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10x Ascend aims to help tech talent with job negotiations

2019, July 17 - 11:35pm

10x Ascend is a new firm that helps software development, cybersecurity and data science professionals negotiate for better deals.

Founders Michael Solomon and Rishon Blumberg started out in talent management for the music industry (their clients still include musicians like Vanessa Carlton), then moved into representing tech freelancers with their firm 10x Management. More recently, they decided that there was an opportunity to provide similar services to full-time employees.

Given the rising demand for tech talent (the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that software development roles will grow by 31% through 2026), you might think that developers and engineers can get anything they want when they’re looking for a job.

However, Blumberg suggested that many of these prospective hires simply don’t feel comfortable asking for what they want or what they’re worth — whether that’s more money, more equity, more flexibility in working from home, more vacation or anything else that’s important to them. He also pointed out that there’s no one else representing the employee’s interest in these discussions, since the recruiter ultimately works for the employer.

“Even though technologists are data-driven people who work in data-driven environments, they don’t negotiate that much,” Blumberg said.

How to source hard-to-fill programming positions

So 10x Ascend can help, either by getting directly involved in the negotiations, or by advising prospective hires on things like counter-offers. (It’s not doing this in secret — Solomon said that either way, “We want the employer to know that we’re involved.”)

The firm is spinning out of 10x Management, and it’s been testing the model through a beta program. It says it’s already helped nearly 50 senior tech executives negotiate their job offers, increasing their compensation by an average of 35% — and as much as 100% in some cases.

In exchange, 10x Ascend collects between 6% and 8% of first-year salaries (the percent is lower for high-level jobs), starting with a $3,500 retainer.

Even though the firm is compensated based on salary, Solomon said that was simply the “cleanest” approach, and he emphasized that 10x Ascend isn’t just pushing clients to take the highest-paying offer. In fact, it’s created a free lifestyle calculator that helps people identify their priorities, whether that’s salary, job logistics, work-life balance and so on, which then informs the negotiations.

Blumberg also acknowledged that there’s been an “education” process with employers. He suggested that while engineers are sometimes nervous that they’ll blow a job offer by asking for too much, it’s actually helpful to have a third party who can take some of the heat.

“They can say, ‘That was my stupid advisor,’ ” Blumberg said. “We’re happy to be the bad cop.”

What software engineers are making around the world right now

He also said that in some cases, employers are ultimately grateful to have 10x Ascend involved, as it helps them figure out packages that are more likely to attract and retain talent — which may mean offering more money, but could also mean creating more “bespoke” deals that provide flexibility or compensation in other areas. (You can read more about some of the negotiations on the 10x Ascend website.)

Given the name of the firm and the timing of the launch, I had to bring up the recent discussion around “10x engineers,” which led to some delightful social media backlash. Blumberg said he hadn’t been aware of the latest controversy, but he pointed out that this is a longstanding discussion. And inasmuch as 10x engineers exist, he suggested that they have team skills and emotional intelligence as much as technical skills.

“That doesn’t mean writing 10x lines of code or being 10x as fast,” Solomon added. “But we have definitely seen people who produce 10x results.”

Categories: Business News

ClassPass introduces a corporate wellness program

2019, July 17 - 11:24pm

ClassPass has set up yet another revenue stream, signing to a corporate wellness program partners like Facebook, Glossier, Google, Morgan Stanley, Under Armour, Etsy, Southwest Airlines and Gatorade.

The program will give employees at these companies access to the ClassPass network of more than 22,000 studio partners across 2,500 cities around the world, which includes studio brands like Barry’s Bootcamp, Flywheel Sports and CorePower Yoga. Corporate partners also get access to a “large library” of on-demand audio and video workouts.

This comes after ClassPass retooled the ClassPass Live product, in which it invested the resources to build out a new live broadcast studio, and rebuilt it into a library of on-demand video workouts.

The company launched ClassPass Live in 2018 with the hopes that users could workout from home within the ClassPass ecosystem. CEO Fritz Lanman told TechCrunch in June that the company stopped doing live classes in April 2019 and repackaged the content into free, on-demand video classes.

According to the release, one of the issues with corporate wellness programs is that HR departments have to patch together programs based on the regions in which their companies have offices/employees. ClassPass argues that its scale across the country, and in 17 other countries, gives it an edge with corporations that have global workforces.

Moreover, the ClassPass corporate wellness program only charges employers when employees actually use the service, and allows employers to reward good behaviors (going to a certain number of classes per month) by offering additional credits toward ClassPass experiences.

Here’s what Lanman had to say about it in a prepared statement:

The ClassPass Corporate Program enables employers of all sizes to offer the world’s most extensive, one-stop fitness and wellness program to their employees worldwide. ClassPass is the best fitness program ever created for consumers. With this launch, it’s now also the best fitness program ever created for employers and their employees.

Categories: Business News

Peer-to-peer car-sharing marketplace Turo raises $250M at over $1B valuation from IAC

2019, July 17 - 11:04pm

Car-sharing startup Turo has raised $250 million in a Series E round of funding from IAC, the internet media company that owned and spun out Match.com and OkCupid. This round pushes Turo into unicorn territory, with its valuation now “past the billion-dollar” mark according to Turo CEO Andre Haddad.

This late round of funding brings the company’s total to nearly $450 million, raised across multiple rounds since its founding as Relay Rides in 2009. The company plans to use the investment to fuel its growth, further refine the customer experience aspect of its product and generally support its overall mission of increasing utilization rates for the more than one billion cars currently estimated to be on the road around the world today.

IAC makes sense as a strategic partner for Turo because of its proven track record of helping companies scale to “household name” recognition status, Haddad said in a blog post. The company now has almost 400,000 vehicles available on the platform, with over 10 million users across both those listing their cars and those renting. Turo says its growth rate overall has been at around 2x over the past two years, and at 8x in its burgeoning international markets, including the U.K. and Germany (where it took over Daimler’s car-sharing business alongside a strategic investment deal and officially launched last year).

Categories: Business News

Dust Identity secures $10M Series A to identify objects with diamond dust

2019, July 17 - 11:03pm

The idea behind Dust Identity was originally born in an MIT lab where the founders developed the base technology for uniquely identifying objects using diamond dust. Since then, the startup has been working to create a commercial application for the advanced technology, and today it announced a $10 million Series A round led by Kleiner Perkins, which also led its $2.3 million seed round last year.

Airbus Ventures and Lockheed Martin Ventures, New Science Ventures, Angular Ventures and Castle Island Ventures also participated in the round. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $12.3 million.

The company has an unusual idea of applying a thin layer of diamond dust to an object with the goal of proving that that object has not been tampered with. While using diamond dust may sound expensive, the company told TechCrunch last year at the time of its seed round funding that it uses low-cost industrial diamond waste, rather than the expensive variety you find in jewelry stores.

As CEO and co-founder Ophir Gaathon told TechCrunch last year, “Once the diamonds fall on the surface of a polymer epoxy, and that polymer cures, the diamonds are fixed in their position, fixed in their orientation, and it’s actually the orientation of those diamonds that we developed a technology that allows us to read those angles very quickly.”

Ilya Fushman, who is leading the investment for Kleiner, says the company is offering a unique approach to identity and security for objects. “At a time when there is a growing trust gap between manufacturers and suppliers, Dust Identity’s diamond particle tag provides a better solution for product authentication and supply chain security than existing technologies,” he said in a statement.

The presence of strategic investors Airbus and Lockheed Martin shows that big industrial companies see a need for advanced technology like this in the supply chain. It’s worth noting that the company partnered with enterprise computing giant SAP last year to provide a blockchain interface for physical objects, where they store the Dust Identity identifier on the blockchain. Although the startup has a relationship with SAP, it remains blockchain agnostic, according to a company spokesperson.

