Postepic is an app for elegantly sharing book quotes

It’s fair to say the smartphone camera has become the digital tool of most use, rendering the average person’s camera roll essentially a memory buffer where carefully composed photographs rub up against snaps of receipts, funny stuff you saw on the street and fancied sharing with friends, and, sometimes, snippets of text you came across in a (paper) book and wanted to make a note of. Snapping a photo in that moment is a stand in for the lack of real-world copy and paste.

And it’s the latter kind of photo (text quotations) that the founders of smartphone app Postepic want to liberate from this unstructured jumble of visual data. Indeed, the first version of the app, released last year as a bootstrapping side-project by a bunch of book-loving friends after they graduated from university in Poland, was just a basic way for them to organize and share photos of the quotations they had cluttering their camera rolls.

“We started this project as we wanted to build something together,” says co-founder Łukasz Konofalski. “We all share a passion for books and were used to sharing quotes and books recommendations between each other. We came across some reports that showed that in Poland in 2016 only half a book will be read on average, so we also wanted to support readership in general by building a bridge between traditional books and mobile world.

“Two things really surprised us when we finally launched it in June 2016: the number of new books worth reading we discovered by simply sharing quotes with each other; and a very warm reception we received from the developers and users communities alike. We have received volumes of valuable feedback from them — and got back to work.”

Version 2 of the app, which launched this week, turns a basic idea into an app that has enough form and function to feel appealing to use. The core additional feature is optical character recognition (OCR) — meaning that instead of uploading and sharing ugly-looking (and hard to read) chunks of raw page text, i.e. in their original photo form, Postepic users can now lift the words off the page, capturing and editing the text and its visual presentation by choosing from a selection of fonts and backgrounds.

The final result presents the text snippet inside a square frame, in a way that’s both easy to read and visibly pleasing (for an example of how utilitarian quotes looked in v1 of the app see the image at the bottom of this post). So Postepic basically lets people turn a favorite quote into an easily shareable unit of digital social currency. Aka, an ‘Instagram for book quotes’.

Last year Facebook added a feature aimed at enhancing the impact of the text statuses being shared via its platform, giving users the ability to add colored backgrounds to their text updates to make them more visual. And with so much visual noise being injected into messaging and communications apps, this is hardly surprising. Point is, if you want something to stand out in the age of Instagram Stories (Snapchat Stories, Facebook Stories, WhatsApp Stories… etc etc), it has to look right as the bar for being noticed keeps getting higher.

And with all this visual noise clamoring for our attention, it can feel like the written word is being forgotten or overlooked as people ditch a thousand words in favor of sharing a few photos. Yet a well-turned phrase has the power to be both arresting and enlightening, as well as a hint of greater depths lurking within the full work. So given how much attention has been (and continues to be) lavished on visual forms of communication — from photo filters to selfie lenses to style transfer — there’s arguably space for a clever social sharing app that brings the power of the written word back into focus.

Notably, Apple’s new social video sharing app Clips includes an auto-captioning feature. That’s great for accessibility, but also a reminder that words-as-text still have power and — with a little technological automagic — can be effortlessly edited back into the selfie frame.

Postepic is not the first app to take a shot at wordy snippets, though. Others have tried to build an ‘Instagram for book quotes’ — Quotle, for example — but no one has yet managed to generate significant momentum for the concept. It might be because sharing book snippets is inherently more niche than sharing photos (it’s certainly more bounded, given language barriers). Or because no one has made a slick enough version to attract more mainstream appeal.

Postepic’s v2 app seems to beat Quotle on OCR speed. And because it’s chosen to fix the sharing format as a square its content inherently feels better groomed for social sharing vs the more wordy/text-heavy Quotle. (Although, on the flip side, Postepic’s ease of use and more formulaic format might attract a flood of cliché sharers and drive down the quality of discoverable quotes.) But clearly the founders’ hope is that the uniform sharing format sets Postepic up to benefit from viral uplift if users share watermarked quotes to their larger follower bases on platforms like Instagram (as other apps have). Time will tell if they can make it catch on.

It’s certainly still a fairly unformed thing at this stage, especially given the size and nature of its early adopter community — having only clocked a few thousand downloads for its MVP v1 via a launch on Product Hunt. So even though the team has curated a bunch of quotations themselves to populate the app, you’re more likely to find quotes about scaling a startup than lines from a Shakespearean sonnet. But the core function of v2 has been executed well, within a clear app structure. So it’s super simple to capture, edit and share nicely presented quotes.

Quotation length is capped at 600 characters to ensure readability (and curtail any copyright concerns). Photo backgrounds are also limited to a handful of generic shots and textures offered within the app — at least for now, to avoid users uploading inappropriate imagery, says Konofalski (on that front, remember Secret?). While the OCR tech supports ten languages at this point: Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

The app also lets you tag quotations for subject matter and to add sources (a requirement if you’re making a quote public). Using these labels you can then browse and search quotes, while a favorites feature lets you curate a like-list if you spot quotes shared by others that you like. And if you don’t want to share the quotes you create with the crowd you don’t have to — you can keep individual quotes private and just use the app to create an organized, visual library of the best bits from the books you’re reading.

