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Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Meta Platforms Inc., left, arrives at federal court in San Jose, California, US, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. 

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Toward the end of 2022, engineers on Meta’s team combating misinformation were ready to debut a key fact-checking tool that had taken half a year to build. The company needed all the reputational help it could get after a string of crises had badly damaged the credibility of Facebook and Instagram and given regulators additional ammunition to bear down on the platforms.

The new product would let third-party fact-checkers like The Associated Press and Reuters, as well as credible experts, add comments at the top of questionable articles on Facebook as a way to verify their trustworthiness.

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But CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s commitment to make 2023 the “year of efficiency” spelled the end of the ambitious effort, according to three people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named due to confidentiality agreements.

Over multiple rounds of layoffs, Meta announced plans to eliminate roughly 21,000 jobs, a mass downsizing that had an outsized effect on the company’s trust and safety work. The fact-checking tool, which had initial buy-in from executives and was still in a testing phase early this year, was completely dissolved, the sources said.

A Meta spokesperson did not respond to questions related to job cuts in specific areas and said in an emailed statement that “we remain focused on advancing our industry-leading integrity efforts and continue to invest in teams and technologies to protect our community.”

Across the tech industry, as companies tighten their belts and impose hefty layoffs to address macroeconomic pressures and slowing revenue growth, wide swaths of people tasked with protecting the internet’s most-populous playgrounds are being shown the exits. The cuts come at a time of increased cyberbullying, which has been linked to higher rates of adolescent self-harm, and as the spread of misinformation and violent content collides with the exploding use of artificial intelligence.

In their most recent earnings calls, tech executives highlighted their commitment to “do more with less,” boosting productivity with fewer resources. Meta, Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft have all cut thousands of jobs after staffing up rapidly before and during the Covid pandemic. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently said his company would suspend salary increases for full-time employees.

The slashing of teams tasked with trust and safety and AI ethics is a sign of how far companies are willing to go to meet Wall Street demands for efficiency, even with the 2024 U.S. election season — and the online chaos that’s expected to ensue — just months away from kickoff. AI ethics and trust and safety are different departments within tech companies but are aligned on goals related to limiting real-life harm that can stem from use of their companies’ products and services.

“Abuse actors are usually ahead of the game; it’s cat and mouse,” said Arjun Narayan, who previously served as a trust and safety lead at Google and TikTok parent ByteDance, and is now head of trust and safety at news aggregator app Smart News. “You’re always playing catch-up.”

For now, tech companies seem to view both trust and safety and AI ethics as cost centers.

Twitter effectively disbanded its ethical AI team in November and laid off all but one of its members, along with 15% of its trust and safety department, according to reports. In February, Google cut about one-third of a unit that aims to protect society from misinformation, radicalization, toxicity and censorship. Meta reportedly ended the contracts of about 200 content moderators in early January. It also laid off at least 16 members of Instagram’s well-being group and more than 100 positions related to trust, integrity and responsibility, according to documents filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Andy Jassy, chief executive officer of Amazon.Com Inc., during the GeekWire Summit in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

David Ryder | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In March, Amazon downsized its responsible AI team and Microsoft laid off its entire ethics and society team – the second of two layoff rounds that reportedly took the team from 30 members to zero. Amazon didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Microsoft pointed to a blog post regarding its job cuts.

At Amazon’s game streaming unit Twitch, staffers learned of their fate in March from an ill-timed internal post from Amazon CEO Andy Jassy.

Jassy’s announcement that 9,000 jobs would be cut companywide included 400 employees at Twitch. Of those, about 50 were part of the team responsible for monitoring abusive, illegal or harmful behavior, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details were private.

The trust and safety team, or T&S as it’s known internally, was losing about 15% of its staff just as content moderation was seemingly more important than ever.

In an email to employees, Twitch CEO Dan Clancy didn’t call out the T&S department specifically, but he confirmed the broader cuts among his staffers, who had just learned about the layoffs from Jassy’s post on a message board.

