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Updated: 56 min 11 sec ago

KeepTruckin raises $190 million to invest in AI products, double R&D team to 700

9 hours 46 min ago

KeepTruckin, a hardware and software developer that helps trucking fleets manage vehicle, cargo and driver safety, has just raised $190 million in a Series E funding round, which puts the company’s valuation at over $2 billion, according to CEO Shoaib Makani. 

G2 Venture Partners, which just raised a $500 million fund to help modernize existing industries, participated in the round, alongside existing backers like Greenoaks Capital, Index Ventures, IVP and Scale Venture Partners and funds managed by BlackRock. 

KeepTruckin intends to invest its new capital back into its AI-powered products like its GPS tracking, ELD compliance and dispatch and workflow, but it’s specifically interested in improving its smart dashcam, which instantly detects unsafe driving behaviors like cell phone distraction and close following and alerts the drivers in real time, according to Makani. 

The company says Usher Transport, one of its clients, says it has seen a 32% annual reduction in accidents after implementing the Smart Dashcam, DRIVE risk score and Safety Hub, products that the company offers to increase safety.

G2 Venture Partners raises $500 million to fund sustainable tech

“KeepTruckin’s special sauce is that we can build complex models (that other edge cameras can’t yet run) and make it run on the edge with low-power, low-memory and low-bandwidth constraints,” Makani told TechCrunch. “We have developed in-house IPs to solve this problem at different environmental conditions such as low-light, extreme weather, occluded subject and distortions.”

This kind of accuracy requires billions of ground truth data points that are trained and tested on KeepTruckin’s in-house machine learning platform, a process that is very resource-intensive. The platform includes smart annotation capabilities to automatically label the different data points so the neural network can play with millions of potential situations, achieving similar performance to the edge device that’s in the field with real-world environmental conditions, according to Makani.

A 2020 McKinsey study predicted the freight industry is not likely to see the kind of YOY growth it saw last year, which was 30% up from 2019, but noted that some industries would increase at higher rates than others. For example, commodities related to e-commerce and agricultural and food products will be the first to return to growth, whereas electronics and automotive might increase at a slower rate due to declining consumer demand for nonessentials. 

Since the pandemic, the company said it experienced 70% annualized growth, in large part due to expansion into new markets like construction, oil and gas, food and beverage, field services, moving and storage and agriculture. KeepTruckin expects this demand to increase and intends to use the fresh funds to scale rapidly and recruit more talent that will help progress its AI systems, doubling its R&D team to 700 people globally with a focus on engineering, machine vision, data science and other AI areas, says Makani. 

“We think packaging these products into operator-friendly user interfaces for people who are not deeply technical is critical, so front-end and full-stack engineers with experience building incredibly intuitive mobile and web applications are also high priority,” said Makani. 

Much of KeepTruckin’s tech will eventually power autonomous vehicles to make roads safer, says Makani, something that’s also becoming increasingly relevant as the demand for trucking continues to outpace supply of drivers.

“Level 4 and eventually level 5 autonomy will come to the trucking industry, but we are still many years away from broad deployment,” he said. “Our AI-powered dashcam is making drivers safer and helping prevent accidents today. While the promise of autonomy is real, we are working hard to help companies realize the value of this technology now.”

Mobility startups can be equitable, accessible and profitable

Categories: Business News

CEO Shishir Mehrotra and investor S. Somasegar reveal what sings in Coda’s pitch doc

10 hours 54 min ago

Coda entered the market with an ambitious, but simple, mission. Since launching in 2014, it has seemingly forged a path to realizing its vision with $140 million in funding and 25,000 teams across the globe using the platform.

Coda is simple in that its focus is on the document, one of the oldest content formats/tools on the internet, and indeed in the history of software. Its ambition lies in the fact that there are massive incumbents in this space, like Google and Microsoft.

Co-founder and CEO Shishir Mehrotra told TechCrunch that that level of competition wasn’t a hindrance, mainly because the company was very good at communicating its value and building highly effective flywheels for growth.

Mehrotra was generous enough to let us take a look through his pitch doc (not deck!) on a recent episode of Extra Crunch Live, diving not only into the factors that have made Coda successful, but how he communicated those factors to investors.

A screenshot from Coda’s pitch doc.

Extra Crunch Live also features the ECL Pitch-off, where founders in the audience come “onstage” to pitch their products to our guests. Mehrotra and his investor, Madrona partner S. Somasegar, gave their live feedback on pitches from the audience, which you can check out in the video (full conversation and pitch-off) below.

As a reminder, Extra Crunch Live takes place every Wednesday at 3 p.m. EDT/noon PDT. Anyone can hang out during the episode (which includes networking with other attendees), but access to past episodes is reserved exclusively for Extra Crunch members. Join here.

The soft circle

Like many investors and founders, Mehrotra and Somasegar met well before Mehrotra was working on his own project. They met when both of them worked at Microsoft and maintained a relationship while Mehrotra was at Google.

In their earliest time together, the conversations centered around advice on the Seattle tech ecosystem or on working with a particular team at Microsoft.

“Many people will tell you building relationships with investors … you want to do it outside of a fundraise as much as possible,” said Mehrotra.

Eventually, Mehrotra got to work on Coda and kept in touch with Somasegar. He even pitched him for Series B fundraising — and ultimately got a no. But the relationship persisted.

Categories: Business News

There are only a few spots left in Startup Alley at TC Disrupt 2021

11 hours 53 min ago

Early-stage founders, a shipload of opportunity is about to set sail and you don’t want to miss the boat. We have only a few spots left to exhibit in Startup Alley at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 (September 21-23). Buy a Startup Alley Pass and take advantage of all the exposure, perks and potential to help your startup cruise to the next level.

Every exhibiting startup gets a virtual booth where you can post a company video and links to your website and social media accounts. But don’t stop there. Hopin, the virtual platform, lets you get creative — and interactive. Schedule and host livestream product demos, tutorials or Q&A sessions. Or cook up some other amazing way to showcase your expertise.

And every exhibiting startup also gets two minutes to pitch live during a breakout session. Your audience? TechCrunch staff and thousands of Disrupt attendees from across the globe. Exposure, practice and invaluable feedback from the pitch-savvy TC crew — jump on board that opportunity.

Team TechCrunch will choose two exhibiting startups to be a Startup Battlefield Wild Card. Those founders will compete in Startup Battlefield for a chance at $100,000. You can’t beat that kind of global attention.

Exhibit in Startup Alley and you might be selected to join the Startup Alley+ cohort. TC staff will choose 50 startups to participate in a VIP experience designed to provide more exposure, education and opportunity — long before Disrupt even starts. The Startup Alley+ experience begins July 9 with free attendance to TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing & Fundraising. Read more about the business development support you’ll receive as part of Startup Alley+.

Here’s another way exhibitors might gain invaluable exposure at TC Disrupt — a Startup Alley Crawl interview. TC editors will host a one-hour crawl for each business category. During a crawl, they select a few exhibiting startups from the relevant category and interview them live on the Disrupt stage.

Exhibiting in Startup Alley is one big boatload of opportunity and time’s running out to book passage. Buy your Startup Alley Pass today and chart a course for success — at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 and beyond.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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Categories: Business News

Transform launches with $24.5M in funding for a tool to query and build metrics out of data troves

12 hours 6 min ago

The biggest tech companies have put a lot of time and money into building tools and platforms for their data science teams and those who work with them to glean insights and metrics out of the masses of data that their companies produce: how a company is performing, how a new feature is working, when something is broken, or when something might be selling well (and why) are all things you can figure out if you know how to read the data.

Now, three alums that worked with data in the world of Big Tech have founded a startup that aims to build a “metrics store” so that the rest of the enterprise world — much of which lacks the resources to build tools like this from scratch — can easily use metrics to figure things out like this, too.

Transform, as the startup is called, is coming out of stealth today, and it’s doing so with an impressive amount of early backing — a sign not just of investor confidence in these particular founders, but also the recognition that there is a gap in the market for, as the company describes it, a “single source of truth for business data” that could be usefully filled.

The company is announcing that it has closed, while in stealth, a Series A of $20 million, and an earlier seed round of $4.5 million — both led by Index Ventures and Redpoint Ventures. The seed, the company said, also had dozens of angel investors, with the list including Elad Gil of Color Genomics, Lenny Rachitsky of Airbnb and Cristina Cordova of Notion.

The big breakthrough that Transform has made is that it’s built a metrics engine that a company can apply to its structured data — a tool similar to what Big Tech companies have built for their own use, but that hasn’t really been created (at least until now) for others who are not those Big Tech companies to use, too.

Transform can work with vast troves of data from the warehouse, or data that is being tracked in real time, to generate insights and analytics about different actions around a company’s products. Transform can be used and queried by nontechnical people who still have to deal with data, Handel said.

Data is the world’s most valuable (and vulnerable) resource

The impetus for building the product came to Nick Handel, James Mayfield and Paul Yang — respectively Transform’s CEO, COO and software engineer — when they all worked together at Airbnb (previously Mayfield and Yang were also at Facebook together) in a mix of roles that included product management and engineering.

There, they could see firsthand both the promise that data held for helping make decisions around a product, or for measuring how something is used, or to plan future features, but also the demands of harnessing it to work, and getting everyone on the same page to do so.

“There is a growing trend among tech companies to test every single feature, every single iteration of whatever. And so as a part of that, we built this tool [at Airbnb] that basically allowed you to define the various metrics that you wanted to track to understand your experiment,” Handel recalled in an interview. “But you also want to understand so many other things like, how many people are searching for listings in certain areas? How many people are instantly booking those listings? Are they contacting customer service, are they having trust and safety issues?” The tool Airbnb built was Minerva, optimised specifically for the kinds of questions Airbnb might typically have for its own data.