On the community front, the main feed of Postepic is an assorted jumble for now, showing a stream of non-topic sorted ‘trending’ quotes that Konofalski says turns over every few hours based on what others are liking. Currently there’s no way to follow other users to customize what you see here but that’s down to how nascent the community is. “Our goal is to offer a solution that many content and photo sharing apps use: to give users a choice to pick their favorite genres and authors to adjust their feed,” he says. “Additionally, we want to launch a functionality of following other users, so their posts show up in user’s feed… [but] decided to postpone the functionality… until we reach a community size that would warrant this.”

Postepic does also support social sharing to other platforms, as you’d expect. Though this doesn’t always work as you’d imagine. For example, testing sharing to WhatsApp the app merely created a generic text message with a link to view the quote in Postepic, rather than including the visual form of the quote in a WhatsApp message template (though this is likely a WhatsApp restriction on sharing from a third party app). A basic workaround is obviously to screengrab a quote and upload it manually where you like as a photo. Sharing to Twitter incorporated both the image and a text message with a link when I tested it. Konofalski says that with most “well known apps” it will automatically import/drop an image into the other app.

The app is free to download (and iOS only for now), and while the team says it has a few ideas for potential monetization down the line — such as hosting pre-launch book campaigns, or offering writers a subscription-based platform to connect with fans — the focus for now is fully on building up the size of the community to try to reach a “critical mass” of readers.

Spotify Premium Director Robert Lamvik leaves company for meditation app Headspace

Meditation app Headspace recently brought on Robert Lamvik, Spotify’s now-former director of its Premium service, and Dr. Megan Jones Bell, former chief science officer at mental health startup Lantern. Their respective roles at Headspace are head of growth and chief science officer — two new roles at the company.

“We’ve always had team of scientists, but as we go into this next stage of growth, we thought it was important to build out the seniority of the team and bring real leadership to it,” Headspace co-founder Rich Pierson told me. “It’s a really important part of what we do. With the growth side, we’ve got to that stage now where turning our free users into subscribers is a really important part of the mission as well.”

Lamvik spent almost four years at Spotify working on the music streaming company’s growth and revenue initiatives, i.e. subscription service Spotify Premium. With Lamvik on board Headspace as head of growth, the goal is to essentially turn Headspace into a subscription leader like Spotify.

“[Spotify has] basically perfected the freemium model,” Lamvik told me. “This was an opportunity to join a mission-driven startup like Headspace and an opportunity to bring people together and bridge together health and happiness.”

He went on to say that his goal at Headspace will be to educate and inspire people to learn more about the freemium product. Lamvik’s departure from Spotify is notable, given that Spotify has been rumored to be considering going public but might not take the traditional approach of filing an initial public offering, TechCrunch’s Katie Roof reported this past week.

Headspace makes money through selling subscriptions to its guided meditations. Anyone can try out the service for free through Headspace’s “Take 10” program, which offers 10 guided meditations that you can replay as many times as you want. But if you want a variety of meditations, that’s where the money comes in. Headspace has a few membership plans. One costs $12.95 per month on a month-to-month basis and another costs $7.99 per month if you sign up for a full year.

Headspace wouldn’t get into specifics about growth projections, but was willing to say that more than 14 million people have downloaded the app, and that the goal is to more than double revenue this year versus last year. Super helpful, I know.

 Bell, on the other hand, told TechCrunch she was attracted to Headspace for the “broader canvas to paint on” in regards to changing the culture around mental health wellness.

“For me, joining Headspace is bringing me back to the root of my personal and professional mission — to make that broader impact,” Bell said.

As chief science officer, Bell plans to expand upon the research and evidence of the work Headspace is doing.

“We’re very keen to show measurable impact and particularly to validate that,” Bell said.

Headspace has raised $38.3 million in funding, with its most recent round coming in at $30 million in September 2015 from The Chernin Group, Advancit Capital, Allen & Company, Breyer Capital, The Honest Company co-founder Jessica Alba, actor Jared Leto, TV personality Ryan Seacrest, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and others.

Robinhood stock trading app valued at $1.3 billion with big raise from DST

Zero-fee stock trading app Robinhood is completing a huge fund raise to fuel its attack on old brokerage firms that charge around $7 to $10 per trade. According to sources, the round is led by Yuri Milner investment vehicle DST Global and values the company at $1.3 billion. Robinhood declined to comment.

Robinhood got its start in 2013 by offering a way for younger, less-wealthy users to start investing. It provides an easy-to-use app for free tracking and trading of stocks. Robinhood replaces the traditional brokerages like Scottrade and E*Trade which charge per trade to cover their brick-and-mortar franchise, sales staff and marketing spend.