“I’m disappointed to share the news this way before we’re able to communicate directly to those who will be impacted,” Clancy wrote in the email, which was viewed by CNBC.

‘Hard to win back consumer trust’

A current member of Twitch’s T&S team said the remaining employees in the unit are feeling “whiplash” and worry about a potential second round of layoffs. The person said the cuts caused a big hit to institutional knowledge, adding that there was a significant reduction in Twitch’s law enforcement response team, which deals with physical threats, violence, terrorism groups and self-harm.

A Twitch spokesperson did not provide a comment for this story, instead directing CNBC to a blog post from March announcing the layoffs. The post didn’t include any mention of trust and safety or content moderation.

Narayan of Smart News said that with a lack of investment in safety at the major platforms, companies lose their ability to scale in a way that keeps pace with malicious activity. As more problematic content spreads, there’s an “erosion of trust,” he said.

“In the long run, it’s really hard to win back consumer trust,” Narayan added.

While layoffs at Meta and Amazon followed demands from investors and a dramatic slump in ad revenue and share prices, Twitter’s cuts resulted from a change in ownership.

Almost immediately after Elon Musk closed his $44 billion purchase of Twitter in October, he began eliminating thousands of jobs. That included all but one member of the company’s 17-person AI ethics team, according to Rumman Chowdhury, who served as director of Twitter’s machine learning ethics, transparency and accountability team. The last remaining person ended up quitting.

The team members learned of their status when their laptops were turned off remotely, Chowdhury said. Hours later, they received email notifications. 

“I had just recently gotten head count to build out my AI red team, so these would be the people who would adversarially hack our models from an ethical perspective and try to do that work,” Chowdhury told CNBC. She added, “It really just felt like the rug was pulled as my team was getting into our stride.”

Part of that stride involved working on “algorithmic amplification monitoring,” Chowdhury said, or tracking elections and political parties to see if “content was being amplified in a way that it shouldn’t.”

Chowdhury referenced an initiative in July 2021, when Twitter’s AI ethics team led what was billed as the industry’s first-ever algorithmic bias bounty competition. The company invited outsiders to audit the platform for bias, and made the results public. 

Chowdhury said she worries that now Musk “is actively seeking to undo all the work we have done.”

“There is no internal accountability,” she said. “We served two of the product teams to make sure that what’s happening behind the scenes was serving the people on the platform equitably.”

Twitter did not provide a comment for this story.

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Advertisers are pulling back in places where they see increased reputational risk.

According to Sensor Tower, six of the top 10 categories of U.S. advertisers on Twitter spent much less in the first quarter of this year compared with a year earlier, with that group collectively slashing its spending by 53%. The site has recently come under fire for allowing the spread of violent images and videos.

The rapid rise in popularity of chatbots is only complicating matters. The types of AI models created by OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, and others make it easier to populate fake accounts with content. Researchers from the Allen Institute for AI, Princeton University and Georgia Tech ran tests in ChatGPT’s application programming interface (API), and found up to a sixfold increase in toxicity, depending on which type of functional identity, such as a customer service agent or virtual assistant, a company assigned to the chatbot.

Regulators are paying close attention to AI’s growing influence and the simultaneous downsizing of groups dedicated to AI ethics and trust and safety. Michael Atleson, an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission’s division of advertising practices, called out the paradox in a blog post earlier this month.

“Given these many concerns about the use of new AI tools, it’s perhaps not the best time for firms building or deploying them to remove or fire personnel devoted to ethics and responsibility for AI and engineering,” Atleson wrote. “If the FTC comes calling and you want to convince us that you adequately assessed risks and mitigated harms, these reductions might not be a good look.” 

Meta as a bellwether

For years, as the tech industry was enjoying an extended bull market and the top internet platforms were flush with cash, Meta was viewed by many experts as a leader in prioritizing ethics and safety.

