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Landbot closes $8M Series A for its ‘no code’ chatbot builder

2021, January 20 - 5:00pm

Barcelona-based Landbot, a “no-code” chatbot builder, has bagged an $8 million Series A led by the Spanish-Israeli VC firm Swanlaab, alongside support from Spain’s innovation-focused public agency, CDTI. Previous investors Nauta Capital, Encomenda and Bankinter also participated in the round.

We last chatted to Landbot back in 2018 when it raised a $2.2 million seed and had 900+ customers. It’s grown that to ~2,200 paying customers, with some 50,000 individuals now using its tool (across both free and paid accounts).

Since its seed it’s also increased recurrent revenues 10x — and is expecting growth to keep stepping up, fuelled by the new financing.

Landbot gets $2.2M for its on-message ‘anti-AI’ chatbot

It says the coronavirus pandemic has supercharged demand for conversational landing pages as all sorts of businesses look for ways to automate higher volumes of digitally inbound customer comms, without needing to make major investments in in-house IT.

Landbot’s customers range from SMEs to specific teams and products within larger organisations, with the startup name-checking the likes of Nestlé, MediaMarkt, Coca-Cola, Cepsa, PcComponentes and Prudential among its customer roster.

“We are seeing strong traction from industries like eCommerce, Financial Services and Marketing Agencies,” CEO & co-founder Jiaqi Pan tells TechCrunch. “The ecommerce segment is one we have seen the most growth in since COVID-19, where we increased 2x the number of customers from ecommerce industry.”

The new funding will be used to double Landbot’s team during 2021 (currently it employs 40 people) — with hiring planned across sales, marketing and engineering.

The startup, which launched its “no code” flavor of chatbot builder back in 2017, previously relocated HQ from Valencia to Barcelona to help with recruitment.

Since Landbot’s launch, the burgeoning “no code/low code” movement has become a fully fledged trend driven by demand for productivity — and lead-boosting digital services outstripping most businesses’ supply of expert in-house techies able to build stuff.

Hence the rise of service-builder tools that make customizable tech capabilities accessible to non-technical staff.

The pandemic has merely poured more fuel on this fire — and low-friction tools like Landbot are clearly reaping the rewards.

‘No code’ will define the next generation of software

Interestingly, as well as competing with other conversational chatbot builders, like San Francisco-based ManyChat, Landbot says it’s seeing traction from customers who are seeking to replace web forms with more engaging chat interfaces.

Its drag-and-drop chatbot builder tool supports information workers to design what Landbot bills as “an immersive web page experience filled with gifs and visual elements to capture the attention of the end-user” — so you can understand the appeal for SMEs to be able to replace their boring old static forms with an experience any smartphone user is familiar with from using messaging apps like WhatsApp.

“In terms of the main competitor in the no-code space, we have some overlap with ManyChat as the most direct competitor for Chatbot. On the other hand, as we have a lot of customers using us to replace their forms we are competing also against form builders like Typeform,” says Pan, the latter another Barcelona-based startup which similarly bills itself as a platform for “conversational” and “interactive” data collection.

Landbot notes it recently acquired India-based Morph.AI, a chat-based marketing automation tool, which it’s using to help convert social, website and ad traffic into leads — also with the aim of further expanding into presence in the Asian market.

To date, 90% of its customers are international, with 60% coming from the U.S., U.K. and Germany.

Commenting on the Series A in a statement, Juan Revuelta, general partner of Swanlaab, said: “The beauty of Landbot is in the drag and drop solution of the product. The simplicity is critical to making this product accessible to everyone across many different types of business. If you’re a small company you don’t have the luxury of time or money to solve issues in customer service or run lavish marketing campaigns.

“Landbot helps all businesses to have truly frictionless conversations with customers and exchange the data they need to make smarter decisions and scale. The team has had a remarkable 2020, and we’re excited to support them in helping more businesses this year.”

