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Tractable raises $60M at a $1B valuation to make damage appraisals using AI

2021, June 17 - 7:39am

As the insurance industry adjusts to life in the 21st century (heh), an AI startup that has built computer vision tools to enable remote damage appraisals is announcing a significant round of growth funding.

Tractable, which works with automotive insurance companies to let users take and submit photos of damaged cars that are then “read” to make appraisals, has raised $60 million, a Series D that values Tractable at $1 billion, the company said.

Tractable says it works with more than 20 of the top 100 auto insurers in the world, and it has seen sales grow 600% in the last 24 months, which CEO Alex Dalyac told me translates as “well into eight figures of annual revenue.” He also told me that “we would have grown even faster if it weren’t for COVID.” People staying at home meant far fewer people on the roads, and fewer accidents.

Its business today is based mostly around car accident recovery — where users can take pictures using ordinary smartphone cameras, uploading pictures via a mobile web site (not typically an app).

But Tractable’s plan is to use some of the funding to expand deeper into areas adjacent to that: natural disaster recovery (specifically for appraising property damage), and used car appraisals. It will also use the investment to continue building out its technology, specifically to help build out better, AI-based techniques of processing and parsing pictures that are taken on smartphones — by their nature small in size.

Insight Partners and Georgian Partners co-led the round and it brings the total raised by the company to $115 million.

Dalyac, a deep learning researcher by training who co-founded the company with Razvan Ranca and Adrien Cohen, said that the “opportunity” (if you could call an accident that) Tractable has identified and built to fix is that it’s generally time-consuming and stressful to deal with an insurance company when you are also coping with a problem with your car.

And while a new generation of “insurtech” startups have emerged in recent years that are bringing more modern processes into the equation, typically the incumbent major insurance companies — the ones that Tractable targets — have lacked the technology to improve that process.

It’s not unlike the tension between fintech-fuelled neobanks and the incumbent banks, which are now scrambling to invest in more technology to catch up with the times.

Insurtech is hot on both sides of the Atlantic

“Getting into an accident can be anything from a hassle to trauma,” Dalyac said. “It can be devastating, and then the process for recovery is pretty damn slow. You’re dealing with so many touch points with your insurance, so many people that need to come and check things out again. It’s hard to keep track and know when things will truly be back to normal. Our belief is that that whole process can be 10 times faster, thanks to the breakthroughs in image classification.”

That process currently also extends not just to taking pictures for claims, but also to help figure out when a car is beyond repair, in which case which parts can be recycled and reused elsewhere, also using Tractable’s computer vision technology. Dalyac noted that this was a popular enough service in the last year that the company helped recycle as many cars “as Tesla sold in 2019.”

Customers that have integrated with Tractable to date include Geico in the U.S., as well as a large swathe of insurers in Japan, specifically Tokio Marine Nichido, Mitsui Sumitomo, Aioi Nissay Dowa and Sompo. Covéa, the largest auto insurer in France, is also a customer, as is Admiral Seguros, the Spanish entity of U.K.’s Admiral Group, as well as Ageas, a top U.K. insurer.

Japan is the company’s biggest market today Dalyac said — the reason being that it has an aging population, but one that is also very strong on mobile usage: combining those two, “automation is more than a value add; it’s a must have,” Dalyac said. He also added that he thinks the U.S. will overtake Japan as Tractable’s biggest market soon.

The new directions into property and other car applications will also open the door to a wider set of use cases beyond working with insurance providers over time. It will also bring Tractable potentially into new competitive environments. There are other companies that have also identified this opportunity.

For example, Hover, which has built a way to create 3D imagery of homes using ordinary smartphone cameras, is also eyeing ways of selling its tech (originally developed to help make estimates on home repairs) to insurance companies.

For now, however, it sounds like the opportunity is a big enough one that the race is more to meet demand than it is to beat competitors to do so.

Hover secures $60M for 3D imaging to assess and fix properties

“Tractable’s accelerating growth at scale is a testament to the power and differentiation of their applied machine learning system, which continues to improve as more businesses adopt it,” said Lonne Jaffe, MD at Insight Partners and Tractable board member, in a statement. “We’re excited to double down on our partnership with Tractable as they work to help the world recover faster from accidents and disasters that affect hundreds of millions of lives.”

Emily Walsh, partner at Georgian Partners added: “Tractable’s industry-leading computer vision capabilities are continuing to fuel incredible customer ROI and growth for the firm. We’re excited to continue to partner with Tractable as they apply their artificial intelligence capabilities to new, multi-billion dollar market opportunities in the used vehicle and natural disaster recovery industries.”

Categories: Business News

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 leads $140M funding in Vishal Sikka’s Vianai

2021, June 17 - 5:02am

Vianai Systems, an AI startup founded by Vishal Sikka, former chief executive of Indian IT services giant Infosys, said on Wednesday it has raised $140 million in a round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2.

The two-year-old startup said a number of industry luminaries also participated in the new round, which brings its total to-date raise to at least $190 million. The startup raised $50 million in its seed financing round, but there’s no word on the size of its Series A round.

Details about what exactly the Palo Alto-headquartered startup does is unclear. In a press statement, Dr. Vishal Sikka said the startup is building a “better AI platform, one that puts human judgment at the center of systems that bring vast AI capabilities to amplify human potential.” Sikka, 54, resigned from the top role at Infosys in 2017 after months of acrimony between the board and a cohort of founders.

Vianai helps its customers amplify the transformation potential within their organizations using a variety of advanced AI and ML tools with a distinct approach in how it thoughtfully brings together humans with technology. This human-centered approach differentiates Vianai from other platform and product companies and enables its customers to fulfill AI’s true promise,” the startup said.

AI startup investment is on pace for a record year

The startup claims it has already amassed as its customers many of the world’s largest and most respected businesses, including insurance giant Munich Re.

Its investors include Jim Davidson (co-founder of Silver Lake), Henry Kravis and George Roberts (co-founders of KKR), and Jerry Yang (founding partner of AME and co-founder of Yahoo). Dr. Fei-Fei Li (co-director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI) has joined Vianai Systems’ advisory board.

“With the AI revolution underway, we believe Vianai’s human-centered AI platform and products provide global enterprises with operational and customer intelligence to make better business decisions,” said Deep Nishar, senior managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “We are pleased to partner with Dr. Sikka and the Vianai team to support their ambition to fulfill AI’s promise to drive fundamental digital transformations.”

Categories: Business News

To win post-pandemic, startups need remote-first growth teams

2021, June 17 - 3:38am

Growth leaders used to build key relationships across a company while working together in a real-life office. Those relationships could carry over through the pandemic, but let’s say you’re a new company and you’re remote-first.

How do you build this complex collaboration from scratch?

Growth marketer and investor Susan Su tells us that the solution is not just more software tools. In the interview below, she says that after the pandemic, startup founders will need to develop a mentality that places growth at the center of company strategy.

Consultants and agencies can be great additions to this effort, especially if they have previously solved the types of problems you face. (In fact, TechCrunch is asking founders who have worked with growth marketers to share a recommendation in this survey. We’ll use your answers to find more experts to interview.)

Su is currently the head of portfolio strategy for Sound Ventures, previously a growth leader at Stripe and the first hire at Reforge. She also shared a few thoughts on market opportunities after the pandemic in the full interview below. E-commerce is mainstream for good, she says, even as we all try to step away from screens more often. However, many social and mobile sectors are mature, and it’s going to be even harder for startups to compete as real-world activities absorb more time.

Don’t forget: Susan Su will also appear at our Early Stage virtual event on July 8 (and answer questions directly).

How are you seeing startups manage changes in user engagement as more people exit pandemic lockdowns and adjust their daily lives?

As we exit the pandemic, I expect that we’ll see a natural and obvious spike in some consumer activity that will roll up to midsized businesses and enterprises. Just like with the onset of the pandemic, we’ll see uneven results across sectors:

E-commerce boomed during the pandemic but was really an augmentation of an already-accelerating trend toward digital commerce and streamlined logistics. I don’t think we backtrack from e-commerce because habit formation around online shopping has been building for years; we would be backtracking to an age long before 2020, and that’s not going to happen.

New social-mobile experiences also boomed during the pandemic, but there’s still a valid question around whether 15 months or so is enough time to become part of the ingrained infrastructure of daily life. We are living in an age of mature platforms, so every new service is stealing time away from an existing service. As with pre-pandemic growth, their success rests upon fast-accumulating network effects and great, sticky core product experience. Now that we have parks, friends and dinners out calling to us again, it’s a real test of how compelling some of these new value propositions really are, and whether they can continue to demonstrate their relevance in a more hybridized online-offline world.