While it’s still early days for the company, it has attracted attention from a broad range of investors and intends to use the funding to continue building and expanding the product in the coming year. To this point, it has implemented pilot programs and early deployments across a range of industries, including automotive, luxury goods, cosmetics and oil, gas and utilities.

This startup got $2.3M to identify physical objects using diamond dust

Categories: Business News

Snyk brings in new CEO to help lead future expansion

2019, July 17 - 10:00pm

Startup founders typically face a management challenge. They often began their careers in technical engineering jobs, and are thrust into the CEO role when starting a company. Sometimes it makes sense to bring in a more experienced executive to guide a fast-growing startup, and that is what Snyk announced it’s doing today, shifting founder/CEO Guy Podjarny to president and chairman of the board, while bringing in board member and investor Peter McKay as CEO.

Over the past 18 months the company has grown significantly, moving from just 18 employees to 150 as its open-source software development approach to security has taken hold in the marketplace. McKay is someone who makes sense for the job, given he has been involved with the company as an investor since its early days, and has known Podjarny in various roles for 15 years. The two talked about having a good working relationship, something that Podjarny said was essential to this transition.

“I think I would be going through many sleepless nights if I was bringing just somebody we interviewed into the company for a role like this at a time like this,” he said. He added that having known and worked with McKay for so long has helped ease the role changes.

As important as the working relationship between the two is going to be, McKay brings an executive pedigree that includes stints as co-CEO at Veeam and general manager of Americas at VMware, where he managed an operation with $4 billion in annual revenue.

McKay says that he and Podjarny have had many conversations about how they will handle their new roles moving forward. “Guy and I have spent a great deal of time talking through a lot of [issues] before we ever said that we were going to move forward with this change,” he said. He added, “We wanted to make sure we’re aligned on how we would handle decisions. We want to be aligned on how we handle things like diversity, how we handle things like empowering and core company values.”

As for Podjarny, he says this move allows him to return to a more technical function, and the two will take advantage of each others’ strengths as they move into these new roles. “Peter brings in extensive large-scale management experience, experience with markets. This is experience that I don’t have, but which naturally complements my product vision and community leadership skills,” he explained.

As a startup grows, picking the right leader to guide the company into the future is a tricky decision, and one that Podjarny and McKay did not take lightly. In spite of their long relationship, they recognize there will be challenges ahead as company founder and board member/investor take on new roles, but they believe that this is the best decision for the company to develop and grow moving forward. Time will tell if they are right.

Snyk snares $7 million investment to help developers secure open source code

Categories: Business News

India’s 30-year-old MyMoneyMantra raises $15M to scale its financial services marketplace

2019, July 17 - 8:52pm

MyMoneyMantra, a 30-year-old New Delhi-based firm that operates a marketplace of financial services, has raised $15 million in its maiden funding round from an external source to expand its offerings and reach in the nation.

Dutch investment firm IFSD BV and private equity firm Vaalon Capital funded the $15 million round in MyMoneyMantra, the Indian firm said on Wednesday. A person familiar with the matter said the round valued MyMoneyMantra at about $50 million.

The company’s founder Raj Khosla said MyMoneyMantra, which employs about 2,500 employees and serves over 4 million customers across 50 cities, will use the capital to explore ways to capture a larger share of the market.

Khosla said the firm would work closely with Vaalon Capital’s team to expand its offerings and deepen its ties with banks and insurance companies. In the financial year that ended in March, MyMoneyMantra generated a revenue of $19.6 million.

MyMoneyMantra works with over 90 banks, non-bank lenders, and insurance companies to help customers get deals on loans and credit cards. The firm, which competes with BankBazaar and Andromeda in India, has done business of over $5.5 billion to date.

Today’s announcement underscores investors’ growing interest in India’s fintech market that saw tens of millions of users try out digital payment services for the first time after the Indian government banned some paper bills. Cash still dominates most of the transactions in the country.

India’s fintech startups raised $285.6 million in the quarter that ended in March this year, thereby surpassing China to become Asia’s top fundraising hub for financial technology, according to CBInsights.

And that momentum continues. In recent months, a score of startups that are trying to help India’s next hundreds of millions of users access financial services have secured significant capital from major investors. While some startups such as Open and Niyo are operating “neo banks” to help blue-collar workers access financial services, many big names like Paytm and Ola have launched their own credit cards.

Categories: Business News

Stonly lets you create interactive step-by-step guides to improve support

2019, July 17 - 8:01pm

French startup Stonly wants to empower users so that they can solve their issues by themselves. Instead of relying on customer support agents, Stonly wants to surface relevant content so that you can understand and solve issues.

“I’m trying to take the opposite stance of chatbots," founder and CEO Alexis Fogel told me. “The issue [with chatbots] is that technology is not good enough and you often end up searching through the help center.”

If you’re in charge of support for a big enough service, chances are your customers often face the same issues. Many companies have built help centers with lengthy articles. But most customers won’t scroll through those pages when they face an issue.

That’s why Stonly thinks you need to make this experience more interactive. The service lets you create scripted guides with multiple questions to make this process less intimidating. Some big companies have built question-based help centers, but Stonly wants to give tools to small companies so that they can build their own scenarios.

A Stonly module is basically a widget that you can embed on any page or blog. It works like a deck of slides with buttons to jump to the relevant slide. Companies can create guides in the back end without writing a single line of code. You can add an image, a video and some code to each slide.

At any time, you can see a flowchart of your guide to check that everything works as expected. You can translate your guides in multiple languages as well.

Once you’re done and the module is live, you can look back at your guides and see how you can improve them. Stonly lets you see if users spend more time on a step, close the tab and drop in the middle of the guide, test multiple versions of the same guide, etc.

But the startup goes one step further by integrating directly with popular support services, such as Zendesk and Intercom. For instance, if a user contacts customer support after checking a Stonly guide, you can see in Zendesk what they were looking at. Or you can integrate Stonly in your Intercom chat module.

As expected, a service like Stonly can help you save on customer support. If users can solve their own issues, you need a smaller customer support team. But that’s not all.

“It’s not just about saving money, it’s also about improving engagement and support,” Fogel said.

Password manager company Dashlane is a good example of that. Fogel previously co-founded Dashlane before starting Stonly. And it’s one of Stonly’s first clients.

“Dashlane is a very addictive product, but the main issue is that you want to help people get started,” he said. It’s true that it can be hard to grasp how you’re supposed to use a password manager if you’ve never used one in the past. So the onboarding experience is key with this kind of products.

Stonly is free if you want to play with the product and build public guides. But if you want to create private guides and access advanced features, the company has a Pro plan ($30 per month) and a Team plan (starting at $100 per month with bigger bills as you add more people to your team and use the product more extensively).

The company has tested its product with a handful of clients, such as Dashlane, Devialet, Happn and Malt. The startup has raised an undisclosed seed round from Eduardo Ronzano, Thibaud Elzière, Nicolas Steegmann, Renaud Visage and PeopleDoc co-founders. And Stonly is currently part of the Zendesk incubator at Station F.

Categories: Business News

AlphaSense, a search engine for analysis and business intel, raises $50M led by Innovation Endeavors

2019, July 17 - 7:10pm

Google and its flagship search portal opened the door to the possibilities of how to build a business empire on the back of organising and navigating the world’s information, as found on the internet. Now, a startup that’s built a search engine tailored to the needs of enterprises and their own quests for information has raised a round of funding to see if it can do the same for the B2B world.

AlphaSense, which provides a way for companies to quickly amass market intelligence around specific trends, industries and more to help them make business decisions, has closed a $50 million round of funding, a Series B that it’s planning to use to continue enhancing its product and expanding to more verticals.

Today, the company today counts some 1,000 clients on its books, with a heavy emphasis on investment banks and related financial services companies. That’s in part because of how the company got its start: Finnish co-founder and CEO Jaakko (Jack) Kokko he had been an analyst at Morgan Stanley in a past life and understood the labor and time pain points of doing market research, and decided to build a platform to help shorted a good part of the information gathering process.

