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5 investors discuss the future of RPA after UIPath’s IPO

2021, May 7 - 9:16pm

Robotic process automation (RPA) has certainly been getting a lot of attention in the last year, with startups, acquisitions and IPOs all coming together in a flurry of market activity. It all seemed to culminate with UiPath’s IPO last month. The company that appeared to come out of nowhere in 2017 eventually had a final private valuation of $35 billion. It then had the audacity to match that at its IPO. A few weeks later, it still has a market cap of over $38 billion in spite of the stock price fluctuating at points.

Was this some kind of peak for the technology or a flash in the pan? Probably not. While it all seemed to come together in the last year with a big increase in attention to automation in general during the pandemic, it’s a market category that has been around for some time.

RPA allows companies to automate a group of highly mundane tasks and have a machine do the work instead of a human. Think of finding an invoice amount in an email, placing the figure in a spreadsheet and sending a Slack message to Accounts Payable. You could have humans do that, or you could do it more quickly and efficiently with a machine. We’re talking mind-numbing work that is well suited to automation.

In 2019, Gartner found RPA was the fastest-growing category in enterprise software. In spite of that, the market is still surprisingly small, with IDC estimates finding it will reach just $2 billion in 2021. That’s pretty tiny for the enterprise, but it shows that there’s plenty of room for this space to grow.

We spoke to five investors to find out more about RPA, and the general consensus was that we are just getting started. While we will continue to see the players at the top of the market — like UiPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism — jockeying for position with the big enterprise vendors and startups, the size and scope of the market has a lot of potential and is likely to keep growing for some time to come.

To learn about all of this, we queried the following investors:

  • Mallun Yen, founder and partner, Operator Collective
  • Jai Das, partner and president, Sapphire Ventures
  • Soma Somasegar, managing director, Madrona Venture Group
  • Laela Sturdy, general partner, CapitalG
  • Ed Sim, founder and managing partner, Boldstart Ventures

We have seen a range of RPA startups emerge in recent years, with companies like UiPath, Blue Prism and Automation Anywhere leading the way. As the space matures, where do the biggest opportunities remain?

Mallun Yen: One of the fastest-growing categories of software, RPA has been growing at over 60% in recent years, versus 13% for enterprise software generally. But we’ve barely scratched the surface. The COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to shift how they run their business, how they hire and allocate staff.

Given that the workforce will remain at least partially permanently remote, companies recognize that this shift is also permanent, and so they need to make fundamental changes to how they run their businesses. It’s simply suboptimal to hire, train and deploy remote employees to run routine processes, which are prone to, among other things, human error and boredom.

Jai Das: All the companies that you have listed are focused on automating simple repetitive tasks that are performed by humans. These are mostly data entry and data validation jobs. Most of these tasks will be automated in the next couple of years. The new opportunity lies in automating business processes that involve multiple humans and machines within complicated workflow using AI/ML.

Sometimes this is also called process mining. There have been BPM companies in the past that have tried to automate these business processes, but they required a lot of services to implement and maintain these automated processes. AI/ML is providing a way for software to replace all these services.

Soma Somasegar: For all the progress that we have seen in RPA, I think it is still early days. The global demand for RPA market size in terms of revenue was more than $2 billion this past year and is expected to cross $20 billion in the coming decade, growing at a CAGR of more than 30% over the next seven to eight years, according to analysts such as Gartner.

That’s an astounding growth rate in the coming years and is a reflection of how early we are in the RPA journey and how much more is ahead of us. A recent study by Deloitte indicates that up to 50% of the tasks in businesses performed by employees are considered mundane, administrative and labor-intensive. That is just a recipe for a ton of process automation.

There are a lot of opportunities that I see here, including process discovery and mining; process analytics; application of AI to drive effective, more complex workflow automation; and using low code/no code as a way to enable a broader set of people to be able to automate tasks, processes and workflows, to name a few.

Laela Sturdy: We’re a long way from needing to think about the space maturing. In fact, RPA adoption is still in its early infancy when you consider its immense potential. Most companies are only now just beginning to explore the numerous use cases that exist across industries. The more enterprises dip their toes into RPA, the more use cases they envision.

I expect to see market leaders like UiPath continue to innovate rapidly while expanding the breadth and depth of their end-to-end automation platforms. As the technology continues to evolve, we should expect RPA to penetrate even more deeply into the enterprise and to automate increasingly more — and more critical — business processes.

Ed Sim: Most large-scale automation projects require a significant amount of professional services to deliver on the promises, and two areas where I still see opportunity include startups that can bring more intelligence and faster time to value. Examples include process discovery, which can help companies quickly and accurately understand how their business processes work and prioritize what to automate versus just rearchitecting an existing workflow.

Categories: Business News

Why did Bill.com pay $2.5B for Divvy?

2021, May 7 - 8:10am

As expected, Bill.com is buying Divvy, the Utah-based corporate spend management startup that competes with Brex, Ramp and Airbase. The total purchase price of around $2.5 billion is substantially above the company’s roughly $1.6 billion post-money valuation that Divvy set during its $165 million, January 2021 funding round.

Divvy’s growth rate tells us that the company did not sell due to performance weakness.

Per Bill.com, the transaction includes $625 million in cash, with the rest of the consideration coming in the form of stock in Divvy’s new parent company.

Bill.com also reported its quarterly results today: Its Q1 included revenues of $59.7 million, above expectations of $54.63 million. The company’s adjusted loss per share of $0.02 also exceeded expectations, with the street expecting a sharper $0.07 per share deficit.

The better-than-anticipated results and the acquisition news combined to boost the value of Bill.com by more than 13% in after-hours trading.

Luckily for us, Bill.com released a deck that provides a number of financial metrics relating to its purchase of Divvy. This will not only allow us to better understand the value of the unicorn at exit, but also its competitors, against which we now have a set of metrics to bring to bear. So, this afternoon, let’s unpack the deal to gain a better understanding of the huge exit and the value of Divvy’s richly funded competitors.

Divvy by the numbers

The following numbers come from the Bill.com deck on the deal, which you can read here. Here are the core figures we care about:

  • “~$100 million annualized revenue,” calculated using the company’s March results multiplied by 12. That puts Divvy’s March, 2021 revenues at around $8.3 million.
  • “>100% revenue growth YoY,” again calculated by leaning on the company’s March results. So, we can’t be sure that its full Q1 2021 growth was over the 100% mark. Still having its most recent Q1 month generate a three-figure growth rate is good. It also lets us know that the company did no more than $4 million or so in March 2020 revenue.
  • “~$4 billion annualized TPV,” or total payment volume. Again, this is a March number annualized.

This lets us price the company somewhat. Divvy sold for around 25x its current revenue rate. That’s a software-level multiple, implying that the company has either incredibly strong gross margins, or Bill.com had to pay a multiples-premium to buy the company’s future growth today. I suspect the latter more than the former, but we’ll have to scout for more data when Divvy shows up in Bill.com results after the deal closes; that data is a few quarters away.

Categories: Business News

Shauntel Garvey of Reach Capital will join us to judge this year’s Startup Battlefield

2021, May 7 - 2:51am

TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield is one of the most popular parts of our annual TechCrunch Disrupt conference which is happening on September 21-23 this year. Now we’re very excited to reveal one of the fine people who will be judging Startup Battlefield at this year’s all-virtual event in September: Shauntel Garvey, a general partner at Reach Capital, a VC specializing in the world of education technology.

Startup Battlefield sees startups applying far and wide for a chance to pitch their ideas to a panel, and to all of us in the audience, giving the finalists a lot of exposure and a shot at winning the grand prize of $50,000. Startups: You can apply to be a part of the action here.

Edtech has seen a huge surge of interest in the last year of pandemic living, and that’s led to a pretty notable rise in education startups, more funding for education technology and a lot more attention paid to voices in edtech.

That’s because not only is edtech of huge importance to society and our economy, but those in the field have picked up a lot of learnings that apply well outside of edtech.

They know firsthand about engagement and how to get it; connecting with larger ecosystems of stakeholders; learning to work with public and private bodies; and the ins and outs of tapping into the latest innovations in areas like streaming, artificial intelligence and graphics to get the most out of a concept.

All of this makes Garvey a great person to have as a judge, someone with specific-area knowledge but very aware of how it relates to the wider challenges and opportunities in tech.

