Meet the ex-Soviet intel officer at Don Jr.'s Trump Tower meeting - Axios
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Meet the ex-Soviet intel officer at Don Jr.'s Trump Tower meeting

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Rinat Akhmetshin, the former Soviet intelligence officer who attended a June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, is a superlative Washington political operator who over the last two decades has repeatedly been at the center of cases involving corruption, dictators and sometimes war.

Akhmetshin was apparently hired to work with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who met with Trump on June 9, 2016, in a lobbying effort against the Magnitsky Act, a congressional measure that sanctions Russia and Russian figures. He confirmed to the AP on Friday morning that he was in that meeting, saying: "I never thought this would be such a big deal to be honest."

I met Akhmetshin in 1998 in the Kazakhstan city of Almaty, where I was writing for The New York Times and he was representing the country's opposition leader in a quixotic effort to oust President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Over the subsequent months, Akhmetshin leaked me a trove of documents that linked Nazarbayev to millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts — payments from international oil companies working in the Central Asian republic. The result was a scoop in the paper, a high-profile investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, and, later, a thick section of a book I wrote about those years on the Caspian Sea.

How he made his mark: At that time and over the subsequent years, Akhmetshin proved again and again to be surprisingly adept at influencing politics in Washington, DC, not his homeland. A profane and fast talker who likes to dress well, a quick study who understands the world of geopolitics, local politics and technology, he managed to ingratiate himself with important members of Congress, and through them and his contacts with reporters single-handedly tarnished Nazarbayev's and Kazakhstan's reputation. If today the Kazakh leader and his country have reputations for chronic corruption, a primary reason is Akhmetshin.

Akhmetshin openly described his years as a military counter-intelligence officer, serving in Afghanistan. He ultimately took American citizenship. As we met again and again over the years, he represented opposition figures in Ukraine and Afghanistan, too. I never found him having cultivated the man in power anywhere. In a world in which no one is clean, Akhmetshin was someone you could trust.

The original NBC News reports suggested that Akhmetshin's intelligence past somehow has rolled forward until now, putting Russian spies in the same room with Donald Trump, Jr. Nothing I picked up in numerous intense reporting experiences with Akhmetshin over the years — in the former U.S.S.R. and the U.S. — suggested any current such relationships.

Last year, Akhmetshin took on clients attempting to tarnish Bill Browder, the former high-rolling American investor in Moscow and defender of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who only turned on the Russian president when he kicked him out of the country. Browder has since become one of Putin's fiercest critics, driven by the murder of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Moscow prison.

Four days after the Trump Tower meeting, Akhmetshin was responsible for arranging the high-profile showing of a revisionist anti-Magnitsky film at Washington, DC's Newseum.

Akhmetshin, reached by cell phone in Europe where he said he is surfing with family, said "there was nothing really" to the meeting. He said he was just going to dinner and preferred not to talk further about the incident. I asked how it was that he was yet again at the center of events. "Just lucky, I guess," he said.

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Dyson to build "radical and different" electric car by 2020

Sir James Dyson said his company will build an electric car by 2020. Photo: Rob Bennett / AP Images for Dyson

James Dyson, the billionaire inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, said Tuesday that his company is investing £2 billion ($2.7 billion) to develop and build a "radical and different" electric car, set to hit the streets in 2020, per BBC. Dyson said £1 billion will be spent on developing the car, and the other £1 billion on making the battery.

400 of his engineers have already been working on the secret project for the past two years at the company's headquarters in Mamesbury, Wiltshire, said Dyson. But the car doesn't exist yet, and Dyson has yet to decide where it will be manufactured. However, he has ruled out working with any existing auto companies and has said the car won't be aimed at the mass market.

The announcement comes five months after Dyson surprisingly relinquished the core patents of Sakti3, an ultra-secretive battery startup that he acquired in 2015 with the stated aim of creating an electric-car battery juggernaut. Sakti3 was working on cutting edge solid-state technology, which in theory would allow for a tremendous energy breakthrough by permitting the use of volatile pure lithium metal as the anode. But the startup could not overcome hurdles, especially cost.

Given that Dyson's electric car does not yet exist, 2020 is an extremely aggressive timeline. Dyson itself is as secretive as Apple, and thus nothing about its battery work — apart from abandoning the Sakti3 patents — has leaked since it began working on the project.