That said, the pandemic was an enormous constraint on human society and [the] economy, and these kinds of constraints often breed innovation that doesn’t go away. We will evolve, but we can never go back. It sounds cheesy but it’s true.

Some aspects of the pandemic, like remote work, appear to have radically changed certain industries. How will these societal changes impact how the typical startup thinks about growth?

Growth will always be growth — that is, a process of iterative experimentation to identify and solve customer problems, and then scale those solutions in order to reach and convert bigger and bigger audiences. Platform changes like iOS 14 or Facebook’s periodic algorithm adjustments will have a bigger impact in the near term on the technical functioning of growth, and these aren’t specifically pandemic-related.

One area to watch is how growth teams are built and operated. Growth is a horizontal function that touches many different parts of the org, including product, engineering, marketing, comms and design. Many startup teams have already been working with collaboration tools even while they sat in the same office, but growth is about more than just using tools. The most effective growth leaders succeed by building relationships across the organization; it’s like the fable of Stone Soup — you’re creating this meal that will feed everyone, but you also need each person to bring a pinch of salt, or a dash of pepper, or one carrot, and that requires socialization and relationship-building. I’ll be very interested to see how new growth leaders onboard remote-only teams and what approaches they take to this “networking” need within the function.

From the days of growth hacking on social platforms, growth marketing is now an established part of the world. But it’s not necessarily the main expertise of a startup founder, even if it needs to be. So, how should they think about addressing growth marketing in 2021? What are the essentials they should do in their roles?

Every founder needs to have a growth mentality. They don’t need to memorize all the right buttons to push in an ads dashboard, but they need to be familiar and comfortable with the core work of gap-finding. That said, founders are by definition entrepreneurial — their company exists because they saw an opportunity that no one else did, and this is the fundamental work of growth as well.

Founders will fail if they adopt a mentality that someone else can or should do it for them. The founder’s job is to supply ambition and opinions, and then magnetize high-quality talent to come and pull the levers and bring their creative vision to life. There are many people who can do growth marketing — that is, they know how the platforms work, they understand the rules and the playbooks. But there are very few who can come up with truly visionary strategies that change the game altogether — those people become founders, and those companies become household names. So for a founder, I’d say the most important growth work is to continue to know your market and customer better than anyone else in the whole world, have an opinion about what’s missing, and work to bring the best talent to come in alongside you and be a thought partner, not just a button pusher.

Have you worked with a talented individual or agency who helped you find and keep more users?
Respond to our survey and help us find the best startup growth marketers!

With limited resources, how should early-stage companies think about what to focus on?

This is going to depend on the goals of your company. Are you planning to raise money and need to demonstrate certain KPIs? Are you bootstrapping and need to keep the lights on? Resources should always be allocated to the most strategic purposes, with the longest-term view you can afford. For some companies, this could mean forgoing revenue to focus on viral or word-of-mouth-driven user acquisition to demonstrate to future investors that there’s something special here. For other companies, perhaps in lower volume categories like enterprise, it’s about bringing a few strategic logos into the family as a signal to later customers and other stakeholders, including future employees and investors.

One thing that early-stage companies should always be focused on is building a top-shelf employer brand. You will only ever be as good as the talent you attract to your company, and interestingly growth can actually play a role in this. The best designers, engineers and product people are often flowing toward the companies that have the best growth. In that way, it’s a highly strategic role and function.

What do startups continue to get wrong?

You can’t truly outsource growth or any other core function; you can’t tack on customer acquisition after product development. At the end of the day, if you really think about it, all a company is, is a customer-acquisition engine. This needs to be core; wake up every day and think about growth, not just to hit revenue or user KPIs, but to build the company that the best people are clamoring to work at. It’s not about finding someone sufficient to solve your near-term problems; it’s about framing problems in a way that’s so compelling to the most creative, hardest-working people so that they can’t get it out of their heads. Go for talent moonshots, and figure out how to close them. The rest will fall in line from there.

When should a founder feel comfortable getting help from an outside expert or agency?

Anytime. Agencies are great. They are an extension of your talent, and the best agencies aren’t selling you — they have to be sold on your problem because they have their pick of companies just like yours. That’s the agency or outside expert you want to work with, because they’ll have a priceless perspective from the other best-in-class founders and teams they’ve worked with that they can bring to your challenge. Any agency can run Facebook ads (it’s not rocket science), but you want to find the team that’s solved the gnarliest problems for your hero companies. Then you’ll get not just an ads manager, but a teacher.

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Categories: Business News

Yasmin Razavi of Spark Capital will sit in judgment at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021’s Startup Battlefield

2021, June 17 - 12:16am

Joining us onstage as a judge for TechCrunch Disrupt 2021‘s Startup Battlefield will be Yasmin Razavi, general partner at Spark Capital. Her engineering background and fintech chops should make for incisive questions for the founders presenting.

Razavi invests in growth-stage enterprise, fintech and developer companies, but her background is until fairly recently an engineering-focused one. She grew up in Tehran, studied engineering at the University of Toronto and got her MBA at Harvard Business School.

A stint at McKinsey eventually led to being a product manager at Snap, where she built the tech behind the app’s monetization stack. In 2017 she joined Spark, and since then has led investments in Marqueta, Deel, Rapyd, Niantic, Capitolis and Earnin.

We recently had Razavi at Disrupt as a panelist, and of course if you’re an Extra Crunch subscriber you can watch the whole thing here.

Getting to the Growth Stage

“Ultimately anyone who wants to be a shareholder or investor in your business wants to understand the unit economics of your business,” she said during the  panel. “For me, there’s all sorts of fancy metrics being thrown around; ultimately they all come down to what is the unit economics, and what is the payback I can expect when I invest in growth?”

Razavi’s philosophy is go to market and out-execute the competition, then capitalize on that success. Why anyone would want to do the opposite is hard to say, but the point is to move quickly and decisively as early as possible so that making money later is a natural consequence rather than a scramble.

Catch her on the Disrupt stage and grab your ticket to Disrupt 2021 now!

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Categories: Business News

Dear Sophie: Is it possible to expand our startup in the US?

2021, June 17 - 12:09am
Sophie Alcorn Contributor Share on Twitter Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives. More posts by this contributor

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.

Dear Sophie,

My co-founders and I launched a software startup in Iran a few years ago, and I’m happy to say it’s now thriving. We’d like to expand our company in California.

Now that President Joe Biden has eliminated the Muslim ban, is it possible to do that? Is the pandemic still standing in the way? Do you have any suggestions?

— Talented in Tehran

Dear Talented,

Yes, it’s possible! Unfortunately, yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is still making the immigration process a bit challenging, but remember, where there’s a will, there’s most often, in immigration law, a way.

On his first day in office in January, Biden rescinded the ban on visas for many majority-Muslim countries, including Iran. The ban had been in place since 2017 and nearly 42,000 visa applications were denied, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Biden also allowed the bans on the issuance of H-1B, L-1, and J-1 visas and green cards at U.S. embassies and consulates that the previous administration put in place last year to lapse.

That means international startup founders like you and other international talent living outside the United States can start thinking about obtaining these visas and green cards without necessarily requiring exceptions to do so. In a recent podcast episode, I talked about these and other immigration-related changes, as well as those promised by the Biden administration. Take a listen to find out more!

As you probably know, most travelers from Iran are currently not allowed entry into the U.S. because of the COVID-19 travel ban, and most U.S. embassies and consulates are not open for routine visa and green card application processing. Because the United States has not had an embassy or consulate in Iran since the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, you and your co-founders should find out which U.S. embassies or consulates are currently processing routine visa and green card applications — and are in countries that are not on the suspended entry list — and apply there. We’re still waiting for detailed information from the State Department on the equivalent of reparations for individuals who were affected by the Muslim ban.

In addition, I recommend that you consult with an experienced immigration attorney who can help you devise an immigration strategy for yourself, your co-founders and your families based on your personal and professional goals. Now, here are a few options for you to consider.

L-1A visa to open a U.S. office for your startup
Categories: Business News

Introhive raises $100M for AI-powered sales tools to help companies build ‘relationship graphs’

2021, June 16 - 11:25pm

By its nature, sales is one of the most social faces of a business, so it’s no surprise that there are tools being built for sales teams that are tapping into some of the most interesting dynamics of the world of social networking, and that the startups that are doing this most successfully are making a killing.