Garvey is a co-founder and general partner at Reach Capital, a Silicon Valley VC focused on the wider opportunity within the educational spectrum, backing the likes of ClassDojo, Springboard, Outschool, Handshake, Winnie and many more. Garvey herself currently sits on the boards of Riipen, FourthRev, Holberton School and Ellevation Education.

Her experience in edtech extends back years. Before Reach, she was a partner at the NewSchools Seed Fund and she has invested in more than 40 early-stage edtech companies, including Newsela, Nearpod and SchoolMint. She is also not all about edtech: Before turning to education and startups, Garvey trained and worked as a chemical engineer. We’re really looking forward to her input as a Startup Battlefield judge.

If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, TechCrunch Disrupt is coming up around the corner, September 21-23. This will be our second year of having the conference in an all-virtual format, and we have a lot of great speakers, networking opportunities and other things planned — free of physical constraints, we can fly! — and we really hope you’ll join us.

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Categories: Business News

BigBrain aims to bring live mobile trivia back to glory

2021, May 7 - 1:00am

If you ask Nik Bonaddio why he wanted to build a new mobile trivia app, his answer is simple.

“In my life, I’ve got very few true passions: I love trivia and I love sports,” Bonaddio told me. “I’ve already started a sports company, so I’ve got to start a trivia company.”

He isn’t kidding about either part of the equation. Bonaddio actually won $100,000 on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”, which he used to start the sports analytics company numberFire (acquired by FanDuel in 2014).

And today, after a period of beta testing, Bonaddio is launching BigBrain. He’s also announcing that the startup has raised $4.5 million in seed funding from FirstRound Capital, Box Group, Ludlow Ventures, Golden Ventures and others.

Of course, you can’t mention mobile trivia without thinking of HQ Trivia, the trivia app that shut down last year after some high-profile drama and a spectacular final episode.

Image Credits: BigBrain

But Bonaddio said BigBrain is approaching things differently than HQ in a few key ways. For starters, although there will be a handful of free games, the majority will require users to pay to enter, with the cash rewards coming from the entry fees. (From a legal perspective, Bonaddio said this is distinct from gambling because trivia is recognized as a game of skill.)

“The free-to-play model doesn’t really work for trivia,” he argued.

How Thor Fridriksson’s ‘Trivia Royale’ earned 2.5M downloads in 3 weeks

In addition, there will be no live video with a live host — Bonaddio said this would be “very, very difficult from a technical perspective and very cost ineffective.” Instead, he claimed the company has found a middle ground: “We have photos, we have different interactive elements, it’s not just a straight multiple choice quiz. We do try to keep it interactive.”

Plus, the simpler production means that where HQ was only hosting two quizzes a day, BigBrain will be hosting 20, with quizzes every 15 minutes at peak times.

Topics will range from old-school hip hop to college football to ’90s movies, and Bonaddio said different quizzes will have different prize structures — some might be winner take all, while others might award prizes to the top 50% of participants. The average quiz will cost $2 to $3 to enter, but prices will range from free to “$20 or even $50.”

What kind of quiz might cost that much money to enter? As an example, Bonaddio said that in a survey of potential users, he found, “There are no casual ‘Rick and Morty’ fans … They’re almost completely price sensitive, and since they’ve seen every episode, they can’t fathom a world where someone knows more about ‘Rick and Morty’ than they do.”

The drunken HQ Trivia finale before it shut down was insane

Categories: Business News

Metafy adds $5.5M to its seed round as the market for games coaching grows

2021, May 7 - 12:45am

This morning Metafy, a distributed startup building a marketplace to match gamers with instructors, announced that it has closed an additional $5.5 million to its $3.15 million seed round. Call it a seed-2, seed-extension or merely a baby Series A; Forerunner Ventures, DCM and Seven Seven Six led the round as a trio.

Metafy’s model is catching on with its market. According to its CEO Josh Fabian, the company has grown from incorporation to gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $76,000 in around nine months. That’s quick.

The startup is building in public, so we have its raw data to share. Via Fabian, here’s how Metafy has grown since its birth:

From the company. As a small tip, if you want the media to care about your startup’s growth rate, share like this!

When TechCrunch first caught wind of Metafy via prior seed investor M25, we presumed that it was a marketplace that was built to allow esports pros and other highly capable gamers teach esports-hopefuls get better at their chosen title. That’s not the case.

Don’t think of Metafy as a marketplace where you can hire a former professional League of Legends player to help improve your laning-phase AD carry mechanics. Though that might come in time. Today a full 0% of the company’s current GMV comes from esports titles. Instead, the company is pursuing games with strong niche followings, what Fabian described as “vibrant, loyal communities.” Like Super Smash Brothers, its leading game today in terms of GMV generated.

Why pursue those titles instead of the most competitive games? Metafy’s CEO explained that his startup has a particular take on its market — that it focuses on coaches as its core customer, over trainees. This allows the startup to focus on its mission of making coaching a full-time gig, or at least one that pays well enough to matter. By doing so, Metafy has cut its need for marketing spend, because the coaches that it onboards bring their own audience. This is where the company is targeting games with super-dedicated user bases, like Smash. They fit well into its build for coaches, onboard coaches, coaches bring their fans, GMV is generated model.

Metafy has big plans, which brings us back to its recent raise. Fabian told TechCrunch any game with a skill curve could wind up on Metafy. Think chess, poker or other games that can be played digitally. To build toward that future, Metafy decided to take on more capital so that it could grow its team.

So what does its $5.5 million unlock for the startup? Per its CEO, Metafy is currently a team of 18 with a monthly burn rate of around $80,000. He wants it to grow to 30 folks, with nearly all of its new hires going into its product org, broadly.

TechCrunch’s perspective is that gaming is not becoming mainstream, but that it has already done so. Building for the gaming world, then, makes good sense, as tools like Metafy won’t suffer from the same boom/bust cycles that can plague game developers. Especially as the startup becomes more diversified in its title base.

Normally we’d close by noting that we’ll get back in touch with the company in a few quarters to see how it’s getting on in growth terms. But because it’s sharing that data publicly, we’ll simply keep reading. More when we have a few months’ more data to chew on.

5 creator economy VCs see startup opportunities in monetization, discovery and much more

Categories: Business News

Valence unveils training program to help build pipeline of Black execs

2021, May 6 - 11:56pm

Diversity has been linked with equity and inclusion because diversity is just one part of the equation when it comes to hiring Black employees. How do the companies they work for make people feel welcome and included, rather than isolated? How do Black employees find their way into management, up the corporate ladder to the C Suite and into the boardroom?

Today Valence, a startup dedicated to empowering Black professionals, announced a new program called BONDS, which is designed to help companies train, retain and promote Black employees.

Valence CEO Guy Primus says that the organization has almost 16,000 community members and, recognizing that getting hired was just the first step in a long journey, the company wanted to find a more concrete way to help its members. He says that companies tend to focus too much on the hiring pipeline and don’t give enough attention to what happens after Black employees get hired.

“People want the numbers to go up, and there’s [this notion of] recruit, retain and promote. The problem is that everyone is focused on the recruiting pipeline, but they’re not focused on retention and promotion, which ultimately affects recruiting. So it’s an ecosystem problem, not a pipeline issue,” Primus explained.

Primus knew that the company needed to do more, and he hired Tracy Williams as vice president of learning and development to build a curriculum specifically designed to help Black professionals thrive.

BLCK VC launches educational initiative to bring more Black entrepreneurs into investing ecosystem

Williams points out that Black professionals often find themselves isolated at companies, without a lot of peers with whom they can talk. She wanted to create a program that could give people that sense of community where they could commiserate over the issues they face with people who understood their experiences.

“Where an organization may not be able to provide that sense of community for their Black professionals, we’re able to do that for them and the benefit for those corporations and organizations is that they’re able to now invest in their Black employees’ development and opportunities, while connecting with their peers on a more personal level and still being trained and developed as potential senior-level leaders,” Williams told me.

She says that this also gives the company a way to hold organizations accountable when it comes to promoting Black employees into management and executive positions.

“I think we have this opportunity not only to provide the community for emerging Black executives, but also on the other side of the marketplace, create a tool of accountability for these organizations who are investing in their employees and ensuring that they are acknowledging their employees’ readiness, and recognizing and promoting them based on their leadership readiness as well,” she said.