ManyChat raises $18M to help businesses tap into messaging

Categories: Business News

Podchaser raises $4m to build a comprehensive podcast database

2021, January 20 - 8:06am

Podchaser, a startup building what it calls “IMDB for podcasts,” recently announced that it has raised $4 million in a funding round led by Greycroft.

In other words, it’s a site where — similar to the Amazon-owned Internet Movie Database — users can look up who’s appeared in which podcasts, rate and review those podcasts and add them lists. In fact, CEO Bradley Davis told me that the startup’s “vibrant, exciting community of podcast nerds” have already created 8.5 million podcast credits in the database.

Davis said this is something he simply wanted to exist and was, in fact, convinced that it had to exist already. When he realized that it didn’t, he posted on Reddit asking whether anyone was willing to build the company with him — which is how he connected with his eventual co-founder and CTO Ben Slinger in Australia. (Podchaser is a fully distributed company, with Davis currently based in Oklahoma City.)

To be clear, Davis doesn’t think podcast nerds are the only ones taking advantage of the listings. Instead, he suggested that it’s useful for anyone seeing to learn more about podcasts and discover new ones, with Podchaser’s monthly active users quintupling over the past year.

For example, he said that one of the most popular pages is politician Pete Buttigieg’s profile, where visitors don’t just learn about Buttigieg’s own podcast but see others on which he’s appeared. (You can also use Podchaser to learn more about TechCrunch’s Equity, Mixtape and Original Content podcasts, though those profiles could stand to be filled out a bit more.)

Podcast analytics and attribution startup Chartable raises $2.25M

There has been endless discussion about how to fix podcast discovery, and while Davis isn’t claiming that Podchaser will solve it wholesale, he thinks it can be part of the solution — not just through its own database, but through the broader Podcast Taxonomy project that it’s organizing.

“I think if we are successful at standardizing a lot fo the terminology, and if we do an analysis of all podcasts, of how popular they are, that [will help many listeners] to cull and find the good stuff,” he said.

Podchaser plans to add new features that will further encourage user contributions, like a gamification system and a discussion system.

While the consumer site is free, the startup recently launched a paid product called Podchaser Pro, which provides reach and demographic data across 1.8 million podcasts. It also monetizes by providing podcast players with access to its credits through an API.

Davis said the startup was “lucky” that it decided to build a database that’s “agnostic” from any specific podcast player.

“So we had a lot of latitude to work with those platforms, we integrate with many of those platforms and you’re going to see a lot of our credits showing up [in podcast players],” he said.

In addition to Greycroft, Advancit Capital, LightShed Ventures, Powerhouse Capital, High Alpha, Hyde Park Venture Partners and Poplar Ventures also participated in the round, as did TrendKite founder A.J. Bruno, Ad Results Media CEO Marshall Williams and Shamrock Capital Partner Mike LaSalle.

“Even in the face of a pandemic, the podcast market continues to grow at a breakneck pace,” said Greycroft co-founder and chairman Alan Patricof in a statement. “The demand from consumers and brands is insatiable. Podchaser’s data and discovery tools are crucial to taking podcasting to new heights.”

Spotify launches video podcasts worldwide, starting with select creators

Categories: Business News

Drone-focused construction startup TraceAir raises $3.5M

2021, January 20 - 7:33am

Bay Area-based construction startup TraceAir today announced a $3.5 million Series A. Led by London-based XTX Ventures, this round brings the company’s total funding up to $7 million. The raise includes existing investor Metropolis VC, along with new additions Liquid 2 Ventures, GEM Capital, GPS Ventures and Andrew Filev.

We first noted the company back in 2016, when it pitched a method for using drones to spot construction errors before they become too expense. It’s a pretty massive field that various technology companies are attempting to solve through a variety of different means, ranging from quadrupedal robots to site-scanning hard hats.

