The New York Times Company acquires Audm, an app that turns longform journalism into audio

Audm, a startup that turns longform journalism into audio content, has been acquired by The New York Times Company, it announced this morning. While there are other services that turn news articles into audio, including read-it-later apps like Instapaper and Pocket, Audm differentiates itself by using professional voice actors to narrate the content, not automated voice technology.

That makes the content more enjoyable to listen to — more like listening to a podcast, for example.

The startup was founded by Ryan Wegner and Christian Brink, both 2007 Columbia grads with backgrounds in psychology and software development, respectively. The two didn’t know each other during college, but eventually met up in 2014 when their idea for an audio news app began to come together. Initially, the founders experimented with crowdsourced narration, but later landed on using professional voice talent to make their app stand out from others.

The company participated in Y Combinator’s startup accelerator in 2017 to further develop Audm’s business. At the time, Audm was working with a range of publishing partners, including Wired, The Atlantic, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Review of Books, ProPublica, London Review of Books and several others. According to its website today, it also works with The Atlantic, Outside, BuzzFeed News, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, New York, Rolling Stone and Texas Monthly.

Of course, The New York Times had also worked with Audm, but on a more limited basis. Currently, Audm only has a couple of NYT stories available, and both are from 2019. That will soon change, given the new acquisition.

The company says it had already begun plans for read-aloud Times articles every Sunday on “The Daily,” to help provide escape and relief from the COVID-19 pandemic. This began with Taffy Akner’s profile of Tom Hanks and Sue Dominus’s story of the Colombian twin brothers.

Other audio stories from The New York Times Magazine are also being produced, which will run in the Audm app. These include features on The Wing, black theater, Bernie Sanders, and others. In addition, The NYT is also experimenting with other forms of distribution, including on mobile pages, it says, and will expand from the Magazine to other desks in time.

The Audm app today allows users to subscribe to its service for $8.99 per month or $59.99 per year, after a 3-day free trial. The Times Company hasn’t yet offered any detail as to if or how its business model will evolve or if Audm’s service will be further integrated with its own NYT app.

On the App Store, Audm was well-ranked as No. 20 in the Magazines & Newspapers category, according to its App Store profile. The app is also available on Android but is not well-ranked there.

According to The New York Times’ announcement, Audm will continue to introduce hours of new stories every week, including from The New York Times and other publishers.

Wegner, the director of spoken-word audio production, and Brink, director of product for Audm, as well as the rest of the team, are joining the Times Company as a result of the deal.

Audm had raised early-stage funding from Y Combinator, Hack VC, Precursor Ventures and Switch Ventures, per Pitchbook’s data.

Y Combinator-backed Kosh is a neobank for blue-collar workers in India

Dozens of startups have stepped up in India in recent quarters to improve banking experience for millions of users and businesses in the country. As a result, tens of thousands of people who could not get a loan or a credit card from a bank can now secure both from fintech startups.

But this push to bring financial inclusion to everyone still has many areas to cover. Blue-collar workers, for instance, are still facing challenges in availing some basic banking services.

Kosh, a Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), is beginning to tackle this challenge. It groups three or as many as ten blue-collar workers and gives them a loan.

“When a user logs into our Android app, they are able to apply for a loan. But before they do that, they need to add some of their colleagues and friends who are also looking for a loan,” explained Aayush Goel, co-founder of Kosh, in an interview with TechCrunch.

This way of banding together people allows Kosh to charge a lower rate of interest on the loan, said Goel.

“We have borrowed this from the world of microfinance. Essentially, we have a joint liability model. Let us say there were three people who were looking for a loan. We band them together and instead of giving each of them a separate loan, we give the group one loan” he said.

Aayush Goel (pictured above), and Sahil Bansal co-founded Kosh in March last year

In each group, at least one member is credit-worthy in the traditional sense, he explained. The startup also uses alternative data such as information gleaned from text messages to determine a person’s eligibility.

Such an arrangement has traditionally seen fewer people default (or fall behind paying their debt) because of social pressure from their colleagues and friends, as all of them are liable.

Kosh started to disburse loans in December. It currently offers loans up to twice the salary of an individual and over a tenure of up to 10 months, said Goel. The startup has disbursed close to 150 loans worth $35,000. It works with a Noida-based non-banking financial company to fund these loans.

The startup said it plans to broaden its neobanking offering this year by creating bank accounts for its customers. “There is a general lack of discipline in how these people spend their money. Having access to a bank account that works for them could prove very useful,” said Goel.

In recent years, a handful of startups such as Bangalore-based Open and NiYO Solutions have developed neobanks or alternative banks to serve businesses and individuals. In January, two former Google Pay executives announced their own neobank startup that aims to serve millennials.

GIGI Benefits, another Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), offers insurance and savings — perks that only full-time employees typically have — to gig-economy workers and freelancers.

“We help each worker set aside part of a paycheque to cover their costs of insurance, short-term expenses, and plan for their retirement,” said Sowmya Rao, founder and chief executive of GIGI Benefits, in a post.

YC-backed EduRev wants to democratize online learning in India

As edtech startups emerge and expand in India, millions of students in the country now have an additional option to choose from when they prepare for competitive exams.

But despite the proliferation of cheap Android handsets and availability of some of the world’s cheapest mobile data plans, online learning platforms in India are struggling to appeal to the masses because their offering is too expensive for many.