Among the organizations participating at the launch of this program are Accel, Electrolux, GGV Capital, Norwest Venture Partners, Providence Strategic Growth, Roblox, Silicon Valley Bank and Upfront Ventures.

Bevy raises $40M Series C with 20% coming from Black investors

The program itself includes a couple of key components, including a curriculum designed around three modules: leading self, leading others and leading within your organization.

“Each of the curriculum components across those three modules truly provides content and development for our members that focus on how they are able to represent themselves and navigate the nuances of being an emerging Black executive in their organization, how they’re able to amplify their leadership readiness, how they’re able to communicate more effectively in their organizations and externally as well, and the steps that they need to take in order to fully own their career development,” Williams said.

But Williams wanted to do more than provide training materials for the members, she wanted to provide support for every member of the BONDS program. So the other component of this is a cohort with 10 peers, led by a facilitator and a coach who lead the members in deeper discussions about the training materials.

“It’s a safe space to practice what they’ve learned in the on-demand curriculum, but also dive as deep as they need to in order to feel fully ready to promote themselves within their organization,” she said.

The program is trying to address a real problem related to Black employees getting the opportunity to grow into management and executive positions. The company pointed out that while Black professionals make up 12% of entry-level corporate jobs, just short of their 13.4% representation in the U.S. population, their numbers fall to 7% of management roles, according to research conducted by McKinsey & Co.

The hope is that by providing a more concrete framework like BONDS, it can lead to closing this gap and helping more Black professionals climb the professional ladder in their organizations.

Rep. Barbara Lee says the pipeline problem is ‘a total myth’

On the diversity front, 2020 may prove a tipping point

 

Categories: Business News

How much product room will fintech giants leave for startups?

2021, May 6 - 11:48pm

I was going to wait until after Square reported its Q1 results today to dig into the world of fintech earnings and what they might mean for startups, but something got stuck in my craw that matters more than what Jack’s team may have up its sleeve: How much space is being left in fintech when the major players are growing rapidly in categories where startups are doing their best to make a dent?

This morning, we’ll examine the buy now, pay later (BNPL) market, mostly through the lens of PayPal’s first-quarter results.

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PayPal’s BNPL results are impressive — and not just to your humble servant, but to other fintech watchers as well — which begs the question: Can the platform effect that the PayPals of the world bring to bear suffocate a growing slice of the startup market?

There are obvious issues with the thought. The first being that BNPL-focused Affirm recently went public. And Affirm was, until very recently, a startup and later a unicorn. And then there’s BNPL player AfterPay, which went public a few years back, not to mention Klarna, which could go public sometime soon.

But what we’re watching is PayPal chase a handful of unicorns-and-later BNPL companies. What about the actual startups in the market? Can they hack it? Let’s dig into PayPal’s results, take a peek at what AfterPay’s own can tell us, and then we’ll noodle on the startup question. We’ll come back to all of this after Affirm reports in a few day’s time.

Platforms versus startups

The “kill-zone” concept — that startups should not get too close to what big tech companies do — has never sat well with me. Mostly because it’s not true that small companies cannot take on big ones. And because big companies have a really great history of crappifying their products into vulnerability.

A great example of the first count is Zoom, which took on a host of enterprise-ready, platform-supported video chat services and crushed them by simply being not awful. This brings us to our second point: As big tech companies need to keep finding incremental revenue adds from their existing products, they make them worse to find a marginal top line. The biggest tech shops often trade near-term economic growth for long-term market ownership.

Categories: Business News

Personal skin problems leads founder to launch skincare startup Nøie, raises $12M Series A

2021, May 6 - 11:22pm

Inspired by his own problems with skin ailments, tech founder Daniel Jensen decided there had to be a better way. So, using an in-house tech platform, his Copenhagen-based startup Nøie developed its own database of skin profiles to better care for sensitive skin.

Nøie has now raised $12 million in a Series A funding round led by Talis Capital, with participation from Inventure, as well as existing investors including Thomas Ryge Mikkelsen, former CMO of Pandora, and Kristian Schrøder Hart-Hansen, former CEO of LEO Pharma’s Innovation Lab.

Nøie’s customized skincare products target sensitive skin conditions including acne, psoriasis and eczema. Using its own R&D, Nøie says it screens thousands of skincare products on the market, selects what it thinks are the best, and uses an algorithm to assign customers to their “skin family”. Customers then get recommendations for customized products to suit their skin.

Skin+Me is probably the best-known perceived competitor, but this is a prescription provider. Nøie is non-prescription.

Jensen said: “We firmly believe that the biggest competition is the broader skincare industry and the consumer behavior that comes with it. I truly believe that in 2030 we’ll be surprised that we ever went into a store and picked up a one-size-fits-all product to combat our skincare issues, based on what has the nicest packaging or the best marketing. In a sense, any new company that emerges in this space are peers to us: we’re all working together to intrinsically change how people choose skincare products. We’re all demonstrating to people that they can now receive highly-personalized products based on their own skin’s specific needs.”

Of his own problems to find the right skincare provider, he said: “It’s just extremely difficult to find something that works. When you look at technology, online, and all our apps and everything, we got so smart in so many areas, but not when it comes to consumer skin products. I believe that in five or 10 years down the line, you’ll be laughing that we really used to just go in and pick up products just off the shelf, without knowing what we’re supposed to be using. I think everything we will be using in the bathroom will be customized.”

Beatrice Aliprandi, principal at Talis Capital, said: “For too long have both the dermatology sector and the skincare industry relied on the outdated ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to addressing chronic skin conditions. By instead taking a data-driven and community feedback approach, Nøie is building the next generation of skincare by providing complete personalization for its customers at a massive scale, pioneering the next revolution in skincare.”

Categories: Business News

Lightmatter’s photonic AI ambitions light up an $80M B round

2021, May 6 - 11:01pm

AI is fundamental to many products and services today, but its hunger for data and computing cycles is bottomless. Lightmatter plans to leapfrog Moore’s law with its ultra-fast photonic chips specialized for AI work, and with a new $80 million round, the company is poised to take its light-powered computing to market.

We first covered Lightmatter in 2018, when the founders were fresh out of MIT and had raised $11 million to prove that their idea of photonic computing was as valuable as they claimed. They spent the next three years and change building and refining the tech — and running into all the hurdles that hardware startups and technical founders tend to find.

For a full breakdown of what the company’s tech does, read that feature — the essentials haven’t changed.

Lightmatter aims to reinvent AI-specific chips with photonic computing and $11M in funding

In a nutshell, Lightmatter’s chips perform in a flash — literally — certain complex calculations fundamental to machine learning. Instead of using charge, logic gates and transistors to record and manipulate data, the chips use photonic circuits that perform the calculations by manipulating the path of light. It’s been possible for years, but until recently getting it to work at scale, and for a practical, indeed a highly valuable purpose, has not.

Prototype to product

It wasn’t entirely clear in 2018 when Lightmatter was getting off the ground whether this tech would be something they could sell to replace more traditional compute clusters like the thousands of custom units companies like Google and Amazon use to train their AIs.

“We knew in principle the tech should be great, but there were a lot of details we needed to figure out,” CEO and co-founder Nick Harris told TechCrunch in an interview. “Lots of hard theoretical computer science and chip design challenges we needed to overcome… and COVID was a beast.”

With suppliers out of commission and many in the industry pausing partnerships, delaying projects and other things, the pandemic put Lightmatter months behind schedule, but they came out the other side stronger. Harris said that the challenges of building a chip company from the ground up were substantial, if not unexpected.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

“In general what we’re doing is pretty crazy,” he admitted. “We’re building computers from nothing. We design the chip, the chip package, the card the chip package sits on, the system the cards go in, and the software that runs on it…. we’ve had to build a company that straddles all this expertise.”

That company has grown from its handful of founders to more than 70 employees in Mountain View and Boston, and the growth will continue as it brings its new product to market.

Where a few years ago Lightmatter’s product was more of a well-informed twinkle in the eye, now it has taken a more solid form in the Envise, which they call a “general-purpose photonic AI accelerator.” It’s a server unit designed to fit into normal data center racks but equipped with multiple photonic computing units, which can perform neural network inference processes at mind-boggling speeds. (It’s limited to certain types of calculations, namely linear algebra for now, and not complex logic, but this type of math happens to be a major component of machine learning processes.)