Last February, TraceAir announced a new drone management tool. “Haul Router provides the best mathematically objective hauls for each given drone scan,” the company noted at the time. “Any employee can use the tool to design a haul road and export the results to feed into grading equipment.”

The pandemic has thrown the construction industry for a loop (along with countless others). But unlike other sectors, demand still remains high in many places. TraceAir is hoping its solution will prove beneficial as many outfits seek a way to continue the process in spite of uncertainty.

“The Covid-19 pandemic created new challenges for the U.S. and worldwide construction industries, resulting in delayed projects and growing unemployment rates,” CEO Dmitry Korolev said in a release tied to the news. “Our platform allows industry leaders to manage projects more efficiently and collaborate with their teams remotely, minimizing the need for a physical presence on-site.”

TraceAir says the additional funding will go toward its sales and marketing, along with future product developments, including an unnamed product set for release this quarter.

Construction startup Scaled Robotics raises a €2M seed round

Categories: Business News

A first look at Qualtrics’ IPO pricing

2021, January 20 - 6:59am

Earlier today, Qualtrics dropped a new S-1 filing, this time detailing its proposed IPO pricing. That means we can now get a good look at how much the company may be worth when it goes public later this month.

The debut has been one TechCrunch has been looking forward to since the company announced that it would be spun out from its erstwhile corporate parent, SAP. In 2019, the Germany-based enterprise giant SAP snatched up Qualtrics for $8 billion just before it was to go public.

Qualtrics is either worth less than we would have guessed, or its first IPO range feels light.

That figure provides a good marker for how well SAP has done with the deal and how much value Qualtrics has generated in the intervening years. Keep in mind, however, that the value of software companies has risen greatly in the last few years, so the numbers we’ll see below benefit from a market-wide repricing of recurring revenue.

Qualtrics estimates that it may be worth $22 to $26 per share when it goes public. Is that a lot? Let’s find out.

Qualtrics’ first IPO range

First, scale. Qualtrics is selling just under 50 million shares in its public offering. As you can math out, at more than $20 per share, the company is looking to raise north of $1 billion.

After going public, Qualtrics anticipates having 510,170,610 shares outstanding, inclusive of its 7.4 million underwriter option. Using that simple share count, Qualtrics would be worth $11.2 billion to $13.3 billion.

Categories: Business News

How and when to build marketing teams at deep tech companies

2021, January 20 - 5:15am

Deep tech startups develop cutting-edge innovations with the power to truly revolutionize society. The founding team members at these companies often come from deeply technical backgrounds, which powers rapid product progress but can create bottlenecks on the go-to-market side.

In this post, I outline the answers to four key questions around marketing at early-stage deep tech companies that are post-revenue:

  • What marketing teams at deep tech companies do.
  • When to hire the marketing team.
  • Whether the marketing team needs industry experience.
  • How to source and evaluate talent for the marketing team.

From this post, deep tech startups can formulate their marketing hiring strategy and attract and cultivate top talent to drive their go-to-market plan. Without business execution, even the most groundbreaking innovations do not achieve their intended impact.

What do marketing teams at deep tech companies do?

To set the context, I share below the typical projects of deep tech marketing teams, which look different from marketing in other industries given the greater product focus and complexity, regulatory oversight and longer time to market.

Go-to-market

Marketers leverage the strength of the IP to establish collaborations with large companies, such as pharma companies and institutions, such as the government, universities or hospitals. To this end, marketers develop creative ways to gather lists of, and information on, key contacts at these potential partners. They also build sales collateral, such as demo videos, pitch decks and one-pagers, to more effectively reach and build long-term relationships with these prospects.

More broadly, marketers also develop the go-to-market strategy beyond partnerships. To this end, marketers conduct in-depth market research on business models, monetization strategies and reimbursement channels.

Communications

Marketers create original content to establish the company as a thought leader, build the company’s brand credibility through social media and apply for awards and honors to validate the potential of the company’s solution.