“My experience as an analyst on Wall Street showed me just how fragmented information really was,” he said in an interview, citing as one example how complex sites like those of the FDA are not easy to navigate to look for new information an updates — the kind of thing that a computer would be much more adept at monitoring and flagging. “Even with the best tools and services, it still was really hard to manually get the work done, in part because of market volatility and the many factors that cause it. We can now do that with orders of magnitude more efficiency. Firms can now gather information in minutes that would have taken an hour. AlphaSense does the work of the best single analyst, or even a team of them.”

(Indeed, the “alpha” of AlphaSense appears to be a reference to finance: it’s a term that refers to the ability of a trader or portfolio manager to beat the typical market return.)

The lead investor in this round is very notable and says something about the company’s ambitions. It’s Innovation Endeavors, the VC firm backed by Eric Schmidt, who had been the CEO of none other than Google (the pace-setter and pioneer of the search-as-business model) for a decade, and then stayed on as chairman and ultimately board member of Google and then Alphabet (its later holding company) until just last June.

Schmidt presided over Google at what you could argue was its most important time, gaining speed and scale and transitioning from an academic idea into full-fledged, huge public business whose flagship product has now entered the lexicon as a verb and (through search and other services like Android and YouTube) is a mainstay of how the vast majority of the world uses the web today. As such he is good at spotting opportunities and gaps in the market, and while enterprise-based needs will never be as prominent as those of mass-market consumers, they can be just as lucrative.

“Information is the currency of business today, but data is overwhelming and fragmented, making it difficult for business professionals to find the right insights to drive key business decisions,” he said in a statement. “We were impressed by the way AlphaSense solves this with its AI and search technology, allowing businesses to proceed with the confidence that they have the right information driving their strategy.”

This brings the total raised by AlphaSense to $90 million, with other investors in this round including Soros Fund Management LLC and other unnamed existing investors. Previous backers had included Tom Glocer (the former Reuters CEO who himself is working on his own fintech startup, a security firm called BlueVoyant), the MassChallenge incubator, Tribeca Venture Partners and others. Kokko said AlphaSense is not disclosing its valuation at this point. (I’m guessing though that it’s definitely on the up.)

There have been others that have worked to try to tackle the idea of providing more targeted, and business focused search portals, from the likes of Wolfram Alpha (another alpha!) through to Lexis Nexis and others like Bloomberg’s terminals, FactSet, Business Quant and many more.

One interesting aspect of AlphaSense is how it’s both focused on pulling in requests as well as set up to push information to its users based on previous search parameters. Currently these are set up to only provide information, but over time, there is a clear opportunity to build services to let the engines take on some of the actions based on that information, such as adjusting asking prices for sales and other transactions.

“There are all kinds of things we could do,” said Kokko. “This is a massive untapped opportunity. But we’re not taking the human out of the loop, ever. Humans are the right ones to be making final decisions, and we’re just about helping them make those faster.”

Categories: Business News

Contract management startup Icertis becomes unicorn with $115M new round

2019, July 17 - 6:52pm

Icertis, a Washington-headquartered startup that develops cloud-based software to help large companies manage contracts, has raised $115 million at more than a billion-dollar valuation to become the latest SaaS unicorn as it looks to further expand its footprint across the globe.

The Series E round for the 10-year-old firm was led by Greycroft and PremjiInvest, and saw participation from existing investors B Capital Group, Cross Creek Advisors, Eight Roads, Ignition Partners, Meritech Capital Partners and PSP Growth. The startup, which also has offices in Seattle, Pune, Singapore, London, Paris and Sydney, has raised $211 million to date.

Icertis said it would use the fresh capital to expand its technology platform to address wider use cases. It said it would also expand its blockchain framework that integrates with enterprise contract management platforms to solve challenges such as transparency in supply chain and certification compliance. Its revenue is at about $100 million currently — another key area it intends to scale.

The firm, which claims that five of the world’s most valuable companies are its clients (one of which is Microsoft), said it would also scale its sales and marketing efforts to reach “every leading company in the world” and expand its partner ecosystem. It is also looking to acquire startups that are a good fit to its contracting business.

Icertis lets users manage almost all kinds of contracts. Companies use Icertis’ products to handle procurement, sales and corporate contracts, including non-disclosure agreements. In addition to helping users create contracts, Icertis’ software also tracks when terms are met, ensures regulatory compliance and automates administrative tasks like sending renewal reminders.

Icertis, which was founded originally in India, helps customers manage more than 5.7 million contracts with an aggregate value of more than $1 trillion. In a statement, Mark Terbeek, a partner at Greycroft, said Icertis’ ability to win “a huge stable of blue-chip customers” was among the factors that attracted them to invest in the company.

“Nothing is more foundational than contract management as every dollar in and every dollar out of a company is governed by a contract. As the CLM market takes off, we are thrilled to have Premji Invest join the Icertis family, Greycroft double down by co-leading this round, and all investors re-up their commitment as we execute on our mission to become the contract management platform of the world,” said Icertis’ co-founder and CEO Samir Bodas, in a statement.

Icertis competes with a number of firms, including Apttus — which has raised north of $400 million, SpringCM — which was acquired by DocuSign, Conga — which has raised over $100 million, Ariba and Concord.

Categories: Business News

ContractPodAi scores $55M for its ‘AI-powered’ contract management software

2019, July 17 - 5:00pm

ContractPodAi, a London-based startup that has developed what it describes as AI-powered contract lifecycle management software, is disclosing $55 million in Series B funding. The round is led by U.S.-based Insight Partners, with participation from earlier backer Eagle Investment.

Founded in 2012, ContractPodAi offers an “end-to-end” solution spanning the three main aspects of contract management: contract generation, contract repository, and third-party review. Its AI offering, which uses IBM’s Watson, claims to streamline the contract management process and reduce the burden on corporate in-house legal teams.

“The legal profession has been historically behind the curve in technology adoption and our objective here is to support to digital transformation of legal departments via our contract management platform,” ContractPodAi co-founder and CEO Sarvarth Misra tells TechCrunch.

“Our business focusses on providing in-house counsel of corporations across the world with an easy to use, out of the box and scalable end to end contract management platform at a fixed fee SaaS licence model”.

With regards to ContractPodAi’s target customer, Misra says its solution is industry agnostic but is typically sold to large international businesses, including FTSE 500 and Fortune 2000 corporations. Customers include Bosch Siemens, Braskem, EDF Energy, Total Petroleum, Benjamin Moore and Freeview.

Armed with new capital, ContractPodAi says it plans to “significantly” scale up its product development, sales, and customer success teams globally. The company already has offices in San Francisco, New York, Glasgow and Mumbai, in addition to its London HQ.

Adds Misra: “We believe that market for contract management solutions is fragmented with providers focussing one or two aspects of contract management functionality. ContractPodAi’s objective has been to provide one contract management ecosystem which covers all aspects of contract management functionality… This, along with our fixed, transparent pricing and ability to provide full implementation as part of the annual SaaS, differentiates us the from the rest of the providers”.

Categories: Business News

Elon Musk’s Neuralink looks to begin outfitting human brains with faster input and output starting next year

2019, July 17 - 12:58pm

Neuralink, the Elon Musk-led startup that the multi-entrepreneur founded in 2017, is working on technology that’s based around ‘threads’ which it says can be implanted in human brains with much less potential impact to the surrounding brain tissue vs. what’s currently used for today’s brain-computer interfaces. “Most people don’t realize, we can solve that with a chip,” Musk said to kick off Neuralink’s event, talking about some of the brain disorders and issues the company hopes to solve.

Musk also said that long-term Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” “This is not a mandatory thing,” he added. “This is something you can choose to have if you want.”

For now, however, the aim is medical and the plan is to use a robot that Neuralink has created that operates somewhat like a “sewing machine” to implant this threads, which are incredibly thin I(like, between 4 and 6 μm, which means about one-third the diameter of the thinnest human hair), deep within a person’s brain tissue, where it will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume.