Harris was reticent to provide exact numbers on performance improvements, but more because those improvements are increasing than that they’re not impressive enough. The website suggests it’s 5x faster than an Nvidia A100 unit on a large transformer model like BERT, while using about 15% of the energy. That makes the platform doubly attractive to deep-pocketed AI giants like Google and Amazon, which constantly require both more computing power and who pay through the nose for the energy required to use it. Either better performance or lower energy cost would be great — both together is irresistible.

It’s Lightmatter’s initial plan to test these units with its most likely customers by the end of 2021, refining it and bringing it up to production levels so it can be sold widely. But Harris emphasized this was essentially the Model T of their new approach.

“If we’re right, we just invented the next transistor,” he said, and for the purposes of large-scale computing, the claim is not without merit. You’re not going to have a miniature photonic computer in your hand any time soon, but in data centers, where as much as 10% of the world’s power is predicted to go by 2030, “they really have unlimited appetite.”

The color of math

Image Credits: Lightmatter

There are two main ways by which Lightmatter plans to improve the capabilities of its photonic computers. The first, and most insane-sounding, is processing in different colors.

It’s not so wild when you think about how these computers actually work. Transistors, which have been at the heart of computing for decades, use electricity to perform logic operations, opening and closing gates and so on. At a macro scale you can have different frequencies of electricity that can be manipulated like waveforms, but at this smaller scale it doesn’t work like that. You just have one form of currency, electrons, and gates are either open or closed.

In Lightmatter’s devices, however, light passes through waveguides that perform the calculations as it goes, simplifying (in some ways) and speeding up the process. And light, as we all learned in science class, comes in a variety of wavelengths — all of which can be used independently and simultaneously on the same hardware.

The same optical magic that lets a signal sent from a blue laser be processed at the speed of light works for a red or a green laser with minimal modification. And if the light waves don’t interfere with one another, they can travel through the same optical components at the same time without losing any coherence.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

That means that if a Lightmatter chip can do, say, a million calculations a second using a red laser source, adding another color doubles that to two million, adding another makes three — with very little in the way of modification needed. The chief obstacle is getting lasers that are up to the task, Harris said. Being able to take roughly the same hardware and near-instantly double, triple or 20x the performance makes for a nice roadmap.

It also leads to the second challenge the company is working on clearing away, namely interconnect. Any supercomputer is composed of many small individual computers, thousands and thousands of them, working in perfect synchrony. In order for them to do so, they need to communicate constantly to make sure each core knows what other cores are doing, and otherwise coordinate the immensely complex computing problems supercomputing is designed to take on. (Intel talks about this “concurrency” problem building an exa-scale supercomputer here.)

Intel and Argonne National Lab on ‘exascale’ and their new Aurora supercomputer

“One of the things we’ve learned along the way is, how do you get these chips to talk to each other when they get to the point where they’re so fast that they’re just sitting there waiting most of the time?” said Harris. The Lightmatter chips are doing work so quickly that they can’t rely on traditional computing cores to coordinate between them.

A photonic problem, it seems, requires a photonic solution: a wafer-scale interconnect board that uses waveguides instead of fiber optics to transfer data between the different cores. Fiber connections aren’t exactly slow, of course, but they aren’t infinitely fast, and the fibers themselves are actually fairly bulky at the scales chips are designed, limiting the number of channels you can have between cores.

“We built the optics, the waveguides, into the chip itself; we can fit 40 waveguides into the space of a single optical fiber,” said Harris. “That means you have way more lanes operating in parallel — it gets you to absurdly high interconnect speeds.” (Chip and server fiends can find that specs here.)

The optical interconnect board is called Passage, and will be part of a future generation of its Envise products — but as with the color calculation, it’s for a future generation. Five-10x performance at a fraction of the power will have to satisfy their potential customers for the present.

Putting that $80M to work

Those customers, initially the “hyper-scale” data handlers that already own data centers and supercomputers that they’re maxing out, will be getting the first test chips later this year. That’s where the B round is primarily going, Harris said: “We’re funding our early access program.”

That means both building hardware to ship (very expensive per unit before economies of scale kick in, not to mention the present difficulties with suppliers) and building the go-to-market team. Servicing, support and the immense amount of software that goes along with something like this — there’s a lot of hiring going on.

The round itself was led by Viking Global Investors, with participation from HP Enterprise, Lockheed Martin, SIP Global Partners, and previous investors GV, Matrix Partners and Spark Capital. It brings their total raised to about $113 million; There was the initial $11 million A round, then GV hopping on with a $22 million A-1, then this $80 million.

Although there are other companies pursuing photonic computing and its potential applications in neural networks especially, Harris didn’t seem to feel that they were nipping at Lightmatter’s heels. Few if any seem close to shipping a product, and at any rate this is a market that is in the middle of its hockey stick moment. He pointed to an OpenAI study indicating that the demand for AI-related computing is increasing far faster than existing technology can provide it, except with ever larger data centers.

The next decade will bring economic and political pressure to rein in that power consumption, just as we’ve seen with the cryptocurrency world, and Lightmatter is poised and ready to provide an efficient, powerful alternative to the usual GPU-based fare.

As Harris suggested hopefully earlier, what his company has made is potentially transformative in the industry, and if so there’s no hurry — if there’s a gold rush, they’ve already staked their claim.

Quantum photonics startup Nu Quantum raises £2.1M from Amadeus Capital Partners

The race to building a fully functional quantum stack

 

Categories: Business News

Turkey’s Ace Games raises $7M to develop casual and ‘hyper casual’ games

2021, May 6 - 10:37pm

Ace Games, a Turkish mobile gaming company founded by a former Peak Games co-founder, has raised a $7 million seed funding round led by Actera Group. Co-investment has come from San Francisco’s NFX. Former gaming entrepreneurs Kristian Segerstrale, Alexis Bonte and Kaan Gunay also participated. Firat Ileri is a previous investor from the pre-seed round.

The company runs two studios, one focused on casual and one on “hyper-casual” games.

Co-founded by CEO Hakan Bas, the former co-founder and COO at Peak Games, Ace Games has had some success on the U.S. iOS Store with its hyper-casual title, “Mix and Drink.”

In a statement, Bas said: “Ace’s main focus is actually the casual ‘hybrid puzzle’ game that we have been working on for a while now. However, our hyper-casual studio assists the main studio in many aspects like training talent, coming up with creative game mechanics and marketing ideas, generating cash, and creating user base.” Ace’s casual title is to be released late-summer this year and the global launch is expected in early 2022.

Peak Games, Gram Games and Rollic Games were all acquired by Zynga, showing that Turkey is capable of producing decent exits for gaming startups.

VCs such as Index, Balderton, Makers and Griffin have all made M&A deals with Dream Games, Bigger Games and Spyke Games.

6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities

Categories: Business News

Bitski raises $19 million from a16z to become the ‘Shopify for NFTs’

2021, May 6 - 10:00pm

For every crypto-skeptic that sees NFTs as yet another hype bubble, there’s an acolyte who sees NFTs as the key to unlocking the future of the creative web.

Bitski, an SF-based startup that builds custom NFT storefronts for brands and creators, is banking on the latter, and they have new investors betting the same. The startup tells TechCrunch they’ve raised $19 million in a Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz. The firm joins a host of creators and celebrities — including Jay-Z, MrBeast, Serena Williams and 3LAU — in backing the startup.

The NFT space has gotten awfully crowded lately, riding a wave of investor hype and billions of dollars’ worth of transactions in the past several months. While the high-dollar artwork sold by artists like Beeple and exclusive crypto communities like CryptoPunks have been hotbeds of activity, founders like those behind Bitski believe that these blockchain-backed digital goods are going to inspire a massive transformation in how artists, influencers and brands monetize their online popularity.

Bitski is aiming to allow mainstream brands and celebrities to bypass the crypto complexity of early marketplaces, hoping to give customers like early partner Adidas an on-ramp to the NFT world that’s more approachable to consumers who understand digital items but might not have fully bought into crypto. The startup sells creators a variety of subscription plans to power custom NFT storefronts that they can sell through as their own channel rather than pushing users to wide-ranging marketplaces. 

