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By Haje Jan Kamps

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Pornhub has been playing a game of chicken with a bunch of state legislatures for a while now. Last year, the smut-peddler blocked access to users in Mississippi, Virginia and Utah.

And this week, the site dropped off the internet if you live in the Lone Star State. That’s right, Texans are now officially barred from the sacred halls of Pornhub, unless they’re crafty enough with a VPN to sneak past the digital bouncers. This grand development comes courtesy of a tussle over age verification laws, which have been popping up like unwelcome weeds in various states.

In a twist that surprises exactly no one, Pornhub isn’t thrilled about asking its patrons to flash their digital IDs at the door. The rumblings of this have been going on for a while, but, citing concerns that would make any privacy advocate nod vigorously, the site has opted to just shut Texans out rather than risk the data security boogeyman. It’s a bold move, especially considering they initially played ball with Louisiana’s similar law.  As you might imagine, users who desire to see people make the beast with two backs wouldn’t necessarily be super-keen to upload their driver’s license before they bask in the feast of the flesh, so that pretty much put an end to access.

Pornhub is not exactly a startup, so why are we featuring this front and center in the Startups Weekly newsletter? Well, as a connoisseur of adult entertainment and deeply fascinated by the power struggle between companies and regulation, I figured you might share those fascinations. If not, don’t worry, I won’t mention the unmentionables again for the rest of this edition.

Let’s get on with the slightly less titillating stories from the past week …


Image Credits: Ethan Miller / Getty Images

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Most interesting startup stories this week

In the latest episode of “Corporate Drama: The Techstars Chronicles,” we find our protagonist, Techstars CEO Maëlle Gavet, in a Zoom meeting with some spicy repercussions. Gavet revealed that the Advancing Cities Fund, an $80 million venture aimed at backing underrepresented founders, is not exactly the rainbow bridge to diversity it had hoped for. Cue the collective gasp from J.P. Morgan, the financial giant whose customers had been dreaming of diversity dividends.

“Well it looks like you had some fun recently,” a friend said as he joined me for coffee. There, in the middle of my dining room table, was a device that does, now that he mentions it, look an awful lot like a sex toy. Moonbird’s raison d’être isn’t to raise your pulse and get you breathing heavily. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Belgian company has helped more than 35,000 customers find sleep and reduce stress through breathing exercises.

Will the IPO get an upboat?: Reddit, the digital watering hole for everything from cat memes to existential debates, is strutting toward its IPO with the confidence of a peacock in mating season, eyeing a valuation that swings between “impressive” and “are you kidding me?” With a price tag per share that could make Scrooge McDuck do a double take, Reddit is aiming for a valuation north of $5 billion, positioning itself somewhere between “we’re kind of a big deal” and “we’re not profitable, but have you seen our AI plans?”

We detect some trouble: Inscribe, an AI-powered fraud detection startup, has slashed its cast by nearly 40%. Despite riding the high of a $25 million Series B funding round, Inscribe found itself grappling with the harsh reality of missed revenue targets and a market as forgiving as a brick wall.

You get a GPU! You get a GPU!: AI2 Incubator has hit a jackpot with a whopping $200 million in compute resources from an unnamed source, making it the fairy godmother for AI startups desperate for a sprinkle of computational magic.

Most interesting startup stories this week image

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Most interesting fundraises this week

In the latest “because we definitely needed more of this in the world” news, Tavus, a startup that’s essentially the digital Frankenstein of our times, has bagged $18 million to perfect the art of cloning humans into digital replicas for personalized video campaigns. Nothing says “personal touch” like a cloned CEO thanking you for your purchase. This four-year-old generative AI wunderkind, now opening its platform to third-party software integrations, is on a mission to make sales and marketing as eerily personalized as possible.

The phrase “innovative disruption” is tossed around like confetti at a parade — but Ted Schlein and his merry band of cybersecurity musketeers at Ballistic Ventures have decided to go full medieval on the industry. Schlein launched Ballistic with a cool $300 million a couple of years ago, only to up the ante now with a $360 million sequel. Unlike the hands-off, “please don’t bother me” approach of their VC peers, the Ballistic crew is getting so cozy with their startups, they stop just short of moving in, bringing a whole new meaning to “value-added investor.”

Brother, won’t you buy an NFT?: Remember NFTs? Pallet Exchange is doubling down on the dream that people still want to trade digital knickknacks on a blockchain no one’s heard of. Co-founders Kelvin Wang and Davy Li, fresh off their stint in the web3 gaming playground, have somehow convinced investors to part with $2.5 million on the hunch that NFTs have a future … somewhere.

Pint-sized pickup attracts top-shelf talent: In a world obsessed with “bigger is better,” Telo Trucks zigs where others zag, unveiling a vehicle that’s sent both small truck aficionados and fleet managers into a tizzy. Telo raised a cool $5.4 million and adds a Tesla co-founder to its board.

Take it to the grave: Death remains as inconveniently certain as taxes, and Empathy has emerged as the tech-savvy fairy godmother for the bereaved, swooping in with a $47 million cash infusion to sprinkle some digital magic on the somber task of postmortem paperwork — and the process of grieving.

Most interesting fundraises this week image

Image Credits: Pallet Exchange

Other unmissable TechCrunch stories…

Every week, there’s always a few stories I want to share with you but that somehow don’t fit into the categories above. It’d be a shame if you missed ’em, so here’s a random grab bag of goodies for ya:

Surprise, baby Rivian!: Last week, Rivian surprise-announced an all-electric hatchback called the R3 — giving the company a big Apple-esque “one more thing” announcement at the event that was ostensibly supposed to be all about its new R2 SUV.

It’s LLMs at dawn: Elon Musk’s AI startup xAI will open source Grok, its chatbot rivaling ChatGPT, this week, the entrepreneur said, days after suing OpenAI and complaining that the Microsoft-backed startup had deviated from its open source roots.

Several people are typing: It’s not often you see an established company burn through three CEOs in less than a year. But through circumstances beyond its control, that’s what has happened at Slack.

Turning into a dead end: Phantom Auto, a remote driving startup that launched seven years ago amid the buzz of autonomous vehicle technology, is shutting down after failing to secure new funding.

That heavy feeling: Lucid Motors is at risk of losing the trademark for the name of its Gravity SUV, just months before the company is supposed to start production.

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