In the latest example, a startup out of Canada called Introhive — which has built an AI engine that ingests huge amounts of data from across disparate applications to help companies (and specifically anyone in their organization that is selling to someone) to build better “relationship graphs” for target organizations — is announcing $100 million in funding.

Growth equity firm PSG is leading the round, with The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Evergreen Capital and Mavan Capital Partners also participating.

The company is not disclosing valuation but CEO and co-founder Jody Glidden tells me the company is doing well. It has raised about $150 million to date and is doubling revenues every year for the last several with a platform used by large enterprises — PwC, Colliers International, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Plante Moran and Clark Nexsen are a few of them. Typical deployments range between 10,000 and 100,000 seats — it’s not just people with “sales” in their job titles using Introhive — and customer retention is currently at 95%.

The idea for Introhive came as many do to enterprise startup founders: they identify something that doesn’t quite work as they want it to, and then start a new company to try to fix it. In the case of Glidden, he and Stewart Walchli were at RIM (the old parent of BlackBerry), which had acquired a previous startup of theirs called Chalk Media.

Although they had just joined a much bigger company (it was 2008, and BlackBerry was still far from being completely killed off by Google and Apple) Glidden said he was surprised to see how hard it was to tap its vast troves of information to find prospective sales leads.

“We realized there were a whole lot of problems with sales people at RIM not able to hit their revenue numbers,” he recalled, and so they started asking themselves some questions. “Are they bringing in right lead data? Are they able to be as intelligent as they can be?” It took some years — four, exactly — and perhaps the rise of Facebook and its focus on the “social graph,” for them to land on how to articulate the problem. They needed to “unlock relationship graph in CRM,” Glidden said.

And Introhive was the company that they formed in 2012 to address that. The company not only provides a way to better leverage CRM-related data to find the best targets for particular products or services, but it also provides analytics to the team to measure how people are doing, and over time also helps predict “winnability”.

But that was not immediate: It took several years to build out its AI platform, Glidden said, with a lot of trial and error to ensure that the data that Introhive ingested was structured correctly to match up with other information to yield productive information.

“We ran into big problems in the first years because there were so many potential systems to tap into, homegrown or otherwise, for certain info. We effectively spent a lot of time building our own version of MuleSoft to fix that,” he said with a laugh. “But since it’s also something we use for our customers we ended up employing hundreds of engineers to build this underpinning layer to understand it all.”

As a result, it took between four and five years for Introhive to make its own first sale, and in the process the whole company almost went under, he recalled. “It took a long time to get that engine running because if you are automating data that is wrong 35% of the time, you won’t keep your customers.”

The machine is more well-oiled today, of course, and is on a roll to bring in more functions to work off the data trove that it has built.

There is something about the service that reminds me a bit of LinkedIn or ZoomInfo — which you may use in your own work, or come across when Googling someone online for some reason (hey — I’m not asking why here) — for providing some kind of data base/org chart of people connected to a business. But to be very clear, the data that Introhive builds for a customer stays with that customer, and doesn’t go anywhere else.

Glidden says that there are no plans to build any kind of “freemium” version of the service, or one that anyone can tap as a SaaS, but rather to remain focused on helping larger enterprises make better sense of their data and how it can better inform the wider concept of sales.

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

That in itself raises an interesting point about Introhive and business in general. When you consider a company like PwC, there are likely many people who specifically might hold a job title with the word “sales” in it, but just as many whose jobs are predicated on closing deals, consultants and partners for example, who do not, but might just as easily benefit from having better visibility of a “relationship graph” of people connected to buying products at a business they are working with, or want to work with. Sales is more than just about salespeople for many organizations.

And for that reason, you can guess that one interesting aspect of Introhive is if it might evolve these tools over time to tackle other parts of an organization and how it works. Similar to the social graphs of social media, which map out how people can be connected to one another, relationship graphs in the workplace potentially resonate well beyond signing a deal, too. Business intelligence and marketing automation are already in the mix for the company.

“Introhive is on the forefront of helping grow sales and customers through its visionary, AI-powered revenue acceleration platform built for companies of all sizes and complexity. It seamlessly improves business operations across multiple departments by helping teams reduce time on manual inputs and giving them advanced insights on where they can generate more revenue, build more relationships and easily identify what great sales reps are doing that average reps aren’t,” said PSG managing director, Rick Essex. “The team’s acumen and highly capital-efficient model has set the company on a clear path for growth, and we’re proud to partner with them on this journey.”

Categories: Business News

Self-driving trucks startup Kodiak Robotics snags investment, partnership from Bridgestone

2021, June 16 - 11:24pm

Tire-making giant Bridgestone has taken a minority stake in Kodiak Robotics, the Silicon Valley-based startup developing autonomous trucks, as part of a broader partnership to test and develop smart tire technology.

While the terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, Kodiak Robotics co-founder and CEO Don Burnette told TechCrunch that this is a direct financial investment. Bridgestone CTO Nizar Trigui has also joined the Kodiak board as an observer.

The deal involves more than capital. The two companies have also formed a strategic partnership focused on advancing Bridgestone’s tire tech and fleet management system. Kodiak will use Bridgestone’s sensor-laden tires and fleet management system on its self-driving trucks, which are used to carry freight between Dallas and Houston as part of its testing program. The company recently said it is expanding its freight carrying pilots to San Antonio. Kodiak also tests its self-driving trucks — always with a safety operator behind the wheel — in and around Mountain View, California.

Semi-trucks travel 100,000 to 150,000 miles a year, Burnette said, adding that tire integrity and tire monitoring are integral to the safety of trucking, whether they’re driven by a human or computer.

Self-driving truck startup Kodiak partnering with SK Group to expand into Asia

“Safety of an autonomy system ultimately comes down to our ability to manipulate the tires that touch the road when you are accelerating or braking or steering,” Burnette said. “You need to be able to rely on your tires to actually perform the way they are expected to perform, otherwise your safety envelope is not necessarily guaranteed.”

Kodiak will use these smart tires to monitor pressure, temperature and even measure the loads on the wheels, which plays a role in vehicle dynamics and maneuverability. Kodiak will share the data it collects with Bridgestone, which the company can use to improve the chemistry of its tires.

Tire companies like Bridgestone already collect basic information from telematics providers that helps determine where trucks are driven, what types of roads they use as well as tire pressure and temperature. Predictive models are then developed based on that data. Autonomous vehicle companies bring an added value to tire companies, Burnette noted. Kodiak’s self-driving trucks are loaded with sensors of their own, which allows the company to collect massive amounts of driving data that can help Bridgestone understand exactly how its tires are being used.

“Autonomy providers like Kodiak have all of the raw data specifically on how the trucks are being driven,” he said. “We know what the forces are, we know what the steering is, we know what the braking pressures that were being commanded in real time. And so we can gather a wealth of data that has never been previously possible to collect for companies like Bridgestone.”

This allows Bridgestone to build predictive models that will more accurately be able to predict the eventual lifetime and also possibly give warnings to when tires may fail out of field. “And that’s ultimately what Kodiak is really interested in,” Burnette added.

The news follows Kodiak’s announcement in May that it was partnering with South Korean conglomerate SK to explore the possibility of deploying its autonomous vehicle technology in Asia. The ultimate aim of the SK partnership is to sell and distribute Kodiak’s self-driving technology in the region. Kodiak will examine how it can use SK’s products, components and technology for its autonomous system, including artificial intelligence microprocessors and advanced emergency braking systems. Both companies have also agreed to work together to provide fleet management services for customers in Asia.

How autonomous delivery startups are navigating policy, partnerships and post-pandemic operations

Categories: Business News

Wonderschool’s Chris Bennett and investor Marlon Nichols will break down the path to seed-stage funding

2021, June 16 - 11:10pm

Extra Crunch Live is all about helping founders build better venture-backed businesses. Naturally, we do this by having candid conversations with founders and their investors.

On an upcoming episode of Extra Crunch Live, we’ll sit down with MaC Venture Capital founding managing partner Marlon Nichols and Wonderschool co-founder and CEO Chris Bennett. REGISTER HERE FOR FREE!

Not only will we discuss how they came together for Wonderschool’s seed round in 2017, but how that translated into what has become a total of $24 million in funding from VCs like a16z and First Round Capital.

We’ll also host the Extra Crunch Live Pitch-off, where folks in the audience can pitch their startup to Nichols and Bennett to get their live feedback.