There are plenty of arguments among builders and users of NFT platforms surrounding which elements of a service should be blockchain-based and which should default to more time-honed e-commerce flows. Bitski often errs on the side of user familiarity, allowing credit card purchases on the platform, “forgot your password” functionality and user wallets hosted on Bitski’s own server hardware. They’re controversial onboarding choices that won’t satisfy crypto purists and decentralization advocates but will likely help new users get acquainted with NFTs quickly.

With the company’s Series A closed, Bitski has raised some $23.4 million to date.

NFTs could bridge video games and the fashion industry

Categories: Business News

Figure raises $7.5M to help startup employees better understand their compensation

2021, May 6 - 10:00pm

The topic of compensation has historically been a delicate one that has left many people — especially startup employees — wondering just what drives what can feel like random decisions around pay and equity.

Last June, software engineers (and housemates) Miles Hobby and Geoffrey Tisserand set about trying to solve the problem for companies by developing a data-driven platform that aims to help companies structure their compensation plans and transparently communicate them to candidates.

Now today, the startup behind that platform, Figure, announced it has raised $7.5 million in seed funding led by CRV. Bling Capital, Better Tomorrow Ventures and Garage Capital also participated in the financing, along with angel investors such as AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant, Jason Calacanis, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman and other executives based in Silicon Valley.

The startup has amassed a client list that includes other startups such as fintechs Brex and NerdWallet and AI-powered fitness company Tempo. 

Put simply, Hobby and Tisserand’s mission is to improve workflows and transparency around pay, particularly equity. The pair had both worked at startups themselves (Uber and Instacart, respectively) and ended up leaving money on the table when they left those companies because no one had properly explained to them what their equity, which changed at every valuation, meant.  

Figure co-founders and co-CEOs Miles Hobby and Geoffrey Tisserand. Image Credits: Figure

So, one of their goals was to create a solution that would provide a user-friendly explanation of what a person’s equity stake really means, from tax implications to whether or not they have to buy the stock and/or hold onto it.

“I’ve gone through the job search process many times before and there’s all these complex legal documents to understand why you’re getting 10,000 stock options, but obviously we knew the vast majority of people have no idea how that works,” Tisserand told TechCrunch. “We saw an opportunity there to help companies actually convey the value to their candidates while also making them aware of the potential risks of owning something that’s so illiquid.”

Image Credits: Figure

Another goal of Figure’s is to help create a more fair and balanced process about decisions around pay and equity so that there’s less inequality out there. Pointedly, it aims to remove some of the biases that exist around those decisions by systematizing the process.

“We saw a void in this kind of context around equity…and knew that there had to be a better way for companies to structure, manage and explain their compensation plans,” Hobby said.

To Hobby and Tisserand, Figure is designed to help stop instances of implicit bias.

“Compensation should be based on the work that you’re doing, and not gender or ethnic background,” Tisserand told TechCrunch. “We’re trying to give that context and remove biases. So, we’re trying to help at two different stages –– to surface inequities that already exist and make sure there are no anomalies, and then to help stop them before they can exist.”

The need for true equity in equity compensation

Figure also aims to give companies the tools to educate candidates and employees on their total compensation — including equity, salary, benefits and bonuses — in a “straightforward and user-friendly” way. For example, it can create custom offer letters that interactively detail a candidate’s compensation.

“Our goal is for Figure to become an operating system for compensation, where a company can encode their compensation philosophy into our system, and we help them determine their job architecture, compensation bands and offer numbers while monitoring their compensation health to provide adjustment suggestions when needed,” Hobby said.

Post-hire, Figure’s compensation management system “helps keep everything running smoothly.”

Anna Khan, general partner of enterprise software at CRV, is joining Figure’s board as part of the funding. The decision to back the startup was in part personal, she said.

“I’d been investing in software for eight years and was alarmed that no one was building anything around pay equity when it comes to how we’re paid, why we’re paid what we’re paid and on how to build equity long term,” Khan told TechCrunch. “Unfortunately, discussions around compensation and equity still happen behind closed doors and this extends into workflow around compensation — equally broken — with manual leveling, old data and large pay inequities.”

The company plans to use its new capital to expand its product offerings and scale its organization.

Negotiate for ‘better’ stock in equity-funded acquisitions

Categories: Business News

Diginex launches ESG reporting platform aimed at small businesses

2021, May 6 - 9:06pm

As ESG reporting goes up the agenda for large companies, it’s also increasingly doing so for smaller companies as well. But right now, tracking things like your company’s CO2 emissions is mainly the preserve of large corporations. Now a startup hopes to address this.

Diginex Solutions has a self-guided tool which claims to generate ESG reports six times faster than competitors, and comes in at a relatively affordable $99 per month.

The blockchain-enabled reporting tool also generates reports, giving companies the ability to demonstrate their ESG creds.

DiginexESG is certified by the GRI, an international independent standards organization, and now operates in the U.S., U.K., Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Singapore and Chile. It is currently raising venture backing largely from strategic corporate investors.

Competitors include Turnkey Group, Nasdaq OneReport, Enablon (which has raised $15 million) and World-favour.

Mark Blick, CEO at Diginex Solutions said, “The current landscape of ESG reporting is challenging for many organizations — particularly SMEs — requiring huge consultancy fees, time and resources that distracts from day-to-day activity. The DiginexESG platform quite simply takes away those challenges and does all the heavy lifting for them. It’s like DocuSign, Dropbox, TurboTax or Slack hardcoded for ESG reporting.”

Fund managers can leverage ESG-related data to generate insights

Categories: Business News

Oculii looks to supercharge radar for autonomy with $55M round B

2021, May 6 - 9:01pm

Autonomous vehicles rely on many sensors to perceive the world around them, and while cameras and lidar get a lot of the attention, good old radar is an important piece of the puzzle — though it has some fundamental limitations. Oculii, which just raised a $55 million round, aims to minimize those limitations and make radar more capable with a smart software layer for existing devices — and sell its own as well.

Radar’s advantages lie in its superior range, and in the fact that its radio frequency beams can pass through things like raindrops, snow and fog — making it crucial for perceiving the environment during inclement weather. Lidar and ordinary visible light cameras can be totally flummoxed by these common events, so it’s necessary to have a backup.

But radar’s major disadvantage is that, due to the wavelengths and how the antennas work, it can’t image things in detail the way lidar can. You tend to get very precisely located blobs rather than detailed shapes. It still provides invaluable capabilities in a suite of sensors, but if anyone could add a bit of extra fidelity to its scans, it would be that much better.

That’s exactly what Oculii does — takes an ordinary radar and supercharges it. The company claims a 100x improvement to spatial resolution accomplished by handing over control of the system to its software. Co-founder and CEO Steven Hong explained in an email that a standard radar might have, for a 120-degree field of view, a 10-degree spatial resolution, so it can tell where something is with a precision of a few degrees on either side, and little or no ability to tell the object’s elevation.

Some are better, some worse, but for the purposes of this example that amounts to an effectively 12×1 resolution. Not great!

Handing over control to the Oculii system, however, which intelligently adjusts the transmissions based on what it’s already perceiving, could raise that to a 0.5° horizonal x 1° vertical resolution, giving it an effective resolution of perhaps 120×10. (Again, these numbers are purely for explanatory purposes and aren’t inherent to the system.)

That’s a huge improvement and results in the ability to see that something is, for example, two objects near each other and not one large one, or that an object is smaller than another near it, or — with additional computation — that it is moving one way or the other at such and such a speed relative to the radar unit.

Here’s a video demonstration of one of their own devices, showing considerably more detail than one would expect:

Exactly how this is done is part of Oculii’s proprietary magic, and Hong did not elaborate much on how exactly the system works. “Oculii’s sensor uses AI to adaptively generate an ‘intelligent’ waveform that adapts to the environment and embed information across time that can be leveraged to improve the resolution significantly,” he said. (Integrating information over time is what gives it the “4D” moniker, by the way.)

Here’s a little sizzle reel that gives a very general idea:

Autonomous vehicle manufacturers have not yet hit on any canonical set of sensors that AVs should have, but something like Oculii could give radar a more prominent place — its limitations sometimes mean it is relegated to emergency braking detection at the front or some such situation. With more detail and more data, radar could play a larger role in AV decision making systems.

The company is definitely making deals — it’s working with Tier-1s and OEMs, one of which (Hella) is an investor, which gives a sense of confidence in Oculii’s approach. It’s also working with radar makers and has some commercial contracts looking at a 2024-2025 timeline.