“By locking down all of the definitions for the metrics, you could basically have a data engineering team, a centralized data infrastructure team, do all the calculation for these metrics, and then serve those to the data scientists to then go in and do kind of deeper, more interesting work, because they weren’t bogged down in calculating those metrics over and over,” he continued. This platform evolved within Airbnb. “We were really inspired by some of the early work that we saw happen on this tool.”

The issue is that not every company is built to, well, build tools like these tailored to whatever their own business interests might be.

“There’s a handful of companies who do similar things in the metrics space,” Mayfield said, “really top flight companies like LinkedIn, Airbnb and Uber. They have really started to invest in metrics. But it’s only those companies that can devote teams of eight or 10, engineers, designers who can build those things in house. And I think that was probably, you know, a big part of the impetus for wanting to start this company was to say, not every organization is going to be able to devote eight or 10 engineers to building this metrics tool.”

And the other issue is that metrics have become an increasingly important — maybe the most important — lever for decision making in the world of product design and wider business strategy for a tech (and maybe by default, any) company.

We have moved away from “move fast and break things.” Instead, we now embrace — as Mayfield put it — “If you can’t measure it, you can’t move it.”

Image Credits: Transform (opens in a new window)

Transform is built around three basic priorities, Handel said.

The first of these has to do with collective ownership of metrics: by building a single framework for measuring these and identifying them, their theory is that it’s easier for a company to all get on the same page with using them. The second of these is to use Transform to simply make the work of the data team more efficient and easier, by turning the most repetitive parts of extracting insights into automated scripts that can be used and reused, giving the data team the ability to spend more time analyzing the data rather than just building data sets. And third of all, to provide customers with APIs that they can use to embed the metric-extracting tools into other applications, whether in business intelligence or elsewhere.

The three products it’s introducing today, called Metrics Framework, Metrics Catalog and Metrics API, follow from these principles.

Transform is only really launching publicly today, but Handel said that it’s already working with a small handful of customers (unnamed) in a small beta, enough to be confident that what it’s built works as it was intended. The funding will be used to continue building out the product as well as bring on more talent and hopefully onboard more businesses to using it.

How to ensure data quality in the era of Big Data

Hopefully might be less a tenuous word than its investors would use, convinced that it’s filling a strong need in the market.

“Transform is filling a critical gap within the industry. Just as we invested in Looker early on for its innovative approach to business intelligence, Transform takes it one step further by providing a powerful yet streamlined single source of truth for metrics,” said Tomasz Tunguz, MD, Redpoint Ventures, in a statement.

“We’ve seen companies across the globe struggle to make sense of endless data sources or turn them into actionable, trusted metrics. We invested in Transform because they’ve developed an elegant solution to this problem that will change how companies think about their data,” added Shardul Shah, a partner at Index Ventures.

Categories: Business News

Anduril raises $450M as the defense tech company’s valuation soars to $4.6B

12 hours 35 min ago

The AI-powered defense company founded by tech iconoclast Palmer Luckey has landed a $450 million round of investment that values the startup at $4.6 billion just four years in.

In April, reports suggested that the company was on the hunt for fresh investment and headed for a valuation between four and five billion, up from $1.9 billion in July 2020.

The new Series D round was led by angel investor and serial entrepreneur Elad Gil, a former Twitter VP and Googler with a track record of investments in companies with exponential growth. Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, 8VC, General Catalyst, Lux Capital, Valor Equity Partners and D1 Capital Partners also participated in the round.

“Just as old incumbent institutions with little to no organizational renewal impacted our ability to respond to COVID, the defense industry has undergone significant consolidation over the last 30 years,” Gil wrote in a blog post on the investment. “There has not been a new defense technology company of any scale to directly challenge these incumbents in many decades…”

Anduril launched quietly in 2017 but grew quickly, picking up contracts with Customs and Border Protection and the Marine Corps during the Trump administration. Luckey, the young high-flying founder who sold Oculus to Facebook before being booted from the company, emerged as one of President Trump’s most prominent boosters in the generally Trump-averse tech industry.

The company makes defense hardware, including long-flying drones and surveillance towers that connect to a shared software platform it calls Lattice. The technology can be used to secure military bases, monitor borders and even knock enemy drones out of the sky, in the case of Anduril’s counter-UAS tech known as “Anvil.”

Anduril co-founder and CEO Brian Schimpf describes the company’s mission as one of “transformation,” pairing relatively affordable hardware with sensor fusion and machine learning technologies through a contract partner more nimble than established giants in the defense sector.

“This new round of funding reflects our confidence that the Department of Defense sees the same problems we do, and is serious about deploying emerging technologies at scale across land, sea, air and space domains,” Schimpf said.

Anduril launches a smarter drone and picks up more money to build a virtual border wall

Border wall bill draws on Palmer Luckey’s new defense company

The company set its sights on work with the Department of Defense from its earliest days and last year was one of 50 vendors tapped by the DoD to test tech for the Air Force’s own piece of the Joint All-Domain Command & Control (JADC2) project, which seeks to build a smart warfare platform to connect all service members, devices and vehicles that power the U.S. military.

The company’s work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection also matured from a pilot into a program of record last year. Anduril supplies the agency with connected surveillance towers capable of autonomously monitoring stretches of the U.S. border.

In April, Anduril acquired Area-I, a company known for small drones that can be launched from a larger aircraft. Area-I counted the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and NASA among its customers, relationships that likely sweetened the deal.

Palmer Luckey’s new defense company Anduril looks interested in AR and VR on the battlefield

Anduril among companies tapped to build the Air Force’s ‘internet of things’ for war

Categories: Business News

Mobility startups can be equitable, accessible and profitable

12 hours 56 min ago

Mobility should be a right, but too often it’s a privilege. Can startups provide the technology and the systems necessary to help correct this injustice? Shared micromobility, in particular, offers an opportunity for more equitable and accessible mobility within cities, but only if done intentionally. Building equity and accessibility into the business model is not always top of mind for startups looking to pay back investors and make money, and it’s a time-consuming task. Is it still possible to achieve those goals while remaining profitable?

At our TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 event, I sat down with Revel CEO and co-founder Frank Reig, Remix CEO and co-founder Tiffany Chu, and community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler to discuss how mobility companies should think about equity, why incorporating it from the get-go will save money in the long run, and how they can partner with cities to expand accessible and sustainable mobility.

What does equity mean?

Shared mobility services have often directly appealed to the young, able-bodied and affluent, especially when they first dropped into cities around the world. Older populations and communities of color have been less likely to either have access to or to use shared mobility services, but that’s beginning to change. As mobility startups consider how to weigh providing equitable service while maintaining a profit, Butler outlined the importance of thinking about those who are most vulnerable.

Who isn’t this helping? And it doesn’t matter if that’s a small amount of people, right? So you might say something like, people with disabilities might be proportionally a smaller number of people, Black people might be proportionally a smaller number of people. But if you make things better for folks with a disability, say, by adding curb cuts into sidewalks, that actually makes things better for a ton of people. And so you may be thinking of it … only helping a small group of people. And I think we really have to shift the way we think about equity. It’s not just numbers, who is this going to help the most, it’s … who is often intentionally neglected or pushed aside because their numbers aren’t big enough? (Timestamp: 19:10)

Build equity into the business model from the start

Many startups are just trying to keep their idea alive and start a business at the beginning. They want to solve an essential problem, like lack of socially distanced mobility options, and prove their unit economics so they don’t come back to their investors empty handed. Some companies might even be of the mindset that building equity and accessibility into their business model isn’t their concern. But delivering on those core values will just be the price of doing business in the future, so it certainly should be their concern, Butler said.

I think for companies, I would say that people like to say it takes too much time or costs too much money to do things equitably. But whether or not you’re retrofitting a house or whether or not you’re retrofitting your company, whenever you retrofit something, it costs more money. And so if you think about equity as something you just build in from the beginning, it will actually save you money and take less time than if you try to do it later because someone tells you to do it or you’ve had some controversy or you all of a sudden feel bad. (Timestamp: 4:50)

Reig chimed in to talk about Revel’s access program, which gives 50% off to riders who are on any form of public assistance.

So the access program, for instance, was something from day one. That wasn’t something we added in a year or two later after venture funding … that was still when we were bootstraped, you know, a company in North Brooklyn with 70 mopeds. From day one, I’ve never used the gig economy, customer service agent mechanic battery swapper, from day one, every single person on the team is a regular employee. And I think that’s just a cultural ethos I’ve always wanted in the company. (Timestamp: 6:04)

Micromobility’s potential to alleviate transit deserts
Categories: Business News

Wise announces plans to go public via direct listing

14 hours 20 min ago

Wise, the fintech company formerly known as TransferWise, has announced that it wants to become a public company on the London Stock Exchange. Instead of following the traditional IPO route, Wise plans to go public via a direct listing. This is going to be the biggest direct listing on the London Stock Exchange.

If you’re not familiar with Wise, the company specializes in cross-border money transfers. If you want to send money to someone living in another country, traditional retail banks charge a lot in foreign exchange fees, foreign transaction fees, etc.

Of course, there are some well-known alternative options, such as Western Union and MoneyGram. While those companies provide some convenient on-ramp and off-ramp methods, they’re still more expensive than Wise.

With Wise, users first upload money to their Wise account using a bank transfer or a debit card. They can then send money in another currency to a recipient’s bank account. The company tries to be as transparent and upfront as possible when it comes to fixed and variable fees.

TransferWise rebrands as Wise ahead of an expected IPO

Originally founded in 2011, Wise has grown quite a lot as its revenue grew from $422 million to $586 million in its most recent financial year (from £303 million to £421 million, respectively). It represents $57 million (£41 million) in profit before tax — the company says it has been profitable since 2017.

Overall, Wise has 10 million customers who process around $7 billion (£5 billion) in cross-border transactions every month. More recently, the company diversified its revenue by adding new products.

For instance, customers can hold money in 56 currencies in their Wise accounts. They get account numbers in 10 different currencies as well as a debit card. This feature is particularly useful for freelancers who want to accept payments in another country or people moving abroad for a year or two.

