LONDON — Hundreds of the biggest names in European tech rubbed shoulders with politicians and wealthy investors on the lawns of the Soho Farmhouse private members club in rural England on Thursday, at what was one of the first major tech events to happen in over a year.
Attendees of the annual Founders Forum event included the former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (who lives just up the road), ex-Finance Minister George Osborne, and the past and present U.K. tech ministers: Ed Vaizey and Oliver Dowden, respectively.
Google’s Matt Brittin and Facebook’s Nicola Mendelsohn, the European bosses of the Silicon Valley heavyweights, showed up, as did the general manager for TikTok in Europe, Rich Waterworth, who previously ran marketing for YouTube on the continent.
Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Zoom co-founder Eric Yuan beamed themselves in from the U.S. for video interviews, while DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman resurfaced after he exited the company in controversial circumstances to join Google. Mike Lynch, who is currently fighting extradition to the U.S. on fraud claims after selling his software start-up Autonomy to HP for over $11 billion, was also in attendance. Palantir co-founder and CEO Alex Karp was due to attend but had to drop out after the U.K. pushed back the date for its full lockdown easing.
“Everyone I want to meet in Europe is here,” reads a quote from Schmidt on the event’s website. “Founders Forum has emerged as the go-to destination for tech in Europe.”
The founders and CEOs of apps like Monzo, Wise (formerly TransferWise), Citymapper, and many more also turned up to network and listen to talks on everything from existential risks that threaten to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth, to hiring top talent in the field of artificial intelligence.
Elsewhere, venture capitalists from firms with billions of dollars at their disposal — such as Sequoia, Index Ventures, Atomico and Balderton — were also present, as were some of the U.K.’s most active angel investors.
For many it was the first in-person tech event they’ve been able to attend in over a year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Throughout the day, people kept saying how “weird” it was to be there as they fist-bumped and elbow-bumped one another. Everyone had to record themselves taking a Covid-19 test and getting a negative result in an app developed by Wise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus before they were allowed to attend.
The ‘Davos of tech’
Branded as “something like the Davos of tech” by The Guardian newspaper, Founders Forum is put on by serial entrepreneur and investor Brent Hoberman.
The former Eton and Oxford student, who co-founded Lastminute.com and the recently listed Made.com, is well-known for having one of the most impressive networks in the European tech scene and many of his friends and investments are invited to Founders Forum each year.
The organizers describe it as a private network of the world’s top-tier entrepreneurs, CEOs and investors from technology, media and digital.
Previous guests have included Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, former Apple design boss Jony Ive, broadcaster David Attenborough, and former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Prince William, a member of the British royal family, has also attended.
Normally held at the five-star Grove Hotel, this year marks the first time Founders Forum has been held at Soho Farmhouse. Aston Martins, Maseratis, Range Rovers and Teslas could all be spotted in the car park on the day of the event.
“To have an event there is crazy money,” a member of Soho House, which owns Soho Farmhouse, told CNBC, asking to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the discussion.
For some, one of the highlights of the day was witnessing British jet suit inventor Richard Browning flying around a few feet above the ground.
After being fed throughout the day, Founders Forum guests were treated to freshly-grilled lobster, and strawberries and cream in the evening. On their way home, they were given goodie bags containing products from the likes of Cowshed and Charlotte Tilbury.
Timothy Armoo, the CEO of Fanbytes, a company that helps brands advertise through social video, told CNBC he really enjoyed the event.
“The quality of the conversations remained very high which was quite pleasing,” he said.
“With this being the first major event that people have been to in a while, there is the danger that it becomes more of a ‘catch up’ session for friends but that wasn’t the case at all. Meaningful connections were fostered and that’s what you’re looking for when you go to these events. I also really admired how they handled social-distancing rules, people were respectful and the pre-process of taking tests was quite comforting.”
Elon Musk showed off updates to his brain chips and said he’s going to install one in himself when they are ready
Neuralink logo displayed on a phone screen, a silhouette of a paper in shape of a human face and a binary code displayed on a screen are seen in this multiple exposure illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on December 10, 2021.
