Back in March, startup studio Betaworks announced that it was partnering with James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems to create a new program called Betalab, which would fund and mentor early-stage startups that would try to “Fix the Internet.”
In the initial announcement, Betaworks CEO John Borthwick said, “While migrating our social lives to the internet allowed us to share our lives and interact with people we never could have before, we are also fragmenting our experiences and relationships as data-driven businesses and governments are tracking almost every inch of our existence.” He also noted that online technologies are being “weaponized to target, fragment, tribalize and disenfranchise citizens, to overwhelm us and our society with disinformation.”
Now Betaworks is unveiling the first four startups selected. Danika Laszuk, general manager of the Betalab program, said that this will be the firm’s first virtual startup program — and for that reason, they deliberately kept it smaller than a standard Betaworks Camp cohort.
“This is the first time we’ve done this, so I want to see everyone’s face on one Zoom screen,” Laszuk told me.
At the same time, Betalab has kept its applications open and plans to welcome a new cohort of startups in the new year.
There’s an obvious sense of worry in the Betalab mission — a hard-to-dispute belief that the internet has eroded privacy and spread misinformation — but Laszuk argued that the team is looking to tackle these problems with “the optimism of technologists” and the belief there are “a lot of people with great ideas and the wherewithal to build them and fix things in the world.”
How can a startup hope to solve these big problems? Laszuk said that the Betalab approach focuses, in part, on properly aligning incentives: “We are biased towards the product being the thing that technologists are building. We’re not excited about businesses collecting data to figure out what to do with it later.”
In addition, it sounds like she’s interested in a more pragmatic view toward the big internet platforms.
“We’re looking to invest in a generation of companies that acknowledges Google’s not going anywhere, Facebook’s not going anywhere,” Laszuk said. “People get tons of benefits out of those products. I don’t think we stand in the camp where if we could, we’d snap our fingers and destroy them all tomorrow.”
The goal, she continued, is to support “the internet as it exists today and get all the benefit of the internet,” while also providing “a way to safeguard our privacy, to try to incentivize civil discourse as opposed to clickbait and incendiary behavior.”
With all of that said, here are the startups:
- Savepoint is a mobile games company that uses game mechanics to improve players’ lives. (Laszuk acknowledged that description is a bit vague, and she promised more details once the startup leaves stealth.)
- International Persuasion Machines is a cybersecurity company building tools to assess and, when necessary, combat algorithmic manipulation and other forms of platform abuse.
- Synthetaic is a data company trying to eliminate edge cases by “growing” high-quality data for machine learning.
- Nth Party allows customers to exchange encrypted data sets without decrypting them, with the goal of enabling collaboration and personalization without sacrificing privacy.