The company has also expanded beyond B2C with Wise Business. Those accounts work a bit like regular Wise accounts, but with multiple users and additional features. Wise also powers cross-border transactions in third-party services, such as Monzo and N26.

Opting for a direct listing is an interesting move. A few companies have chosen direct listings in the U.S., such as Spotify, Coinbase and Slack. It means that you’re confident there’ll be enough interest from investors, as banks aren’t helping you with your introduction.

It also means that Wise doesn’t need more money, as a direct listing doesn’t let you raise additional capital.

Like many tech companies, Wise plans to introduce a dual-class share structure, which means that all of Wise’s existing shareholders will get more votes per share for a while. This is going to be an important listing for the European fintech scene and also for the British tech ecosystem. Now, let’s see how investors feel about Wise.

Coinbase’s direct listing alters the landscape for fintech and crypto startups

Categories: Business News

Neo4j raises Neo$325M as graph-based data analysis takes hold in enterprise

15 hours 58 min ago

Databases run the world, but database products are often some of the most mature and venerable software in the modern tech stack. Designers will pixel push, frontend engineers will add clicks to make it more difficult to drop out of a soporific Zoom call, but few companies are ever willing to rip out their database storage engine. Too much risk, and almost no return.

So it’s exceptional when a new database offering breaks through the barriers and redefines the enterprise.

Neo4j, which offers a graph-centric database and related products, announced today that it raised $325 million at a more than $2 billion valuation in a Series F deal led by Eurazeo, with additional capital from Alphabet’s venture wing GV. Eurazeo managing director Nathalie Kornhoff-Brüls will join the company’s board of directors.

That funding makes Neo4j among the most well-funded database companies in history, with a collective fundraise haul of more than half a billion dollars. For comparison, MongoDB, which trades on Nasdaq, raised $311 million in total (according to Crunchbase) before its IPO. Meanwhile, Cockroach Labs of CockroachDB fame has now raised $355 million in funding, including a $160 million round earlier this year at a similar $2 billion valuation.

The past decade has seen a whole new crop of next-generation database models, from scale-out SQL to document to key-value stores to time series and on and on and on. What makes graph databases like Neo4j unique is their focus on the connections between individual data entities. Graph-based data models have become central to modern machine learning and artificial intelligence applications, and are now widely used by data analysts in applications as diverse as marketing to fraud detection.

CEO and co-founder Emil Eifrem said that Neo4j, which was founded back in 2007, has hit its growth stride in recent years given the rising popularity of graph-based analysis. “We have a deep developer community of hundreds of thousands of developers actively building applications with Neo4j in any given month, but we also have a really deep data science community,” he said.

In the past, most business analysis was built on relational databases. Yet, inter-connected complexity is creeping in everywhere, and that’s where Eifrem believes Neo4j has a durable edge. As an example, “any company that ships stuff is tapping into this global fine-grain mesh spanning continent to continent,” he suggested. “All of a sudden the ship captain in the Suez Canal … falls asleep, and then they block the Suez Canal for a week, and then you’ve got to figure out how will this affect my enterprise, how does that cascade across my entire supply chain.” With a graph model, that analysis is a cinch.

Neo4j says that 800 enterprises are customers and 75% of the Fortune 100 are users of the company’s products.

We last checked in with the company in 2020 when it launched 4.0, which offered unlimited scaling. Today, Neo4j comes in a couple of different flavors. It’s a database that can be either self-hosted or purchased as a cloud service offering which it dubs Aura. That’s for the data storage folks. For the data scientists, the company offers Neo4j Graph Data Science Library, a set of comprehensive tools for analyzing graph data. The company offers free (or “community” tiers), affordable starting tiers and full-scale enterprise pricing options depending on needs.

Neo4j 4.0 graph database platform brings unlimited scaling

Development continues on the database. This morning at its developers conference, Neo4j demonstrated what it dubbed its “super-scaling technology” on a 200 billion node graph with more than a trillion relationships between them, showing how its tools could offer “real-time” queries on such a large scale.

Unsurprisingly, Eifrem said that the new venture funding will be used to continue doubling down on “product, product, product” but emphasized a few major strategic initiatives as critical for the company. First, he wants to continue to deepen the company’s partnerships with public cloud providers. It already has a deep relationship with Google Cloud (GV was an investor in this round after all), and hopes to continue building relationships with other providers.

It’s also seeing a major uptick in interest from the APAC region. Eifrem said that the company recently opened up an office in Singapore to accelerate its sales in the broader IT market there.

Overall, “We think that graphs can be a significant part of the modern data landscape. In fact, we believe it can be the biggest part of the modern data landscape. And this round, I think, sends a clear signal [that] we’re going for it,” he said.

Erik Nordlander and Tom Hulme of GV were the leads for that firm. In addition, DTCP and Lightrock newly invested and previous investors One Peak, Creandum and Greenbridge Partners joined the round.

How to identify unicorn founders when they’re still early-stage

Categories: Business News

Karin Tsai, director of engineering at Duolingo, will be speaking at TechCrunch City Spotlight: Pittsburgh on June 29

16 hours 29 min ago

TechCrunch City Spotlight: Pittsburgh is getting closer, with impressive featured speakers including Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian and Mayor Bill Peduto. However, we’ve saved the best for last: Our last speaker is Karin Tsai, director of engineering at Duolingo, a $2.4 billion business that is all about making language learning fun and accessible.

The event will be held on June 29, so make sure to register here (for free) to listen to these conversations, enjoy the pitch-off and network with local talent.

Tsai joined Duolingo in 2012 as one of its first engineers, and witnessed firsthand the growth of the company from a scrappy startup into a 400-person global business. Her timestamp on the company has made her a key decision-maker in many of its biggest decisions, from which features to scrap to how to monetize without compromising its mission of providing free education to all.

One thing to note is that even though a whimsical owl and creative UX might seem straightforward, the language learning universe is controversial and requires healthy debate — and testing — for anyone within it.

The Duolingo EC-1

“We’re trying to do things that no other apps really tackle: How do we create an experience that actually makes you extremely proficient in a language while accommodating the expectations from our learners” to be fun and convenient, Tsai told me when I interviewed her for my Duolingo EC-1. “Balancing efficacy with engagement is something that we constantly struggle with.”

In this chat, Tsai will break down how Duolingo turned to A/B testing to answer some of its biggest questions. We’ll also chat about more meta topics, as when to give up on measuring the unmeasurable, and when tests fail and instinct reigns supreme. Tsai admitted to me once that Duolingo spent years trying to figure out how to find a metric that could encompass learning comprehension and engagement in one fell swoop.

“What used to freeze us is that we thought we would need such a metric to make progress,” she explained. “And I think what honestly liberated us was saying essentially, ‘Screw it.’ We couldn’t make progress waiting for a learning metric.”

I’ll be interviewing Tsai, so anyone who registers for this event is welcome to throw me questions for her that I’ll try to incorporate into my chat.

Tsai will give us the startup builder perspective, while Mayor Peduto will speak to the challenges of building a startup ecosystem, and Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian will discuss how to go from student to startup with the correct resources.

Don’t forget to register for this free event on June 29th (click here to register) so you can watch these chats and riff with audience members during networking opportunities. If you’re an early-stage startup founder based in Pittsburgh, you should apply to pitch your startup (click here to apply). Expect to do a live two-minute pitch, get feedback from local VCs, and maybe even win our pitch-off.

Pitch us, Pittsburgh

I can’t wait to see you there!

Categories: Business News

eqtble, a platform that uses data analytics to create healthier workplaces, raises $2.7M seed

2021, June 17 - 11:00pm

The eqtble founders (from l to r): Ethan Veres, Gabe Horwitz and Joseph Ifiegbu. (Image: eqtble)

“People are the backbone of any organization. People are more important than the product. Without people, you don’t have a product,” says Joseph Ifiegbu, who is Snap’s former head of human resources technology and also previous lead of WeWork’s People Analytics team.

Ifiegbu’s startup, called eqtble, wants to give HR teams the same kind of detailed analytics that product, sales and marketing departments have had for a long time, with the goal of creating more engaged and inclusive workplaces. The company, a Y Combinator alum, announced today it has raised $2.7 million in seed funding, led by Initialized Capital, with participation from SB Opportunity Fund, RS Ventures and other venture capital firms and angel investors.

Ifiegbu joined WeWork’s People Analytics team in 2017, when the company had a total of about 2,000 employees. By the time he left in 2020, that number had grown to 15,000 people. One of Ifiegbu’s first hires at WeWork was Gabe Horwitz, the first data scientist on the People Analytics team and now eqtble’s co-founder and chief product officer. The startup’s third co-founder and chief technology officer is Ethan Veres.

At many companies, especially ones that are growing quickly, workforce data is scattered across different HR software, including human resources information systems (HRIS), engagement platforms, benefit programs and employee surveys.

Because information is so fragmented, companies can miss important correlations. For example, they might not see the links between why top employees are quitting and how long it typically takes to promote people, or overlook pay inequality. This in turn impacts a company’s culture, including its approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, and ability to retain talented people.

A glimpse inside the minds of tech’s DEI leaders

As WeWork was rapidly scaling, the People Analytics team built tools to analyze data from across the company.

“There were a lot of questions being asked, like what is our promotion like? What is our attrition, are we hiring more men than women? There were all these questions and bottlenecks in our processes, and we wanted to have an understanding of our employees,” says Ifiegbu. “So we built systems to capture all that data, clean it, structure it and deliver dashboard insights to our leadership.”

The process took about two years, and the People Analytics team eventually grew to 15 people. Ifiegbu and Horwitz realized there were many companies that needed the same kind of analytics, but didn’t have WeWork’s resources. This prompted them to start working on eqtble.