Jakub Porzycki | Nurphoto | Getty Images
Elon Musk’s health tech venture Neuralink shared updates to its brain-implant technology during a “show and tell” recruitment event Wednesday night. Musk said during the event that he plans to get one of the implants himself.
Musk said two of the company’s applications will aim to restore vision, even for people who were born blind, and a third application will focus on the motor cortex by restoring “full body functionality” for people with severed spinal cords. “We’re confident there are no physical limitations to restoring full body functionality,” Musk said.
Neuralink could begin to test the motor cortex technology in humans in as soon as six months, Musk said.
“Obviously, we want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device in a human, but we’re submitted, I think, most of our paperwork to the FDA,” he said.
But he also claimed he plans to get one himself. “You could have a Neuralink device implanted right now and you wouldn’t even know. I mean, hypothetically. In one of these demos, in fact, in one of these demos, I will,” he said. He reiterated that on Twitter after the event.
Since none of Neuralinks’ devices have been tested on humans or approved by the FDA, Wednesday’s announcements warrant skepticism, said Xing Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“Neuralink is a company, it doesn’t have to answer to shareholders,” she told CNBC. “I don’t know how much oversight is involved, but I think it’s very important for the public to always keep in mind that before anything has been approved by the FDA, or any governmental regulatory body, all claims need to be very, very skeptically examined.”
Neuralink was founded in 2016 by Musk and a group of other scientists and engineers. It strives to develop brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, that connect the human brain to computers that can decipher neural signals.
Musk invested tens of millions of his own personal wealth into the company and has said, without evidence, that Neuralink’s devices could enable “superhuman cognition,” enable paralyzed people to operate smartphones or robotic limbs with their minds someday, and “solve” autism and schizophrenia.
The company’s presentation Wednesday echoed these lofty ambitions, as Musk claimed that “as miraculous as it may sound, we’re confident that it is possible to restore full body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord.”
Musk showed footage of a monkey with a computer chip in its skull playing “telepathic video games,” which Neuralink first debuted over a year ago. The billionaire, who is also the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and the new owner of Twitter, said at the time that he wants to implant Neuralink chips into quadriplegics who have brain or spinal injuries so that they can “control a computer mouse, or their phone, or really any device just by thinking.”
Neuralink has come under fire for its alleged treatment of monkeys, and the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine called on Musk Wednesday to release details about experiments on monkeys that had resulted in their internal bleeding, paralysis, chronic infections, seizures, declining psychological health and death.
Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison
Neuralink’s flashy presentations are unusual for companies in the medical devices space, said Anna Wexler, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She said it’s risky to encourage people who have serious disabilities to get their hopes up, especially if they could possibly incur injuries as the technology is implanted during surgery.
Wexler encouraged people to put on their “skeptic hat” about Neuralink’s big claims.
“From an ethical perspective, I think that hype is very concerning,” she said. “Space or Twitter, that’s one thing, but when you come into the medical context, the stakes are higher.”
Chen, who specializes in brain-computer interfaces, said Neuralink’s implants would require subjects to undergo a very invasive procedure. Doctors would need to create a hole in the skill in order insert the device into the brain tissue itself.
But even so, she thinks some people would be willing to take the risk.
“There’s quite a few disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder in which people have received brain implants and the disorders have been treated quite successfully, allowing them to have an improved quality of life,” Chen said. “So I do feel that there is a precedent for doing this.”
Wexler said she believes the decision would ultimately come down to an individual patient’s personal risk-benefit calculation.
Neuralink is not the only company trying to innovate using brain-computer interfaces, and many have made big strides in recent years. Blackrock Neurotech is on track to bring a BCI system to market next year, which would make it the first commercially available BCI in history. Synchron received FDA approval in 2021 to begin a clinical trial for a permanently implanted BCI, and Paradromics is reportedly gearing up to begin in-human testing in 2023.
Broke and down to one credit card: Former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried claims he committed no fraud
Striking a contrite tone, former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried said he “didn’t do a good job” at upholding his responsibilities to regulators, customers, and investors in a hotly anticipated conversation with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin at the Dealbook Summit.