All of this sounds incredibly far-fetched, and to some extent it still is: Neuralink’s scientists told The New York Times in a briefing on Monday that the company has a “long way to go” before it can get anywhere near offering a commercial service. The main reason for breaking cover and talking more freely about what they’re working on, the paper reported, is that they’ll be better able to work out in the open and publish papers, which is definitely an easier mode of operation for something that requires as much connection with the academic and research community as this.

Neuralink co-founder and president Max Hodak told the NYT that he’s optimistic Neuralink’s tech could theoretically see use somewhat soon in medical use, including potential applications enabling amputees to regain mobility via use of prosthetics and reversing vision, hearing or other sensory deficiencies. It’s hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as next year, in fact, including via possible collaboration with neurosurgeons at Stanford and other institutions.

The current incarnation of Neuralink’s tech would involve drilling actual holes into a subject’s skull in order to insert the ultra thin threads, but future iterations will shift to using lasers instead to create tiny holes that are much less invasive and essentially not felt by a patient, Hodak told the paper. Working on humans next year with something that meets this description for a relatively new company might seem improbable, but Neuralink did demonstrate its technology used on a laboratory rat this week, with performance levels that exceed today’s systems in terms of data transfer. The data from the rat was gathered via a USB-C port in its head, and it provided about 10x more what the best current sensors can offer, according to Bloomberg.

Neurlalink’s advances vs. current BCI methods also include the combined thinness and flexibility of the ‘threads’ used, but one scientist wondered about their longevity when exposed to the brain, which contains a salt mix fluid that can damage and ultimately degrade plastics over time. The plan is also that the times electrodes implanted in the brain will be able to communicate wirelessly with chips outside the brain, providing real time monitoring with unprecedented freedom of motion, without any external wires or connections.

Elon Musk is bankrolling the majority of this endeavour as well as acting as its CEO, with $100 million of the $158 million its raised so far coming from the SpaceX and Tesla CEO. It has 90 employees thus far, and still seems to be hiring aggressively based on its minimal website (which basically only contains job ads). Elon Musk also noted at the outset of today’s presentation that the main reason for the event was in fact to recruit new talent.

Categories: Business News

CES will allow sex tech on a one-year trial basis, and finally bans booth babes

2019, July 17 - 5:55am

The Consumer Technology Association, the organization behind the annual Consumer Electronics Show, is slowly getting up to speed with the modern day. Today, CTA announced it will allow sex tech startups to participate and compete for awards as part of the health and wellness category on a one-year trial basis.

This comes after the CTA royally messed up with sex tech company Lora DiCarlo last year. The CTA revoked an innovation award from the company, which is developing a hands-free device that uses biomimicry and robotics to help women achieve a blended orgasm by simultaneously stimulating the G-spot and the clitoris. In May, CTA re-awarded the company and apologized.

“CTA is committed to evolving and continuing to create an experience at CES that is inclusive and welcoming for everyone,” CES EVP Karen Chupka said in a statement. “We worked with a number of external advisors and partners to update and improve our existing CES policies.”

Additionally, CTA has banned booth babes, or, booth people, as it’s applicable to everyone, regardless of gender.

“Booth personnel may not wear clothing that is sexually revealing or that could be interpreted as undergarments,” the new policy states. “Clothing that reveals an excess of bare skin, or body-conforming clothing that hugs genitalia must not be worn.”

Categories: Business News

Final ticket release to the 14th Annual TechCrunch Summer Party

2019, July 17 - 5:00am

One of Silicon Valley’s most fun and enduring traditions — the 14th Annual TechCrunch Summer Party — takes place on July 25. If you don’t have a ticket yet, know this: We just released the last batch of tickets. Once they’re gone, that’s it. No party for you. Don’t miss out on a night of fun and opportunity — buy your ticket today.

The Park Chalet, San Francisco’s coastal beer garden, provides a picturesque setting (ocean views anyone?) for a casual evening celebrating the early-startup spirit. Hang out and enjoy local craft beer, cocktails, delicious food and great conversation with other fearless tech entrepreneurs.

TechCrunch parties provide a relaxed way to connect and network, and they’re known as a place where startup magic happens. Who knows? You might meet your future co-founder or funder. Aaron Levie and Dylan Smith, founders of Box, met one of their first investors at a TechCrunch party.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to chat up an investor since our lead VC partner, Merus Capital, will be in the house, along with August Capital, Battery Ventures, Cowboy Ventures, Data Collective, General Catalyst and Uncork Capital.

No TechCrunch event would be complete without exciting startups showcasing their tech and talent.

Here’s the when, where and how:

  • When: July 25 from 5:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
  • Where: Park Chalet in San Francisco
  • How much: $95

As always, you have a chance to win great door prizes, including TechCrunch swag, Amazon Echos and tickets to Disrupt San Francisco 2019.

The 14th Annual TechCrunch Summer Party takes place on July 25, and this is the last ticket release. Don’t miss out on a convivial evening of food, drink, connection and possibility in the company of your entrepreneurial peers. Buy your ticket right here.

Want a free ticket to Disrupt SF?

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Categories: Business News

What seed-stage dilution tells us about changing investor expectations

2019, July 17 - 3:02am
Dale Chang Contributor Share on Twitter Dale Chang is the Operating Partner at Scale Venture Partners, where he advises portfolio companies on strategies for go-to-market and scaling. More posts by this contributor

Round sizes are up. Valuations are up. There are more investors than ever hunting unicorns around the globe. But for all the talk about the abundance of venture funding, there is a lot less being said about what it all means for entrepreneurs raising their early funding rounds.

Take for instance Seed-stage dilution. Since 2014, enterprise-focused tech companies have given up significantly more ownership during Seed rounds. What gives?

Scale is an investor in early-in-revenue enterprise technology companies, so we wanted to better understand how this trend in Seed-stage dilution impacts companies raising Series A and Series B rounds.

Using our Scale Studio dataset of performance metrics on nearly 800 cloud and SaaS companies as well as Pitchbook fundraising records covering B2B software startups, we started connecting the dots between trends in valuations, round sizes, and winner-take-all markets.

Bottom line for founders: Don’t let all the capital in venture mislead you. There’s an important connection between higher Seed-stage dilution and increased investor expectations during Series A and Series B rounds.

These days, successful startups are growing up faster than ever.

Founders face an important trade-off decision

Categories: Business News

Social chat app Capture launches to take a shot at less viral success

2019, July 17 - 3:00am

At first glance launching a new social app may seem as sensible a startup idea as plunging headfirst into shark-infested waters. But with even infamous curtain-ripper Facebook now making grand claims about a ‘pivot to privacy’ it’s clear something is shifting in the commercial shipping channels that contain our digital chatter.

Whisper it: Feeds are tiring. Follows are tedious. Attention is expiring. There’s also, of course, the damage that personal digital baggage left out in the open can wreak long after the fact of a blown fuse or fleeting snap.

Public feeds have become vehicles of self-promotion; carefully and heavily curated — which of course brings its own peer pressures to keep up with friends’ lux exploits and the influencer ‘gram aesthetic that pretends life looks like a magazine spread.

Yet for a brief time, in the gritty early years of social media, there was something akin to spontaneous, confessional reality on show online. People do like to share. That’s mostly been swapped for the polish of aspirational faking it on apps like Facebook-owned Instagram. While genuine friend chatter has moved behind the quasi-closed doors of group messaging apps, like Facebook-owned WhatsApp (or rival Telegram).

If you want to chat more freely online without being defined by your existing social graph the options are less mainstream friendly to say the least.

Twitter is genuinely great if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to find interesting strangers. But its user growth problem shows most consumers just aren’t willing (or able) to do that. Telegram groups also require time and effort to track down.