The company spent years hiring trust and safety workers, including many with academic backgrounds in the social sciences, to help avoid a repeat of the 2016 presidential election cycle, when disinformation campaigns, often operated by foreign actors, ran rampant on Facebook. The embarrassment culminated in the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, which exposed how a third party was illicitly using personal data from Facebook.

But following a brutal 2022 for Meta’s ad business — and its stock price — Zuckerberg went into cutting mode, winning plaudits along the way from investors who had complained of the company’s bloat.

Beyond the fact-checking project, the layoffs hit researchers, engineers, user design experts and others who worked on issues pertaining to societal concerns. The company’s dedicated team focused on combating misinformation suffered numerous losses, four former Meta employees said.

Prior to Meta’s first round of layoffs in November, the company had already taken steps to consolidate members of its integrity team into a single unit. In September, Meta merged its central integrity team, which handles social matters, with its business integrity group tasked with addressing ads and business-related issues like spam and fake accounts, ex-employees said.

In the ensuing months, as broader cuts swept across the company, former trust and safety employees described working under the fear of looming layoffs and for managers who sometimes failed to see how their work affected Meta’s bottom line.

For example, things like improving spam filters that required fewer resources could get clearance over long-term safety projects that would entail policy changes, such as initiatives involving misinformation. Employees felt incentivized to take on more manageable tasks because they could show their results in their six-month performance reviews, ex-staffers said.

Ravi Iyer, a former Meta project manager who left the company before the layoffs, said that the cuts across content moderation are less bothersome than the fact that many of the people he knows who lost their jobs were performing critical roles on design and policy changes.

“I don’t think we should reflexively think that having fewer trust and safety workers means platforms will necessarily be worse,” said Iyer, who’s now the managing director of the Psychology of Technology Institute at University of Southern California’s Neely Center. “However, many of the people I’ve seen laid off are amongst the most thoughtful in rethinking the fundamental designs of these platforms, and if platforms are not going to invest in reconsidering design choices that have been proven to be harmful — then yes, we should all be worried.”

A Meta spokesperson previously downplayed the significance of the job cuts in the misinformation unit, tweeting that the “team has been integrated into the broader content integrity team, which is substantially larger and focused on integrity work across the company.”

Still, sources familiar with the matter said that following the layoffs, the company has fewer people working on misinformation issues.

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For those who’ve gained expertise in AI ethics, trust and safety and related content moderation, the employment picture looks grim.

Newly unemployed workers in those fields from across the social media landscape told CNBC that there aren’t many job openings in their area of specialization as companies continue to trim costs. One former Meta employee said that after interviewing for trust and safety roles at Microsoft and Google, those positions were suddenly axed.

An ex-Meta staffer said the company’s retreat from trust and safety is likely to filter down to smaller peers and startups that appear to be “following Meta in terms of their layoff strategy.”

Chowdhury, Twitter’s former AI ethics lead, said these types of jobs are a natural place for cuts because “they’re not seen as driving profit in product.”

“My perspective is that it’s completely the wrong framing,” she said. “But it’s hard to demonstrate value when your value is that you’re not being sued or someone is not being harmed. We don’t have a shiny widget or a fancy model at the end of what we do; what we have is a community that’s safe and protected. That is a long-term financial benefit, but in the quarter over quarter, it’s really hard to measure what that means.” 

At Twitch, the T&S team included people who knew where to look to spot dangerous activity, according to a former employee in the group. That’s particularly important in gaming, which is “its own unique beast,” the person said.

Now, there are fewer people checking in on the “dark, scary places” where offenders hide and abusive activity gets groomed, the ex-employee added.

More importantly, nobody knows how bad it can get.

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Jared Kushner’s post-White House deal-making included badly timed bet on Amazon aggregator

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A video of Jared Kushner is shown on a screen, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, July 21, 2022. 