Nichols is a former Kauffman Fellow and Investment Director at Intel Capital. His portfolio includes Gimlet Media, MongoDB, Thrive Market, PlayVS, Fair, LISNR, Mayvenn, Blavity and Wonderschool. Nichols knows more than most of us will ever learn about seed-stage fundraising, and even gave a chat at TechCrunch Early Stage in April that outlines four strategies for securing seed funding.

Four strategies for getting attention from investors

We’ll get even deeper on that subject with Nichols, and hear the perspective from the other side of the table with Bennett.

Wonderschool is a network of early childhood programs that combine the quality of top-notch early education with an in-home setting.

Bennett can talk extensively on edtech as a sector, and we’ll pick both his and Nichols’ mind on that fast-growing space.

Don’t forget that this episode will feature an Extra Crunch Live Pitch-off, so founders in the audience should be ready to “raise their hand” and get in the mix.

The episode goes down on Wednesday, June 16 at 3 p.m. ET/noon PT. Extra Crunch Live is accessible to anyone who wants to attend, but on-demand access to the content, including the entire library of ECL episodes, is reserved exclusively for Extra Crunch members. Join now to check out what Aileen Lee, Roelof Botha, Mark Cuban and more had to say on earlier episodes of ECL. 

You can register for this episode of Extra Crunch Live, with MaC Venture Capital and Wonderschool, right here.

Categories: Business News

Honey Insurance launches with $15.5M AUD, the largest seed round ever for an Australian tech startup

2021, June 16 - 11:00pm

When Richard Joffe moved his family to Australia in 2019, he said applying for home insurance “was like traveling back in time 30 years.”

“I found the sign-up process painful, the fine print was confusing and the insurance company was totally reactive, not proactive. They never contacted me aside from my renewal,” he told TechCrunch. Joffe, who founded parking sensor platform Park Assist and jobs platform in the United States, began researching and found many people in Australia shared the same frustrations. This was the impetus for him to found Honey Insurance, which launches today with $15.5 million AUD (about $11.9 million USD), the largest seed round ever raised by a tech startup in Australia, according to Crunchbase data.

The funding was led by institutional investors RACQ (the insurer that also underwrites Honey Insurance), PEXA, Metricon, ABN Group, Mirvac, AGL, SFG and Apex Capital. Individual investors include Zip founder and global CEO Larry Diamond; Afterpay co-founder and CEO Anthony Eisen; former MEBank CEO Jamie McPhee; former Corelogic CEO Graham Mirabito; Airtasker co-founder and CEO Tim Fung; and former News Corp Australia and Foxtel CEO Peter Tonagh.

The capital will be used on hiring, with plans to fill 80 positions over the next 12 months, and research and development.

As Next Insurance makes its first acquisition, insurtech looks energetic

Honey Insurance is underwritten by RACQ, one of Australia’s largest insurance providers, and offers home, contents and landlord coverage. Customers get $250 AUD worth of smart sensors to monitor for the top three risks to homes: flooding, fire and theft. For example, the sensors look for things like leaky water pipes, smoke and open garage doors. Joffe said half of insurance claims are avoidable and the sensors help prevent incidents. As an incentive, Honey Insurance customers get 8% off their premiums if their sensors are switched on.

The sign-up process for Honey Insurance is also designed to be simple. Joffe said customers can purchase insurance in as little as three minutes and the company avoids using confusing jargon. Over the long-term, Honey Insurance will also use publicly available information and satellite data to automatically update policies if a customer makes changes to their home, like a new extension or pool.

Joffe said another problem in Australia is underinsurance, which affects about four out of five Australians. Last year, 183,000 home claims were declined or withdrawn, and the average claim size was $8,400, up 16% from the year before. As a result, each year customers need to pay a total of $1.5 billion out of pocket.

To address underinsurance, Honey Insurance has taken steps like a 30% safety margin for a customer’s sum insured and four times the usual home office coverage, to the value of $20,000.

“We have far more electronics in our houses than 20 years ago, and we work far more from home than before COVID — it makes sense your insurance policy should take this into account,” Joffe said.

In a statement, David Carter, CEO of RACQ, said, “Investing in Honey Insurance is an opportunity to share in the innovation and increase the scale of our insurance portfolio to benefit our 1.8 million members and their communities.”

Insurtech startups are leveraging rapid growth to raise big money

Categories: Business News

Hybrid events platform Brella raises $10M Series A led by Connected Capital

2021, June 16 - 10:51pm

Hybrid event platform Brella has raised a $10 million Series A funding round led by Connected Capital. Normally used as an offline networking app, Brella pivoted from live events into a virtual event platform after the pandemic hit. The company counts Informa, Marcus Evans, Questex and IQPC as customers

Markus Kauppinen, CEO and founder of Brella, said the company is moving toward “immersive hybrid events that contain both live and virtual components” as the world opens up post-COVID.

Kauppinen said: “Unlike many of our competitors, Brella is squarely focused on capturing the essence of live business events and translating them into an intuitive digital format. We aren’t in the business of impressing event organizers with needlessly long feature-lists: Instead, we provide them with a lean, beautifully designed platform that supercharges the attendee experience using fantastic UX and AI-smart networking.”

The new Brella product is about community building, attendee grouping and unified analytics for virtual and live audiences, he said.

Mathijs Robbens, co-founder and managing partner at Connected Capital, commented: “Brella’s approach to tackling the problems surrounding the event experience has been a breath of fresh air, especially during these uncertain times. The growth of the company, their agility and ability to turn the most insurmountable challenges into new opportunities is truly exceptional — we are thrilled to be a part of their next act as they strive to help the event industry embrace technology in the long-term.”

These best practices maximize the value of your online events

Categories: Business News

Bringg nabs $100M at a $1B valuation for a last-mile delivery platform for retailers

2021, June 16 - 9:37pm

With many consumers making the switch to online shopping in the last year due to COVID-19 and largely staying active on those platforms even after physical shops and the freedom to move about them have been restored, companies that are enabling those services are continuing to see a lot of business and attention. In the latest development, Bringg, which has built software to help retailers with last-mile logistics — specifically to manage, and in some cases even tap, people fulfilling deliveries — has raised $100 million in a Series E round of funding.

The money is coming about a year after its last round — a $30 million Series D — and Bringg has confirmed that the funding values the company at $1 billion — representing a hike of about 4x on its previous valuation. Part of the reason for that has been the company’s strong growth of 180% in new customers over the last year, a high watermark for delivery services, given the pandemic.

Insight Partners is leading this round, and Salesforce Ventures, Viola Growth, Next 47, Pereg Ventures, Harlap, GLP and Cambridge Capital — all previous backers — are also investing.

Guy Bloch, Bringg’s CEO, said in an interview that the funding will be used both to continue growing Bringg’s customer base, but also the company’s capabilities, and also likely for acquisitions to consolidate some of the links that go into the logistics and fulfillment chain.

Bringg has to date focused on the last mile — a critical area for retailers, commonly accounting for 30-40% of the total cost of delivering an item — but Bloch believes there are other parts of the system that it could tackle alongside that.

“The aim is to perfect the customer experience,” he said of the company’s strategy. “It’s not just the last mile but the middle mile. We have so many examples of that.” It’s also building out more options for its customers, including wider flexibility around delivery in-store, “greener” deliveries bundling several orders in one area and more.

The company counts a number of huge companies among its list of current customers. They include Walmart, Albertsons, Co-Op in the U.K., Coca-Cola and Panera.

With them and others, Bringg’s opportunity is a wide one. While some retailers, particularly larger ones, are “insourcing” in Bloch’s words, and building large operations to fulfill their own and third-party orders themselves, others — especially smaller companies — are looking for options of clicking into existing infrastructure, with not just logistics software, but perhaps even networks of delivery people to move their products. But in addition to that are the types of companies that Bringg is helping, a swathe of retailers that include not just groceries and goods, but ready-made food from restaurants and much more.

“We have amassed a large connected network over the years, millions of drivers,” said Bloch. “Every time we take on a new brand, it looks into our delivery hub and can see different variations depending on locations.” This enables customers to take blended offerings, too, to fill in gaps where they may lack their own people.

In that regard, Salesforce is a strategic backer here: As the CRM giant has grown, it’s extended its reach into providing a lot of different tools to its business customers, including e-commerce tools and management systems. Bringg is being integrated into that as part of its efforts to help businesses run their businesses.

