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Gadgets We Tried And Loved in 2021

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There were plenty of predictable new tech things in 2021, like the latest iPhones or laptops. These are some of the weird, fun, or just useful things we tried out and actually recommend — from e-bikes to a cheapo phone stand, guitar pedals, and even a ’70s-style role-playing game.

These items were independently selected by staff and except where noted, they spent their own money on it. Just so you know, BuzzFeed may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page if you decide to shop from them. Oh, and FYI — prices are accurate and items in stock as of the time of publication.

AirPods Max — $549 at Apple

Look, Apple’s AirPods Max are some expensive headphones — like months’-worth-of-groceries expensive (Apple loaned BuzzFeed a pair to review.) And let’s be honest, your current earbuds probably sound pretty great and have more daily use cases. But if you feel you need over-ear headphones, the AirPods Max are a really good choice. They pump out clear, gloriously rich sound with solid separation. I am no audiophile, so I’ll not belabor this with “omg a unique magnesium cone!” minutiae. What I will say is that these headphones adeptly handled everything I threw at them, from the most annoyingly quiet Sufjan Stevens to colon-rupturing Swedish math metal. And they nailed the low note on Beastie Boys’ “Shake Your Rump,” which is the bass metric all headphones should be judged on. Beyond this, they’re thoughtfully designed, though their precious little charging purse is a bit much. So, yeah, if you’re intent on purchasing some high-end headphones, you’re not going to go wrong with these. But also: Groceries are a fun thing to have. —John Paczkowski

Casper Glow Light — $116 at Casper

It’s a very nice ambient light. You spin it to make it brighter or dimmer, which is both fun and handy. I use it as a bedside light and also as mood lighting in the living room when I watch TV at night. Then I can shut everything off and go to the bathroom or back to bed using just this light, which makes me feel like I’m in an old-timey movie using a candlestick. Convenient and pleasant! —Shannon Keating

Apple AirTags for my TV remote and rubber remote case — AirTags: $29 for one or $99 for four at Apple. Case: $7.99 at Amazon.

The remote is by far the worst part of the older-model Apple TVs. It’s somehow super slippery in your hand and so light it feels hard to control. It’s super thin and small, the perfect size for losing between couch cushions. The newest 4K Apple TVs come with an improved remote, which is sold separately for $59, but that’s way more than I want to spend.

So instead I put one of these rubber covers on my current remote. It makes it grippy and easy to hold, and the bright color is easy to find, which was great until my toddler decided it is her most coveted toy. Finding the remote very quickly became a daily, sometimes hourly issue. Either my daughter had run off with it, or an adult had hidden it from her to prevent that from happening.

So I AirTagged the remote. The case has a special slot to accommodate Apple’s little item-tracking device. The “Precision Finding” feature in the iPhone’s Find My app makes it easy to find lost things like TV remotes with a visual tracking feature that approximates how far away an item is. And the extra weight the AirTag adds to the remote feels nice in the hand. If you’re only ever going to track a TV remote, you might consider Tile’s cheaper tracking device, but if you’re an iPhone person prone to misplacing more than one item (I wanted one for my keychain as well as my husband’s keys and one to stick in our car for the times I forgot where I parked), then the AirTag four-pack makes a lot of sense (Apple loaned me AirTags for review, but I liked them enough I bought my own.) —Katie Notopoulos


Clarissa-Jan Lim / BuzzFeed News

Janome 2212 sewing machine — $199 at Amazon

At some point last winter, I developed an itch for making things with my hands. I dreamed of becoming a DIY person, and that dream wore out my credit card. I bought paint, canvases, 10 balls of yarn, knitting needles, embroidery hoops, a hot glue gun that’s still sitting in my drawer, unopened. And in my frenzy, I also got a sewing machine, a Janome 2212 that Google led me to believe was “an easy sewing machine for beginners.”