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The contributors to Trump's education initiative

President Donald Trump signs a memorandum to expand access to STEM and computer science education at the WH Monday. Photo:Alex Brandon / AP

The Internet Association announced Tuesday that its member companies, including Google, Facebook and Amazon, will contribute a combined total of more than $300 million to support the Trump administration's new initiative, announced yesterday, aimed at expanding access to STEM and computer science education. Lockheed Martin and Salesforce, which are also contributing, have sent their top executives to Detroit to make the formal announcement with Ivanka Trump today.

Why it matters: Despite the tense relationship between the tech industry and the Trump administration, major tech firms are financially supporting this effort because it's of vital business importance to them.

They repeatedly say they need a stronger pipeline of employees with STEM backgrounds to fill tech jobs. Finding an area of alignment with the administration is also smart politics for Silicon Valley companies that are feeling heightened Washington scrutiny.

Member contributions:

  • Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce each commit $50 million.
  • Lockheed Martin commits $25 million.
  • Accenture commits more than $10 million.
  • General Motors and Pluralsight both commit $10 million.
  • Private individuals and foundations commit $3 million to nonprofits focused on computer science education.
  • Detroit-based Quicken Loans commits the financial resources required to ensure more than 15,000 Detroit Public Schools students receive the computer science training they deserve.
  • Intuit and Internet Association are also making "a significant contribution."

CEOs joining Ivanka Trump in Detroit today:

  • Lockheed Martin Chairman, President & CEO Marillyn Hewson.
  • Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert.
  • Salesforce.org CEO Rob Acker.
  • Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi.
  • Internet Association President & CEO Michael Beckerman
Take note: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and General Motors — all companies facing increased backlash from both Washington and their own employees for their increasing political roles — have not sent a CEO to Detroit to represent them.

Livestream the announcement.

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China fines social media services over banned content

Vincent Yu / AP

China's Cyberspace Administration said it has fined to the highest degree three social media services—Baidu's Tieba, Weibo, and Tencent's WeChat—for failing to censor banned content, according to CNBC. On Tuesday, it also appeared that Facebook-owned chat app WhatsApp was blocked, though some users report service has resumed.

Bigger picture: Chinese authorities said in January that they were planning to "clean up" online activities by March 2018. In June, a new cybersecurity law went into effect, though it's been criticized for not being clear enough as to how it will be implemented. China has also cracked down on VPNs (software that keeps online activity private and secure), forcing Apple to remove a number of them from its App Store in China, as well as certain cryptocurrency activities.

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The rebirth of Quirky

Quirky once was one of the tech world's most-watched startups, raising around $200 million to build a platform whereby inventors could submit ideas that Quirky might then manufacture and distribute via major retail channels. Even more exciting was that other users who contributed valuable feedback could receive royalties. More than 150 products came to market.

But then, two years ago, the whole thing went bust, filing for bankruptcy and selling off its Wink home automation hub product to Flextronics for $15 million. Company founder and CEO Ben Kaufman moved on to an e-commerce role with Buzzfeed.

Today, Quirky is back.

Something new, something old, something borrowed: The new Quirky is still an innovation platform focused on consumer products in the electronics, toys and home goods verticals. And the fractional royalties system remains in place. But the company no longer plans to manufacture "winning" inventions, instead employing a licensing model through which it will partner with companies like HSN, Vanderbilt Home, Atomi, Shopify and Viatek. This is a bit similar to the pivot Quirky attempted before its bankruptcy filing, but by that point it was too little too late.

While in limbo: Quirky's website received over 50,000 invention submissions during its reorganization, including around 3,000 per month over the past year, according to new company president Gina Waldhorn. "You'd have thought most of the traffic would disappear since we weren't picking new products, but the community just wouldn't quit," she says. Waldhorn adds that while Quirky is originally relaunching today, it has quietly helped launch 12 products in 2017 — including relaunches of some previously-successful ones — has another 10 offerings in production and over 40 in development.

Answering critics: Quirky's terms of service since the reorg gave the company all IP rights to a submitted product, in perpetuity, no matter if Quirky actually picked it for development. The company says it is introducing new terms that give Quirky exclusive IP rights for 12 months, but that they then revert back to the inventor if the product is not picked.