Also relevant in interest-based chat: Veteran forum Reddit, and game chat platform Disqus — both pretty popular, though not in a way that really cuts across the mainstream, tending to cater to more niche and/or focused interests. Neither is designed for mobile first either.

This is why Capture’s founders are convinced there’s a timely opportunity for a new social app to slot in — one which leverages smartphone sensors and AI smarts to make chatting about anything as easy as pointing a camera to take a shot.

They’re not new to the social app game, either. As we reported last year, two of Capture’s founders were part of the team behind the style transfer app Prisma, which racked up tens of millions of downloads over a few viral months of 2016.

And with such a bright feather in their cap, a number of investors — led by General Catalyst — were unsurprisingly eager to chip into Capture’s $1M seed, setting them on the road to today’s launch.

Point and chat

“The main idea behind the app is during the day you’ve got different experiences — working, watching some TV series etc, you’re sitting in an arena watching some sports, or something like that. So we imagine that you should open the app during any type of experience you have during the day,” says Capture co-founder and CEO Alexey Moiseenkov fleshing out the overarching vision for the app.

“It’s not for your friends; it’s the moment when you should share something or just ask something or discuss something with other people. Like news, for example… I want to discuss news with the people who are relevant, who want to discuss it. And so on and on. So I imagine it is about small groups with the same goal, discussing the same experience, or something like that. It’s all about your everyday life.”

“Basically you can imagine our app as like real-time forum,” he adds. “Real-time social things like Reddit. So it’s more about live discussion, not postponing something.”

Chat(room) recommendations are based on contextual inferences that Capture can glean from the mobile hardware. Namely where you are (so the app needs access to your location) and even whether you’re on the move or lounging around (it also accesses the accelerometer so can tell the angle of the phone).

The primary sensory input comes from the camera of course. So like Snap it’s a camera-first app, opening straight into the rear lens’ live view.

By default chats in Capture are public so it also knows what topics users are discussing — which in turn further feeds and hones its recommendations for chats (and indeed matching users).

Co-founder and CMO Aram Hardy (also formerly at Prisma) gives the example of the free-flowing discussion you can see unrolling in YouTube comments when a movie trailer gets its first release — as the sort of energetic, expressive discussion Capture wants to channel inside its app.

“It’s exploding,” he says. “People are throwing those comments, discussing it on YouTube, on web, and that’s a real pain because there is no tool where you can simply discuss it with people, maybe with people around you, who are just interested in this particular trailer live on a mobile device — that’s a real pain.”

“Everything which is happening around the person should be taken into consideration to be suggested in Capture — that’s our simple vision,” he adds.

Everything will mean pop culture, news, local events and interest-based communities.

Though some of the relevant sources of pop/events content aren’t yet live in the app. But the plan is to keep bulking out the suggestive mix to expand what can be discovered via chat suggestions. (There’s also a discovery tab to surface public chats.)

Hardy even envisages Capture being able to point users to an unfolding accident in their area — which could generate a spontaneous need for locals or passers by to share information.

The aim for the app — which is launching on iOS today (Android will come later; maybe by fall) — is to provide an ever ready, almost no-barrier-to-entry chat channel that offers mobile users no-strings-attached socializing free from the pressures (and limits) of existing social graphs/friend networks; as well as being a context-savvy aid for content and event discovery, which means helping people dive into relevant discussion communities based on shared interests and/or proximity.

Of course location-based chatting is hardly a new idea. (And messaging giant Telegram just added a location-based chats feature to its platform.)

But the team’s premise is that mobile users are now looking for smart ways to supplement their social graph — and it’s betting on a savvy interface unlocking and (re)channelling underserved demand.

“People are really tired of something really follower based,” argues Moiseenkov. “All this stuff with a following, liking and so on. I feel there is a huge opportunity for all the companies around the world to make something based on real-time communication. It’s more like you will be heard in this chat so you can’t miss a thing. And I think that’s a powerful shot.

“We want to create a smaller room for every community in the Internet… So you can always join any group and just start talking in a free way. So you never shared your real identity — or it’s under your control. You can share or not, it’s up to you. And I think we need that.

“It’s what we miss during this Facebook age where everybody is ‘real’. Imagine that it’s like a game. In a game you’re really free — you can express yourself what way you want. I think that’s a great idea.”

“The entry threshold [for Twitter] is enormous,” adds Hardy. “You can’t have an account on Twitter and get famous within a week if you’re not an influencer. If you’re a simple person who wants to discuss something it’s impossible. But you can just create a chat or enter any chat within Capture and instantly be heard.

“You can create a chat manually. We have an add button — you can add any chat. It will be automatically recognized and suggested to other users who are interested in these sort of things. So we want every user to be heard within Capture.”

How it works

Capture’s AI-powered chatroom recommendations are designed to work as an onboarding engine for meeting relevant strangers online — using neural networks and machine learning to do the legwork of surfacing relevant people and chats.

Here’s how the mobile app works: Open the app, point the camera at something you view as a conversational jumping off point — and watch as it processes the data using computer vision technology to figure out what you’re looking at and recommend related chats for you to join.

For example, you might point the camera around your front room and be suggested a chatroom for ‘interior design trends and ideas’ , or at a pot plant and get ‘gardeners’ chat, or at your cat and get ‘pet chat’ or ‘funny pets’.

Point the camera at yourself and you might see suggestions like ‘Meet new friends’, ‘Hot or not?’, ‘Dating’, ‘Beautiful people’ — or be nudged to start a ‘Selfie chat’, which is where the app will randomly connect you with another Capture user for a one-to-one private chat.

Chat suggestions are based on an individual user’s inferred interests and local context (pulled via the phone) and also on matching users across the app based on respective usage of the app.

At the same time the user data being gathered is not used to pervasively profile uses, as is the case with ad-supported social networks. Rather Capture’s founders say personal data pulled from the phone — such as location — is only retained for a short time and used to power the next set of recommendations.

Capture users are also not required to provide any personal data (beyond creating a nickname) to start chatting. If they want to use Capture’s web platform they can provide an email to link their app and web accounts — but again that email address does not have to include anything linked to their real identity.

“The key tech we want to develop is a machine learning system that can suggest you the most relevant stuff and topics for you right now — based on data we have from your phone,” continues Moiseenkov. “This is like a magical moment. We do not know who you are — but we can suggest something relevant.

“This is like a smart system because we’ve got some half graph of connection between people. It’s not like the entire graph like your friends and family but it’s a graph on what chat you are in, so where are you discussing something. So we know this connection between people [based on the chats you’re participating in]… so we can use this information.

“Imagine this is somehow sort of a graph. That’s a really key part of our system. We know these intersections, we know the queries, and the intersection of queries from different people. And that’s the key here — the key machine learning system then want to match this between people and interests, between people and topics, and so on.

“On top of that we’ve got recognition stuff for images — like six or seven neural networks that are working to recognize the stuff, what are you seeing, how, what position and so on. We’ve got some quite slick computer vision filters that can do some magic and do not miss.

“Basically we want to perform like Google in terms of query we’ve got — it’s really big system, lots of tabs — to suggest relevant chats.”

Image recognition processing is all done locally on the user’s device so Capture is not accessing any actual image data from the camera view — just mathematical models of what the AI believes it’s seen (and again they claim they don’t hold that data for long).

“Mostly the real-time stuff comes from machine learning, analyzing the data we have from your phone — everybody has location. We do not store this location… we never store your data for a long time. We’re trying to move into more private world where we do not know who you are,” says Moiseenkov.

“When you log into our app you just enter the nickname. It’s not about your phone number, it’s not about your social networks. We sometimes — when you just want to log in from other device — we ask you an email. But that’s all. Email and nickname it’s nothing. We do not know nothing about you. About your person, like where you work, who’s your friends, so on and so on. We do not know anything.