To my great surprise, it was not easy. Sewing machines have too many knobs and too many labels, too many sections to thread your string through and around, and yet are so finicky that you have to wonder why we’ve gone to the moon but can’t make a simpler, more efficient machine for sewing. It’s a messy and frustrating hobby, and it will fill up your room with scrap fabric and half-finished projects. I’ve lost entire days using this thing. I’ve made dresses, I’ve altered sweaters, and I’ve watched hours of YouTube tutorials explaining what the hell a French seam is and how to sew a zipper on. You have to follow instructions and be patient, two qualities I don’t care for. None of the clothes I’ve made have ever come out well; there’s always a loose thread somewhere and wonky stitching. But it’s also, somehow, meditative, and when you’re out in a dress you made and someone asks where it’s from, you get to say, “Thanks, I made it. Just don’t look too closely.” —Clarissa-Jan Lim

RadRover 6 Plus electric bike — $1,999 at Rad Power Bikes

I can’t afford the RadRover 6 Plus electric bike, but I was lucky enough to try it (Rad Power Bikes loaned BuzzFeed a bike to review) and, yes, I liked it. Loved it, actually. And I say that as someone who has never quite understood the electric bike phenomenon. But after this bike took me to a favorite fishing hole at 22 mph and then off-roaded me up a poorly maintained trail right to the water without requiring really anything of me or my rickety knee, I get it. I am not a bike expert. My last bike was stolen, and the one before that was a trashed Huffy Thunder Road. But I found the RadRover to be pretty amazing, though it is quite heavy and built like a small motorcycle. Great ride, good battery life, and very easy to use — even for e-bike Luddites like me. —John Paczkowski

Plasma Coil guitar pedal — $350 from Third Man

Though you undoubtedly know Jack White best for his guitar work in bands like the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, he’s doing some equally amazing things with Third Man Records, an independent label and, most importantly for the purposes of this review, a purveyor of a guitar pedal called the Plasma Coil. This is an apt name for a pedal that distorts the notes you play on a guitar by expressing them as a electrical discharges *you can see* courtesy a xenon gas–filled tube. Designed by Gamechanger Audio, the Plasma Coil literally amplifies audio signals to 3,500 volts. It sounds as badass as it looks — like a 50-pound wasp nest. It’s pretty much lightning in a box and an absolute blast to play. And if you dig the Plasma Coil, it’s worth noting that a few of Third Man’s other pedals are equally impressive, including the Bumble Buzz, (a sick fuzz box) and the Triplegraph (a digital octave pedal with individual octave-up and octave-down channels that make your guitar sound like a noise in a science fiction movie). —John Paczkowski

The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition role-playing game — $119 at Amazon

Since I was (a) locked down at home and (b) no longer commuting, I had extra hours and nostalgia for the role-playing game of my adolescence — a criminally simple and fun one called the Fantasy Trip. Popular for its single-player adventures back in the 1970s and perfect for the pandemic era, the game was revived two years ago by its original designer in a legacy edition. A throwback to the mayhem-flavored era of pen-and-paper games, the easy but elegant rules allow for intriguing match-ups against monsters represented by cardboard square game pieces that evoke the era when light beer was new. Anyone who’s bored stiff at the thought of learning the latest gaudy Dungeons & Dragons rules but wants to bump off a band of bugbears, or who’s middle-aged enough to try to entice (force) your kids to do so with easy-to-learn rules, might give it a shot. I managed after a few tries to get my band of paper bravoes through a death test dungeon after a few weekends of on-and-off playing, and it has been a solace on rainy weekends ever since. In a nice mixture of old and new, I now play it over Roll20.net with an old high school buddy now living in Germany. —Dan Vergano

Lamicall metal phone stand — $9.99 at Amazon

In 2021, this became an essential part of my workstation. It allows my phone to act as a second screen (technically a third screen, since I already use a laptop plus a monitor). I previously had a flat wood stand that held the phone in a way that completely covered its speakers and microphone, making it impossible for video calling. This metal style also allows you to charge while on the stand. —Katie Notopoulos