“It took us such a long time and quite a bit of money because we had this team [at WeWork],” he says. “So how do we build something that delivers these insights to them, but doesn’t take that much time to do it, because we realize it’s very important that leadership and decision makers have the data to make decisions about their employees.”

How eqtble works

The current version of eqtble can be onboarded in six weeks, and Ifiegbu says the company’s goal is to shorten that process to just two days. Eqtble is sector agnostic and its target customers are high-growth companies that have between 250 to about 3,000 employees.

The human resources analytics platform can collect data from more than 100 sources (including Workday, ADP, Oracle, PeopleSoft, Qualtrics and Culture Amp, to name a few), and deliver insights and visualizations about four main areas: talent recruitment, workforce, engagement (including attrition, or when workers quit) and compensation.

One of eqtble’s summary dashboards. (Image: eqtble)

One of the things the platform can help HR teams do is identify why top candidates are declining offers.

For example, one of eqtble’s clients realized that their hiring managers were being passed more applications than they had time to look at. This created a bottleneck, because they weren’t able to interview people quickly enough. Other clients saw that candidates were dropping out because the interview process was too long.

“If you as an organization are saying ‘we’re going to have six rounds of interviews, it’s going to take three months to interview,’ you’re going to lose out on good candidates,” says Ifiegbu. “Other people are closing candidates within one to two weeks.”

Using data to increase diversity, equity and inclusion

It’s easy for a company to make DEI pledges, but even the best of intentions don’t result in progress if an organization isn’t willing to scrutinize itself. Because eqtble combines data from across a company, it can highlight potential issues before decision makers realize what is happening.

“Last year, all the companies were saying, ‘oh, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do all these things,’ and it’s like, ok, great, you can say anything, but the truth is you cannot change what you don’t measure,” says Ifiegbu.

For example, a company might be be proud of having a workforce that is divided equally between men and women, or that has a large percentage of people of color, when the reality is that many of them aren’t getting raises or being promoted into management roles.

“That 50/50 doesn’t mean anything if you don’t see representation at higher levels for women and people of color. What we’re doing is showing you a picture of your organization. If you can see the different parts of it, you can see the parts you can improve on and take actionable steps, not just lip service for the media,” says Ifiegbu. “Eqtble surfaces places you can improve or places where you are doing well so you can keep doing that.”

ChartHop raises $35M for its internal org chart and people analytics platform

Ifiegbu is excited that the HR analytics space is gaining attention. “I feel like using data to drive decisions is such an important thing, and ultimately builds a healthier company.”

The seed funding will be used to grow eqtble’s engineering team and its platform’s machine learning and visualization capabilities, and user acquisition.

In a statement, Initialized Capital partner and president Jen Wolf said, “Important organizational issues like DEI or equitable compensation are not simply a box a company can check, they take honest commitment. Companies willing to make that commitment shouldn’t have to wait months or be discouraged by the financial investment it takes to understand the data they already own to make these meaningful changes. The eqtble team knows how to solve this, and they’re empowering other companies to do so.”

Companies should utilize real-time compensation data to ensure equal pay

Categories: Business News

Former Athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush returns to entrepreneurship with new startup

2021, June 17 - 10:32pm

Jonathan Bush, the CEO and co-founder of Athenahealth, is a controversial figure in the controversial field of healthcare.

More than two decades after he started the now-public healthcare company, Bush lost Athenahealth to Elliott Management, an activist investor that bought the company alongside Veritas Capital. During this tense period of time, domestic violence allegations surfaced from his ex-wife, Sarah Seldon. Bush took responsibility for what he described as “regrettable incidents” that happened 14 years ago during a “particularly difficult personal time” in his life. Seldon, who TechCrunch attempted to reach for this story, made a statement then too, explaining that she and Bush have a “co-parenting relationship” with “respect, collaboration and love.”

After these public incidents, Bush went quiet and only later re-emerged as the executive chairman of Firefly Health, a primary care startup.

Now, Bush is back once again, this time as the co-founder of a new startup that aims to re-invent the digital health data stack. The company, Zus, wants to create a shared data platform that doctors, regardless of specialty or location, can access to better understand their patients. Think of it as massive, fancy Google Doc built for healthcare, that health tech startups can use to kickstart their solutions, faster.

Along with its launch, Zus announced today that it has raised a $34 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from F-Prime Capital, Maverick Ventures, Rock Health, Martin Ventures and Oxeon Investments.

Bush’s venture-backed return to entrepreneurship may come as a surprise to some, including himself.

“I loved running Athena very much, all 22 years,” he said. “But I also loved fourth grade, and I don’t want to go back. I didn’t feel like I wanted to run a company again.” He changed his mind for two reasons: First, he expects that building a platform company will be different, and potentially less controversial, than building a traditional services business. Second, he sees “strong calling” to bring his tool to life amid a broader digital health boom.

“These digital health companies will largely not work if they aren’t dramatically accelerated,” he said. “All of them now are facing this quandary: that it’s very hard to hire engineers, enormous regulation and complexity, one too many types of complexity associated with building technologies in medicine.”

With Zus, he’s trying to create capacity. The company has a lot of plans, which includes a growing library of software tools around patient relationship management, a data aggregation service that helps standardize medical records for sharing purposes, a platform that sits atop this information so that multiple doctors can access the same information and a patient portal that lets users understand how their data is shared and accessed.

So far, the platform is being used by four partners: Cityblock Health, Dorsata, Firefly Health, which is Bush’s previous employer, and Oak Street Health.

Part of the company’s existence can be tied to recent regulation progress. The 21st Century Cures Act gave patients the right to access their medical records, and by next year, third parties can access that same data as well. Many think this newfound data portability could seed a massive new generation of healthcare apps, although there are some concerns about if patients know what they are signing up for.

Mimi Liu, chief technology officer of Firefly Health, said in a statement that Zus will help build out the parts of its infrastructure stack that can be commoditized, bringing its roll-out time from years to weeks and months. She added that its clinical value proposition will be improved because of the “downstream network effect that comes as a result of information sharing.”

A16z, which led the round, is an investor in Firefly Health, as well as a number of healthcare startups like Incredible Health, Omada, PatientPing and Cedar.

4 strategies for building a digital health unicorn

Julie Yoo, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, said that Zus embodies its digital health stack thesis, which argues need for “infrastructure platforms that serve the large and rapidly growing population of digital health companies, such that each company no longer has to build the same underlying tech and operations components over and over again, from scratch.”

When asked about Zus’ differentiation, Yoo said that the company will create a community-based marketplace for digital health companies to set up and trade notes, which she thinks has not yet existed in the sector.

“If anything, one might say that the precursor to this concept was the More Disruption Please (MDP) program at Athenahealth, which makes Jonathan Bush uniquely qualified to build this more modern version of said concept,” she said. The MDP program was launched by Bush in 2017 with the goal of filling 200 seats in Athenahealth’s San Francisco office with upcoming entrepreneurs in healthcare.

Zus isn’t the first company to try to start an AWS for healthcare, and in fact there are numerous companies that all work on the different services that Zus wants to one day own, from administrative workflow to patient data retrieval. But, its holistic approach at a time when regulation is changing and investment is booming, along with an experienced founder with the right connections, could prepare it well for what’s to come.

Categories: Business News

Twine raises $3.3M to add networking features to virtual events

2021, June 17 - 10:16pm

Twine, a video chat startup that launched amid the pandemic as a sort of “Zoom for meeting new people,” shifted its focus to online events and, as a result, has now closed on $3.3 million in seed funding. To date, twine’s events customers have included names like Microsoft, Amazon, Forrester and others, and the service is on track to do $1 million in bookings in 2021, the company says.

The new round was led by Moment Ventures, and included participation from Coelius Capital, AltaIR Capital, Mentors Fund, Rosecliff Ventures, AltaClub and Bloom Venture Partners. Clint Chao, founding partner at Moment, will join twine’s board of directors with the round’s close.

The shift into the online events space makes sense, given twine’s co-founders — Lawrence Coburn, Diana Rau and Taylor McLoughlin — hail from DoubleDutch, the mobile events technology provider acquired by Cvent in 2019.

Coburn, previously CEO of DoubleDutch, had been under a non-compete with its acquirer until December 2020, which is one reason why he didn’t first attempt a return to the events space.

The team’s original idea was to help people who were missing out on social connections under COVID lockdowns find a way to meet others and chat online. This early version of twine saw some small amount of traction, as 10% of its users were even willing to pay. But many more were nervous about being connected to random online strangers, twine found.

Image Credits: twine

So the company shifted its focus to the familiar events space, with a specific focus on online events which grew in popularity due to the pandemic. While setting up livestreams, text chats and Q&A has been possible, what’s been missing from many online events was the casual and unexpected networking that used to happen in-person.

“The hardest thing to bring to virtual events was the networking and the serendipity — like the conversations that used to happen in an elevator, in the bar, the lobby — these kinds of things,” explains Coburn. “So we began testing a group space version of twine — bringing twine to existing communities as opposed to trying to build our own, new community. And that showed a lot more legs,” he says.

By January 2021, the new events-focused version of twine was up and running, offering a set of professional networking tools for event owners. Unlike one-to-many or few-to-many video broadcasts, twine connects a small number of people for more intimate conversations.

“We did a lot of research with our customers and users, and beyond five [people in a chat], it turns into a webinar,” notes Coburn, of the limitations on twine’s video chat. In twine, a small handful of people are dropped into a video chat experience — and now, they’re not random online strangers. They’re fellow event attendees. That generally keeps user behavior professional and the conversations productive.

Event owners can use the product for free on twine’s website for small events with up to 30 users, but to scale up any further requires a license. Twine charges on a per attendee basis, where customers buy packs of attendees on a software-as-a-service model.

The company’s customers can then embed twine directly in their own website or add a link that pops open the twine website in a separate browser tab.

Coburn says twine has found a sweet spot with big corporate event programs. The company has around 25 customers, but some of those have already used twine for 10 or 15 events after first testing out the product for something smaller.