Bringg is not the only company looking to build services to help other retailers jump into the new world of commerce. Others include the likes of Ocado, and of course Amazon and its vast network targeting businesses, and more. It’s an interesting company in the mix, however, simply for being completely neutral in the equation, with no direct to consumer services of its own.

“It’s clear to us that Bringg is building something special and we’re excited to partner with them as they continue to introduce transformative change for retailers and logistics partners,” said Jeff Horing, co-founder and managing director at Insight Partners, in a statement. “With Guy’s experience and leadership and a growing list of marquee customers, we’re confident that Bringg will continue to pave the way as the clear leader in the space.”

Looking forward, although Bringg will be looking to make acquisitions, Bloch said that the startup is “not entertaining” acquisition offers itself.

“My goal is to build a lasting company,” he said. “Companies need our urgent help to do a job.”

Delivery Hero CEO shares what he’s learned about managing logistics during a pandemic

Categories: Business News

BrowserStack valued at $4 billion in $200 million BOND-led funding

2021, June 16 - 9:00pm

Yet another SaaS startup, which began its journey in India, has attained the much-coveted unicorn status. BrowserStack, a startup that operates a giant software testing platform, said on Wednesday it has raised $200 million in a new financing round that valued the 10-year-old firm at $4 billion.

BOND led the Dublin and San Francisco-headquartered startup’s Series B financing round, while Insight Partners and existing investor Accel participated in it. BrowserStack, which for the first six years of its journey didn’t raise any money and remains profitable, has raised $250 million to date.

As companies move to rapid development cycles they often don’t have the time to perform adequate testing. For instance, say Google is working to launch a new mobile app. The search giant will want to test the new app on thousands — if not tens of thousands — of different mobile devices.

At present, even a company the size of Google will find it cumbersome to secure, store and maintain all those test devices. That’s where BrowserStack comes into play.

The startup has 15 data centers across the world and a repository of over 2,000 devices. BrowserStack, which began its journey in Mumbai, licenses its service to firms to let them remotely test their apps and websites on its devices, explained Nakul Aggarwal, co-founder and CTO of BrowserStack, in an interview with TechCrunch.

For SaaS startups, differentiation is an iterative process

“Our mission has always been to help engineers build amazing products for their customers. Whenever they are developing an app or a website they have to ensure that it works across the fragmented ecosystem,” said Aggarwal, referring to various kinds of mobile devices, tablets, TVs, wearables and other platforms. “We are ensuring that engineers don’t have to worry about building their own in-house labs for devices.”

Google is not a hypothetical example. The Android-maker along with giants including Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter, Tesco, Ikea, Spotify, Expedia and Trivago are among over 50,000 customers of BrowserStack. Over 60% of BrowserStack’s customers today are in the U.S.

BrowserStack founders Nakul Aggarwal and Ritesh Arora (Image: BrowserStack)

“As software continues to rewire everything, the bar on speed and quality continues to rise, and testing software across the expanding number of browsers and devices is a huge and expensive challenge for development teams to manage on their own,” said Jay Simons, general partner at BOND, in a statement.

“BrowserStack makes this simple and cost-effective, giving developers instant access to the widest range of browser and device configurations to test their applications. This product is an absolute boon for today’s web and app developers.”

It wasn’t until early 2018 when BrowserStack, which bootstrapped its way to profitability, first raised capital from an investor. Aggarwal said the founding team’s previous failed ventures made them more disciplined about money and it wasn’t until BrowserStack had assumed the market-leading position and began scaling to new markets that it started to explore outside capital.

Aggarwal said BrowserStack wants to become the testing infrastructure of the internet and the new funds will help achieve that. “Every pull request that is getting raise, we want to become the infrastructure where it is getting tested,” he said. The startup, which recently acquired visual testing and review platform Percy, is open to more acquisition and acquihire opportunities.

Messaging platform Gupshup raises $100 million at $1.4 billion valuation

“Our recent acquisition of Percy, a visual testing platform, was just the start. We will accelerate the rate at which we take new products to market through acquisitions and investment in our Product and Engineering teams. We want to achieve our vision of becoming the testing infrastructure for the internet,” said Ritesh Arora, co-founder and chief executive of BrowserStack.

BrowserStack joins a number of SaaS startups — including Chargebee and Gupshup — that began their journey in India and became a unicorn this year.

Categories: Business News

Gloat raises $57M to reinvent the internal job board

2021, June 16 - 8:00pm

A lot of the focus in recruitment these days has been on better technology to connect people to job opportunities at new organizations, but that also leaves a wide opening to focus on one of the other big funnels for finding work: internal transfers. Today, a startup that is building tools to improve that experience is announcing a big round of funding to expand its business.

Gloat, which has built an AI-based platform that it sells to organizations to power their internal job boards, has picked up $57 million in funding, money that it will be using to continue business development, as well as to continue adding more features to its own platform, for example to expand deeper into openings for contractors and to open up more opportunities for secondments at other businesses, and to extend into front-line positions alongside the knowledge worker roles for which the AI is currently optimized — in short, to improve career agility for people embedded at, and valued by, an organization, who may want to explore opportunities there instead of, or even alongside, looking elsewhere.

Accel is leading this Series C round, with previous backers Eight Roads Ventures (backed by Fidelity), Intel Capital, Magma Venture Partners and PICO Partners also participating.

Gloat is not (ahem) gloating about its valuation, but we understand that it is in the region of around $400 million (but note, it’s a wide region, so might be as low as $300 million or as high as $500 million: we’ll update when and if we learn more). The Tel Aviv-based startup has raised $92 million to date and counts big companies like Unilever, Pepsi, MetLife, HSBC and ADP among its customers.

Ben Reuveni, Gloat’s CEO who co-founded the business with Amichai Schreiber and Danny Shteinberg, said he got the idea for the company while working as an engineer focusing on storage at IBM after IBM acquired a smaller company where he was working. This was his first job after spending time in Israel’s IDF, and so after six years of working first for the startup and then IBM in effectively a similar role, he had itchy feet and wanted to do more.

But the problem, he said, was that although IBM did have internal job boards, it was hard to see how his expertise mapped on to the opportunities that were available. And that is before you consider the interface or any of the other aspects of user experience of using these tools. On top of this, when you are considering large enterprises the size of IBM, chances are that they are not focusing too much on individualized career development or talent retention for most people at the lower end of the wider pay scale.

“I really had only two options available to me,” he said. “Look for new jobs outside the company, or try to look internally. The fact was that exploring outside was easier than looking internally.”

It turns out that his experience was not unique. Internal job boards, he said, typically have atrocious engagement, in the single-digit percentage of staff.

Poor onboarding is the enemy of good hiring

Reuveni eventually did move on from IBM — to start Gloat. The company’s central premise is to build a job board tool that it sells to bigger enterprises — the kind that employ thousands of people and already have job boards — so that they can better hold on to talent rather than losing it to others because they — the employee and the employer — haven’t found the right role for a particular person who wants to switch gears.

It does this first of all by way of making the barrier to using Gloat very low: it initially can be integrated with whatever recruiting software or tools that an organization might already be using to source and internally advertise their job openings, which it then channels through its system and algorithm.

Secondly, it starts to build profiles not just of jobs, but of people in the organization and the skills that they have to match with those jobs. That is to say, Gloat’s taken what has typically been a very one-sided, and one-directional effort and turned it into one that goes both ways. To source information on employees — who can signal to Gloat that they would like to look for new opportunities — it looks at employment records, resumes, LinkedIn profiles and perhaps a little input from the employee directly: all of this is ingested into its AI to help match a person to openings.

In cases where those skills are not quite right for what an employee wants to do, they get guidance on what they need to learn, and might also get options for “part-time” work within the organization where they can pick up experience they may still lack. (This is not unlike the career development tools that LinkedIn has built to bolster job hunting on its platform.)

Meanwhile, the department looking for a new person is getting sent referrals through the system, but it can also proactively use the Gloat database to find people to tap.

All of this is interesting, but it leaves out a tricky variable, in the form of a manager.

Fear and liability in algorithmic hiring 

What if you are working in a tense environment or simply don’t get along with the person to whom you directly report? Or what if the manager is possessive and doesn’t want to encourage you to leave? Considering that management is often evaluated not just on their own performance but on how well their teams do, it can be a risk to lose someone good.

Gloat’s system requires managers to endorse a worker as part of the process, so while some might be genuinely happy to see people they value continue to go upwards and onwards, couldn’t that also blow up this whole system in a bad way in those other cases?