“I think that’s the true way for now. That’s why gaming is so fast in terms of growing. People just really want to share, really want to log in and sign up [in a way] that’s easy. And there is no real barriers for that — I think that’s what we want to explore more.”

Chatroulette

Having tested Capture’s app prior to launch I can report that the first wave chat suggestions are pretty rudimentary and/or random.

Plus its image recognition often misfires (for instance my cat was identified as, among other things, a dog, hamster, mouse and even a polar bear (!) — as well as a cat — so clearly the AI’s eye isn’t flawless, and variable environmental conditions around the user can produce some odd and funny results).

 

The promise from the founders is that recommendations will get better as the app ingests more data and the AI (and indeed Capture staff performing manual curation of chat suggestions) get a better handle on what people are clicking on and therefore wanting to talk with other users about.

They also say they’re intending to make better linkage leaps in chat suggestions — so rather than being offered a chatroom called ‘Pen’ (as I was),  if you point the Capture camera at a pen, the app might instead nudge you towards more interesting-sounding chats — like ‘office talk’ or ‘writing room’ and so on.

Equally, if a bunch of users point their Capture cameras at the same pen the app might in future be smart enough to infer that they all want to join the same chatroom — and suggest creating a private group chat just for them.

On that front you could imagine members of the same club, say, being able to hop into the same discussion channel — summoning it by scanning a mutual object or design they all own or have access to. And you could also imagine people being delighted by a scanner-based interface linked to custom stuff in their vicinity — as a lower friction entry point vs typing in their directions. (Though — to be clear — the app isn’t hitting those levels of savvy right now.)

“Internally we imagine that we’re like Google but without direct query typing,” Moiseenkov tells TechCrunch. “So basically you do the query — like scanning the world around you. Like you are in some location, like some venue, imagine all this data is like a query — so then step by step we know what people are clicking, then improving the results and this step by step, month by month, so after three month or four month we will be better. So we know what people are clicking, we know what people are discussing and that’s it.”

“It’s tricky stuff,” he adds. “It’s really really hard. So we need lots of machine learning, we need lots of like our hands working on this moderating stuff, replacing some stuff, renaming, suggest different things. But I think that’s the way — that’s the way for onboarding people.

“So when people will know that they will open the app in the arena and they will receive the right results the most relevant stuff for this arena — for the concert, for the match, or something like that, it will be the game. That’s what we want to achieve. So every time during the day you open the app you receive relevant community to join. That’s the key.”

Right now the founders say they’re experimenting with various chat forms and features so they can figure out how people want to use the app and ensure they adapt to meet demand.

Hence, for example, the chatroulette-style random ‘selfie chat’ feature. Which does what it says on the tin — connecting you to another random user for a one-to-one chat. (If selfie chats do end up getting struck out of the app I hope they’ll find somewhere else to house the cute slide-puzzle animation that’s displayed as the algorithms crunch data to connect you to a serendipitous interlocutor.)

They’re also not yet decided on whether public chat content in Capture will persist indefinitely — thereby potentially creating ongoing, topics-based resources — or be ephemeral by default, with a rolling delete which kicks in after a set time to wipe the chat slate clean.

“We actually do not know what will be in the next one to three months. We need to figure out — will it be consistent or ephemeral,” admits Moiseenkov. “We need to figure out certain areas, like usage patterns. We should watch how people behave in our app and then decide what will be the feed.”

Capture does support private group chats as well as public channels — so there’s certainly overlap with the messaging platform Telegram, which also supports both. Though one nuance between them is Capture Channels let everyone comment but only admins post vs Telegram channels being a pure one-way broadcast.

But it’s on interface and user experience where Capture’s approach really diverges from the more standard mobile messaging playbook.

If you imagine it as a mash-up of existing social apps Capture could be thought of as something like a Snap-style front end atop a Telegram-esque body yet altogether sleeker, with none of the usual social baggage and clutter. (Some of that may creep in of course, if users demand it, and they do have a reactions style feature linked up to add in so… )

“With our tool you can find people not from your graph,” says Moiseenkov. “That’s the key here. So with WhatsApp it’s really hard to invite people not from your graph — or like friends of friends. And that’s a really tough question — where I can find the relevant people whom I chat about football? So now we add the tool for you in our app to just find these people and invite them to your [chat].”

“It’s really really hard not to like your friend’s post on Instagram because it’s social capital,” he adds. “You are always liking these posts. And we are not in this space. We do not want to move in this direction of followers, likers, and all this stuff — scrolling and endless communication.

“Time is changing, my life is changing, my friends and family somehow is changing because life is changing… We’re mobile like your everyday life… the app is suggesting you something relevant for this life [now]. And you can just find people also doing the same things, studying, discussing the same things.”

Community building

Why include private chats at all in Capture? Given the main premise (and promise) of the app is its ability to combine strangers with similar interests in the same virtual spaces — thereby expanding interest communities and helping mobile users escape the bubbles of closed chat groups.

On that Moiseenkov says they envisage communities will still want to be able to create their own closed groups — to maintain “a persistent, consistent community”.

So Capture has been designed to contain backchannels as well as open multiple windows into worlds anyone can join. “It’s one of opportunities to make this and I think that we should add it because we do not know exact scenarios right from the launch,” he says of including private conduits alongside public chats.

Given the multiple chat channels in the first release Capture does risk being a bit confusing. And during our interview the founders joke about having created a “maximal viable product” rather than the usual MVP.

But they say they’re also armed to be able to respond quickly to usage patterns — with bits and pieces lined up in the background so they can move quickly to add/remove features based on the usage feedback they get. So, basically, watch this space.

All the feature creep and experimentation has delayed their launch a little though. The app had been slated to arrive in Q4 last year. Albeit, a later-than-expected launch is hardly an unusual story for a startup.

Capture also of course suffers from a lack of users for people to chat to at the point of release — aka, the classic network effect problem (which also makes testing it prior to launch pretty tricky; safe to say, it was a very minimalist messaging experience).

Not having many users also means Capture’s chat suggestions aren’t as intelligent and savvy as the founders imply they’ll be.

So again the MVP will need some time to mature before it’s safe to pass judgement on the underlying idea. It does feel a bit laggy right now — and chat suggestions definitely hit and miss but it will be interesting to see how that evolves as/if users pile in.

Part of their plan is to encourage and nurture movie/TV/entertainment discussion communities specifically — with Hardy arguing there’s “no such tool” that easily supports that. So in future they want Capture users to be notified about new series coming up on Netflix, or Disney’s latest release. Then, as users watch that third party content, their idea is they’ll be encouraged to discuss it live on their mobiles via Capture.

But movie content is only partially launched at this stage. So again that’s all just a nice idea at this stage.

Testing pre-launch on various celebrity visages also drew a suggestive blank — and Hardy confirmed they’ve got more pop culture adds planned for the future.

Such gaps will likely translate into a low stickiness rate at first. But when the team’s ambition is to support a Google-esque level of content queries the scale of the routing and pattern matching task ahead of them is really both massive and unending.

To get usage off the ground they’re aiming to break the content recommendation problem down into more bite-size chunks — starting by seeding links to local events and news (sourced from parsing the public Internet); and also by focusing on serving specific communities (say around sports), and also linked to particular locations, such as cities — the latter two areas likely informed by in what and where the app gets traction.

They’ve also hired a content manager to help with content recommendations. This person is also in charge of “banning some bad things and all that stuff”, as they put it. (From the get go they’re running a filter to ban nudity; and don’t yet support video uploads/streams to reduce their moderation risk. Clearly they will need to be very ‘on it’ to avoid problem usage mushrooming into view and discouraging positive interactions and community growth within the app. But again they say they’re drawing on their Prisma experience.)

They also say they want this social app to be more a slow burn on the growth front — having seen the flip side of burn out viral success at Prisma — which, soon after flooding the social web with painterly selfies, had to watch as tech giants ruthlessly cloned the style transfer effect, reducing their novelty factor and pushing users to move on to their next selfie lens fix.