Alex Brandon | Reuters

In March 2022, Jared Kushner was called to testify in front of the Jan. 6 House committee regarding the attack on the Capitol that occurred in the waning days of his father-in-law’s presidency. In his private life, meanwhile, Kushner was doing deals, including one that took him to a niche and soon-to-be troubled corner of Amazon’s e-commerce empire.

Weeks ahead of his testimony in Washington, Kushner and others from his private equity firm, Affinity Partners, took a boat from their beach office in South Florida to meet with a company called Unybrands at its headquarters in nearby Miami, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the talks were private.

Unybrands, founded in 2020, was one of many players in the then-booming market of Amazon seller aggregators. Companies in the space took advantage of low interest rates and pandemic-driven growth in e-commerce to collectively raise more than $16 billion from top names on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley with the intent of rolling up independent sellers on Amazon’s marketplace.

Kushner started Affinity in 2021, shortly after leaving his advisory role in the White House alongside his wife, Ivanka Trump. With Affinity, he attracted headlines for raising some $2 billion from the Saudi government, a highly controversial move given the cozy relationship between the Trump administration and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence officials said approved an operation to capture and kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

When it came to the Amazon aggregator market, Kushner was jumping in at the worst possible time. The tech bubble was bursting following a record wave of venture investment in 2021, when investors across the globe pumped $621 billion into startups and high-growth companies, more than double the prior record set a year earlier, according to CB Insights data. Rising rates and soaring inflation in 2022 led to slowing growth and layoffs across the industry, including at Unybrands.

Kushner was introduced to Unybrands by a tech entrepreneur whose company also had financial ties to Saudi Arabia, WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann, two people with knowledge of the matter said. Prior to its failed IPO in 2019, WeWork had raised billions of dollars from SoftBank and its Saudi-backed Vision Fund.

Neumann’s family office invested in Unybrands around the peak of the aggregator market in 2021, according to filings in the U.K., where the company has an operation. Neumann, who was ultimately ousted from WeWork by top SoftBank execs, introduced Kushner to Unybrands early the following year.

For about 90 minutes on that March day, members of Unybrands’ C-suite fielded questions from Kushner and his team, and showed off some of the eclectic mix of products the company had acquired: dietary supplements, cookware, microwavable weighted stuffed animals and the top-selling nail dryer on Amazon, the sources said.

Kushner was impressed by what he saw, they said. A month after the meeting, he wrote Unybrands a check for $75 million, according to documents viewed by CNBC.

Affinity’s investment in Unybrands, which hasn’t previously been reported, was one of the private equity firm’s earliest deals. It’s since backed a handful of companies, including a fitness technology startup, an online classifieds operator and a solar financing company, with its investments totaling a reported $1.2 billion to date. 

As Kushner was getting into Unybrands, tech stocks were cratering. The IPO window slammed shut in 2022 and venture funding dried up for cash-burning startups. The Amazon aggregator space, which had blossomed during the pandemic, began to unwind as consumers tightened their belts and more people returned to brick-and-mortar stores. Aggregators that, less than a year earlier were throwing lavish cocktail parties and giving away Teslas for referrals, were suddenly strapped for cash.

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The cost of doing business on Amazon — from advertising and listing fees to shipping and fulfillment — continued to creep up, making it harder for aggregators to run the companies they’d acquired profitably. Layoffs ensued, and some companies sold off underperforming brands.

The most high-profile collapse was Thrasio, which was once valued at a reported $10 billion before filing for bankruptcy in February of this year. The company then lost its CEO and a string of top executives, CNBC previously reported.

Distressed deals have been occurring across the space. Razor Group, which counts L Catterton and BlackRock among its investors, acquired SoftBank-backed Perch in March. Heyday, backed by Khosla Ventures, has been exploring tie-ups with other aggregators, a former employee said. The company laid off its entire creative and brand teams in November, said the person, who asked not to be named because of confidentiality.