EduRev, a Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), thinks it can address this. The two-year-old startup offers an all-you-can watch catalog in a Netflix-esque fashion that costs between $20 to $50 a year — compared to anything between $300 to $4,000 that other platforms charge.

The startup has partnered with teachers around the country to make their classes — aimed at primary school to high-school and to students preparing for undergraduate-level course — available on the platform.

Students can come and consume some of this content — which includes notes, previous year exam papers, mock tests, and class videos — for no charge, but access to full-course and additional catalogs requires becoming a subscriber, explained Kunaal Satija, co-founder of EduRev, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Most of the classes in India are not efficient. The vast majority of students are not really learning much. There is also a severe lack of good teachers in the country. And if offline to online transition did not already have a learning curve attached to it, it is also expensive,” he said.

To replicate the traditional learning experience, EduRev also has a social aspect to it. Students can follow their friends and track their progress and participate in helping other students clear their doubts and pose their own questions. These features are available to non-paying users as well.

The price and wider-catalog availability, Satija said, has helped the startup gain millions of users. The platform has amassed over 450,000 monthly active users.

He declined to share how many paying users EduRev currently has, but said the startup has been operationally profitable for last four months.

Visual One smartens up home security cameras with object and action recognition

“Smart” cameras are to be found in millions of homes, but the truth is they’re not all that smart. Facial recognition and motion detection are their main tricks… but what if you want to know if the dog jumped on the couch, or if your toddler is playing with the stove? Visual One equips cameras with the intellect to understand a bit more of the world and give you more granular — and important — information.

Founder Mohammad Rafiee said that the idea came to him after he got a puppy (Zula) and was dissatisfied with the options he had for monitoring her activities while he was away. Here she is doing what dogs do best:

There are no bad dogs, but chairs are for people

“There were specific things I wanted to know were happening, like I wanted to check if the dog got picked up by the dog walker. The cameras’ motion detection is useless — she’s always moving,” he lamented. “In fact, with a lot of these cameras, just a change in the lighting or wind or rain can trigger the motion alert, so it’s completely impractical.”

“My background is in machine learning. I was thinking about it, and realized we’re at a stage where this problem is starting to become solvable,” he continued.

Some tasks in computer vision, indeed, are as good as solved — detecting faces and common objects such as cars and bikes can be done quickly and efficiently. But that’s not always useful — what’s the point of knowing someone rode their bike past your house? In order for this to have value, the objects need to be understood as part of a greater context, and that’s what Rafiee and Visual One are undertaking.

Unfortunately, it’s far from easy — or else everyone would be doing it already. Identifying a cat is simple, and identifying a table is simple, but identifying a cat on a table is surprisingly hard.

“It’s a very difficult problem. So we’re breaking it down to things we can solve right now, then building on that,” Rafiee explained. “With deep learning techniques we can identify different objects, and we build models on top of those to specify different interactions, or specific objects being in specific locations. Like a car in the wrong spot, or a dog getting on a couch. We can recognize that with high accuracy right now — we have a list of supported objects and models that we’re expanding.”

In case you’re not convinced that the capabilities are that much advanced from the usual “activity in the living room” or “Kendra is at the front door” notifications, here are a few situations that Visual One is set up to detect:

  • Kid playing with the stove
  • Toddler climbing furniture
  • Kid holding a knife
  • Baby left alone for too long
  • Raccoon getting into garbage
  • Elderly person taking her medications
  • Elderly person in bed for too long
  • Car parked in the wrong spot
  • Garage door left open
  • Dog chewing on a shoe
  • Cat scratching the furniture

The process for creating these triggers is pretty straightforward

If one of those doesn’t make you think “actually… that would be really good to know,” then perhaps a basic security camera is enough for your purposes after all. Not everyone has a knife-curious toddler. But those of you who do are probably scrolling furiously past this paragraph looking for where to buy one of these things.

Unfortunately Visual One isn’t something you can just install on any old existing system — with the prominent exception of Nest, into which it can plug. Camera workflows are generally too locked down for security and privacy purposes to allow for third-party apps and services to be slipped in. But the company isn’t trying to bankrupt everyone with an ultra-luxury offering. It’s using off-the-shelf cameras from Wyze and loading them with its own software stack.

Rafiee said he pictures Visual One as a mid-tier option for people who want to have more than a basic camera setup but aren’t convinced by the more expensive plays. That way the company avoids going head-on with commodity hardware’s race to the bottom or the brand warfare taking place between Google and Amazon’s Nest and Ring. Cameras cost $30-$40, and the service is $7 per month currently.

Ultimately the low-end companies may want to license from Visual One, while the high-end companies will be developing their own full stack at great cost, making it difficult for them to go downmarket. “Hardware is hard, and AI is specialized — unless you’re a giant company it’s hard to do both. I think we can fill the gap in the market for mid-market companies without those resources,” he said.

Of course privacy is paramount as well, and Rafiee said that because of the way their system works, although the AI lives in the cloud and therefore requires the cameras to be online (like most others), no important user data needs to be or will be stored on Visual One servers. “We do inference in the cloud so we can be hardware agnostic, but we don’t need to store any data. So we don’t add any risk,” he said.

Visual One is launching today (after a stint in YC’s latest cohort) with an initial set of objects and interactions, and will continue developing more as it observes which use cases prove popular and effective.