“As data-driven guys we’re mostly looking for some numbers,” says Moiseenkov when asked where they hope to be with Capture in 12 months’ time. “So I think achieving something like 1M or 2M MAU with a good retention and engagement loop by then is our goal.

“We want to keep this growth under control. So we could release the features step by step, more about engagement not more about viral growth. So our focus is doing something that can keep engagement loop, that can increase our spend time in the app, increase the usage and so on, not driving this into the peak and like acquiring all the trends.”

“Conclusions are drawn from Prisma!” adds Hardy with investor-winning levels of chutzpah.

While it’s of course super early to talk business model, the question is a valid one given Capture’s claims of zero user profiling. Free apps backed by VC will need to monetize the hoped for scale and usage at some point. So how does Capture plan to do that?

The founders say they envisage the app acting as a distribution tool. And for that use case their knowing (only) the timing, location and subject of chats is plenty enough data to carry out contextual targeting of whatever stuff they can get paid to distribute to their users.  

They are also toying with models in a Patreon style — such as users being able to donate to content authors who are in turn distributing stuff to them via Capture. But again plans aren’t fully formed at this nascent stage.

“Our focus right now is more like going into partnerships with different companies that have lots of content and lots of events going on,” says Hardy. “We also are going to ask for permission to get access to music apps like Spotify or Apple Music to be aware of those artists and songs a person is interested in and is listening to. So this will give us an opportunity to suggest relevant new albums, maybe music events, concerts and so on and so forth.

“For example if a band is coming to your city and we know we have access to Apple Music we know you’re listening to it we’ll suggest a concert — we’ll say ‘hey maybe you can win a free ticket’ if we can partner… with someone, so yeah we’re moving into this in the near future I think.”

Categories: Business News

One of Uber’s flying taxi partners just raised a $25 million Series A round

2019, July 17 - 2:42am

Uber Air, the transportation company’s upcoming flying taxi service, needs vehicle partners in order to make it a reality. Karem Aircraft, which Uber partnered with last year, has just raised a $25 million Series A round for its new air taxi spin-off. The round was led by Korean industrial conglomerate Hanwha Systems.

“Karem’s technology for making safe, quiet, and efficient air taxi vehicles excites all of us,” Uber Elevate head Eric Allison said in a statement. “Hanwha’s Series A investment in Karem’s new air taxi entity accelerates efforts to bring the Butterfly to market, and we look forward to flying riders in places like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne in the near future.”

Uber is aiming to start testing these aircraft next year, and wants to commercially deploy Uber Air in Los Angeles, Calif., Dallas-Fort Worth/Frisco, Texas and Melbourne, Australia in 2023.

Karem’s new venture is designed to focus solely on electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles, specifically its Butterfly air taxi vehicle.

The Butterfly (rendered above) is a quad tiltrotor with four large rotors mounted on the wings and tail. The idea is to combine the vertical lift capability of a helicopter with the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft. The Butterfly is also designed to be more efficient as a result of its rotors with variable RPM.

“The new company will be able to focus exclusively on bringing Butterfly to market, leveraging Karem’s optimum speed rotor technology, Hanwha’s industrial scale, and Uber’s ridesharing network,” Ben Tigner, CEO of the new venture, said in a statement. “We look forward to the day when riders will be able to commute to work by flying above the traffic in one of our vehicles. Karem Aircraft will continue to serve the needs of its military customers; we are confident that each company is on a path for long-term success so that our technology can be applied in two distinct but important use cases.”

Uber’s annual flying taxi summit reveals Uber Air has a ways to go

Categories: Business News

What we can learn from DTC success with TV ads

2019, July 17 - 2:02am
Kevin Krim and Sebastian Chiu Contributor Share on Twitter Kevin Krim is EDO's President & CEO. His 21-year career has spanned search, social and TV advertising across start-ups and major companies like Yahoo and NBCUniversal. Sebastian Chiu is EDO's Chief Data Scientist. He earned his undergraduate and post-graduate degrees from Harvard, working previously as a data scientist at Dropbox.

One of the most-discussed plot twists in recent advertising has been the pivot of Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) brands to linear TV. These data-driven, digital-first players are expanding well beyond Facebook and Instagram—and becoming serious players on the largest traditional medium in advertising.

A January 2019 Video Advertising Bureau study found that in 2018, 120 DTC brands collectively spent over $2 billion in TV ads—up from $1.1 B in 2016. 70 of those 2018 advertisers ran TV ads for the first time.

But while we know that they’re advertising on TV, what may be less discussed is whether they’re succeeding on television—and what strategies they use to achieve their success.

At EDO, we have a unique and differentiated ability to measure how DTC advertisers perform on TV by tracking incremental online searches above baseline in the minutes immediately following individual TV ad airings as viewers translate their interest in advertised brands and products directly into online engagement with them.

By measuring incremental search activity across 60 million national TV ad airings since 2015, we are able to effectively isolate the effects of TV ad placement and creative decisions that are most likely to cause online engagement.

We ran the numbers on DTCs as well as advertisers in various other categories to better understand how DTCs specifically are succeeding in TV ads—and what DTCs who are considering TV advertising can do to achieve success on TV.

Table of Contents

Does the David vs. Goliath story play out on TV?

The DTC revolution is a quintessential David and Goliath story. In vertical after vertical, small, digital-native upstarts are changing the game and overtaking major brands. Does that story play out on TV as well—or is TV advertising one area where DTC marketers have finally met their match?

To answer that question, EDO looked at how effectively TV ads elicited viewer activity since September 2018 across eight major industry categories including DTC. Guided by historical ad performance across billions of ads, we rated ad performance based on how closely the DTC ads came to meeting the benchmark volume of brand-related online activity in the minutes following each TV ad airing.

We index each industry accordingly—giving an index value of 100 to an ad that meets benchmark standards, and below-par ads getting a score under 100 while higher-scoring ads receive a score over 100. We chose to set our index baseline of 100 to the average Consumer Packaged Good (CPG) ad since it is such a large and broad ad category. Our results are as follows:

Categories: Business News

Billie raises €30M for its B2B invoicing and payments platform

2019, July 17 - 1:49am

Billie, the Berlin-based fintech startup that offers a B2B invoicing and payments platform, has raised €30 million in Series B funding. Leading the round is Creandum, alongside SpeedInvest, Rocket Internet’s GFC and Picus.

Founded in 2017 by the same team behind SME online lending platform Zencap, which exited to Funding Circle in 2015, Billie wants to bring to B2B invoicing and payments the same level of convenience seen in B2C payments and e-commerce.

Claiming to be Germany’s leading “one-stop shop” for handling all outgoing invoices of B2B sellers, including sending invoices, collecting payments and invoice financing, Billie’s customers range from SMEs, large e-commerce players and transnational marketplaces.

“As B2B transactions are more than twice the volume of B2C transactions, the potential to help our customers is enormous. And, up to now, this market is unserved,” Billie co-founder Dr. Matthias Knecht tells me.

“We’re able to place ourselves in the middle of B2B payments because B2B sellers often face long payment terms until getting paid, administrative burden to handle collections on unpaid invoices and severe economic risks from payment defaults. Meanwhile, B2B buyers often face rigid one-size-fits-all payment terms that are not tailored to the cash-cycle needs of their business. As a result, they revert to old-fashioned working capital loans to cover their liquidity needs.”

To fix this, Billie currently provides two core solutions.

The first is a checkout financing solution for B2B online stores, which embeds a financing option in the online checkout process. “It enables instant financing of the customer’s purchase directly at the online point-of-sale, and takes away all administrative hassle and default risk from the seller,” explains Knecht.

The second is SME invoice factoring, which the Billie co-founder describes as a fully automated platform that handles all outgoing invoices of SMEs.

