Big Stories that Shook the Tech World in 2021

Harri Weber

Harri is dot.LA's senior finance reporter. She previously worked for Gizmodo, Fast Company, VentureBeat and Flipboard. Find her on Twitter and send tips on L.A. startups and venture capital to harrison@dot.la.

Big Stories that Shook the Tech World in 2021
Column: How We're Investing in Entertainment Tech in a Post-COVID World

The pandemic raged on in 2021, forcing Californians to grapple with lockdowns and troubling variants while tech giants pushed their return to offices in perpetuity. Through it all, tech’s boom time largely carried on as startups notched new fundraising records, thanks in no small part to blockchain hype, NFTs and web3.

Yet the exuberance was measured by weak IPOs, political pressure, and roaring demands from workers at Activision Blizzard, Netflix and Amazon, which altogether offered a taste of accountability for leaders in the industry. These and other key stories defined a whirlwind year for big tech and startups alike.

1. Tech Workers Speak Out

Netflix Employees, Counterprotesters Clash in Tense Walk-Out\u00a0Over Dave Chappelle Special Samson Amore

Through severalwalkouts and an open letter calling for CEO Bobby Kotick’s resignation, Activision Blizzard employees repeatedly pressed the game maker in the second half of the year over its handling of reports of gender inequality, harassment, and retaliation.

Workers urged the company to address its "frat boy" culture and end forced arbitration, while the “Call of Duty” and “Candy Crush” publisher warned employees to “consider the consequences” of unionizing.

At Netflix, workers and counter protestors clashed over an incendiary stand-up special from Dave Chappelle. GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group, criticized the multi-million dollar production, saying “Chappelle’s brand has become synonymous with ridiculing trans people and other marginalized communities.” In response to criticism, co-CEO Ted Sarandos said Netflix has a "strong belief that content on screen doesn't directly translate to real-world harm."

Meanwhile, Amazon faced protests across 22 countries this year over its wages, taxes, and impact on the planet. In Los Angeles, progressive advocacy groups Courage California and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy hosted a virtual town hall for Amazon workers over its warehouse policies on Cyber Monday.

2. Streaming Shakes Up Hollywood

In the movie business, organized workers challenged Netflix, Apple, Disney, and Amazon over a contract that sets pay and quality-of-life standards for tens of thousands of behind-the-scenes crew members.

The standoff nearly ground production to a halt in Hollywood, and came as streaming giants won big at the Academy Awards and the Emmys. Ultimately, the crew members’ union (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) narrowly passed a new three-year deal, but not by popular vote, indicating an appetite for pushback in the years to come.

3. Political Pressure Ramps Up

It was a banner year for congressional committees and hearings, although few if any national laws targeting tech came to pass thanks to a deadlocked Congress.

Leaders at Facebook and Google defended their practices while lawmakers probed their role in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. And Santa Monica-based Snap, TikTok and YouTube fielded questions on social media drug sales and child safety issues while distancing themselves from Facebook.

However, California instituted a number of laws aimed in part at tech, including a rule requiring warehouses to disclose productivity quotas and new protections for workers who speak out about discrimination and harassment. Plus, a state judge ruled California’s gig worker law Prop. 22 unconstitutional, though the battle over the ballot initiative is far from over.

4. Billionaires Touch Space

Wearing a cowboy hat, Jeff Bezos gets a welcome-back hug while crewmate Oliver Daemen, the world's youngest spacefarer, is helped out of the New Shepard capsule.

Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Shift4 Payments founder Jared Isaacman literally reached for the stars this year in rockets produced by SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

The events launched a new era of private space travel, and raised questions over who gets to go to space, who pays for it, and the environmental cost of our interstellar dreams.

Elon Musk’s personal space travel plans, however, remain a mystery.

5. EVs Get Their Moment

As extreme weather hammered the globe, investors plowed funds into climate tech — a vast sector featuring experimental carbon capture machines, electric bikes and scooters, hydrogen cars, heat pumps and everything in between.

Electric vehicles in particular stole the show this year as public investors sent Tesla’s and Rivian’s market caps into the stratosphere. Though Rivian’s stock has since cooled off amid supply issues, at its height it topped the market caps of GM, Ford and Volkswagen while reporting little to no revenue.

A major infrastructure bill pushed by the Biden Administration could also rev up electric car sales. If it passes next year, it could give consumers a tax break on the cars and accelerate the development of a nationwide charging network.

6. Mega Deals: the New Normal

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

Whether we’re in a tech bubble or not, this year startup valuations and deal counts soared as outside cash poured into the scene. In October, Pitchbook released a report counting 600 mega-deals (funding rounds of at least $100 million) this year in the U.S. alone — 138% more than it saw in the entirety of 2019. The data firm attributed the jump in part to a surge of funding from hedge funds and other non-traditional investors.

While many reports on the final quarter of the year are due out in January, seed deals hit new highs in L.A. during the first half of 2021. The pattern continued in the third quarter, mirroring the global trend. Among the driving forces was Web3, a term encompassing everything from speculative blockchain tech and cryptocurrencies to NFT-landen mobile games.

7. Tech Races to Go Public -- and Stumbles

Apple, Microsoft, Google and plenty of other major tech stocks surged this year, but most newcomers to the public market stumbled in 2021. From their debuts, investment app Robinhood’s stock dropped 45% to about $19 per share, salad maker Sweetgreen slipped about 43% to nearly $28 per share, wine subscription company Winc fell around 60% to $4.81 per share, and scooter giant Bird declined about 10% to 7.47 per share (all as of December 17).

Many tech firms went public (or at least announced plans to do so) through special-purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs. These shell companies have risen in popularity in recent years as vehicles to take businesses public, typically speedier and at a lower upfront cost than a traditional IPO. However, the Securities and Exchange Commission has scrutinized the practice and cautioned investors about the risks involved in such deals, which typically perform worse than traditional IPOs.

That doesn’t mean SPACs will disappear in 2022. A number of tech firms are poised to go public via SPACs, including fraud prevention firm TeleSign and digital banking company Dave, and United Talent Agency recently launched its own gaming-focused SPAC on the Nasdaq.

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.

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