Image Credits: Oculii

It’s also getting into making its own all-in-one radar units, doing the hardware-software synergy thing. It claims these are the world’s highest-resolution radars, and I don’t see any competitors out there contradicting this — the simple fact is radars don’t compete much on “resolution,” but more on the precision of their rangefinding and speed detection.

One exception might be Echodyne, which uses a metamaterial radar surface to direct a customizable radar beam anywhere in its field of view, examining objects in detail or scanning the whole area quickly. But even then its “resolution” isn’t so easy to estimate.

Echodyne steers its high-tech radar beam on autonomous cars with EchoDrive

At any rate, the company’s new Eagle and Falcon radars might be tempting to manufacturers working on putting together cutting-edge sensing suites for their autonomous experiments or production driver-assist systems.

It’s clear that with radar tipped as a major component of autonomous vehicles, robots, aircraft and other devices, it’s worth investing seriously in the space. The $55 million B round certainly demonstrates that well enough. It was, as Oculii’s press release lists it, “co-led by Catapult Ventures and Conductive Ventures, with participation from Taiwania Capital, Susquehanna Investment Group (SIG), HELLA Ventures, PHI-Zoyi Capital, R7 Partners, VectoIQ, ACVC Partners, Mesh Ventures, Schox Ventures, and Signature Bank.”

The money will allow for the expected scaling and hiring, and as Hong added, “continued investment of the technology to deliver higher resolution, longer range, more compact and cheaper sensors that will accelerate an autonomous future.”

Optimized sensors are key to future of automated vehicles

Categories: Business News

From bootstrapped to a $2.1B valuation, ReCharge raises $227M for subscription management platform

2021, May 6 - 9:00pm

ReCharge, a provider of subscription management software for e-commerce, announced today that it has raised $227 million in a Series B growth round at a $2.1 billion valuation. 

Summit Partners, ICONIQ Growth and Bain Capital Ventures provided the capital.

Notably, Santa Monica, California-based ReCharge was bootstrapped for several years before raising $50 million in a previously undisclosed Series A from Summit Partners in January of 2020. And, it’s currently cash flow positive, according to company execs. With this round, ReCharge has raised a total of $277 million in funding.

Over the years, the company’s SaaS platform has evolved from a subscription billing/payments platform to include a broader set of offerings aimed at helping e-commerce businesses boost revenues and cut operating costs.

Specifically, ReCharge’s cloud-based software is designed to give e-commerce merchants a way to offer and manage subscriptions for physical products. It also aims to help these brands, primarily direct to consumer companies, grow by providing them with ways to “easily” add subscription offerings to their business with the goal of turning one-time purchasers “into loyal, repeat customers.”

The company has some impressive growth metrics, no doubt in part driven by the COVID-19 pandemic’s push to all things digital. ReCharge’s ARR grew 146% in 2020, while revenue grew over 136% over the same period, according to co-founder and CEO Oisin O’Connor, although he declined to reveal hard numbers. The startup has 15,000 customers and 20 million subscribers across 180 countries on its platform. Customers include Harry’s, Oatly, Fiji Water, Billie and Native. But even prior to the pandemic, it had doubled its processing volume each year for the past five years and has processed over $5.3 billion in transactions since its 2014 inception.

ReCharge also has 328 employees, up from 140 in January of 2020.

“We saw many brick and mortar stores, such as Oatly, offer their products through subscriptions as a result of the pandemic in 2020,” O’Connor told TechCrunch. “Certain categories such as food & beverage and pet foods were some of the fastest growing segments in total subscriber count, with 100% and 147% increases, respectively, as non-discretionary spending shifted online.”

He was surprised to see that growth also extend beyond the most obvious categories. For example, ReCharge saw beauty care products subscribers grow by 120% last year.

“Overall, we saw a 91% subscriber growth in 2020 across the board in all categories of subscriptions,” O’Connor told TechCrunch. “We believe there is a combination of factors at play: the pandemic, the rise of physical subscriptions and the rise of direct-to-consumer buying.”

ReCharge plans to use its fresh capital to accelerate hiring in both R&D (engineering and product) and go-to-market functions such as sales, marketing and customer success. It plans to continue its expansion into other e-commerce platforms such as BigCommerce, Salesforce Commerce Cloud and Magento, and outside of North America into other geographic markets, starting with Europe. ReCharge also plans to “broaden” its acquisition scope so that it can “accelerate” its time-to-market in certain domains, according to O’Connor, and of course build upon its products and services.

Yoonkee Sull, partner at ICONIQ Growth, said his firm has been watching the rapid rise of subscription commerce for several years “as more merchants have looked for ways to deepen relationships with loyal customers and consumers increasingly have sought out more convenient and flexible ways to buy from their favorite brands.”

Ultimately, ICONIQ is betting on its belief that ReCharge “will continue to take significant share in a fast-growing market,” he told TechCrunch.

Sull believes the ReCharge team identified the subscription e-commerce opportunity early on and addresses the numerous nuanced needs of the market with “a fully-featured product that uniquely enables both the smallest merchants and largest brands to easily adopt and scale with their platform.”

Andrew Collins, managing director at Summit Partners, was impressed that the company saw so much growth without external capital for years, due to its “efficiency and discipline.”

“The ReCharge team identified a true product-market fit and built a product that customers love — which has fueled strong organic growth as the business has scaled,” Collins added.

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Categories: Business News

Expressable launches with millions for scalable speech therapy

2021, May 6 - 8:57pm

Speaking isn’t simple for at least 40 million Americans, so a new Austin-based startup is scaling a solution. Expressable is a digital speech therapy company that connects patients to speech-language pathologists (SLP) via telehealth services and asynchronous support, and it has raised a new $4.5 million seed round.

The early-stage startup is launching with an explicit focus on serving the approximately five million children in the United States that have a communication disorder. What might start as an occasional stutter could turn into a communication disorder over time — so the startup is looking to intervene early to get kids on a clearer path.

Launched in 2019 by married co-founders Nicholas Barbara and Leanne Sherred, Expressable has served thousands of families to date. Today, the duo announced its seed funding, co-led by Lerer Hippeau and NextView Ventures, with participation from Amplifyher Ventures. The money will be used to expand its provider network, go in-network and focus on its edtech service.

What it does

Put simply, Expressable connects children to speech-language pathologists on a recurring basis. The therapy is done live via Zoom for Healthcare with licensed professionals that Expresssable employs full-time. Clients are matched with a therapist in their area of need, from public speaking to vocal cord paralysis. Parents are able to reach their children’s SLP through secure SMS for coordination, questions and rescheduling throughout the week.

On top of real-time support, the virtual speech therapy provider has a suite of asynchronous services. The company is building an e-learning platform with homework assignments and lessons, prescribed by the therapist and provided via SMS, for parents to do with their children to reinforce the speech care plans.

The activities are meant to be bite-sized — used when driving to the grocery store or cooking dinner or playing in the backyard — and tailored for interaction with children. The lessons can be as simple as creating opportunities for a kid to ask for juice, or to practice two-word utterances with an imitation game.

A mock secure SMS by Expressable. Image Credits: Expressable

This unique edtech bit of Expressable leans heavily on parent involvement in the therapy process. Parental help has been shown to increase positive outcomes, but notably it could also leave low-income, working-class families out of the mix. Its price, on average, is $59 per week, and that’s currently only out of pocket rather than subsidized by insurance.

“There’s a lot of content for speech-language pathologists by speech-language pathologists, but not a lot of content by [SLPs] for parents, written in a way that is consumable,” Barbara said. “It just felt like a huge opportunity and market gap.”

Part of Expressable’s value is that it’s better than the status quo, which surprisingly often actually amounts to nothing. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 8-9% of children in the country have a speech sound disorder — but only half actually get treatment. What might start as an occasional stutter could turn into a communication disorder over time — so Expressable wants to intervene early to get kids on the right path.

“Public schools are the number-one provider for pediatric speech but they are unfortunately notoriously underfunded,” said Sherred. Children who are lucky enough to be eligible for school services are often provided them in a group setting, she continued, which lengthens the amount of time it takes to make progress.

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Sherred witnessed firsthand as an SLP the “incredibly frustrating cycle” created by gaps in school intervention. She has spent the majority of her career in in-home health, where she would work in homes and daycares directly with children.

The majority of Expressable’s user base are children, but about 35% are adults, signaling how speech issues can continue past childhood.