“I didn’t ever try to commit fraud on anyone,” Bankman-Fried said. “I saw it as a thriving business and I was shocked by what happened this month.”
“I’ve had a bad month,” Bankman-Fried added later.
“We completely failed on risk,” Bankman-Fried continued. “That feels pretty embarrassing, in retrospect.”
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
Bankman-Fried appeared by video feed from the Bahamas, Sorkin said. “I’ve been in the Bahamas for the last year,” Bankman-Fried said when asked about why he remained in the island nation.
Sorkin asked Bankman-Fried what motivated his acquisitions in the crypto industry, given the size of Alameda’s borrowing from companies Bankman-Fried intended to acquire.
Bankman-Fried claimed that he believed that by the middle of 2022, Alameda had repaid all lines of credit to various borrowing desks. But Alameda still owes BlockFi over $670 million, according to court filings.
“What are your lawyers telling you right now? Are they suggesting it’s a good idea for you to be speaking?” Sorkin asked the former billionaire.
“No, they’re very much not.”
“The time that I really knew there was a problem was November 6,” Bankman-Fried said, after Alameda’s sizable FTT position was exposed by Coindesk. “When we looked at that, there was a potential serious problem.”
“Alameda had taken a huge hit” by that point. “We were seeing a run on the bank start,” Bankman-Fried said.
“I was nervous [when] the Alameda balance sheet” was exposed by Coindesk, Bankman-Fried said, but expected the damage was going to be limited to Alameda, not an “existential” crisis for FTX.
Sorkin asked Bankman-Fried why FTX and Bankman-Fried even had access to customer money.
“I wasn’t running Alameda, I didn’t know exactly what was going on, I didn’t know the size of their position,” Bankman-Fried said. “A lot of these are things I’ve learned over the last month [in the days leading up to bankruptcy.]”
New leadership at FTX said that Bankman-Fried exercised significant control over the entire empire.
Sorkin pressed Bankman-Fried on Alameda’s gambling on questionable cryptocurrencies, reading a letter out from an investor who lost his life savings of $2 million.
“The U.S. platform is fully solvent and funded,” Bankman-Fried claimed. “I believe withdrawals could be opened up today and be made whole.”
“Can I ask you about the drugs?” Sorkin said. “It’s funny hearing this. I have half a glass of alcohol a year,” Bankman-Fried responded.
The FTX founder repudiated claims of wild partying and off-label drug use, saying that FTX functions consisted of “board games,” or “dinner parties.”
Bankman-Fried claimed he was unaware of the Alameda exposure. In 2019, he said, 40% of FTX’s volume was from Alameda. By 2022, Bankman-Fried claimed, that number was down to 2%, which led him to believe that FTX’s exposure was lessened.
Sorkin continued to press Bankman-Fried on the lending of customer assets. Bankman-Fried demurred.
“In 2018, FTX didn’t have bank accounts,” Bankman-Fried said as justification for why users were asked to wire funds to an account in Alameda’s name instead of directly to FTX.
Bankman-Fried has engaged with the media only sporadically. “F*** regulators,” he told a Vox reporter in a Twitter message.
“I f***** up,” he wrote in another Tweet.
FTX was once hailed as the poster child of responsible crypto. Regulators and lawmakers looked to Bankman-Fried as the future of crypto regulation, a reputation that Bankman-Fried cultivated through appearances before Congress and deepened through generous political contributions.
Bankman-Fried was already known as one of the largest donors to Democratic candidates. He claimed in a recent interview that he gave equally generously to Republican causes, through so-called “dark pool” contributions.
Reporters, Bankman-Fried said, “freak the f*** out if you donate to Republicans.”
Elon Musk may be luring Apple into a fight with Republicans
Tim Cook walks in the Paddock prior to the F1 Grand Prix of USA at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2022 in Austin, Texas.
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Apple has remained a sleeping bear in the face of Musk’s provocations. It has not commented, nor has CEO Tim Cook, and while its app review moderation staffers may be talking to Twitter behind the scenes over questionable content, Apple hasn’t pulled the app. In fact, Twitter got an update through app review last week.
Twitter is not that important to Apple from a business perspective. It’s just one of a vast number of apps on the App Store, and it isn’t a huge moneymaker for Apple through in-app purchases.