“We’re working with five or six of the biggest companies in the world right now,” noted Coburn.

Image Credits: twine

Because the matches are digital, twine can offer other tools like digital “business card” exchanges and analytics and reports for the event hosts and attendees alike.

Despite the cautious return to normal in the U.S., which may see in-person events return in the year ahead, twine believes there’s still a future in online events. Due to the pandemic’s lasting impacts, organizations are likely to adopt a hybrid approach to their events going forward.

“I don’t think there’s ever been an industry that has gone through a 15 months like the events industry just went through,” Coburn says. “These companies went to zero, their revenue went to zero and some of them were coming from hundreds of millions of dollars. So what happened was a digital transformation like the world has never seen,” he adds.

Now, there are tens of thousands of event planners who have gotten really good at tech and online events. And they saw the potential in online, which would sometimes deliver 4x or 5x the attendance of virtual, Coburn points out.

“This is why you see LinkedIn drop $50 million on Hopin,” he says, referring to the recent fundraise for the virtual conference technology business. (The deal was reportedly for less than $50 million). “This is why you see the rounds of funding that are going into Hopin and Bizzabo and Hubilo and all the others. This is the taxi market, pre-Uber.”

Of course, virtual events may end up less concerned with social features when they can offer an in-person experience. And those who want to host online events may be looking for a broader solution than Zoom + twine, for example.

But twine has ideas about what it wants to do next, including asynchronous matchmaking, which could end up being more valuable as it could lead to better matches since it wouldn’t be limited to only who’s online now.

With the funding, twine is hiring in sales and customer success, working on accessibility improvements and expanding its platform. To date, twine has raised $4.7 million.

Categories: Business News

Emergence’s Lotti Siniscalco and Retail Zipline’s Melissa Wong will join us on Extra Crunch Live

2021, June 17 - 10:10pm

For all that’s said about fundraising and working alongside investors, rarely do we get to see founders and their investors in candid conversation with one another. Extra Crunch Live is changing that. On the weekly live show, we sit down with founders and the VCs who funded them to talk about how they came together on the deal, what stood out about the other party that led to their commitment and how they operate today. We also (usually) take a walk through their early pitch decks to get a feel for how success starts.

On an upcoming episode of Extra Crunch Live, we’ll sit down with Emergence’s Lotti Siniscalco and Retail Zipline’s Melissa Wong to discuss all that and more. The event goes down on Wednesday, June 23 at 3 p.m. ET/noon PT. You can register to attend right here.

Siniscalco is a principal at Emergence Capital, investing in early-stage enterprise software companies. She currently serves on the board of directors at Whistic and High Alpha. Prior to Emergence, she was an investor in financial services and technology at Advent International, a PE firm, and led diligence for Ribbit Capital (also fintech focused) before that.

In other words, she’s an expert in fintech and can bring a wealth of wisdom to our conversation around fundraising and startup growth.

Melissa Wong, on the other hand, has spent 10 years in retail communications at Old Navy. It was here that she realized a problem that Zipline Retail, a retail communication and store execution platform, could solve and set out on her own venture.

Extra Crunch Live also features the ECL Pitch-off, where startups in the audience can virtually “raise their hand” to pitch their startup live on our stream. Our expert guests will give their feedback on each pitch. If you want to throw your hat in the ring, you have to show up.

Extra Crunch Live is accessible to everyone, but only Extra Crunch members can access the content on demand. We do these every week, so there are scores of episodes across a wide variety of startup sectors in the ECL Library. It’s but one of many reasons to become an Extra Crunch member. Join here.

 

Categories: Business News

Industrial cybersecurity startup Claroty raises $140M in pre-IPO funding round

2021, June 17 - 9:20pm

Claroty, an industrial cybersecurity company that helps customers protect and manage their Internet of Things (IoT) and operational technology (OT) assets, has raised $140 million in its latest, and potentially last round of funding. 

With the new round of Series D funding, co-led by Bessemer Venture and 40 North, the company has now amassed a total of $235 million. Additional strategic investors include LG and I Squared Capital’s ISQ Global InfraTech Fund, with all previous investors — Team8, Rockwell Automation, Siemens, and Schneider Electric — also participating. 

Founded in 2015, the late-stage startup focuses on the industrial side of cybersecurity. Its customers include General Motors, Coca-Cola EuroPacific Partners, and Pfizer, with Claroty helping the pharmaceutical firm to secure its COVID-19 vaccine supply chain. Claroty tells TechCrunch it has seen “significant” customer growth over the past 18 months, largely fueled by the pandemic, with 110% year-over-year net new logo growth and 100% customer retention. 

It will use the newly raised funds to meet this rapidly accelerating global demand for The Claroty Platform, an end-to-end solution that provides visibility into industrial networks and combines secure remote access with continuous monitoring for threats and vulnerabilities. 

“Our mission is to drive visibility, continuity, and resiliency in the industrial economy by delivering the most comprehensive solutions that secure all connected devices within the four walls of an industrial site, including all operational technology (OT), Internet of Things (IoT), and industrial IoT (IIoT) assets,” said Claroty CEO Yaniv Vardi.

To meet this growing demand, the startup is planning to expand into new regions and verticals, including transportation government-owned industries, as well as increase its global headcount. The company, which is based in New York, currently has around 240 employees. 

Claroty hasn’t yet made any acquisitions, though CEO Yaniv Vardi tells TechCrunch that this could be part of the startup’s roadmap going forward.

“We’re waiting for the right opportunity at the right time, but it’s definitely part of the plan as part of the financial runway we just secured,” he said, adding that this latest funding round will likely be the company’s last before it explores a potential IPO.

“We are thinking that this is a pre-IPO funding round,” he said. “The end goal here is to be the market leader for industrial cybersecurity. One of the mascots can be going public with an IPO, but there are different options too, such as SPAC.”

The funding round comes amid a sharp increase in cyber targeting organizations that underpin the world’s critical infrastructure and supply chains. According to a recent survey carried out by Claroty, the majority (53%) of US industrial enterprises have seen an increase in cybersecurity threats since the start of 2020. The survey of 1,110 IT and OT security professionals also found that over half believed their organization is now more of a target for cybercriminals, with 67% having seen cybercriminals use new tactics amid the pandemic. 

“The number of attacks, and impact of these attacks, is increasing significantly, especially in verticals like food, automotive, and critical infrastructure. Vardi said. “That creates a lot of risk assessments public companies had to do, and these risks needed to be addressed with a security solution on the industrial side.”

Your boss might tell you the office is more secure, but it isn’t

Categories: Business News

Nylas, maker of APIs to integrate email and other productivity tools, raises $120M, passes 80K developers

2021, June 17 - 9:13pm

Companies like Stripe and Twilio have put APIs front and center as an effective way to integrate complex functionality that may not be core to your own technology stack but is a necessary part of your wider business. Today, a company that has taken that model to create an effective way to integrate email, calendars and other tools into other apps using APIs is announcing a big round of funding to expand its business.

Nylas, which describes itself as a communications API platform — enabling more automation particularly in business apps by integrating productivity tools through a few lines of code — has raised $120 million in funding, money that it will be using to continue expanding the kinds of APIs that it offers, with a focus in particular not just on productivity apps, but AI and related tools to bring more automation into workflows.

Nylas is not disclosing its valuation, but this is a very significant step up for the company at a time when it is seeing strong traction.

This is more than double what Nylas had raised up to now ($55 million since being founded in 2015), and when it last raised — a $16 million Series B in 2018 — it said it had “thousands of developers” among its users. Now, that number has ballooned to 80,000, with Nylas processing some 1.2 billion API requests each day, working out to 20 terabytes of data, daily. It also said that revenue growth tripled in the last 12 months.

The Series C is bringing a number of interesting names to Nylas’s cap table. New investor Tiger Global Management is leading the round, with previous backers Citi Ventures, Slack Fund, 8VC and Round13 Capital also participating. Other new backers in this round include Owl Rock Capital, a division of Blue Owl; Stripe co-founders Patrick Collison and John Collison; Klarna CEO Sebastian Siemiatkowski; and Tony Fadell.

As with other companies in the so-called API economy, the gap and opportunity that Nylas has identified is that there are a lot of productivity tools that largely exist in their own silos — meaning when a person wants to use them when working in an application, they have to open a separate application to do so. At the same time, building new, say, tools, or building a bridge to integrate an existing application, can be time-consuming and complex.

Nylas first identified this issue with email. An integration to make it easier to use email and the data housed in it — which works with emails from major providers like Microsoft and Google, as well as other services built with the IMAP protocol — in other apps picked up a lot of followers, leading the company to expand into other areas that today include scheduling and calendaring, a neural API to build in tools like sentiment analysis or productivity or workflow automation; and security integrations to streamline the Google OAuth security review process (used for example in an app geared at developers).

“The fundamental shift towards digital communications and connectivity has resulted in companies across all industries increasingly leaning on developers to solve critical business challenges and build unique and engaging products and experiences. As a result, APIs have become core to modern software development and digital transformation,” Gleb Polyakov, co-founder and CEO of Nylas, said in statement.

“Through our suite of powerful APIs, we’re arming developers with the tools and applications needed to meet customer and market needs faster, create competitive differentiation through powerful and customized user experiences, and generate operational ROI through more productive and intelligently automated processes and development cycles. We’re thrilled to continue advancing our mission to make the world more productive and are honored to have the backing of distinguished investors and entrepreneurs.”

Indeed, the rise of Nylas and the function it fulfills is part of a bigger shift we’ve seen in businesses overall: as organizations become more digitized and use more cloud-based apps to get work done, developers have emerged as key mechanics to help that machine run. A bigger emphasis on APIs to integrate services together is part of their much-used toolkit, one of the defining reasons for investors backing Nylas today.