Because Robinhood instead employs a leaner engineering-focused team and doesn’t need physical locations, it can pass the savings on to customers and undercut competitors by charging no per-trade fee.

Robinhood founders Baiju Bhatt (left) and Vladimir Tenev (right)

Robinhood has since built a platform that allows other developers to offer zero-fee trades in their own apps. Last year, it launched its primary revenue stream, a $10 per month premium Robinhood Gold option. That allows users to skip the three-day waiting period for deposits and make trades instantly, as well as borrow up to double the amount of money in their account to trade on margin with leverage.

Sources say Robinhood Gold has sold better than expected, which likely gave it the momentum for this big raise as investors seek to ‘pour gasoline on the fire’. Robinhood’s status was further bolstered by the fact that established brokerage Charles Schwab reduced its fees in February.

At the time, the startup issued a statement that “We’re happy to see Charles Schwab lower its commission fees. Ideally, they would have eliminated them altogether, along with the required $1,000 account minimum. At Robinhood, we view commission fees as arbitrary mark-ups like taxes, which discourage participation in the financial markets.”

Robinhood will have to continue to minimize fraud rates that could threaten its finances. It will also have to jump plenty of regulatory hoops to expand further abroad. It’s made in-roads to China through Baidu, though that will still be a tough market to crack from the outside.

Earlier today, Fortune reported that Robinhood was seeking a round of financing valuing it at more than $1 billion. Sources tell us that the deal is essentially done, and was led by DST Global, which put in money at a $1.3 billion pre-money valuation.

DST is best known for its investments in companies like Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and Zynga in the years leading up to those companies going public. Since then the firm has been quieter but no less active, as it continues to fund high-growth later-stage companies.

Most recently, Robinhood raised $50 million from New Enterprise Associates in early 2015. Prior to the DST investment, the company had raised $66 million total, with previous investors including Index Ventures,  Andreessen Horowitz, Elefund, GV, IT Ventures, LocalGlobe and Machine Shop Ventures, as well as angel investors Aaron Levie, Dave Morin, Howard Lindzon, Jared Leto, Jordan Mendell and Nasir “Nas” Jones.

DST and other investors may see outdated brokerages which haven’t swiftly adopted mobile technology as running scared. Unless or until they approach Robinhood’s $0 price point, the startup has an opportunity to steal their customers while recruiting new ones who aren’t rich enough to afford the traditional fees.

Scientists use magnetic fields to remotely control biologically inspired soft robots

The field of soft robotics has been the subject of increasing interest in recent years for the alternatives it presents to the rigid machines we tend to associate with the space. A team of scientists at North Carolina State University is offering an interesting take on the space, utilizing magnetic fields to move around the biologically inspired robots.

In a paper published earlier this week, the team highlights how magnetic fields can be used to control predetermined movements in the small soft robots, potentially paving the way for their use in a variety of different fields, including different biomedical applications, like embedded pumps that can be triggered remotely to deliver medication to a system.

The team’s work means that movement can be induced remotely in the robots. It also can be accomplished without having to tether the robot or plug it into a power source or air pump, as is the case with more traditional soft robots, which require their bladders to be inflated and deflated in order to perform tasks like opening and closing a soft robotic hand.

“The magnet chains are embedded in the polymer, and when we apply a magnetic field, a torque is generated that tries to align the chains with the field directions,” associate professor Joe Tracy tells TechCrunch. “So, if the polymer can bend, it’s free to bend in a direction that allows the chains to align with the field, then it will bend.”

Using magnetic particles embedded in the device, the team is able to get the robot to complete relatively complex tasks, in spite of their simple designs. Video of the team’s work in action looks downright alien. When a magnetic field is applied to the structures, an accordion-shaped soft robot flattens and a straight one coils. The moving structures bring to mind bacteria, moving at the behest of some invisible force.

For those familiar with the field of soft robotics, they no doubt also conjure up memories of the work of Harvard’s team, like George Whiteside’s otherworldly multi-gait robot, which is capable of shimmying under a door. Like that octopus-inspired robot, the team at NCSU has drawn its inspiration from nature.

“A lot of the idea behind soft robots is biomimetic,” says Tracy. “We see how plants and animals work, and a lot of that is soft materials. The overall field is trying to move in the way of mimicking nature and natural structures.”

Soft robots have a number of built-in advantages over their more traditional counterparts. They’re cheaper, they’re more pliable and they’re safer for human interaction than their harder predecessors.

And the team’s robots take the notion of simplicity even further, stripping the robots to their bare minimum, while still making them capable of lifting up to 50 times their own weight, expanding and contracting and working as a makeshift pump.

At present, each is only capable of a single task, but part of the beauty of soft robotics is a pliability that allows them to be manipulated to perform different tasks. For now, however, the team is able to alter the strength and the direction of the reaction, based on the magnetic field.