“Small and medium-sized businesses can handle all their outgoing invoices through our platform, get instant financing for each invoice (i.e. they do not need to wait 90 days to get paid by their customers), and also outsource the collections process as well as coverage of default risk to Billie,” he says. “It’s an exciting, highly automated ‘piece of mind’ product that let’s SMEs focus on what they do best and have Billie handle the operational burden of invoice management and default coverage.”

With today’s injection of capital, Knecht says the startup plans to offer new solutions that are specifically targeted at the buyer side of B2B transactions by handling all processes around payables. This could include letting B2B buyers flexibly choose payment terms and reducing the bookkeeping hassle by acting as a single creditor.

“We will furthermore start rolling out our solutions across Europe at some point, as the need to turn B2B transactions into a frictionless experience exists across countries,” he adds.

Categories: Business News

Voyant Photonics raises $4.3M to fit lidar on the head of a pin

2019, July 17 - 1:45am

Lidar is a critical method by which robots and autonomous vehicles sense the world around them, but the lasers and sensors generally take up a considerable amount of space. Not so with Voyant Photonics, which has created a lidar system that you really could conceivably balance on the head of a pin.

Before getting into the science, it’s worth noting why this is important. Lidar is most often used as a way for a car to sense things at a medium distance — far away, radar can outperform it, and up close, ultrasonics and other methods are more compact. But from a few feet to a couple hundred feed out, lidar is very useful.

Unfortunately, even the most compact lidar solutions today are still, roughly, the size of a hand, and the ones ready for use in production vehicles are still larger. A very small lidar unit that could be hidden on every corner of a car, or even inside the cabin, could provide rich positional data about everything in and around the car with little power and no need to disrupt the existing lines and design. (And that’s not getting into the many, many other industries that could use this.)

Startups at the speed of light: Lidar CEOs put their industry in perspective

Lidar began with the idea of, essentially, a single laser being swept across a scene multiple times per second, its reflection carefully measured to track the distances of objects. But mechanically steered lasers are bulky, slow and prone to failure, so newer companies are attempting other techniques, like illuminating the whole scene at once (flash lidar) or steering the beam with complex electronic surfaces (metamaterials) instead.

One discipline that seems primed to join in the fun is silicon photonics, which is essentially the manipulation of light on a chip for various purposes — for instance, to replace electricity in logic gates to provide ultra-fast, low-heat processing. Voyant, however, has pioneered a technique to apply silicon photonics to lidar.

In the past, attempts in chip-based photonics to send out a coherent laser-like beam from a surface of lightguides (elements used to steer light around or emit it) have been limited by a low field of view and power because the light tends to interfere with itself at close quarters.

Voyant’s version of these “optical phased arrays” sidesteps that problem by carefully altering the phase of the light traveling through the chip. The result is a strong beam of non-visible light that can be played over a wide swathe of the environment at high speed with no moving parts at all — yet it emerges from a chip dwarfed by a fingertip.

“This is an enabling technology because it’s so small,” said Voyant co-founder Steven Miller. “We’re talking cubic centimeter volumes. There’s a lot of electronics that can’t accommodate a lidar the size of a softball — think about drones and things that are weight-sensitive, or robotics, where it needs to be on the tip of its arm.”

Lest you think this is just a couple yahoos who think they’ve one-upped years of research, Miller and co-founder Chris Phare came out of the Lipson Nanophotonics Group at Columbia University.

“This lab basically invented silicon photonics,” said Phare. “We’re all deeply ingrained with the physics and devices-level stuff. So we were able to step back and look at lidar, and see what we needed to fix and make better to make this a reality.”

WTF is lidar?

The advances they’ve made frankly lie outside my area of expertise, so I won’t attempt to characterize them too closely, except that it solves the interference issues and uses a frequency modulated continuous wave technique, which lets it measure velocity as well as distance (Blackmore does this as well). At any rate, their unique approach to moving and emitting light from the chip lets them create a device that is not only compact, but combines transmitter and receiver in one piece, and has good performance — not just good for its size, they claim, but good.

“It’s a misconception that small lidars need to be low-performance,” explained Phare. “The silicon photonic architecture we use lets us build a very sensitive receiver on-chip that would be difficult to assemble in traditional optics. So we’re able to fit a high-performance lidar into that tiny package without any additional or exotic components. We think we can achieve specs comparable to lidars out there, but just make them that much smaller.”

The chip-based lidar in its test bed.

It’s even able to be manufactured in a normal fashion like other photonics chips. That’s a huge plus when you’re trying to move from research to product development.

With this first round of funding, the team plans to expand and get this tech out of the lab and into the hands of engineers and developers. The exact specs, dimensions, power requirements and so on are all very different depending on the application and industry, so Voyant can make decisions based on feedback from people in other fields.

In addition to automotive (“It’s such a big application that no one can make lidar and not look at that space,” Miller said), the team is in talks with numerous potential partners.

Although being at this stage while others are raising nine-figure rounds might seem daunting, Voyant has the advantage that it has created something totally different from what’s out there, a product that can safely exist alongside popular big lidars from companies like Innoviz and Luminar.

“We’re definitely talking to big players in a lot of these places, drones and robotics, perhaps augmented reality. We’re trying to suss out exactly where this is most interesting to people,” said Phare. “We see the evolution here being something like bringing room-size computers down to chips.”

The $4.3 million raised by Voyant comes from Contour Venture Partners, LDV Capital and DARPA, which naturally would be interested in something like this.

Categories: Business News

Verified Expert Growth Marketing Agency: TrueUp

2019, July 17 - 1:02am

It was the perfect storm when CEO and Founder Liam Reynolds finally decided to start TrueUp, a data-driven growth marketing agency/consultancy based in London. After decades of working for large creative advertising agencies, Liam quit his job right around the beginning of Silicon Valley’s growth hacking trend and plunged headfirst into running growth for early-stage startups.

TrueUp has since evolved from a one-man shop into an award-winning agency with a team of dedicated data, paid marketing and conversion specialists. Learn more about how they collaborate with clients and help them develop short- and long-term growth frameworks.

TrueUp’s approach to growth marketing:

“Rather than just saying ‘Look at these amazing results we’ve achieved,’ we would say, ‘Look, these are your growth opportunities, this is the process you need and here’s the framework unlock your true potential,’ We would build business models around this to show the opportunity in numbers, revenue and ROI.

Our approach to growth is anchored in delivering the right message to the right target audience in the right channel at the right time. It sounds simple but we’re amazed at how wrong people get this.

So we’ve created our own bespoke methodologies and frameworks to really explore and identify these hidden killer messages that drive action. We’ve built our own tools that allow us to do a lot of high-tempo, high-intensity testing.

It’s quite common that we have 500 to 600 tests running concurrently on Facebook for any given client. We’re continuously testing, learning, iterating, improving. As a result we’ve achieved some amazing results for our clients.”

Advice to founders:

“We approached True Up to help us establish and scale a UK paid marketing function. The team was highly professional from their initial pitch through the end of the project.” Maninder Saini, SF, International Operations Manager, Quizlet, Inc.
“For earlier stage startups, it’s to focus on achieving product-market fit and having awesome user experiences before worrying about growth. We worked with and mentored a lot of startups that immediately jump to, “Look I need to get X number of customers in X months.” However their products/services are often seriously lacking. This creates very weak foundations for growth. So their efforts would be better spent on creating products that genuinely meet a customer need. Once they’ve achieved product-market fit, it’s to communicate benefits not features. There’s always at least one killer message that cuts through but more often than not it’s hidden and not what the founders think it is. So a structured test program to explore this is also very much needed!”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup growth marketing agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already. 

Interview with TrueUp CEO & Founder Liam Reynolds

Yvonne Leow: Tell me about how you got into growth marketing and why you decided to start TrueUp.

Liam Reynolds: I started my career at a data marketing company called Dunnhumby. They were famous for managing the data science and intelligence behind TESCO’s Club Card, a very large loyalty program in the UK.

Categories: Business News

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