Reuveni brushed that scenario aside when I brought it up, describing Gloat as a “win-win situation” for managers, too, who will be motivated to help because the platform helps them find the right replacements. “Every manager can open a part-time project or internal job with their product,” he said.

I’m not fully convinced that may always be the case. But on the other hand, if you’re in a tough situation in your current placement, maybe looking at other organizations, or just using the more standard job board approach (which remains active, from what I understand), both would be better options anyway.

In the meantime, the company is looking to keep stretching the concept of “internal hires” into a much wider set of circumstances.

That will include providing openings to existing contractors looking for new contract roles when their current assignments end; or moving from a company to a similar role at another organization, as long as it’s non-competitive with your current employer (something that also comes up, Reuveni said, when a company is conducting a mass restructuring and is attempting to help affected employees find jobs elsewhere); or providing more analytics to HR teams, managers and other higher-ups who want a better look at the state of talent at their companies.

With talent retention and brain drain continuing to be big issues in a number of industries, it seems like a ripe time to address all of that.

“As companies are adapting their workforces to be more flexible and take advantage of remote workers, new tools are needed to optimise productivity and ensure equality of opportunities,” said Philippe Botteri, partner at Accel, in a statement. “Gloat pioneered the Talent Marketplace to solve that, and it’s now becoming a strategic tool for global enterprises. Some of the world’s largest, most forward-looking companies are benefiting from the workforce agility enabled by Gloat’s AI-powered platform. The Accel team is looking forward to partnering with Gloat on the next stage of its journey, bringing this fundamentally new way of developing talent and managing work to every global enterprise.”

Categories: Business News

Denmark’s Templafy raises $60M for its B2B SaaS platform that does business document creation

2021, June 16 - 5:00pm

Templafy, a Denmark-born B2B SaaS platform that does business document creation, has raised a $60 million D round of funding led by Blue Cloud Ventures. All previous investors also participated, including Insight Partners, Seed Capital, Dawn Capital and Damgaard Company. Templafy has now raised a total of $125 million.

To some extent, Templafy competes with PandaDoc. However, founder Christian Lund, told me: “The platform that we’ve built is very enterprise focused, so it is agnostic to use case. It’s really about helping employees produce pretty much any type of business document or content that they need to have, allow them to start from any application where they work. It might be Office or Google but it could also be Salesforce or Teams or Slack. Others are very vertically focused against particular use cases, for example around sales. We are horizontally focused and helping out on a series of use cases across large enterprises.”

Mir Arif, managing partner at Blue Cloud Ventures said: “Templafy is solving an all-too-common, yet frequently overlooked problem for organizations: disconnected content. While the term may be new, the problem itself is not. When company content isn’t integrated to the applications where employees work, organizations experience disconnected content which can cause several damaging issues including loss of compliance, a drag on efficiency and ultimately a negative impact on business performance. The ambition to solve disconnected content for all enterprises combined with a ripe market, an operationally strong team and a powerful, user-friendly platform makes Templafy an exemplary partner.”

Templafy’s Series C round of $25 million was 14 months ago.

For SaaS startups, differentiation is an iterative process

Categories: Business News

Early-stage venture firm The Fund launches in Australia

2021, June 16 - 11:19am

The Fund Australia’s team (l to r): Elicia McDonald, Adrian Petersen, Georgia Vidler, Ed Taylor and Todd Deacon

The Fund, the early-stage investment firm focused on pre-seed and seed startups, is going Down Under for its latest expansion. The Fund was founded in New York in 2018, before launching in Los Angeles, London, the Rockies and the Midwest, too.

Co-founder Jenny Fielding, who is also managing director at Techstars New York, said The Fund decides on new areas for expansion based on demand from the local startup ecosystem, and earlier this year, it heard from a group of founders and operators who wanted to launch it in Australia, too.

In addition to participating in first check rounds, The Fund also builds communities of founders and other leaders from successful startups, who not only provide mentorship, but also capital as limited partners. The Fund now has a network of about 400 founders and has made around 120 investments across its funds.

Early-stage investor The Fund expands beyond NYC with new partners in LA and London

In each of its regions, The Fund is led by an investment committee of four people. In Australia, they are: Techstars managing director Todd Deacon; venture firm AirTree principal Elicia McDonald; AfterWorks Ventures co-founder Adrian Petersen; and former Canva head of product Georgia Vidler. There will be 50 people in The Fund Australia’s limited partner base, including founders of startups like Culture Amp’s Rod Hamilton, Linktree’s Alex Zaccaria, Adore Beauty’s Kate Morris, and leaders from Canva and Safety Culture, too. The Fund Australia’s LPs will help source promising startups from their networks, and refer them to the investment committee for review.

The Fund is targeting $3.5 million USD and will invest in about 40 startups, writing check sizes of $50,000 to $100,000 USD over 24 months. Limited partners and other members of its community around the world will provide guidance as portfolio companies grow.

Canva raises $60 million on a $6 billion valuation

Deacon told TechCrunch that The Fund Australia’s focus on very early-stage startups is important because of the growing pre-seed/seed funding gap. He points to a report by StartupAus, an advocacy group for Australian startups, that angel and seed investment in Australia has fallen over the past few years, both in terms of number of deals and aggregate value.

The Fund’s hypothesis is that many early-stage funds, in Australia and other parts of the world, shift their focus to later stages as they raise larger funds, Deacon added. This happened in New York City, too, and was one of the contributing drivers for the creation of The Fund in the first place.

“There’s been this gap in early-stage funding. There’s those two points of building a really strong community—helping founders and then the funding gap, which we can help to solve to a certain degree. We’re bringing in checks in the early stage with a lot of power in providing founders access to that network,” he said.

Writing early checks lets The Fund see deal flow before other venture firms and limited partners, and small check sizes gives it an advantage with startups.

“We don’t take a huge proportion of their raise, yet we come with really high quality capital,” said Deacon. “We’ve got that investor network. For why some of our [LPs] are interested, it’s to generate a return, but they also want to give back and make Australia and New Zealand companies prosper.”

Being able to tap into The Fund’s international network is helpful for startups in Australia, where many companies eye international expansion from the start.

Australian unicorns like Atlassian and Canva are also helping strengthen Australia’s startup ecosystem, said Vidler. “It feels like an inflection point for me in the startup ecosystem, where now there’s all these original founders and a community of senior operators who are keen to give back and create and bolster the ecosystem here.”

The Fund Australia is sector agnostic and wants to create a diverse portfolio. The Fund has focused on gender parity since the start. Each region’s investment committee is comprised of two men and two women, about half of its LPs are women and over 40% of its total capital has gone to female founders. Vidler says this was a major draw for her.

“The pull for me, and I think for a big part of the network in Australia, and a lot of women in tech in Australia, is that they’re going to be super interested in investing in the next generation of female founders as well,” she said.

Every early-stage startup must identify and evaluate a strategic advantage

Categories: Business News

EV battery swapping startup Ample charges up operations in Japan, NYC

2021, June 16 - 9:39am

EV battery swapping startup Ample has locked in two partnerships this month that will help fuel an expansion into Japan and New York City after years of working on the technology. The startup, which was founded in 2014 and came out of stealth in March, said Tuesday it has partnered with Japanese petroleum and energy company Eneos to jointly deploy and operate battery swapping infrastructure in Japan.

Over the next year, the two companies will pilot Ample’s fully automated swapping technology with a focus on ride-hailing, taxi, municipal, rental and last-mile delivery companies. Ample and Eneos will also evaluate whether swapping stations can offer other uses, such as a backup source of power for the energy grid. It is still early days for the partnership and few details have been disclosed; Ample, for instance didn’t share when the pilot program would begin or where in Japan it would initially launch. However, even with these scant details, Eneos’ interest signals that battery swapping — at least for Ample — is gaining some believers. 

The Eneos announcement comes a few days after Ample launched a separate partnership with Sally, a New York City-based EV rental company for ride-hailing, taxi and last-mile deliveries. Ample and Sally will roll out five to 10 stations in NYC by the fourth quarter of this year, with plans to expand into other markets in 2021, according to Khaled Hassounah, founder and CEO of Ample. 

From the ashes of nearly a billion dollars, Ample resurrects Better Place’s battery swapping business model

Ample’s partnership with Sally will also expand to San Francisco in the next couple of months. Depending on the cost of using both services, this might be an advantageous deal for ride-hailing drivers in California, at least, where the state just decreed 90% of Uber and Lyft drivers must be in EVs by 2030

“The goal is to ultimately make swapping stations as ubiquitous as gas stations,” Hassounah told TechCrunch.

