rules by this summer.

In recent years MEPs have also pushed for the Ecodesign Direction to be expanded to include repairability.

The Commission proposals also include a new regulatory framework for batteries and vehicles — including measures to improve the collection and recycling rates of batteries and ensure the recovery of valuable materials. Plus there’s a proposal to revise the rules on end-of-life vehicles to improve recycling efficiency and waste oil treatment. 

It’s also planning measures to set targets to shrink the amount of packaging being produced, with the aim of making all packaging reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030.

Mandatory requirements on recycled content for plastics used in areas such as packaging, construction materials and vehicles is another proposal.

Other priority areas for promoting circularity and reducing high consumption rates include construction, textiles and food.

The Commission expects the circular economy to have net positive benefits in terms of GDP growth and jobs’ creation across the bloc — suggesting measures to boost sustainability will increase the EU’s GDP by an additional 0.5% by 2030 and create around 700,000 new jobs.

The backing of MEPs in the European Parliament and EU Member States will be necessary if the Commission proposals are to make it into pan-EU law.

Should they do so, Dutch social enterprise Fairphone shows a glimpse of what’s coming down the repairable pipe in future…