“Companies are rapidly adopting APIs as a way to automate productivity and find new and innovative ways to support modern work and collaboration,” said John Curtius, a partner at Tiger, in a statement. “This trend has become critical to creating frictionless and meaningful data-driven communications that power digital transformation. We believe Nylas is uniquely positioned to lead the future of the API economy.” Curtius is joining the board with this round.

Corrected to note that Blue Owl is not connected to State Farm.

Categories: Business News

Internxt gets $1M to be ‘the Coinbase of decentralized storage’

2021, June 17 - 9:12pm

Valencia-based startup Internxt has been quietly working on an ambitious plan to make decentralized cloud storage massively accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

It’s just bagged $1M in seed funding led by Angels Capital, a European VC fund owned by Juan Roig (aka Spain’s richest grocer and second wealthiest billionaire), and Miami-based The Venture City. It had previously raised around half a million dollars via a token sale to help fund early development.

The seed funds will be put towards its next phase of growth — its month-to-month growth rate is 30% and it tells us it’s confident it can at least sustain that — including planning a big boost to headcount so it can accelerate product development.

The Spanish startup has spent most of its short life to date developing a decentralized infrastructure that it argues is both inherently more secure and more private than mainstream cloud-based apps (such as those offered by tech giants like Google).

This is because files are not only encrypted in a way that means it cannot access your data but information is also stored in a highly decentralized way, split into tiny shards which are then distributed across multiple storage locations, with users of the network contributing storage space (and being recompensed for providing that capacity with — you guessed it — crypto).

“It’s a distributed architecture, we’ve got servers all over the world,” explains founder and CEO Fran Villalba Segarra. “We leverage and use the space provided by professionals and individuals. So they connect to our infrastructure and start hosting data shards and we pay them for the data they host — which is also more affordable because we are not going through the traditional route of just renting out a data center and paying them for a fixed amount of space.

“It’s like the Airbnb model or Uber model. We’ve kind of democratized storage.”

Internxt clocked up three years of R&D, beginning in 2017, before launching its first cloud-based apps: Drive (file storage), a year ago — and now Photos (a Google Photos rival).

So far it’s attracting around a million active users without paying any attention to marketing, per Villalba Segarra.

Internxt Mail is the next product in its pipeline — to compete with Gmail and also ProtonMail, a pro-privacy alternative to Google’s freemium webmail client (and for more on why it believes it can offer an edge there read on).

Internxt Send (file transfer) is another product billed as coming soon.

“We’re working on a G-Suite alternative to make sure we’re at the level of Google when it comes to competing with them,” he adds.

The issue Internxt’s architecture is designed to solve is that files which are stored in just one place are vulnerable to being accessed by others. Whether that’s the storage provider itself (who may, like Google, have a privacy-hostile business model based on mining users’ data); or hackers/third parties who manage to break the provider’s security — and can thus grab and/or otherwise interfere with your files.

Security risks when networks are compromised can include ransomeware attacks — which have been on an uptick in recent years — whereby attackers that have penetrated a network and gained access to stored files then hold the information to ransom by walling off the rightful owner’s access (typically by applying their own layer of encryption and demanding payment to unlock the data).

The core conviction driving Internxt’s decentralization push is that files sitting whole on a server or hard drive are sitting ducks.

Its answer to that problem is an alternative file storage infrastructure that combines zero access encryption and decentralization — meaning files are sharded, distributed and mirrored across multiple storage locations, making them highly resilient against storage failures or indeed hack attacks and snooping.

The approach ameliorates cloud service provider-based privacy concerns because Internxt itself cannot access user data.

To make money its business model is simple, tiered subscriptions: With (currently) one plan covering all its existing and planned services — based on how much data you need. (It is also freemium, with the first 10GB being free.)

Internxt is by no means the first to see key user value in rethinking core Internet architecture.

Scotland’s MaidSafe has been trying to build an alternative decentralized Internet for well over a decade at this point — only starting alpha testing its alt network (aka, the Safe Network) back in 2016, after ten years of testing. Its long term mission to reinvent the Internet continues.

Another (slightly less veteran) competitor in the decentralized cloud storage space is Storj, which is targeting enterprise users. There’s also Filecoin and Sia — both also part of the newer wave of blockchain startups that sprung up after Bitcoin sparked entrepreneurial interest in cryptocurrencies and blockchain/decentralization.

How, then, is what Internxt’s doing different to these rival decentralized storage plays — all of which have been at this complex coal face for longer?

“We’re the only European based startup that’s doing this [except for MaidSafe, although it’s UK not EU based],” says Villalba Segarra, arguing that the European Union’s legal regime around data protection and privacy lends it an advantage vs U.S. competitors. “All the others, Storj, plus Sia, Filecoin… they’re all US-based companies as far as I’m aware.”

The other major differentiating factor he highlights is usability — arguing that the aforementioned competitors have been “built by developers for developers”. Whereas he says Internxt’s goal is be the equivalent of ‘Coinbase for decentralized storage’; aka, it wants to make a very complex technology highly accessible to non-technical Internet users.

“It’s a huge technology but in the blockchain space we see this all the time — where there’s huge potential but it’s very hard to use,” he tells TechCrunch. “That’s essentially what Coinbase is also trying to do — bringing blockchain to users, making it easier to use, easier to invest in cryptocurrency etc. So that’s what we’re trying to do at Internxt as well, bringing blockchain for cloud storage to the people. Making it easy to use with a very easy to use interface and so forth.

“It’s the only service in the distributed cloud space that’s actually usable — that’s kind of our main differentiating factor from Storj and all these other companies.”

“In terms of infrastructure it’s actually pretty similar to that of Sia or Storj,” he goes on — further likening Internxt’s ‘zero access’ encryption to Proton Drive’s architecture (aka, the file storage product from the makers of end-to-end encrypted email service ProtonMail) — which also relies on client side encryption to give users a robust technical guarantee that the service provider can’t snoop on your stuff. (So you don’t have to just trust the company not to violate your privacy.)

But while it’s also touting zero access encryption (it seems to be using off-the-shelf AES-256 encryption; it says it uses “military grade”, client-side, open source encryption that’s been audited by Spain’s S2 Grupo, a major local cybersecurity firm), Internxt takes the further step of decentralizing the encrypted bits of data too. And that means it can tout added security benefits, per Villalba Segarra.

“On top of that what we do is we fragment data and then distribute it around the world. So essentially what servers host are encrypted data shards — which is much more secure because if a hacker was ever to access one of these servers what they would find is encrypted data shards which are essentially useless. Not even we can access that data.

“So that adds a huge layer of security against hackers or third party [access] in terms of data. And then on top of that we build very nice interfaces with which the user is very used to using — pretty much similar to those of Google… and that also makes us very different from Storj and Sia.”

Storage space for Internxt users’ files is provided by users who are incentivized to offer up their unused capacity to host data shards with micropayments of crypto for doing so. This means capacity could be coming from an individual user connecting to Internxt with just their laptop — or a datacenter company with large amounts of unused storage capacity. (And Villalba Segarra notes that it has a number of data center companies, such as OVH, are connected to its network.)

“We don’t have any direct contracts [for storage provision]… Anyone can connect to our network — so datacenters with available storage space, if they want to make some money on that they can connect to our network. We don’t pay them as much as we would pay them if we went to them through the traditional route,” he says, likening this portion of the approach to how Airbnb has both hosts and guests (or Uber needs drivers and riders).

“We are the platform that connects both parties but we don’t host any data ourselves.”

Internxt uses a reputation system to manage storage providers — to ensure network uptime and quality of service — and also applies blockchain ‘proof of work’ challenges to node operators to make sure they’re actually storing the data they claim.

“Because of the decentralized nature of our architecture we really need to make sure that it hits a certain level of reliability,” he says. “So for that we use blockchain technology… When you’re storing data in your own data center it’s easier in terms of making sure it’s reliable but when you’re storing it in a decentralized architecture it brings a lot of benefits — such as more privacy or it’s also more affordable — but the downside is you need to make sure that for example they’re actually storing data.”

Payments to storage capacity providers are also made via blockchain tech — which Villalba Segarra says is the only way to scale and automate so many micropayments to ~10,000 node operators all over the world.

Discussing the issue of energy costs — given that ‘proof of work’ blockchain-based technologies are facing increased scrutiny over the energy consumption involved in carrying out the calculations — he suggests that Internxt’s decentralized architecture can be more energy efficient than traditional data centers because data shards are more likely to be located nearer to the requesting user — shrinking the energy required to retrieve packets vs always having to do so from a few centralized global locations.

“What we’ve seen in terms of energy consumption is that we’re actually much more energy efficient than a traditional cloud storage service. Why? Think about it, we mirror files and we store them all over the world… It’s actually impossible to access a file from Dropbox that is sent out from [a specific location]. Essentially when you access Dropbox or Google Drive and you download a file they’re going to be sending it out from their data center in Texas or wherever. So there’s a huge data transfer energy consumption there — and people don’t think about it,” he argues.

“Data center energy consumption is already 2%* of the whole world’s energy consumption if I’m not mistaken. So being able to use latency and being able to send your files from [somewhere near the user] — which is also going to be faster, which is all factored into our reputation system — so our algorithms are going to be sending you the files that are closer to you so that we save a lot of energy from that. So if you multiple that by millions of users and millions of terabytes that actually saves a lot of energy consumption and also costs for us.”

What about latency from the user’s point of view? Is there a noticeable lag when they try to upload or retrieve and access files stored on Internxt vs — for example — Google Drive?

Villalba Segarra says being able to store file fragments closer to the user also helps compensate for any lag. But he also confirms there is a bit of a speed difference vs mainstream cloud storage services.

“In terms of upload and download speed we’re pretty close to Google Drive and Dropbox,” he suggests. “Again these companies have been around for over ten years and their services are very well optimized and they’ve got a traditional cloud architecture which is also relatively simpler, easier to build and they’ve got thousands of [employees] so their services are obviously much better than our service in terms of speed and all that. But we’re getting really close to them and we’re working really fast towards bringing our speed [to that level] and also as many features as possible to our architecture and to our services.”