Reputational damage: Waldhorn acknowledges that while the bankruptcy hurt Quirky within the company's home market of New York -- where it received the most media coverage — most of its users didn't care. "There was an opportunity to represent open innovation for inventors, but no one else came around to do it."

Financing: The original iteration of Quirky raised around $200 million from investors like General Electric, Kleiner Perkins and Andreessen Horowitz. But its current owners, who purchased the company's non-Wink assets out of bankruptcy, have no plans to raise outside capital. But they have been investing in restaffing, including a development team based on Poland.

Well wishes: Quirky founder Ben Kaufman tells Axios that he "hopes it works out" for the new team. "I'd glad to see someone try, but it'll be hard."

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VC: Not enough startups are building self-driving car software

Photo illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Venture capitalist Reilly Brennan believes that self-driving cars are coming faster than most people expect, but that the market doesn't have the best mix of startups yet.

Too much: Companies selling dongles for car data. "There are a hundred of those and there should probably be three," says Brennan, who last year co-founded transportation-focused Trucks Venture Capital. There are also too many "Uber for freight" companies, he adds.

Not enough: Startups working on decision-making systems. "There's around 24 of those companies; I would suggest there should be 125 to 200 of those companies."

Also, driver monitoring: "There's a lot of people focused on external sensors that are shooting laser beams out, and trying to make a map of what's outside the car, and I would suggest that there's a huge opportunity for taking that same type of thinking but doing it inside the cabin."

More Q&A with Brennan, who previously was executive director for Stanford's automotive research program:

What is the most likely exit for these companies? Are they all going to be $1 billion exits? IPOs?

Some of these technologies that are directly related to the supply chain are probably in line for acquisitions by other large supply chain companies like Tier 1 suppliers or manufacturers. I would suggest those exits are measured in the $50 million to $300 million range.

Those tech commodities, which are related to decision making, vehicle-to-vehicle kind of communications and things that are super important in keeping a fleet in high utilization — those are really valuable to a fleet owner which might be sort of a higher level of M&A or potentially a small IPO.

And then you have companies that are trying to build new categories of business in autonomy, for example [Trucks VC portfolio companies] Starsky or May Mobility, I think the idea for those companies is they would become public companies."

Does that affect how you invest?

For some companies that have the opportunity to be really category-defining, we are less price sensitive.

What will most impact the adoption of self-driving cars?

Policy is really important in this space and there's a lot of enthusiasm from lawmakers. There's probably not as much knowledge as there is enthusiasm so some of the lawmakers are actively engaging with startups. Sen. Thune being one, Jeff Brandeis in Florida who puts on his own autonomous vehicle conference.

A lot of the narrative has been "Silicon Valley is gonna win this one and Detroit just doesn't know what it's doing."

I think people underestimate and overestimate unfairly on both sides. If you actually want to deploy a self-driving vehicle, the vehicle piece of it is really important for a number of reasons: People want to feel safe. Also, in the world of automating vehicles, utilization is really important. Kind of like with a Formula 1 car, you don't wanna waste time in the pits, you always want to be out on the road earning money. So vehicles that can execute on a really high-duty cycle, that are always on the road, are super durable, are really for the passengers make the experience really safe — that's an incredibly valuable part of an autonomous vehicle system.

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Software jobs grow at fast clip

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

The software industry directly accounts for 2.9 million jobs in the U.S., a 14.6% increase since 2014, according to a report out today by Software.org, the research arm of the software industry's trade group BSA. The average annual salary for software developers is $104,360, which is more than twice the annual average wage for all U.S. occupations, according to the report.

Why this matters: The software industry is growing as new technologies like artificial technology, self-driving cars, augmented reality and the internet of things — all of which rely heavily on software — continue to advance. Software-related jobs continue to be among the more lucrative jobs requiring STEM skills, a shortage of which puts such workers in high demand.

Just yesterday the Trump administration announced an initiative to expand students' access to computer science and STEM education. Increased training in these areas, particularly in the K-12 setting, is one way experts think students can be better prepared for the modern economy that is increasingly leaving many communities behind.

Go deeper: Silicon Valley no longer has a lock on software developer jobs.