Heyday approached Dragonfly, whose backers include L Catterton, about a merger but the talks fell apart in recent months, according to a separate person with knowledge of the matter.

Heyday didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Unybrands also began seeking a buyer. In February, the company sent a deck to prospective acquirers and investors, a person familiar with the matter said.

Unybrands said in an emailed statement that the company explored strategic opportunities as the aggregator space “was full of disruption” in 2023. The company and its investors ultimately decided to continue raising funds internally, Unybrands said.

Unybrands confirmed to CNBC that Affinity invested in the company in 2022, though it didn’t specify how much it raised from Kushner’s firm.

‘Kick-the-can’ mergers

Some of the consolidation is being fueled by lenders who want to avoid write-downs, sources close to a number of deals told CNBC. Jason Somerville, a founding partner of consulting firm GW Partners, which has advised sellers and aggregators on deals, echoed that sentiment.

“I call it more of a kick-the-can type of merger, where you have common debt or common equity mergers, and they jam them together to maybe restructure the debt,” Somerville said. “Pretty much 100% of these are being done in a distressed situation.”

At Unybrands, year-over-year revenue growth had slowed to 11% in March 2022, from 27% in February and 34% in January, according to internal documents reviewed by CNBC. 

Following a continued slide, the company laid off roughly 10% of its staff in November 2022, according to people familiar with the matter. Unybrands held another round of job cuts last year, and again at the beginning of this year, the people said.

Unybrands told CNBC it grew almost 20% in 2022, reaching its target, though it didn’t say how much of that expansion came through acquisitions. The company also said it’s “never had a month with declining sales” and has focused on profitability and generating positive cash flow.

Unybrands didn’t directly respond to questions about whether it’s conducted layoffs. The company said headcount has grown from 115 employees in January 2022 to more than 230 employees as of this year.

For Kushner, the investment in Unybrands was part of an expanding portfolio. Kushner, now 43, was embarking on a new career in private equity after four years in the Trump administration. Prior to that, he spent nearly a decade running his family’s real estate business.

Affinity is backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which oversees $925 billion in assets and has spent years cozying up to big-name investors, particularly in technology, in an effort to diversify the kingdom’s revenue away from oil. Affinity also reportedly received hundreds of millions of dollars from wealth funds in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

President Donald Trump, flanked by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (2nd R) and chief economic advisor Gary Cohn (R), delivers remarks to reporters after meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman (L) at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The sources of capital received scrutiny due to Kushner’s diplomacy work in the Middle East while he was in the White House, as well as his friendly relationship with the Saudi crown prince. The House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into the investment in 2022, looking into whether Kushner’s financial interests influenced Trump’s foreign policy.

“Your support for Saudi interests was unwavering, even as Congress and the rest of the world closely scrutinized the country’s human rights abuses in Yemen, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi assassins tied to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on political dissidents at home,” Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who was chair of the Oversight Committee, wrote in a letter to Kushner in June 2022.

Republicans on the committee have delayed Democrats’ efforts to subpoena Kushner over the matter.

On Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., initiated a new probe into Affinity, saying in a release on his website that he’s seeking “information pertaining to the tens of millions in payments Kushner is receiving from the Saudis and other foreign sources every year while exploiting private investment fund disclosure loopholes to shield the arrangement from public scrutiny.”

A representative for Kushner didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Taking control

Unybrands was still trying to expand as early as February of this year despite the turmoil in the market. The company announced a new funding round — an undisclosed amount from unnamed investors — alongside the acquisition of another company that would bring in six new brands to its portfolio. The investment would also go toward repaying $300 million in debt owed to asset management firm Crayhill Capital Management from a financing round in 2021.

At the same time, Unybrands overhauled its board. Co-founder and CEO Ulrich Kratz, a former Barclays and Goldman Sachs executive, resigned as a director, along with the company’s two other co-founders, according to filings. 

Kratz hailed the new funding as a “huge day” for Unybrands in a February LinkedIn post.