Forecasting

Marketers work with finance and product teams to formulate projections as the company moves into the clinical phase.

When should deep tech companies hire marketers?

The CEO and other members of the founding team take on marketing work in the formation stage to better understand and empathize with the needs, capabilities and opportunities in the department before bringing someone on full time.

Once the product shows signs of repeatable revenue, a marketing lead is needed. Specifically, this is ahead of a large Series A round, after a small Series A round or when a commercial partner has expressed interest in larger, long-term contracts. Instead of the typical chief marketing officer or chief revenue officer title, deep tech startups call this person a chief commercial officer or chief partnerships officer.

For additional support in the formation stage, companies bring on MBA interns and work with their investors. Prior to the Series A, platform teams at deep tech venture-capital funds are hands-on in helping with marketing through actually doing marketing projects for their portfolio companies, ideating on long-term marketing strategy with the founders through regular feedback sessions and connecting founders with vetted marketing contractors or agencies.

For companies that require FDA approval, commercial advisors, consultants and board members fully take on the partnership strategy work (which represents the bulk of the marketing needs) prior to the Series A round. Similarly, external consultants, such as marketing agencies, can take over major projects like launch strategy. External consultants can then join the team should their performance be strong.

For drug-development companies, the marketing leader is most crucial when the company enters the clinical phase and prepares for trials, regardless of funding stage.

Do marketing hires need industry experience?

Of course, it is ideal to hire someone with experience selling into the space and someone who is comfortable with the complex supply chains and long sales cycles. However, if the choice is between someone with functional expertise but no industry expertise and someone with industry experience but limited or no functional expertise, it is better to hire the former candidate and leverage the rest of the team for domain expertise. Deep tech is a niche area, so the other team members can support the marketer in developing industry expertise.

Categories: Business News

Bolt Mobility launching into 48 new markets after snapping up Last Mile’s assets

2021, January 20 - 5:02am

Bolt Mobility, the Miami-based micromobility startup co-founded by Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt, is expanding to 48 new markets after acquiring the assets of Last Mile Holdings.

Bolt Mobility’s rise and Last Mile’s demise captures the uncertainty that plagued micromobility companies in the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic upended business models that were, in some cases, already on shaky ground.

Bolt Mobility and Last Mile were both negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolt Mobility, for instance, had to shut down in several markets in early 2020 due to the pandemic. The company rebounded after it tweaked its business model and began to partner with local operators, added GM’s former VP global design Ed Welburn as an adviser and came out with a new scooter equipped with dual brakes, 10-inch wheels, LED lights, swappable batteries with 25 miles of range and NanoSeptic surfaces on its handlebars and brake levers designed to rid these common contact points of germs and bacteria.

Last Mile Holdings didn’t fare as well.

If Last Mile Holdings doesn’t sound familiar, the brands it once owned might. Last Mile was a holding company that owned the OjO Electric scooters and Gotcha Mobility, which had a portfolio of electric trikes, scooters and bikes. The company acquired Gotcha in a $12 million cash and stock deal that closed in March 2020.

As Bolt Mobility grew, with its customer base hitting 300,000 users in 2020, Last Mile hit headwinds. Last Mile Holdings, which traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange under MILE, ended up selling its U.S. assets in an auction. Bolt Mobility acquired substantially all of the assets of the company for a credit bid of $3 million, according to a filing at the end of the year.

Those assets include 8,500 new devices, including e-scooters, e-bikes, pedal bikes and sit-down cruisers and licenses to operate in 48 new markets, the majority of which (more than 30) are exclusive contracts, according to Bolt CEO Ignacio Tzoumas. The 48 new markets include 18 university campuses.

“The acquisition represents a significant expansion for Bolt on all fronts,” Tzoumas said, adding that the company brought on former Gotcha Chief Operating Officer Matt Tolan, who will now serve as Bolt’s chief commercial officer, as well as about 20 team members who were formerly a part of Gotcha’s tech and operations teams.