Anker Nebula Cosmos 4K projector — $699 at Amazon

Who needs a TV when any flat surface in your home is a screen? Anker’s Cosmos projector is remarkably good at playing movies on bare white walls with a clarity of picture and sound that will satisfy most everyone but AV aficionados. With Dolby Digital Plus 360° theatrical audio and a sharp 1080p resolution, a 900 ANSI Lumen autofocus display that can be recalibrated almost instantly and sharpened with the press of a button, the Cosmos solidly and accurately plays everything from home movies on a bedroom wall to Aliens on a bedsheet in your backyard. It runs Google’s Android TV, so it supports Netflix, YouTube, and a host of other apps right out of the box (Anker loaned BuzzFeed a projector to review.)—John Paczkowski

LectroFan white noise machine — $45 at Amazon

Four mammals live in my home, and we all need our beauty rest. The busy New York City block we live on poses challenges: barflies late at night, trash trucks first thing in the morning, and every other imaginable city noise in the hours between. That’s why we swear by white noise machines. My wife and I share one. My 18-month-old falls asleep to one. Even my dog, my sweet, neurotic Chihuahua-dachshund, has a white noise machine on top of his crate. He gets scared, OK? —Joe Bernstein

Facebook Portal Go — $199 at Portal

Yes, there’s an irony that despite everything that BuzzFeed News has reported about Facebook over the past few years, I am recommending a Facebook product. If you want to feel truly pure about not supporting Meta, Facebook’s new parent company, well, go ahead and delete your Instagram account. It probably makes more money off showing you ads than the company would off a hardware purchase. I’ll wait.

The truth is, the Portal is a great video chatting device. The smart camera follows you around the room and can accommodate more than one face at a time. It’s great for connecting distant grandparents and small kids, particularly the rechargeable Portal Go, which can be carried from room to room. My kid loves taking Grandma out into the yard to show off his toys and adventures.

When I first tested the Go (Facebook loaned BuzzFeed a Portal to review), my one big complaint was that there was no way to fully disable the “Watch Together” function during a call, which can be an issue if you want to control the videos your kids watch. Meta’s head of VR and Portal promised to fix this. So starting in December, you can block Watch Together completely during calls. —Katie Notopoulos

Vilo mesh Wi-Fi routers — $70 for three at Amazon

You may have heard of this “mesh Wi-Fi” thing from your friends who have bigger houses and more tech smarts than you. The Vilo is the mesh router for everyone else. The idea is that instead of one crappy router you stash under your bed, you evenly space three futuristic white bricks throughout your house. As you walk from room to room, you’ll always have a clear, strong Wi-Fi connection. Why would someone who lives in a small Brooklyn apartment need three Wi-Fi routers? The obvious answer is: Why the hell not? Vilos are about $70 for three and surprisingly attractive for a router. By comparison, a fancy mesh system from Google is $349. Wirecutter’s “budget pick” is still $130. I loathe spending money, but these guys just make sense. —Scott Pham

Opening illustration by Raymond Biesinger for BuzzFeed News

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Rivian shares down more than 17% following report of Ford sell-off – TechCrunch

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Rivian’s stock price fell more than 17% Monday, a drop prompted by a CNBC report that Ford was selling 8 million shares of the EV automaker.

Ford held a 12% stake, or about 102 million shares, of Rivian.

Over the weekend, David Faber of CNBC reported that Ford would sell 8 million of its Rivian shares through Goldman Sachs. Faber followed up on Monday, describing the sale as “done.” The sell-off came as an insider lockup for the stock expired Sunday.

TechCrunch will update the article if Ford responds to a request for comment.

The news has further accelerated the decline of Rivian’s share price since its IPO last year. Rivian debuted as a publicly traded company in November with an opening share price of $106.75, a price that made it one of the largest IPOs in U.S. history and put its market cap above GM as well as Ford. (At the time, GM’s market cap was $86.31 billion; Ford’s was $78.2 billion.)

Rivian’s share price reached as high as $179.47 a week later, before coming back down to earth. Rivian shares have fallen more than 75% since its public market opener.

That freefall has also affected its largest shareholders, Ford and Amazon. Last month, Ford reported it lost $3.1 billion in GAAP terms in Q1, largely due to a write-off of the value of its stake in Rivian. 

Amazon reported a $7.6 billion loss on its investment in Rivian.