“We’re now positioned better than ever to serve our customers and to continue to provide attractive exits for successful entrepreneurs,” he said.

While Unybrands provided scant details about the investment, filings with the U.K.’s corporate register show that in March, Unybrands transferred control of the company to a new entity owned by Kushner and affiliated with Affinity called AP Investments II.

Two years after Kushner’s first meeting with the company, U.K. records show Unybrands reincorporated as UBHoldCo. Filings indicate that AP Investments II maintains control of the business.

“The relevant legal entity holds, directly or indirectly, 75% or more of the shares of the company,” the filing says, referring to the firm’s control of UBHoldCo.

Unybrands acknowledged the ownership change in a memo to shareholders about the funding round last month, though it didn’t confirm Affinity’s involvement.

“As part of the financing the Crayhill debt was repaid,” Unybrands wrote in the memo, which was viewed by CNBC. “It also became necessary to make some changes to our corporate structure, which has meant that our group’s operating assets have been transferred to a new entity.”

UBHoldCo lists Ian Brekke, Affinity’s chief compliance officer, and Affinity partner Asad Naqvi as directors. Unybrands’ original holding company also remains active and lists two directors. One is Affinity partner Bret Pearlman, a former Blackstone managing director who also co-founded Elevation Partners with Roger McNamee. The other is Max Fink, a partner at Neumann’s family office, 166 2nd Financial Services.

It’s unclear how the entities and their boards operate within Unybrands’ corporate structure. The company notified shareholders late last month that “our investor” recently finalized its tax structuring, and that it would share more details on the financing soon, according to a document viewed by CNBC.

Unybrands told CNBC it’s in the process of consolidating its operations under one entity with one board made up of its “operating partners” and investors. The company confirmed its most recent funding round included Affinity, alongside Neumann’s family office and angel investors. The company added that Kratz continues to lead the business.

Representatives from Affinity didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Brekke, Naqvi, Pearlman and Fink also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Israeli-American businessman Adam Neumann speaks during The Israeli American Council (IAC) 8th Annual National Summit on January 19, 2023 in Austin, Texas.

Shahar Azran | Getty Images

Neumann, who reportedly developed a relationship with Kushner when he was in the Trump administration, had ties to Unybrands through its co-founder Eugen Miropolski, former COO of WeWork.  

Several high-profile executives have also recently departed Unybrands since Affinity effectively took control. CFO Robyn Laguette stepped down in March, according to her LinkedIn profile. Mark Goldfinger, who was vice president of growth and was involved in the Affinity deal, left in April, he confirmed in an email to CNBC.

Kushner has never spoken publicly about Unybrands or acknowledged his firm’s investment in the company. He said recently that he’s focused on investing and won’t be returning to the White House should Donald Trump defeat President Joe Biden in the November election.

“I’ve been very clear that my desire at this phase of my life is to focus on my firm,” Kushner said at an Axios event in February.

While Unybrands may end up as a relatively small write-off for his multibillion-dollar firm, other questions are still swirling.

In October, Kushner appeared on the “Lex Fridman Podcast,” a popular show that’s drawn a range of guests from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman to Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West.

Asked about Affinity’s backers, Kushner said he hasn’t been accused of violating any laws or ethics rules, and said one of his goals with the firm is to build “economic links” between the Gulf and Israel.

“I think we’re doing very well with it,” Kushner said. “In terms of the criticisms, I think that I’ve been criticized in every step of everything I’ve always done in my life. And so what I would say is this business is actually an objective metric business. It’s about returns. So in three, four years from now, five years from now, see how I do. Hopefully I’ll do very well, and judge me based on that.”

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This fintech configures expense cards to block misuse — and investors just backed it with millions

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This fintech configures expense cards to block misuse — and investors just backed it with millions

Miragec | Moment | Getty Images

A startup that uses technology to stop employees from abusing corporate expenses just raised 8 million euros ($8.6 million) of funding from investors, defying a slump in investment for the financial technology industry.