Ample came out of stealth this March with five operational stations in the Bay Area and a partnership with Uber that entails drivers renting vehicles directly from Ample that have been retrofitted with the startup’s battery technology. 

“The Ample architecture is designed to be integrated into any modern electric vehicle,” Levi Tillemann, VP for policy and international outreach at Ample, told TechCrunch. “Unlike a standard electric vehicle, where you have a battery pack that is never meant to be removed from the car, with the Ample system, you replace the battery pack with an adapter plate that essentially shares the exact same dimensions as the OEM designed battery pack. That adapter plate is the architecture that allows for battery swap.”

Ample’s standardized battery modules work with every vehicle that has been configured to run on the Ample platform, says Tillemann. With Ample’s partnership with Sally, the company will begin stepping away from running its own fleet, which it essentially launched to prove its business model. The company will work with Sally and probably other fleet and rental companies in the future to make vehicles Ample-enabled.

“Ample’s battery swapping works with any electric vehicle and dramatically reduces the cost and time it takes to install EV infrastructure by being a drop-in replacement for the OEM battery and does not require any modification to the car (either hardware or software),” said Hassounah. 

One of the concerns that puts ride-hailing drivers off switching to EVs is the amount of time it takes to charge a battery. Hassounah says swapping a battery only takes 10 minutes, but that the company aims to reduce that to five minutes by the end of the year. Having a more efficient and seamless process might help ride-hailing drivers and logistics companies make the switch.

Giving EV batteries a second life for sustainability and profit

“Currently, drivers pay 10 cents per mile for swapping services, including energy, and the range varies based on the car model and battery size,” said Hassounah. “The price of the service varies depending on the price of electricity, but our goal is to have it be 10% to 20% cheaper than gas.”

When drivers want to swap a battery, they’ll use Ample’s app to find nearby stations and then initiate the autonomous swap. Each station can serve about five to six cars per hour, but the company expects to be able to serve double that by the end of the year. That said, this also depends on the amount of available power at a given site.

Tillemann says as Ample expands, the company aims to one day work with existing OEM partners to offer consumers the choice of having Ample production plates installed into their new vehicles on the production line.

“Our unit costs are very favorable for the battery swap systems,” he said. “They do not cost a lot to deploy, and that means, with a relatively low number of vehicles our battery swap architecture is economical and profitable.”

Eneos, which previously invested in Ample, according to the company, is committed to providing the next generation of energy supply. The company is also exploring hydrogen and recently partnered with Toyota’s Woven City, a futuristic prototype city that’s being built in Japan, to power the metropolis using hydrogen. 

Toyota partners with ENEOS to explore a hydrogen-powered Woven City

Categories: Business News

Apna raises $70 million to help workers in India secure jobs

2021, June 16 - 9:30am

Indian cities are home to hundreds of millions of low-skilled workers who hail from villages in search of work. Many of them have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic that has slowed several economic activities in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Apna, a startup by an Apple alum, is helping millions of such blue and gray-collar workers upskill themselves, find communities and land jobs. On Wednesday it announced its acceptance by the market has helped it raise $70 million in a new financing round as the startup prepares to scale the 16-month-old app across India.

Insight Partners and Tiger Global co-led Apna’s $70 million Series B round, which valued the startup at $570 million. Existing investors Lightspeed India, Sequoia Capital India, Greenoaks Capital and Rocketship VC also participated in the round, which brings Apna’s to-date raise to over $90 million.

The startup, whose name is inspired from a 2019 Bollywood song, at its core is solving the network gap issue for workers. “Someone born in a privileged family goes to the best school, best college and makes acquaintance with influential people. Many born just a few kilometres away are dealt with a whole different kind of life and never see such opportunities,” said Nirmit Parikh, founder and chief executive of Apna, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Apna is building a scalable networking infrastructure, something that doesn’t currently exist in the market, so that these workers can connect to the right employers and secure jobs. “Apna’s focus on digitizing the process of job discovery, application and employer candidate interaction has the potential to revolutionize the hiring process,” said Griffin Schroeder, a partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

The workers in India “already have a champion in them, we are just helping them find opportunities,” said Nirmit Parikh, founder and chief executive of Apna. (Apna)

The startup’s eponymous Android app, available in multiple languages, features more than 70 communities today for skilled professionals such as carpenters, painters, field sales agents and many others.

On the app, users connect to each other and help with leads and share tips to improve at their jobs. The app also offers people the opportunity to upskill themselves, practice with their interview performance, and become eligible for even more jobs. The startup said it’s building Masterclass-like skilling modules, outcome or job based skilling, and also enabling peer-to-peer learning via its vertical communities. It plans to launch career counselling and resume building feature.

And that bet is working. The startup has amassed over 10 million users and just last month it facilitated more than 15 million job interviews, said Parikh. All jobs listed on the Apna platform are verified by the startup and free of cost for the candidates.

Apna has partnered with some of India’s leading public and private organizations and is providing support to the Ministry of Minority Affairs of India, National Skill Development Corporation and UNICEF YuWaah to provide better skilling and job opportunities to candidates.

Apna app (Apna)

More than 100,000 recruiters — including Byju’s, Unacademy, Flipkart, Zomato, Licious, Burger King, Dunzo, Bharti-AXA, Delhivery, Teamlease, G4S Global and Shadowfax — in the country today use Apna’s platform, where they have to spend less than five minutes to post job posts and are connect to hyperlocal candidates with relevant skills in within two days.

Apna has built the “market leading platform for India’s workforce to establish digital professional identity, network, access skills training, and find high quality jobs,” said Nikhil Sachdev, managing director, Insight Partners, in a statement.

“Employers are engaging with Apna at a rapid pace to help find high quality talent with low friction which is leading to best in class customer satisfaction scores. We believe that our investment will enable Apna to continue their steep growth trajectory, scale up their operations, and improve access to opportunities for India’s workforce.”

The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to scale across India and eventually take the app to international markets, said Parikh. Apna, which has recently seen high-profile individuals from firms such as Uber, BCG  and Swiggy join the firm, is also actively hiring for several tech roles in the South Asian market.

Apna has built the infrastructure and brand awareness in the market that it can launch in a new city within two days and drive over 10,000 interviews there in less than two days, it said.

“Our first goal is to restart India’s economy in the next couple of months and do whatever we can to help,” said Parikh, who was part of the iPhone product-operations team at Apple.

Investors race to win early-stage startup deals in India

Categories: Business News

FamPay, a fintech aimed at teens in India, raises $38 million

2021, June 16 - 7:30am

How big is the market in India for a neobank aimed at teenagers? Scores of high-profile investors are backing a startup to find out.

Bangalore-based FamPay said on Wednesday it has raised $38 million in its Series A round led by Elevation Capital. General Catalyst, Rocketship VC, Greenoaks Capital and existing investors Sequoia Capital India, Y Combinator, Global Founders Capital and Venture Highway also participated in the new round, which brings FamPay’s to-date raise to $42.7 million.

The size of the new investment makes it one of the largest Series A rounds in India. TechCrunch reported early this month that FamPay was in talks with Elevation Capital to raise a new round.

Founded by Sambhav Jain and Kush Taneja (pictured above) — both of whom graduated from Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee in 2019 — FamPay enables teenagers to make online and offline payments.

The thesis behind the startup, said Jain in an interview with TechCrunch, is to provide financial literacy to teenagers, who additionally have limited options to open a bank account in India at a young age. Through gamification, the startup said it’s making lessons about money fun for youngsters.

Unlike in the U.S., where it’s common for teenagers to get jobs at restaurants and other places and understand how to handle money at a young age, a similar tradition doesn’t exist in India.

After gathering the consent from parents, FamPay provides teenagers with an app to make online purchases, as well as plastic cards — the only numberless card of its kind in the country — for offline transactions. Parents credit money to their children’s FamPay accounts and get to keep track of high-ticket spendings.

In other markets, including the U.S., a number of startups including Greenlight, Step and Till Financial are chasing to serve the teenagers, but in India, there currently is no startup looking to solve the financial access problem for teenagers, said Mridul Arora, a partner at Elevation Capital, in an interview with TechCrunch.

It could prove to be a good issue to solve — India has the largest adolescent population in the world.

“If you’re able to serve them at a young age, over a course of time, you stand to become their go-to product for a lot of things,” Arora said. “FamPay is serving a population that is very attractive and at the same time underserved.”