But on Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Ohio Senator-elect J.D. Vance, both Republicans, made remarks about Apple’s situation that show how Musk could put Apple in a tough spot.
Here’s one way it could go:
- Musk makes a change to Twitter in order to bypass Apple’s 30% fees, such as allowing users to plug their credit cards in to the app to subscribe to Twitter Blue or other new features.
- Apple pulls the app because of these violations.
- Musk frames the dispute with Apple as an issue over free speech and content moderation, and Republican politicians agree.
- Apple gets caught up in a nationwide debate over free speech and monopoly power focusing on its App Store.
On Tuesday, DeSantis said at a press conference that if Apple were to kick Twitter off, it would show that Apple has monopolistic power and that Congress should look into it. DeSantis framed it as an issue of free speech — many conservatives believe that social networks, including Twitter, generally discriminate against conservative viewpoints.
“You also hear reports Apple is threatening to remove Twitter from the App Store because Elon Musk is actually opening it up for free speech, and is restoring a lot of accounts that were unfairly and illegitimately suspended for putting out accurate information about Covid,” DeSantis said.
“If Apple responds to that by nuking them from the app store, I think that would be a huge, huge mistake, and it would be a really raw exercise of monopolistic power,” he continued.
Vance framed the situation similarly in a tweet, saying that if Apple pulled Twitter, “This would be the most raw exercise of monopoly power in a century, and no civilized country should allow it.”
In fact, Apple’s app review department is unlikely to pull Twitter over content. While Apple regularly bans apps over questionable content, they are rarely big brand names such as Twitter — they’re usually smaller, lesser-known apps. Apple’s rules for apps with significant user-generated content, such as Twitter, focus less on specific kinds of infringing content and more on whether the app has a content filtering system or content moderation procedures. Twitter has both, although Musk’s recent cuts to Twitter’s staff could hurt its ability to flag problem posts.
But Apple would be much more likely to pull the Twitter app if Twitter tries to cut Apple out of its platform fees.
It’s happened before. In 2020, Fortnite added a system inside its iPhone app that allowed users to buy in-game coins directly from Epic Games, cutting out the 30% of sales that Apple typically takes. Apple removed Fortnite from the App Store the same day. The episode kicked off a legal battle, which Apple won on most counts but is currently in appeals.
Google takes a similar cut for Android apps sold through its Play Store but also allows other Android app stores to exist and allows people to “sideload” apps directly onto their phones, while Apple has an exclusive lock on all iPhone app distribution.
Musk has good business reasons to pick this fight.
In particular, Musk wants Twitter to make much more money from direct subscriptions and not advertising. But Apple’s 30% cut of purchases made inside apps is a major hurdle for a company that is slashing costs and has a significant debt load.
So Musk could pull an Epic Games move and enable direct billing, spurring Apple to take action, while at the same time framing the debate around free speech. If that happened, as DeSantis suggested, perhaps Congress would start asking questions. Apple would become a football in political debates. Executives could be forced to testify or provide written responses.
At the very least, you’d have lawmakers such as Vance using the words “monopoly” and “Apple” in the same sentence. That’s a risk to Apple’s brand. Debate over these topics could reenergize pending regulation such as the Open Markets Act which threatens its control over the App Store and its significant profits.
The last time Apple pulled an app that was popular with conservatives for lack of content moderation was Parler in January 2021. It was restored in April.
In the interim, Apple faced official inquiries from Republican Sens. Ken Buck and Mike Lee about why Parler was removed from the App Store. Cook appeared on Fox News to defend the company’s decision.
Twitter is a significantly more important and well-known social network than Parler was and would grab more attention.
It’s probably most valuable for Apple if Twitter remains on the platform. The controversy-averse iPhone maker would probably like this whole Elon Musk narrative to go away.
Indeed, it could play out this way: Apple remains silent, working with Twitter behind the scenes on its app, and Musk tweets about the 30% cut when it irks him. Nothing really changes.
But Musk is unpredictable, and if he does really want to “go to war” over 30% fees, Apple could be forced into a tough spot.
Apple and Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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