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Why Twitter’s top lawyer has come under fire from Elon Musk

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Vijaya Gadde came reluctantly to the decision that cemented her reputation on the right as Twitter’s “chief censor.” For years, the company’s top lawyer had resisted calls to boot then-President Donald Trump from his favorite social media platform.

Even after a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, Gadde explained during an emotional virtual company town hall on Jan. 8 that Trump hadn’t broken enough of Twitter’s rules against glorification of violence to merit a permanent ban of his account.

Three hours later, after her team produced evidence that Trump’s latest tweets had sparked calls to violence on other sites, Gadde relented, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. She reached then-CEO Jack Dorsey in French Polynesia, and they agreed to lower the boom.

Elon Musk wants ‘free speech’ on Twitter. But for whom?

“After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account,” the company announced in a blog post, “… we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

The ban on Trump, which continues to this day, is the most prominent example of the deeply polarizing decisions that have led conservatives to accuse Twitter of political censorship. As billionaire Elon Musk, a self-declared free-speech absolutist, seeks to acquire the social network, these decisions — and Gadde herself — are coming under fresh scrutiny.

Critics have derided her as Twitter’s “top censorship advocate,” a barb amplified by Musk, who tweeted a meme with a photo of Gadde that cast her as an icon of “Twitter’s left wing bias.” Musk’s legions of followers have tweeted calls for her firing, some of them racist. (Gadde, 47, is Indian American.)

Twitter colleagues describe Gadde’s work as difficult but necessary and unmotivated by political ideology. Defenders say her team, known as the trust and safety organization, has worked painstakingly to rein in coronavirus misinformation, bullying and other harmful speech on the site, moves that necessarily limit some forms of expression. They have also disproportionately affected right-leaning accounts.

But Gadde also has tried to balance the desire to protect users with the values of a company built on the principle of radical free speech, they say. She pioneered strategies for flagging harmful content without removing it, adopting warning labels and “interstitials,” which cover up tweets that break Twitter’s rules and give people control over what content they see — strategies copied by Twitter’s much larger rival, Facebook.

Many researchers and experts in online harassment say Gadde’s policies have made Twitter safer for its roughly 229 million daily users and say they fear Musk will dismantle them if the sale goes through.

“If Musk takes things in the direction he has been signaling — which is a rather simplistic view that more or less anything goes in the name of free speech — we will certainly see the platform go back to square one,” said Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University.

Twitter workers face a reality they’ve long feared: Elon Musk as owner

Whatever happens to her policies, Gadde signaled at a staff meeting late last month that her days at Twitter may be numbered, telling employees that she would work to protect their jobs as long as she is around, according to a person who attended the meeting.

She did not respond to requests for comment. Twitter declined to comment. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

This story is based on interviews with 10 current and former Twitter employees, as well as others familiar with decisions made by Gadde and her team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private company discussions.

“I do believe very strongly — and our rules are based on this framework — that free expression is a fundamental right, that everyone has a voice and they should be able to use it,” said Gadde in a 2019 interview with The Washington Post. There is a line between doing that and committing what we call abuse or harassment, and crossing over into a place where you’re preventing someone else from using their voice.”

Gadde is a previous donor to Kamala Harris and other Democrats, and in 2017 she helped lead Twitter’s $1.59 million donation to the ACLU to fight Trump’s executive order banning immigration from majority Muslim countries.

Among employees, Gadde is known for taking a legalistic yet pragmatic approach to content moderation. As with Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection, she often has argued against limiting speech and has rejected colleagues who wanted to take a stronger approach to removing content, moving to do so only after careful consideration.

For years, she has been the animating force pushing Twitter to champion free expression abroad. In India and Turkey, for example, her team has resisted demands to remove content critical of repressive governments. In 2014, Gadde made Twitter the only Silicon Valley company to sue the U.S. government over gag orders on what tech companies could say publicly about federal requests for user data related to national security. (Five other companies settled.)

Elon Musk boosts criticism of Twitter executives, prompting online attacks

“She wasn’t a censorship warrior or a free expression warrior,” said a former colleague familiar with Gadde’s approach. “She is pragmatic, but not doctrinaire.”