“Essentially how we see it is we’re at the level of Proton Drive or Tresorit in terms of usability,” he adds on the latency point. “And we’re getting really close to Google Drive. But an average user shouldn’t really see much of a difference and, as I said, we’re literally working as hard as possible to make our services as useable as those of Google. But we’re ages ahead of Storj, Sia, MaidSafe and so forth — that’s for sure.”

Internxt is doing all this complex networking with a team of just 20 people currently. But with the new seed funding tucked in its back pocket the plan now is to ramp up hiring over the next few months — so that it can accelerate product development, sustain its growth and keep pushing its competitive edge.

“By the time we do a Series A we should be around 100 people at Internxt,” says Villalba Segarra. “We are already preparing our Series A. We just closed our seed round but because of how fast we’re growing we are already being reached out to by a few other lead VC funds from the US and London.

“It will be a pretty big Series A. Potentially the biggest in Spain… We plan on growing until the Series A at at least a 30% month-to-month rate which is what we’ve been growing up until now.”

He also tells TechCrunch that the intention for the Series A is to do the funding at a $50M valuation.

“We were planning on doing it a year from now because we literally just closed our [seed] round but because of how many VCs are reaching out to us we may actually do it by the end of this year,” he says, adding: “But timeframe isn’t an issue for us. What matters most is being able to reach that minimum valuation.”

*Per the IEA, data centres and data transmission networks each accounted for around 1% of global electricity use in 2019

Storj brings low-cost decentralized cloud storage to the enterprise

Filecoin’s ICO opens today for accredited investors after raising $52M from advisers

Encrypted cloud storage and collaboration company Tresorit secures €11.5M Series B

After a decade of R&D, MaidSafe’s decentralized network opens for alpha testing

Categories: Business News

Hydrosat raises $5M seed round to deliver ground temperature data to customers

2021, June 17 - 9:00pm

A lot of information can be gleaned about a surface area just by taking the ground temperature data. If a crop field is under stress, for example, the ground temperature will be elevated long before there’s any actual indication of the stress on the plant itself, Hydrosat CEO and co-founder Pieter Fossel explained to TechCrunch. Now, with a new $5 million injection in seed funding, he hopes to launch Hydrosat’s first surface temperature analytics product for customers.

The seed round was led by Cultivation Capital’s newly launched Geospatial Technologies Fund with participation by Freeflow Ventures, the Yield Lab, Expon Capital, Techstars, Industrious Ventures, Synovia Capital, and the University of Michigan.

The geospatial data analytics startup, which started at the end of 2017, plans to gather surface temperature data using satellites equipped with thermal infrared sensors. Beyond agricultural data, surface temperature can also provide information about wildfire risk, water stress and drought – all important variables if you believe, as Fossel does, that climate change is already starting to exert forces on the planet.

While ground temperature data is collected by legacy institutions like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), it’s not gathered at a very high frequency – sometimes a specific location’s ground temperature is only read every 16 days or so – or at a high resolution. Hydrosat hopes to fill in those existing data gaps. The company also collects data on other bands, using a multispectral infrared camera, but its primary value proposition is in its thermal data.

The first satellite will head to low-Earth orbit with Loft Orbital on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the second half of 2022. That mission is named after Hydrosat’s former CEO, Jakob van Zyl, who passed away from heart attack about a year ago. Although the launches add a certain flair, Fossel stressed that the company is “a content company and a data company first.”

“We’re also developing some applications that sit on top of that [surface temperature] product that are geared towards crop yield forecasting, drought detection, and irrigation management,” he said. “Because these are all fundamentally driven by water stress and all of those applications are fundamentally enabled by our core product, which is land surface temperature data.”

Hydrosat’s first customers have been governments, in the form of a contract with the ESA and three SBIR contracts with the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense. But through the raise, the company can start to deliver its product to commercial customers, who may include agribusinesses, insurance companies, and even other companies that want to do analytics on top of its collection of ground surface data.

“[Hydrosat] will probably start in agriculture, which is our core focus, but it could branch out across industries, because temperature is a signal of a whole host of activities beyond our focus, which is environment, water, stress, food,” he explained. “Temperature is also a signal of economic activity. There’s a lot of cool use cases for temperature, from kind of a defense and security standpoint, as well.”

Looking to the future, Hydrosat has plans to launch a 16-satellite constellation to enable global monitoring. But that’s only the medium-term focus, Fossel said. The company’s long-term plans could include launching additional satellites, adding additional bands to deepen its data offerings, or building out its analytics layer. “Beyond that, it’s really about providing the underlying data that enables some of these applications in drought, food security, water stress, wildfire, and defense and security,” he added.

Categories: Business News

Unit raises $51M in Accel-led Series B to grow its banking-as-a-service platform

2021, June 17 - 9:00pm

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Every company is a fintech.” 

But these days, that’s becoming more and more true as an increasing number of companies that are not even in the financial services space seek to add a fintech component to their offering.

A group of startups poised to benefit from this shift are those offering banking as a service. One such startup, Unit, has raised $51 million in a Series B round to further its goal of making it possible for companies and fintechs alike to build banking products “in minutes.”

Silicon Valley-based Accel led the round for Unit, bringing the company’s total raised since its 2019 inception to nearly $70 million. Existing backers Better Tomorrow Ventures, Aleph, Flourish Ventures and TLV Partners also participated in the latest financing. 

Unit raises $18.6M to offer banking features as a service

Founders Itai Damti and Doron Somech are no strangers to growing companies. The pair previously co-founded — and bootstrapped — Leverate, a Tel Aviv-based B2B trading tech provider. Unit has dual headquarters in Tel Aviv and New York City.

Damti and Somech founded Unit in late 2019 and spent the first year stealthily building out the platform with the mission of empowering companies to embed financial services into their product, accelerating their time to market. Unit officially launched its platform in late 2020, and over the last three months, it has seen deposit volume grow by more than 300% and new end users by 600% (albeit from a small base).

With its platform, Unit touts, companies in a variety of industries — such as freelance or creator economy and personal financial management, for example — can build financial products directly into their software. This gives them the ability to build and launch next-gen bank accounts, cards, payment and lending products. Customers include Wethos, Lance, Benepass, Moves and Tribevest, among others.

“Our mission is to expand financial access for all and we do it by empowering the next generation of fintech builders,” Damti said. Only about 20% of its customers are what might be considered true fintechs, he said. The remaining 80% are companies that are not but rather want to embed banking as a service into their offering.

Unit, Damti claims, takes what was once “a very expensive and complex process of 18 months” that includes finding and managing a bank relationship, building a compliance team and building a tech stack “that gets you to a competitive banking offering, and turns it into one API and one dashboard that helps companies launch accounts cards, payments and lending within five weeks.”

In conjunction with the funding, Unit is also announcing today a new offering, Unit Go, which it says allows companies to create live bank accounts and issue physical and virtual cards in minutes. Founders and developers can try it out by creating a free account, building in Unit’s live environment and testing their products using real funds. Unit Go is currently in beta and will be available to the public in the fall of 2021. 

The company plans to use its new capital to grow its headcount of 26 and fast-track its Unit Go offering. It also wants to expand its platform into additional financial products, software development kits (SDKs) and integrations. (It’s already integrated with Plaid, for example).

Of course, Unit is not the only startup in the burgeoning banking-as-a-service (BaaS) space. It competes with the likes of Railbank, Treasury Prime and Stripe. Damti believes there are a few things that help differentiate Unit in the increasingly crowded space.

For one, according to Damti, Unit intentionally “put compliance at the front and center of what we do.” As evidence of that, earlier this year, it tapped Amanda Swoverland to serve as its chief compliance officer. 

Secondly, Damti emphasizes that Unit is not a matchmaker or marketplace along the lines of Synctera.

Synctera raises $33M Series A to pair fintechs with banks

“We are acting as a company that connects banks to the tech ecosystem and banks are critical vendors and partners to us, but we see them as a built-in element within Unit, because we believe that the most excellent experience in this ecosystem can only come from software companies,” Damti told TechCrunch. 

And finally, he notes, Unit is technically distinct in that it is actually building a ledger, which Damti describes as “the most critical and sensitive part of the ecosystem.”

By owning the ledger and not delegating, he said, Unit is “able to offer a radically better experience.”

“As far as the transaction environment, the cleanliness of the data that we provide and the fees that our customers are able to control and tweak, owning that ledger piece is super critical for the experience,” Damti said.  

Accel partner Amit Kumar notes that in recent years, the landscape has shifted from hundreds of fintech startups “trying to beat incumbents with slightly better products” to thousands of tech companies trying to launch fintech businesses in their verticals.

“Unit’s strong emphasis on managing compliance addresses the risk typically associated with offering banking services and allows customers to bring these products to market much faster than previously possible,” he told TechCrunch. “Unit is building the platform to power the next generation of fintech.”

Is fintech’s Series A market hot, or just overhyped?

Categories: Business News

Beamery raises $138M at an $800M valuation for its ‘operating system for recruitment’

2021, June 17 - 8:02pm

Online job listings were one of the first things to catch on in the first generation of the internet. But that has, ironically, also meant that some of the most-used digital recruitment services around today are also some of the least evolved in terms of tapping into all of the developments that tech has to offer, leaving the door open for some disruption. Today, one of the startups doing just that is announcing a big round of funding to double down on its growth so far.

Beamery, which has built what it describes as a “talent operating system” — a way to manage sourcing, hiring and retaining of people, plus analyzing the bigger talent picture for an organization, a “talent graph” as Beamery calls it, in an all-in-one, end-to-end service — has raised $138 million, money that it plans to use to continue building out more technology, as well as growing its business, which has been expanding quickly and saw 337% revenue growth year over year in Q4.