Meagan Loyst, who sourced the Expressabble deal for Lerer Hippeau, is one example. Loyst was diagnosed with a speech and voice condition in late 2020 and needed to find remote SLP therapy, which introduced her to the challenges of finding a high-quality specialized SLP.

“Before Expressable, there was no consumer-facing brand out there solving these pain points for individuals with communications disorders,” Loyst said. “It’s evident that they’re already hiring the best SLPs out there, bringing parents and education into the process to focus on better outcomes for children, and doing so in a cost-effective and convenient way through virtual care.”

Telehealth with a twist

While telehealth usage remains above pre-pandemic levels, visits are on the decline. One challenge for any digital telehealth startup, Expressable included, is how to make a convincing pitch for moving caretaking fully virtual in a post-pandemic context.

The Expressable co-founders pointed toward consistency, both internally and externally, as a competitive advantage.

First, speech therapy is a recurring service that many patients use once a week, every month, for years. “A lot of other telemedicine plays are these quick, convenient, and direct primary care,” Barbara said. “[We are] a longer tail of treatment plan that requires a close relationship between provider and patient.”

Second, unlike many telehealth startups, Expressable has hired its specialists full-time as W-2 employees. It’s a strategic choice to help ensure to its clients that their SLP of choice is a long-term relationship. The startup has 50 W-2 SLPs currently.

Why are telehealth companies treating healthcare like the gig economy?

“We have built a career path for SLPs and a value proposition to speech language pathologists where they can work from home, set their own hours [get] paid above the national average, and then receive benefits that may not be obviously not common if you’re working in a contractor position.”

Not relying on the traditional contractor model might be a differentiation, but it’s also a challenge. The startup will have to rapidly (and efficiently) hire SLPs for the variety of speaking conditions out there — and in order to expand into new markets, it has to go through the arduous legal process of local licensing requirements, instead of just going to a white-label solution that helps staff similar companies while offloading individual practitioner certification.

While it has ambitions to become a national practice, Expressable currently operates in 15 states, and employs SLPs that are licensed in all the states in which it operates.

Update May 6, 2021: Meagan Loyst’s name was corrected.

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Categories: Business News

Look out Pied Piper — iSIZE reduces power for video streaming, raises $6.3M in round led by Octopus

2021, May 6 - 8:46pm

It’s widely known that video streaming boomed during the pandemic, as millions of people were faced by boredom during lockdowns. But an unintended consequence of this was the growing environmental impact of millions of video streams, which meant server farms needing to draw increasing amounts of power from the grid. Indeed, there were even calls for people to cycle down to Standard Definition, as HD streaming has a greater impact. But it turns out that if you optimize the video, you can reduce the bitrate required, reducing the data and energy needed.

Oddly enough this is also the pitch of the famed satirical show, “Silicon Valley,” where fictional startup Pied Piper creates an app that contains a revolutionary data compression algorithm for video.

But this scenario may about to become fact.

iSIZE, U.K. startup that applies deep learning to optimize video streaming and delivery, has $6.3 million in a funding round led by Octopus Ventures, with participation from existing investors including TD Veen and Patrick Pichette, chairman of Twitter and ex-CFO of Google. The company has now raised a total of $8.2 million.

iSIZE’s BitSave technology optimizes video streaming quality while reducing bitrate requirements, “allowing for a significant reduction in data and energy consumption”.

Streaming services face their real test in 2021

This is trained to “see with the human eye” in order to make the video still look high quality, but reduce the bitrate needed. It integrates with all video encoding standards (including AVC, HEVC, and AV1) without needing changes to the streaming process. In other words, the links of Netflix, etc. would, says the company, be able to install the iSIZE solution relatively easily.

Founded by Sergio Grce and Dr. Yiannis Andreopoulos, the team combines R&D in machine learning, neural networks and video signal processing, and is a graduate of the Creative Destruction Lab Oxford 2019-2020 program.

Sergio Grce, founder and CEO of iSIZE, commented: “Today there are more people streaming more video than ever before. Our customers recognize both the commercial opportunity and their social responsibility to optimize their video delivery pipelines with our pioneering technology.”

On a call to me, he added: “The processing optimizes for human perception and tries to reverse engineer human perception of the receiver in a manner similar to psycho visual perception. So that saves bitrate and the content looks the same or better on the client device. We are doing something similar for video as what the MP3 did for music.”

Simon King, partner and deep tech investor at Octopus Ventures, said: “The technology iSIZE has created is pioneering and is already being used by some of the world’s largest companies to reduce the costs and energy used in streaming. Consumer demand for high-quality video is only going to increase as our devices are upgraded, so it’s vital that we find new ways to reduce the environmental impact.”

Competitors of iSIZE include Wave 1 and Deep Render.

Meanwhile, let’s remind ourselves of how good Pied Piper was at video compression.

Categories: Business News

Payments, lending and neobanks rule fintechs in emerging markets, report says

2021, May 6 - 7:06pm

Tech investments in emerging markets have been in full swing over the past couple of years and their ecosystems have thrived as a result.

Some of these markets like Africa, Latin America, and India, have comprehensive reports by publications and firms on trends and investments in their individual regions. But there’s hardly a report to compare and contrast trends and investments between these regions and rightfully so. Such a task is Herculean.

Well, a report released today by data research organization Briter Bridges and global inclusive tech accelerator Catalyst Fund is punching above its weight to offer a holistic representation to the darling sector of these three markets: fintech.

The report “State of Fintech in Emerging Markets Report” has three objectives — to evaluate the investment, product, and inclusivity trends across emerging markets.

The team surveyed over 177 startups and 33 investors across Africa, Latin America, and India. Though this sample size used is minuscule, the key findings are quite impressive.

Let’s dive in.

Fintechs have raised $23B across the regions since 2017

There’s no stopping emerging markets’ favorite. The sector has continued to receive the largest share of investments year-on-year for the past five years.

More than 300 million unbanked African adults account for 17% of the world’s unbanked population. So it’s not difficult to see why in 2019, the continent witnessed five mega deals in Branch, Tala, World Remit, Interswitch, and OPay that amounted to a total of over $775 million. While this dropped last year to $362 million, companies like Flutterwave, TymeBank, Kuda have raised sizeable rounds during this period.

Image Credits: Briter Bridges & Catalyst Fund

Latin America is home to a growing base of digital users, enabling regulation and reforms, and vibrant small businesses. And just like Africa, the percentage of unbanked people is high at 70%. Fintechs in the region have seized the opportunity and have been rewarded with mega-rounds that companies like NuBank, Neon, Konfio, and Clip have enjoyed. Collectively, fintech startups have raised $10 billion in the past five years.

In 2019 alone, Indian fintech startups raised a record of $4.8 billion, per the report. Then last year, the sector brought in $3 billion. Over the past five years, they have totaled $11.6 billion with notable big names like CRED, Razorpay, Groww, BharatPe, among others.

Africa’s average seed rounds stand at $1M, India and Latin America average $4M

Per the report, early-stage deals in Africa have been increasing over the past five years totaling over $1.6 billion. Their average size, especially for seed rounds, has grown from $750,000 in 2017 to $1 million in 2020.

For  Latin America, the average seed deal in the last five years was around $5.7 million while India did approximately $4.6 million. The report says the data for the latter was skewed because of CRED’s $30 million seed round.

Image Credits: Briter Bridges & Catalyst Fund

Latin America is IPO-hungry, India breeds unicorns while Africa is just getting started with M&A

Last year, Stripe’s acquisition of Paystack was the highlight of Africa’s M&As because of its size and the homegrown status of the Nigerian fintech startup. Other larger rounds that made the headlines include the $500 million acquisition of Wave by WorldRemit (which happens to be the largest from the continent) and the DPO Group buyout by Network International for $288 million.

Indian startups raised $9.3 billion in 2020

Unlike the African fintech market that has noticed mega acquisition deals and many undisclosed seven-figure deals, the Latin American fintech market is a sucker for IPOs. Per the report, fintechs in the region have several $100 million rounds (Nubank, PagSeguro,  Creditas, BancoInter and Neon) and M&A activity is sparse. But a number of them have gone public recently including Arco Educacao, Stone Pagamentos, and Pagseguro. 

On the other hand, India has more than 25 billion-dollar companies and keeps adding yearly. Just last month, the country recorded more than eight. These unicorns range from established companies like Paytm and new ones like CRED.