A dedication to free speech has been part of Twitter’s DNA since its founding in San Francisco 16 years ago. Early executives were such believers that they famously referred to Twitter as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” That approach made Twitter ripe for abuse in its early days, and the platform developed a reputation as unsafe — particularly for high-profile women, who endured threats of rape and other sexist attacks.

Back then, Twitter’s attitude was, “we don’t touch speech,” said University of Virginia law professor Danielle Citron, an expert on online harassment. In 2009, Citron prepared a three-page, single-spaced memo for the Twitter C-suite, explaining the legal definition of criminal harassment, true threats and stalking.

Gadde joined Twitter’s legal team two years later, leaving her post at the Silicon Valley firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich and Rosati. People who worked with her said her move was inspired by the Arab Spring uprising, when pro-democracy activists used Twitter and other social platforms to organize protests across the Middle East. The Arab Spring solidified the belief among Twitter’s leaders that their job was to protect speech, not police it.

Twitter was soon engulfed in scandal, however. In 2014, online trolls launched a brutal campaign against women in the video game industry. The attacks — which came to be known as “GamerGate” — were carried out on multiple tech platforms. But they were most visible on Twitter, where women received highly graphic threats of violence, some including the woman’s address or an exact time of attack.

The incident was a wake-up call for the company, said software engineer Brianna Wu, one of the women targeted in GamerGate, who worked with Twitter to improve the site.

In an op-ed published in The Post, Gadde wrote that she was “seriously troubled by the plight of some of our users who are completely overwhelmed by those who are trying to silence healthy discourse in the name of free expression.”

Elon Musk wants a free speech utopia. Technologists clap back.

By then, Gadde had been promoted to general counsel, overseeing all legal and trust and safety matters facing the company.

In response to GamerGate, Twitter streamlined the company’s complicated nine-step process for reporting abuse and tripled the number of people on its trust and safety team, as well as other teams that protect users, according to the op-ed and other reports at the time.

But the moves to clamp down on harassment soon stirred fresh controversy. Internal emails obtained by BuzzFeed in 2017 showed Gadde and other executives engaged in messy, seemingly ad hoc deliberations over whether to shut down the accounts of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and right-wing flamethrower Chuck C. Johnson, who had tweeted that he was raising money in the hopes of “taking out” a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Johnson, who says his comment was part of a “journalistic project,” has complained that Twitter never offered a clear reason for the ban. He sued the company over it and lost. He has since abandoned his alliance with Trump and declared his support for President Biden, he said, leading to attacks online. Because his Twitter account is still suspended, Johnson argues he is unable to defend himself.

About the same time, Twitter was confronted with another conundrum: the candidacy of Trump, who made Twitter central to his 2016 presidential campaign. With nearly 90 million followers at his peak, Trump routinely lobbed tweets at political opponents, journalists and even private citizens, triggering waves of online harassment.

After Trump’s election, Gadde and Dorsey convened a “free speech roundtable” at the company’s San Francisco headquarters, where top Twitter executives heard from Citron, former New York Times editor Bill Keller and Tom Goldstein, former dean of the graduate journalism school at University of California at Berkeley. During the meeting, which has not been previously reported, Citron expressed concerns about online harassment, especially directed at journalists.

Gadde “understood how speech could silence speech,” Citron recalled, “and could be incredibly damaging to people’s lives.”

Goldstein declined to comment on the meeting. Keller said the group discussed how new standards could bring order to the “wild west” of social media.

Elon Musk acquires Twitter for roughly $44 billion

Internally, some employees faulted Gadde for ineffectiveness, as rules were unevenly applied across the massive platform. Three former workers said her trust and safety unit did not coordinate well with other teams that also policed the site.

Even as the company took action to limit hate speech and harassment, Gadde resisted calls to police mere misinformation and falsehoods — including by the new president.

“As much as we and many of the individuals might have deeply held beliefs about what is true and what is factual and what’s appropriate, we felt that we should not as a company be in the position of verifying truth,” Gadde said on a 2018 Slate podcast, responding to a question about right-wing media host Alex Jones, who had promoted the falsehood on his show, Infowars, that the Sandy Hook school shooting was staged.