The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board (Ontario Teachers’), a prolific tech investor, is leading the round by way of its Teachers’ Innovation Platform (TIP). Other participants in this Series C include several strategic backers who are also using Beamery: Accenture Ventures, EQT Ventures, Index Ventures, M12 (Microsoft’s venture arm) and Workday Ventures (the venture arm of the HR software giant).

Abakar Saidov, co-founder and CEO at London-based Beamery, told TechCrunch in an interview that it is not disclosing valuation, but sources in the know say it’s in the region of $800 million.

The round is coming on the heels of a very strong year for the company.

The “normal” way of doing things in the working world was massively upended with the rise of COVID-19 in early 2020, and within that, recruitment was among one of the most impacted areas. Not only were people applying and interviewing for jobs completely remotely, but in many cases they were getting hired, onboarded and engaged into new jobs without a single face-to-face interaction with a recruiter, manager or colleague.

And that’s before you consider the new set of constraints that HR teams were under in many places: variously, we saw hiring freezes, furloughs, layoffs and budget cuts (often more than one of these per business), and yet work still needed to get done.

All that really paved the way for platforms like Beamery’s — designed not only to be remote-friendly software-as-a-service running in the cloud, but to handle the whole recruiting and talent management process from a single place — to pick up new customers and prove its role as an updated, more user-friendly approach to the task of sourcing and placing talent.

“Traditional HR is very admin-heavy, and when you add in payroll and benefits, the systems that exist are very siloed,” said Saidov in the interview. “The innovation for us has been to move out of that construct and into something that is human, and has a human touch. From a data perspective, we’re creating the underlying system of record for all of the people touching a business. So when you build on top of that, everything looks like a consumer application.”

In the last 12 months, the company said that customers — which are in the area of large enterprises and include COVID vaccine maker AstraZeneca, Autodesk, Nasdaq, several major tech giants and strategic investor Workday — filled 1 million roles through its platform, a figure that includes not just sourcing and placing candidates from outside of an organization’s walls, but also filling roles internally.

The work that Beamery is doing is definitely helping the business not just pull its weight — its last round was a much more modest $28 million, which was raised way back in 2018 — but grow and invest in new services.

The company said it had a year-on-year increase of 462% in jobs posted across its customer base. A year before that (which would have extended into pre-pandemic 2019), the number of candidates pipelined increased by a mere 46%, pointing to acceleration.

Beamery today already offers a pretty wide range of different services.

They include tools to source candidates. This can be done organically by creating your own job boards to be found by anyone curious enough to look, and by leveraging other job boards on other platforms like LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned professional networking platform that counts “Talent Solutions” — i.e. recruitment — as one of its primary business lines. (Recall Microsoft is one of Beamery’s backers.) It also provides tools to create and manage online recruitment events.

Beamery also offers tools to help people get the word out about a role, with a service akin to programmatic advertising (similar to ZipRecruiter) to populate other job boards, or run more targeted executive recruitment searches. It also provides a way for HR teams to create internal recruitment processes, and also run surveys with existing teams to get a better picture of the state of play.

And it has some analytics tools in place to measure how well recruitment drives, retention and other metrics are evolving to help plan what to do in the future.

The big question for me now is how and if Beamery will bring more into that universe. There have been some interesting startups emerging in the wider world of talent IT (if we could call it that) that could be interesting complements to what Beamery already has, or provide a roadmap for what it might try to build itself.

It includes much more extensive work on internal job boards (such as what Gloat has built); digging much deeper into building accurate pictures of who is at the company and what they do (see: ChartHop); or the many services that are building ways of sourcing and connecting with contractors, which are a huge, and growing, part of the talent equation for companies (see: Turing, RemoteDeelPapaya GlobalLattice, Factorial and many others).

Beamery already includes contractors alongside full- and part-time roles that can be filled using its platform, but when it comes to managing those contractors, that’s something that Beamery does not do itself, so that could be one area where it might grow, too.

“The key reason enterprises work with us it to consolidate a bunch of workflows,” Saidov said. “HR hates having different systems and everything becomes easier when things interoperate well.” Employing contractors typically involves three elements: sourcing, management and scheduling, so Beamery will likely approach how it grows in that area by determining which piece might be “super core” the centralization of more data, he added.

Another two likely areas he hinted are on Beamery’s roadmap are assessments — that is, providing tools to recruiters who want to measure the skills of applicants for jobs (another startup-heavy area today) — and tools to help recruiters do their jobs better, whether that involves more native communications tools in video and messaging, as well as Gong-like coaching to help them measure and improve screening and interviewing.

It might also consider developing a version for smaller businesses to use.

Questions investors are happy to see considered, it seems, as they invest in what looks like a winner in the bigger race. TIP’s other investments have included ComplyAdvantage, Epic Games, Graphcore, KRY and SpaceX, a long run in a wide field.

“Leading companies worldwide are prioritising recruitment and retention. They are turning to Beamery for a best-in-class talent solution that can be seamlessly integrated with their business,” said Maggie Fanari, MD for TIP in Emea. “Beamery’s best-in-class approach is already recognized by top-tier companies. I’m excited by the company’s vision of to use technology to support long-term talent growth and build better businesses. Beamery is the first company to bring predictive marketing and data science into recruitment. They are a truly innovative company, building a vision that can shape the future of work — the company fits all the criteria we look for in a TIP investment and more.”

Kry closes $312M Series D after use of its telehealth tools grows 100% yoy

Categories: Business News

Kenyan foodtech startup Kune raises $1M pre-seed for its ready-to-eat meals service

2021, June 17 - 3:00pm

While there has been a wave of innovation in food tech worldwide, it’s still in early days for Africa. There are only a handful of African food-tech startups, and a year and a half’s worth of global pandemic has added a couple to that list.

Kune is one of the most recent food-tech startups, and today, the six-month-old Kenyan-based company is announcing that it has closed a $1 million pre-seed round to launch its on-demand food service in August.

Pan-African venture capital firm Launch Africa Ventures led the pre-seed round. Other investors that took part include Century Oak Capital GmbH and Consonance, with a contribution from ecosystem management firm Pariti

Founded by CEO Robin Reecht in December 2020, Kune delivers freshly made, ready-to-eat meals at arguably affordable prices. When Reetch first came to Kenya from France in November 2020, it wasn’t easy to get affordable ready-to-eat meals.

“After three days of coming into Kenya, I asked where I can get great food at a cheap price, and everybody tell me it’s impossible,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s impossible because either you go to the street and you eat street food, which is really cheap but with not-so-good quality, or you order on Uber Eats, Glovo or Jumia, where you get quality but you have to pay at least $10.”

Reetch noticed a gap in the market and sought to fill it. The next month, he decided to start Kune. The goal? To provide affordable, convenient and tasty meals. It took a week to develop a pilot, and with a ready waitlist of 50 customers in a particular office space, his plans were in motion. Kune sold more than 500 meals ($4 average) and tripled its customer base from 50 to 150.

Customers were particularly excited about the product and Kune raised $50,000 from them to continue operations, Reetch said. After that, however, the orders became too large for the small team that they couldn’t keep up; at one point, it received 50 orders per day. Thus, instead of advancing with a momentum that could break down, the team took a hiatus.

“We had started to mess up the order because, you know, it’s complicated to get food right when you’re just in a small kitchen setting. So I said okay, that there is no point doing that, and the demand is so high and better to do things right.”

The next months were spent restructuring the company, making hires and building a factory to produce 5,000 meals per day. Then, when the company was ready to raise, Reetch said he saw the same enthusiasm from customers and investors. In two months, Kune closed this round, one of the largest in East Africa, and is one of the few non-fintechs to have raised a seven-figure pre-seed round on the continent.

How fintech and serial founders drove African pre-seed investing to new heights in 2020

In a fast-growing and crowded restaurant and food delivery marketplace in Kenya, Kune wants to offer a new way for busy people in Nairobi to access meals by finding a balance between Kibanda pricing (usually referred to as the typical local roadside food shop) and on-demand food delivery prices from global companies.

Kune applies a hybrid model, combining both cloud and dark kitchen concepts. Kune meals are cooked and packaged in its factory and delivered directly to online, retail and corporate customers.

The hybrid model speaks to why Launch Africa cut a check for Kune. And according to the director of the firm, Baljinder Sharma, “leveraging the cloud kitchen model and owning the entire supply chain provides a massive growth and scaling opportunity for Kune Africa.” He added: “We are looking forward to seeing the business take off and grow.”

Kune plans to fully launch in August after its new factory is completed. Per details on its site, the company is promising customers that delivery will be done on an average of 30 minutes daily.

To achieve this, Kune ensures that it owns the entire supply chain, from cooking to packaging to delivery with its own drivers and motorbikes. “Our strategy is to internalize all production and human resources capacities,” he stated. That’s where Kune will put most of the funds to use going forward. In addition to the factory, which costs about 10% of the total investment, Kune will be looking to build a huge team. Reetch tells me that judging by how operations-heavy Kune is, the team size will reach 100 come December.

Once launched, the company will build its own fleet of 100 electric motorcycles by early 2022. In addition, there are plans to hire 100 female drivers.

Currently, Kune showcases three different meals daily: two continental dishes and one foreign meal. In the coming months and quarters, Kune’s offerings will cut across microwavable meals, weight reduction meals and retail meals to target European and U.S. clients. For the latter, Reetch is enthusiastic about exporting the African food culture to Western countries. As someone who travels a lot, the CEO thinks Kenya, unlike other countries, doesn’t have a strong food culture. He references food media like TV shows where various meals and cuisines and tutorings on how to cook food are showcased. Reetch wants Kune to be the go-to for such programs in Kenya.

“In Kenya, we don’t have any culinary show. So we are going to take that position as the culinary major of Kenya, and how do you create this? By creating amazing content, which we plan to do by creating videos and writing articles on how to cook or maybe just food business in general.”

The present and future of food tech investment opportunity

Categories: Business News

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