CleverCards, a Dublin-based firm, uses a digital platform linked to configurable expense cards to give companies control over how their employees use their corporate payment cards.

According to a 2016 global survey of CFOs by human resources firm Robert Half, employees have made several improper expense report requests including a doggie day spa, taxidermy services, dance classes, a side of beef and even a welder.

These requests, though odd, reflect a tough reality for many companies when it comes to corporate expenses: sometimes they can’t trust an employees’ judgment.

CleverCards CEO Kealan Lennon says his platform aims to tackle exactly that.

Rather than handing employees corporate credit cards they can go out and use for purchases anywhere in the world, CleverCards allows businesses to deliver prepaid cards that can be configured to only be used by certain members of staff and block certain transactions if they’re viewed as inappropriate.

“Businesses want to make sure the right employee is the one that gets the card, and that it’s only used for certain purposes,” Lennon told CNBC in an interview.

“It’s finance control,” he added. “The idea of a configurable payments platform hadn’t been done before. And by doing it digitally, that allowed customers come along and say, I want to be able to do this with the press of a button.”

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CleverCards told CNBC exclusively Friday that it raised new funds in an investment round led by strategic investor Pluxee. The fresh investment takes the total money raised by CleverCards to date to over 28 million euros.

Pluxee is an employee vouchers and benefits platform that spun off from French food catering firm Sodexo earlier this year.

It is listed on the Euronext stock exchange in France with a valuation of 4 billion euros.

Taking business from Adyen, Stripe

Founded in 2019, CleverCards has signed up over 10,000 businesses as customers. It counts the likes of eBay, PaddyPower, Betfair, Accenture, Microsoft and Apple as clients.

Besides these businesses, CleverCard also works with public sector organizations.

In 2022, CleverCards partnered with the U.K. government to help release social welfare payments to people on smart meters who usually pay their bills through direct debit, but have been forced to seek additional financial help due to rising fuel prices. The cards could only be used to pay bills on select utility companies’ websites.

CleverCards deployed artificial intelligence to conduct identity verification checks on recipients, helping to avoid fraud, according to Lennon.

Lennon said that CleverCards’ funding round stood out in what has been a brutal market for dealmaking and fundraising in fintech.

“It is a tough environment,” he said. “In the current market logjam, it has been pretty impressive now to raise money because nobody’s raising capital.”

He said CleverCards is increasingly snatching business away from the likes of payment tech giants Adyen and Stripe.

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“It’s been remarkable in that, as a smaller company, right, we were looking at the Stripes and Adyens and powering ahead,” he said, adding that, now, “we’ve won business against them.”

CleverCards will use the fresh funds to expand its business, scale its products and explore broader opportunities, it said.

In addition to the fundraise, CleverCards appointed five new non-executive directors to its board with experience in payments technology.

They include industry veterans Patrick Waldron, Donal Daly, Marc Frappier, Garry Lyons and Viktoria Otero del Val.

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Elon Musk claims Optimus robots could make Tesla a $25 trillion company — more than half the value of the S&P 500 today

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Elon Musk claims Optimus robots could make Tesla a  trillion company — more than half the value of the S&P 500 today

A mockup of Tesla Inc.’s planned humanoid robot Optimus on display during the Seoul Mobility Show in Goyang, South Korea, on Thursday, March 30, 2023. The motor show will continue through April 9. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The entire value of the S&P 500 currently stands at $45.5 trillion, according to FactSet. Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed on Thursday that his company’s Optimus humanoid robots could eventually make the automaker worth more than half of that.

Musk, who characterized himself as “pathologically optimistic” at the 2024 annual shareholder meeting in Austin, Texas, said Tesla is embarking on not just a “new chapter” in its life, but is about to write an entirely “new book.” Optimus appears to be one of the main characters.