The current offerings of FamPay are just the beginning, said Jain. Eventually the startup wishes to provide a range of services and serve as a neobank for youngsters to retain them with the platform forever, he said, though he didn’t wish to share currently what those services might be.

Image Credits: FamPay

Teens represent the “most tech-savvy generation, as they haven’t seen a world without the internet,” he said. “They adapt to technology faster than any other target audience and their first exposure with the internet comes from the likes of Instagram and Netflix. This leads to higher expectations from the products that they prefer to use. We are unique in approaching banking from a whole new lens with our recipe of community and gamification to match the Gen Z vibe.”

“I don’t look at FamPay just as a payments service. If the team is able to execute this, FamPay can become a very powerful gateway product to teenagers in India and their financial life. It can become a neobank, and it also has the opportunity to do something around social, community and commerce,” said Arora.

During their college life, Jain and Taneja collaborated and built an app and worked at a number of startups, including social network ShareChat, logistics firm Rivigo and video streaming service Hotstar. Jain said their work with startups in the early days paved the idea to explore a future in this ecosystem.

Prior to arriving at FamPay, Jain said the duo had thought about several more ideas for a startup. The early days of FamPay were uniquely challenging to the founders, who had to convince their parents about their decision to do a startup rather than joining firms or startups as had most of their peers from college. Until being selected by Y Combinator, Jain said he didn’t even fully understand a cap table and dilutions.

He credited entrepreneurs such as Kunal Shah (founder of CRED) and Amrish Rau (CEO of Pine Labs) for being generous with their time and guidance. They also wrote some of the earliest checks to the startup.

The startup, which has amassed over 2 million registered users, plans to deploy the fresh capital to expand its user base and product offerings, and hire engineers. It is also looking for people to join its leadership team, said Jain.

Investors race to win early-stage startup deals in India

Categories: Business News

Edtech investors are flocking to SaaS guidance counselors

2021, June 16 - 7:15am

ApplyBoard, a startup that helps international students find opportunities to study abroad, announced today that it has nearly doubled its valuation in a little over a year. The Ontario-based company is now worth around $3.2 billion after raising a $300 million Series D round led by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board.

Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases.

ApplyBoard makes money from revenue-sharing agreements with colleges and universities. If a student attends a college after using their services, ApplyBoard receives a cut of the tuition. Meanwhile, the service, which helps students search and apply to schools, is free to use.

Co-founder and CEO Martin Basiri did not share specifics on revenue, but he confirmed that his company is growing its sales at a 400% year-over-year rate in 2021. For context, sales in 2019 hit $300 million, meaning that ApplyBoard is making at least $1.2 billion in sales this year.

These figures violate the prevailing edtech narrative from last year: Higher ed is dead! Students don’t want to attend college anymore. Bring back the gap year, but make it permanent!

Instead, this company is proving that the university tech stack is more lucrative than many assumed, especially if you look beyond content offerings and into back-end marketing support.

My take: Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases.

“Students want a seamless and pain-free application process”

ApplyBoard’s recent fundraising efforts shed a light on its strategy to become, effectively, a tech-savvy guidance counselor for the approximately 200,000 students that it has served to date.

The company raised a $55 million extension round in September to bring on a partner, Education Testing Services (ETS) Strategy Capital, the venture arm of the world’s largest nonprofit education testing and assessment organization. ETS helps administer the TOEFL English-language proficiency test and the GRE graduate admissions test.

The synergies there led ApplyBoard to launch ApplyProof, a service that helps admissions and immigrant officers verify documents that international students need to apply to colleges around the world. Today’s financing event similarly brings in a strategic investor, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

“The demand remains high post-pandemic and we continue to see a strong, pent-up demand from students wishing to study abroad,” Basiri said. “Students want a seamless and pain-free application process and be able to have all the information they need to make an informed decision.”

Categories: Business News

Uberall raises $115M, acquires MomentFeed to scale up its location marketing services

2021, June 16 - 5:00am

Location-based services may have had their day as a salient category for hot apps or innovative tech leveraging the arrival of smartphones, but that’s largely because they are now part of the unspoken fabric of how we interact with digital services every day: We rely on location-specific information when we are on search engines, when we are using maps or weather apps, when we are taking and posting photos and more.

Still, there remain a lot of gaps in how location information links up with accurate information, and so today a company that’s made it its business to address that is announcing some funding as it scales up its service.

Uberall, which works with retailers and other brick-and-mortar operators to help them update and provide more accurate information about themselves across the plethora of apps and other services that consumers use to discover them, is announcing $115 million in funding. Alongside that, the Berlin startup is making an acquisition: it’s buying MomentFeed, a location marketing company based out of Los Angeles, to continue scaling its business.

The funding is being led by London-based investor Bregal Milestone, with Level Equity, United Internet and Uberall management also participating. From what we understand from sources, the funding values Uberall at around $500 million, and the deal for MomentFeed was made for between $50 million and $60 million.

The business combination is building way more scale into the platform: Uberall said that together they will manage the online presence for 1.35 million business locations, making the company the biggest in the field, with customers including the gas station operator BP, KFC, clothes and food chain Marks and Spencer, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.

Florian Hübner, the CEO and co-founder of Uberall, noted in an interview that the companies have quite a lot of overlap, and in fact prior to the deal being made the companies worked together closely in the U.S. market, but all the same, MomentFeed has built some specific technology that will enrich the wider platform, such as a particularly strong tool for measuring sentiment analysis.

“Managing the online presence” is not a company’s website, nor is it its apps, but may nevertheless be its most common digital touchpoints when it comes to actually engaging with consumers online. It includes how those companies appear on local listings services like Yelp or TripAdvisor, or mapping apps like Google’s — which provide not just listings information like addresses and opening hours but also customer reviews — or social apps or location-based advertising. Altogether, when you are considering a company with multiple locations and the multiple touchpoints a consumer might use, it ends up being a complicated mess of places that need to be managed and kept up to date.

“We are the catalyst for this huge ecosystem where we enable the brands to use everything that the other tech platforms are offering in the best possible way,” Hübner told me. The tech platforms, meanwhile, are willing to work with middleware companies like Uberall to make the information on their services more accurate and complete by connecting with businesses when they have not managed to do so directly on their own. (And if you’ve ever been caught out by the wrong opening times on a Google Maps entry, or any other entry or piece of information elsewhere, you know this is an issue.)

And of course expecting any company with potentially hundreds of locations to provide the right details without a tool is also a nonstarter. “Casually updating 100,000 profiles is super hard,” Hübner said.

It also provides services to update information about vaccine and COVID-19 testing clinics, as well as other essential services that also have to contend with the same variations in location, opening hours and customer feedback as any other business on a site like Google Maps.

As the economy reopens, startups are uniquely positioned to recruit talent

Altogether, Uberall has built out a platform that essentially connects up all of those end points, so that an Uberall customer can use a dashboard to provide updates that populate automatically everywhere, and also to read and respond to reviews.

Conversely, Uberall also can look out for instances where a company is being unofficially represented, or misrepresented, and locks those down. Alongside those, it has built a location-based marketing service that also serves ads for its customers. It is somewhat akin to social media management tools, which let you manage social media accounts and social media marketing campaigns, except that it’s covering a much more fragmented and disparate set of places where a company might appear online.

The bigger picture here is that just as location-based marketing is a fragmented business, so is the business of providing services to manage it. This move reduces down that field a little more and improves the efficiency of scaling such services.

“As we saw the market trending towards consolidation, we considered several potential companies to merge with. Uberall was by far our most preferred,” said MomentFeed CEO Nick Hedges in a statement. “This combination makes enormous strategic sense for our customers, who represent the who’s-who of leading U.S. omni channel brands. It helps accelerate our already rapid pace of innovation, giving customers an even greater edge in the hyper-competitive world of ’Near Me’ Marketing.” After the deal closes, Hedges will become Uberall’s chief strategy officer and EVP for North America.

“We are thrilled to partner with the Uberall team for this next phase of growth. Our strategic investment will significantly accelerate Uberall’s ambition to become the leading ‘Near Me’ Customer Experience platform worldwide. Uberall’s differentiated full-suite solution is unsurpassed by competition in terms of integration and functionality, providing customers with a real edge to reach, interact with, and convert online customers. We look forward to supporting Florian, Nick and their talented team to deliver on their exciting innovation and expansion roadmap,” said Cyrus Shey, managing partner of Bregal Milestone, in a statement.

Categories: Business News