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Target to raise minimum wage to $11 per hour, $15 by 2020

Elise Amendola / AP

Target has announced it will raise its minimum wage from $10 per hour to $11 across all U.S. stores, CNBC reports. The changes will begin in October and are part of Target's $7 billion re-investment in the company. Target has promised an hourly minimum wage of $15 by 2020.

The context: Target has been in a wage war with Wal-mart, which raised base hourly pay to $10 in 2016. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and it has not increased since 2009.

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Trump to announce computer science education initative

President Trump will announce a new initiative this afternoon directing the Dept. of Education to prioritize the exapnsion of STEM and computer science education. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

President Trump will announce a new executive memorandum this afternoon that will direct the Department of Education to expand students' access to STEM and computer science — fields that the administration says are increasingly playing a more vital role in the economy and lead to more lucrative careers.

Why it matters: At a time when partisan politics strikes down the majority of legislation put forth by Washington lawmakers, this initiative is largely one that both parties can get behind. Barack Obama introduced similar legislation at the end of his presidency, though his proposal, which was much pricier than the $200 million baseline incorporated in Trump's version, never made it through Congress. To avoid the same hiccups, the White House has introduced this as a narrower administrative action.

The memorandum directs the Dept. of Ed to:

  • Establish a goal of devoting at least $200 million per year in grant funds towards this priority.
  • Explore administrative actions that will add or increase focus on Computer Science in existing K-12 and post-secondary programs.
  • Ask that these programs and curriculums be designed with gender and racial diversity in mind.
  • Require an annual report to gauge the effectiveness of these programs. The reports will emphasize analysis on both the students' dropout and program completion rates.
  • The grants will target rural communities and inner cities, but the administration hopes the initiative can extend across the U.S.
Private sector involvement:
  • Ivanka Trump, who has played an integral role in the creation of this initiative, will travel to Detroit Tuesday to discuss their pledge to computer science education. She will also visit a public school Wednesday to experience coding with students firsthand.
Reasoning behind this directive:
  • One senior administration official said interest in this program stems from conversations with business leaders from both large and small companies who have said they are struggling to fill open positions due to a shortage of employees with the necessary training in these fields.
  • The gender and minority pay gap: the fact that women and minorities are not equally participating in these lucrative fields is a contributing factor.
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How baseball is trying to augment its in-stadium reality

A prototype AR app lets you get more info about who is playing where at the ball park. Photo: MLB

A new augmented reality app could easily answer that perennial baseball question of "who is on first?" and a whole lot more for fans at the ballpark.

What's happening: Major League Baseball is testing a number of ways it can incorporate AR into its apps from labeling player positions to serving up relevant stats to showing fans how much ground an outfielder could potentially cover on a fly ball.

Axios, along with a couple other publications, got a sneak peek at a San Francisco Giants-Colorado Rockies game last week.

What we saw: What the league had to show wasn't ready for prime time, but it wasn't meant to be. The league's goal is to have something ready in time for the first pitch of next season. Before then, the league's tech arm will have to speed up the delivery of data considerably as well as figure out how to make the AR experience something that complements, rather than distracts from, the live action.

The backstory: MLB has been working on this since Apple announced ARKit in June.

The secret sauce: ARKit is one component, but there is another piece of technology that makes this possible, something known as Statcast. Powered by an array of radar and optical sensors installed in each major league stadium, Statcast offers up an array of data for a variety of uses.

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PepsiCo CEO: Millennials forced companies to consider purpose

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi at the White House in February. Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

The entrance of millennials into the workforce has forced corporate leaders to "weave purpose into the core business [models]" of their companies, according to Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo's chairperson and CEO, at TIME and Fortune's CEO Initiative.

More from the panel discussion:

  • Mark Bertolini, Aetna's CEO, outlined how corporations want to lead in 2017: "We have a responsibility to have a point of view beyond our four walls…Our responsibility to lead is at a local level — everywhere we are."
  • Bertolini argued that the U.S. must retool capitalism: "We have a model today that works for too few people…There's a loss of hope in our nation around who we are and what our opportunities are — and that's because we haven't brought people along with our recovery."
  • One big problem: Nooyi thinks that climate change will only be definitively proven once it's too late to act, so she wants her company to think ahead: "From our perspective, we see evidence of changes in the environment affecting our business…We have to lean in and do things on the environmental front."