Payments, credit, and neobanks lead fintech activity

The report shows that payments companies are the crème de la crème for fintech investment across the three regions. Within that subset, B2B payments reign supreme. The next two funded fintech categories are credit and digital banking.

In Africa, payments startups have seen more investments than credit and neobanks. Flutterwave, Chipper Cash, Wave, Paystack, DPO come to mind.

Image Credits: Briter Bridges & Catalyst Fund

Latin America most funded fintechs are neobanks. And it is the only region with all three product categories closely funded at $2-3 billion each. Some of these companies include NuBank, Creditas, and dLocal.

India’s top-funded fintech startups are in payments. But it has notable representation in credit and neobanks, some of which have raised nine-figure rounds like Niyo, Lendingkart, and InCred.

Investors are enthused about the future of insurance, payments, and digital banks

From the handful of investors surveyed in the report on their view on future trends in fintech products 5 years from now, most of them chose insurance, payments, and digital banking models.

Investment platforms and embedded models are also areas of interest. They were less keen on agriculture and remittances while wealth tech platforms and neobanks were also ranked lower in priority. How is it that digital banking and neo-banking are at two ends of the spectrum of investor choice? I can’t say for sure.

Image Credits: Briter Bridges & Catalyst Fund

Parts of the report talk about underserved consumers in these regions and how fintech startups are serving them. It also discusses whether these fintech startups promote financial inclusion and what features and products would get them to that point.

In all of this, the glaring fact, which is no news, is that Africa is lagging years behind Latin America and India. Talking with Briter Bridges director Dario Giuliani, he pointed out that he’d lean on five years for the continent to get to where Latin America and India are at the moment. He added that what makes India a better market at this stage is because it isn’t a continent like the other markets and operations are uniform across board.

“It is easier to manage one country than 54 countries in Africa and 20 in Latin America,” he said to TechCrunch. “In Africa, we use the label ‘Africa,’ but we’re very much talking about 4-6 countries. Latin America is basically Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia who are seeing massive companies rise. India is one.”

One key detail the report mentions is that most fintechs across emerging markets are crossing over to different sectors like crop insurance, credit lines for distributors and vendors, KYC, e-commerce payment gateways, medical finance, and insurance. Guiliani says he expects this to continue.

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Una Brands launches with $40M to roll up brands on multiple Asia-Pacific e-commerce platforms

2021, May 6 - 8:13am

Una Brands’ co-founders (from left to right): Tobias Heusch, Kiren Tanna and Kushal Patel. Image Credits: Una Brands

One of the biggest funding trends of the past year is companies that consolidate small e-commerce brands. Many of the most notable startups in the space, like Thrasio, Berlin Brands Group and Branded Group, focus on consolidating Amazon Marketplace sellers. But the e-commerce landscape is more fragmented in the Asia-Pacific region, where sellers use platforms like Tokopedia, Lazada, Shopee, Rakuten or eBay, depending on where they are. That is where Una Brands comes in. Co-founder Kiren Tanna, former chief executive officer of Rocket Internet Asia, said the startup is “platform agnostic,” searching across marketplaces (and platforms like Shopify, Magento or WooCommerce) for potential acquisitions.

Una announced today that it has raised a $40 million equity and debt round. Investors include 500 Startups, Kingsway Capital, 468 Capital, Presight Capital, Global Founders Capital and Maximilian Bitner, the former CEO of Lazada who currently holds the same role at secondhand fashion platform Vestiaire Collective.

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Una did not disclose the ratio of equity and debt in the round. Like many other e-commerce aggregators, including Thrasio, Una raised debt financing to buy brands because it is non-dilutive. The round will also be used to hire aggressively in order to evaluate brands in its pipeline. Una currently has teams in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia and plans to expand in Southeast Asia before entering Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Tanna, who also founded Foodpanda and ZEN Rooms, launched Una along with Adrian Johnston, Kushal Patel, Tobias Heusch and Srinivasan Shridharan. He estimates that there are more than 10 million third-party sellers spread across different platforms in the Asia-Pacific.

“Every single seller in Asia is looking at multiple platforms and not just Amazon,” Tanna told TechCrunch. “We saw a big gap in the market where e-commerce is growing very quickly, but players in the West are not able to look at every platform, so that is why we decided to focus on APAC, launch the business there and acquire sellers who are selling on multiple platforms.”

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Una looks for brands with annual revenue between $300,000 to $20 million and is open to many categories, as long as they have strong SKUs and low seasonality (for example, it avoids fast fashion). Its offering prices range from about $600,000 to $3 million.

Tanna said Una will maintain acquisitions as individual brands “because what’s working, we don’t change it.” How it adds value is by doing things that are difficult for small brands to execute, especially those run by just one or two people, like expanding into more distribution channels and countries.

“For example, in Indonesia there are at least five or six important platforms that you should be on, and many times the sellers aren’t doing that, so that’s something we do,” Tanna explained. “The second is cross-border in Southeast Asia, which sellers often can’t do themselves because of regulations around customs, import restrictions and duties. That’s something our team has experience in and want to bring to all brands.”

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Amazon FBA roll-up players have the advantage of Amazon Marketplace analytics that allow them to quickly measure the performance of brands in their pipeline of potential acquisitions. Since it deals with different marketplaces and platforms, Una works with much more fragmented sources of data for revenue, costs, rankings and customer reviews. To scale up, the company is currently building technology to automate its valuation process and will also have local teams in each of its markets. Despite working with multiple e-commerce platforms, Tanna said Una is able to complete a deal within five weeks, with an offer usually happening within two or three days.

In countries where Amazon is the dominant e-commerce player, like the United States, many entrepreneurs launch FBA brands with the goal of flipping them for a profit within a few years, a trend that Thrasio and other Amazon roll-up startups are tapping into. But that concept is less common in Una’s markets, so it offers different team deals to appeal to potential sellers. Though Una acquires 100% of brands, it also does profit-sharing models with sellers, so they get a lump sum payment for the majority of their business first, then collect more money as Una scales up the brand. Tanna said Una usually continues working with sellers on a consulting basis for about three to six months after a sale.

“Something that Amazon players know very well is that they can find a product, sell it for four to five years, and then ideally make a multi-million deal exit and build another product or go on holiday,” said Tanna. “That’s something Asian sellers are not as familiar with, so we see this as an education phase to explain how the process works, and why it makes sense to sell to us.”

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Chime has agreed to stop using the word ‘bank’ after a California regulator pushed back

2021, May 6 - 7:09am

Chime might call itself the “fastest-growing fintech in the U.S.,” but it has agreed to stop referring to itself as a “bank,” per a new report out of American Banker.

Evidently, the eight-year-old, San Francisco-based outfit was the target of an investigation by the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation after Chime used “chimebank” in its website address, as well as used “bank” and “banking” elsewhere in its advertisements, according to the agency in a settlement agreement.

As noted by AB, Chime made the decision to settle ahead of a deadline imposed by the regulatory body.

The development won’t surprise anyone familiar with U.S. banking laws. No outfit can represent itself as a bank or credit union unless it’s licensed to engage in the business of banking. The commission that pushed back on Chime issues such licenses and regulates state-chartered banks in the state of California through the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, and it said in the settlement that “at all relevant times herein, Chime was not licensed to operate as a bank in California or in any other jurisdiction, nor was it exempt from such licensure.”

Chime has at times attempted to draw a distinction between itself and a bank. When the company raised its most recent round of funding — a $485 million Series F round last September that valued the business at $14.5 billion — CEO Chris Britt told CNBC: “We’re more like a consumer software company than a bank . . . It’s more a transaction-based, processing-based business model that is highly predictable, highly recurring and highly profitable.”

Still, Chime, like many newer fintech companies, has seemingly embraced the term “neobank” and “challenger bank,” and perhaps it’s no wonder. It’s certainly easier to convey to consumers what it is selling, which is banking services that include — in this case — debit cards, spending accounts and savings accounts, all offered through users’ mobile phones.

Given the settlement, expect to see more startups like Chime make clearer that in most cases, they do not have a bank charter and instead are being provided services by banks that do. In Chime’s case, for example, it now makes more plain on its website that it is a “financial technology company” and “not a bank” and that its services are being provided by the The Bancorp Bank and Stride Bank, which are both FDIC members.

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