Data Sheet—Wednesday, September 20, 2017

By Aaron Pressman and Adam Lashinsky
September 20, 2017

If you study and internalize one article about the bankruptcy filing of beleaguered toy retailer Toys R Us, I recommend this one from today’s Wall Street Journal.

It is tempting to chalk up the company’s stumbles to an inability to effect a “digital transformation,” the justifiably hot buzztopic that is enriching management consultants across the land. And Toys R Us certainly never adequately transformed itself digitally. The Journal reports that in 2009, the year before Toys filed an unsuccessful attempt to go public, e-commerce represented a mere 4% of sales.

In hindsight, the company’s failure to launch a credible digital strategy never had a chance. It spent years and years larded up with more than $5 billion in debt, the result of a leveraged buyout by two private-equity firms (Bain and KKR) and a real estate investment trust (Vornado). The private-equity firms often make money even when their targets fail. In this case, they didn’t. They’ll lose $1.4 billion in equity, and they never managed to milk much from Toys R Us in the form of advisory fees, one of their favorite tricks.

Two things to note. First, Toys isn’t done. Just as General Motors didn’t go out of business when it declared Chapter 11, Toys intends to polish up its balance sheet and keep operating. Second, Toys was in fact a dot-com survivor. Years after the demise of dot-com, flash-in-the-pan eToys, Toys R Us bought its assets.

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It wasn’t enough.

***

Writer B.J. Mendelson is annoyed people are just getting around to agreeing with his thesis that, to quote from the title of his five-year-old book, Social Media Is Bullshit. He sent me a link to a PDF of his book so people can read it for free. “I could have saved a lot of businesses and politicians a lot of money had they listened,” he said.

They never do, B.J. They never do.

Adam Lashinsky
@adamlashinsky
adam_lashinsky@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Wake me when it’s over. T-Mobile’s on again, off again merger plan with Sprint is back on, though reportedly some weeks and several deal-breaking conundrums away from actually happening. CNBC’s David Farber was first with the news on Tuesday that deal talks had restarted in earnest, but no price yet, and no agreement on how Sprint-majority owner Masayoshi Son will remain engaged. Son is already making his pitch to antitrust regulators that having three big carriers is better than two bigs and two mediums. “Three is a real fight, a real competition,” he said on Bloomberg TV.

I can wait. Meanwhile, the major wireless carriers are seeing disappointing pre-orders for Apple’s new iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. It seems Apple may have misgauged demand for the standard iPhones when its super-charged iPhone X has even better features (despite the higher $999 price).

More waiting. So much gadget news, so little time. Amazon is working on a pair of smart glasses with an Alexa connection built in, the Financial Times reports. Amazon also came out with a new 10″ Fire HD 10 tablet that you buy right now for just $150. Meanwhile, all of Google’s upcoming new gadgets, including the Pixel 2 phone and a cheap “mini” version of Google Home, have leaked. Oh yeah, and a new Chromebook Pixel, too. Reviews of Apple’s Series 3 smartwatch also hit today and apparently the LTE connectivity is not reliable and drains the battery wicked fast, as we say in Boston.

Legal protection. Worried that Apple adding face scanning tech to the new iPhone X is opening a Pandora’s box of biometric privacy nightmares? Illinois may have your back. The state’s law regulating the use of biometric data, one of the only such statutes in the country, requires companies to get permission before scanning. A federal judge this week ruled that the photo sharing site Shutterfly had violated the law by adding to its database the face of a Chicago man who never gave his permission.

Triplets. After the leading cryptocurrency bitcoin splintered in two last month, it may be time for three. The emergence of bitcoin cash seemingly had no ill effect on the original bitcoin. So some participants in the bitcoin ecosystem are predicting another split off in November. I haven’t seen a name rumored yet, though. Bitcoin cabbage, anyone?


FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Venture capitalists are just another kind of investor and, generally speaking, they’re investing in startups where the future return looks pretty good. That potentially leaves out the development of a lot of important technologies from the view of our society, however. So last year, the good folks at MIT set up a fund they called The Engine to seed startups chasing these kinds of tough ideas with VC-like backing. MIT also gives the startups office space and access to its cutting edge labs and high-tech equipment.

On Wednesday, the fund unveiled its first seven investments in areas ranging from renewable power storage to genetically engineered microorganisms. It’s a fascinating collection and WBUR reporter Asma Khalid has some of the back stories. Take the startup Via Separations, for example. It’s trying to use nanotechnology to separate industrial materials one from another, without the costly and wasteful heating processes commonly used now. Co-founder Shreya Dave explains the value of the MIT program to Khalid:

“We need to have access to equipment that are hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she explained. “Equipment and lab are things that you don’t have in a web-based startup. [That’s] one of the reasons people like investing in web-based startups so much, because they can go a little bit longer with X amount of money.” Dave and her co-founder are trying to create a new technology that she thinks could save 90 percent of the energy used when one material is separated from another. And, she points out, that’s a lot of energy. “Fifteen percent of U.S. energy consumption is dedicated to separating one thing from another,” she said. “The reason for this is because we use heat to do the separation.”



BEFORE YOU GO

Outgoing Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi got all the attention when he jumped ship to take the top job at Uber. But there’s plenty to think about what happens next for the online travel industry and that’s going to fall to new Expedia CEO Mark Okerstrom. Todd Bishop at Geekwire has a great interview, including one possibly overlooked change under the site’s new Canadian boss:

I think we will all be watching just a little bit more hockey. I’m joking. I’m from Canada. Yeah, of course I’m joking. But not really.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.

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