A year later, nearly every other major platform banned Jones. Twitter initially declined to do so, saying Jones hadn’t broken any of its rules. Within a month, however, Gadde reversed course, banishing Jones for “abusive behavior.” In a 2019 appearance on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, Gadde explained that Jones had earned “three strikes” by posting videos that did violate Twitter’s rules, including one she deemed an incitement to violence against the news media.

Jones did not respond to a request for comment. At the time, he called Infowars “a rallying cry for free speech in America,” adding that he was “very honored to be under attack.”

Gadde and her team later escalated the company’s efforts to fight disinformation — along with spam and fake accounts — after news broke that Twitter, Facebook and other platforms had been exploited by Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign. The company began removing a million accounts a day in a broad effort to crack down on abuse.

In a move described as signature Gadde, Twitter also launched an initiative called “Healthy Conversations” that sought feedback from hundreds of experts about how to foster more civil dialogue. That effort led to updated hate speech policies that banned “dehumanizing speech” — such as racial slurs and negative stereotypes based on religion, caste or sexual orientation — because it could have the effect of “normalizing serious violence,” according to a company blog post.

In subsequent years, Dorsey became increasingly absent and would effectively outsource a growing number of decisions to Gadde, including those around content moderation, three of the people said.

Gadde also was key to a 2019 decision to ban political advertising on the platform, according to four people familiar with the decision, arguing that politicians should reach broad audiences on the merits of their statements rather than by paying for them. Other companies copied the move, enacting temporary pauses during the 2020 election.

Throughout Trump’s presidency, at the company’s monthly town halls, Twitter employees regularly called on Gadde to ban Trump, accusing him of bullying and promoting misinformation. Gadde argued that the public had a right to hear what public figures such as Trump have to say — especially when they say horrible things, the people said.

How Twitter decided to ban Trump

Meanwhile, Gadde and her team were quietly working with engineers to develop a warning label to cover up tweets — even from world leaders such as Trump — if they broke the company’s rules. Users would see the tweet only if they chose to click on it. They saw it as a middle ground between banning accounts and removing content and leaving it up.

In May 2020, as Trump’s reelection campaign got underway, Twitter decided to slap a fact-checking label on a Trump tweet that falsely claimed that mail-in ballots are fraudulent — the first action by a technology company to punish Trump for spreading misinformation. Days later, the company acted again, covering up a Trump tweet about protests over the death of George Floyd that warned “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” More such actions followed.

Later that year, Gadde was involved in a decision that drew widespread criticism. In October 2020, the New York Post published an exclusive story based on material found on a laptop allegedly belonging to Biden’s son Hunter. Gadde and other trust and safety executives suspected the story was based on material obtained through hacking and therefore violated the company’s rules against publishing such material.

Anxious to avoid a repeat of Russia leaking hacked material during the 2016 election,Twitter executives took the unusual step of temporarily locking the newspaper’s Twitter account and blocking Twitter users from sharing a link to the story.

Even within liberal Twitter, the decision was controversial, two of the people said. It was not entirely clear the materials had been hacked, nor that the New York Post had participated in any hacking. A Post investigation later confirmed that thousands of emails taken from the laptop were authentic.

Amid mounting outrage among conservatives, Gadde conferred with Dorsey and announced an 11th-hour change to the hacked-materials policy: The company would remove only content posted by the hackers themselves or others acting in concert with them. It also would label more questionable tweets.

Dorsey later tweeted that the decision to block mention of the New York Post story was a mistake. Recently, Musk tweeted that “suspending the Twitter account of a major news organization for publishing a truthful story was obviously incredibly inappropriate.”

Here’s how The Post analyzed Hunter Biden’s laptop

Now employees are worried that Musk will undo much of the trust and safety team’s work. Many people silenced by policies adopted under Gadde are clamoring for Musk to avenge them. Johnson, for example, said he has appealed via text to Jared Birchall, head of Musk’s family office, asking when his account might be restored.