Tesla first revealed its plans to work on humanoid robots in 2021 at an AI Day event, trotting out a dancer in a unitard that looked like a sleek, androgynous robot.

In January, Tesla showed off Optimus robots folding laundry in a demo video that was immediately criticized by robotics engineers for being deceptive. The robots were not autonomous, but were rather being operated with humans at the controls.

At the shareholder event on Thursday, Musk didn’t divulge exactly what Optimus can do today. He suggested the robots some day will perform like R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars. They could cook or clean for you, do factory work, or even teach your children, Musk suggested.

As for shareholder value, Musk said Optimus could be the catalyst for lifting Tesla’s market cap to $25 trillion someday.

Speaking to a crowd consisting mostly of fawning fanboys in an auditorium at the Gigafactory, Musk promised Tesla would move into “limited production” of Optimus in 2025 and test out humanoid robots in its own factories next year.

The company, he predicted, will have “over 1,000, or a few thousand, Optimus robots working at Tesla” in 2025.

This is all far-out stuff even for Musk, who is notorious for making ambitious promises to investors and customers that don’t pan out — from developing software that can turn an existing Tesla into a self-driving vehicle with an upload, to EV battery swapping stations.

Getting to a $25 trillion market cap would mean that Tesla would be worth about eight times Apple’s value today. The iPhone maker is currently the world’s biggest company by market cap, just ahead of Microsoft.

At Thursday’s close, Tesla was valued at about $580 billion, making it the 10th most valuable company in the S&P 500.

Musk didn’t provide a timeframe for reaching $25 trillion. He did say that autonomous vehicles could get the company to a market cap of $5 trillion to $7 trillion.

ARK Invest CEO Cathie Wood on $2600 Tesla price target: An autonomous taxi platform has to happen

Musk said he agreed with numbers from long-time Tesla bull Cathie Wood, the CEO of ARK Invest. This week, ARK put a $2,600 price target on Tesla’s stock by 2029, betting on a commercial robotaxi business that the company has yet to enter.

Wood’s price target equals a market cap for Tesla of over $8 trillion.

Musk’s comments at the annual meeting followed the shareholder vote to reinstate the CEO’s $56 billion pay plan, five months after a Delaware court ordered the company to rescind the package. The crowd cheered when the proposal was read aloud, and when preliminary results were announced.

Taking the stage following the readout of the shareholder votes, Musk said, “I just want to start off by saying hot d—! I love you guys.”

Tesla shares have dropped 27% this year as the company reckons with a sales decline that’s tied in part to an aging lineup of electric vehicles and increased competition in China. The company has also implemented steep layoffs. Musk has encouraged investors to look past the current state of the business and more toward a future of autonomous driving, robots and artificial intelligence.

Among his boldest claims on Thursday was Musk’s declaration that Tesla had advanced so far in developing silicon that it’s surpassed Nvidia when it comes to inference, or the process that trained machine learning models use to draw conclusions from new data.

Nvidia shares have soared almost nine-fold since the end of 2022, driven by demand for its AI chips. The company is now worth about $3.2 trillion.

One concern swirling around Musk is his focus on Tesla given all of his other commitments. He owns and runs social media company X, is CEO of SpaceX, and founded The Boring Co. and Neuralink. He launched another startup, xAI, in March last year and the company recently raised $6 billion in venture funding.

Musk was asked by a shareholder at the meeting how important he is, personally, to the future of Tesla.

“I’m a helpful accelerant to that future,” he said, emphasizing his role in innovation.

He said that, when it comes to humanoid robots, other companies, including tech startups, are going after the market. Competitors include Boston Dynamics, Agility, Neura and Apptronik.

“What really matters is, can we be much faster than everyone else and our product be done a few years before theirs and be better,” Musk said.

WATCH: Tesla shareholders approve Musk’s $56 billion pay package

Tesla shareholders approve CEO Musk's $56 billion pay package

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