Birchall did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Though Johnson does not plan to tweet, he said, he wants his account back on principle. According to text messages first reported by the Wall Street Journal and subsequently viewed by The Post, Birchall replied: “Hopefully soon.”

Birchall also shed light on one of the biggest questions looming over the Musk takeover: Will Musk undo Gadde’s decision to ban Trump? At a recent TED conference, Musk said he supports temporary bans over permanent ones.

Musk “vehemently disagrees with censoring,” Birchall texted to Johnson. “Especially for a sitting president. Insane.”

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Gradient Ventures backs Mentum’s goal to democratize investment services in LatAm – TechCrunch

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Investment in stocks or retirement accounts can seem like a complicated process if you are not sure where to begin.

Mentum is out to change that in Latin America, and is working on customizable investment APIs and widgets so businesses in Latin America can build and offer fully digital investment products, like local mutual funds, ETFs and stocks, to their customers. The products are also compliant with local regulations.

Co-founder and CEO Gustavo Trigos started the San Francisco-based company in 2021 with Simon Avila and Daniel Osvath. The trio, who participated in Y Combinator’s summer 2021 cohort, come from a mixture of backgrounds in payments, technology, APIs and investment services.

All of them came to the U.S. from Latin America to study and work, and in the course of using some of the investment apps offered in the U.S., they struggled to find similar products in Latin America that provided a way to fully invest. And, in Latin America, just 2% of the population in each country have access to investment products, and that’s mainly because they are high-net-worth individuals, Trigos said.

He noted in talking to folks at Chile-based Fintual, which is operating in the retail investing space, why there was not more competition, and what they discussed was a huge gap in the infrastructure and understanding the regulations in each country.

“You have to start from scratch in each country,” Trigos told TechCrunch. “We saw no one was building it, so we did.”

Mentum is not alone in working to provide an easier way for Latin Americans to learn about investing and try it out. In the past year or so, some significant venture capital dollars have been infused into companies, like Vest, Flink and Grupo Bursátil Mexicano, that have also developed investment products as a way to boost financial inclusion within the region.

Trigos considers Mentum a technology company operating in the fintech space versus a fintech company. It started in Colombia and acts as a middle layer, developing technology that companies can build on top of.

One of the early approaches the company took was to reach out to 10 of the top broker-dealers in each country to understand the regulations and build relationships to get the greenlight to do business. While Trigos called that process “burdensome,” once Mentum did that, it was able to more easily repeat the process in Chile and now is eyeing Peru and Argentina for expansion.

Initially, Mentum targeted fintech companies because they already knew how to work with APIs, but then demand started coming in from traditional banks and even supermarkets, insurance companies, credit unions and super apps that deliver food.

Mentum’s widgets. Image Credits: Mentum

Having so many different kinds of companies eager to offer investment products is a big reason why the company wanted to make its products easier to use, Trigos said.

“We analyzed hundreds of apps to see what the general experience should look like, then we created widgets that do require some code, but we also have a desktop simulator in beta that will require no code to set up the experience,” he added.

Mentum’s products are still in beta, but plans to launch them this year were accelerated by $4.2 million in funding, led by Google’s Gradient Ventures, with participation from Global Founders Capital, Soma Capital Y Combinator and co-founders of Plaid and Jeeves.

Trigos intends to use the new capital to increase its headcount from the seven employees it has now, including setting up its founding team. One of his goals for the year is to grow in Colombia and Chile by integrating five clients in each country. The company will work on product development and features that will enhance the experience, like more payments and adding DeFi and crypto.

Mentum already has two strategic partnerships with broker-dealers and is currently in the integration process with two of its fellow YC-backed fintech companies in Colombia and another 25 companies interested in launching its products.

“The financial services industry is undergoing a massive transformation in Latin America. APIs have created new opportunities for the way we bank,” said Wen-Wen Lam, partner at Gradient Ventures, in a written statement. “With its innovative technology, Mentum has opened up a wide range of possibilities for Latin America fintech apps. We’re excited to back Gus and his team as they usher in the next generation of banking.”

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