Riders in Bolt’s new markets will continue to be able to access and use the e-scooters, e-bikes and pedal bikes through the Gotcha Mobility and Ojo Electric iOS and Android mobile apps. Bolt is working with cities and universities to transition these markets to Bolt’s platform. The acquisition adds e-bikes to the Bolt platform for the first time. Although, the company was already developing its own line of e-bikes that it plans to launch later this year.

Image Credits: Bolt Mobility

Bolt credits its new business model for helping it survive and even thrive in 2020. Instead of continuing to handle the complex and expensive task of fleet management and operations, Bolt decided to partner with local companies. These partners operate Bolt’s fleets on the ground in each individual market. This customizable approach allowed for a business partnership model in select markets where Bolt leased scooters to delivery workers, restaurants and other small businesses, the company said. 

By July, Bolt and its partners were operating in five new or re-launched markets. Bolt also has a backlog of agreements with partners for an additional 20 markets that the acquisition is primed to fulfill, according to the company. 

Tzoumas said Bolt was able to execute the deal without taking on any additional debt, and “under terms that will allow us to continue devoting our resources to expanding and improving our services in all of the markets where we operate.” The acquisition was funded in part by Fuel Venture Capital, an existing Bolt investor.  Bolt is also backed by Sofreh Capital and The Yucaipa Companies.

“We founded Bolt because we believe in micromobility as a movement that can transform the way people live and move within their communities,” Usain Bolt said in a statement. “This expansion proves that anything is possible for micromobility when you support it with talented people, innovative technology, and the incredible work ethic of the Bolt team.”

Backed by Serena Williams and Usain Bolt, Let’s Do This raises $15M from EQT

Categories: Business News

Uppbeat launches a freemium music platform aimed at YouTubers

2021, January 20 - 4:20am

A new music platform, Uppbeat, aims to make it easier for YouTubers and other content creators to find quality free music to use in their videos. The system, which is designed to navigate the complexities of copyright claims while also fairly compensating artists, offers an alternative to existing free music platforms, including YouTube’s own Audio Library and Creative Commons’ legal music for videos, for example.

The idea for the startup comes from Lewis Foster and Matt Russell, the U.K.-based co-founders of another music-licensing company, Music Vine, which has been operating for about six years.

Last year, the co-founders realized there was a growing opportunity to address the creator space with a slightly different product.

“We were realizing, more and more, was that the creator space — YouTubers, streamers, podcasters — has become enormous, but there wasn’t a music platform that was doing a nice job for those type of users,” explains Foster. “So we sat down and thought about what the perfect music resource would look like for creators. That led to deciding to build Uppbeat,” he says.

They began developing the Uppbeat website in September 2020 and launched it to the public on Monday.

On the creators’ side, Uppbeat’s key focus is on eliminating headaches over copyright claims, particularly on YouTube.

Currently, if a YouTuber gets a copyright claim over music in their video, it can cause them to lose income. Though YouTube has worked to address this problem over the years with new features and changes to its Content ID match system, it’s still an issue.

“If a YouTuber gets a copyright claim, [YouTube] can de-monetize their video. And if they go through YouTube’s dispute system, it can take as long as 30 days for it to get resolved. It’s a pretty big frustration for YouTubers,” Foster says.

Uppbeat’s music will instead almost instantly clear the claims.

Image Credits: Uppbeat

Similar to Spotify, the Uppbeat website leverages a freemium model, To get started, creators can sign up for a free account that provides access to about 50% of the site’s roughly 1,000-track music catalog and 10 downloads per month. The paid plan offers full catalog access and no download limit.

Free users simply add a credit to their YouTube video description to clear copyright claims, while paid users are added to an approved list, eliminating this extra step.

Because the tracks have to be fingerprinted to fight off unlicensed usage, a copyright claim will still occur. But instead of taking days or weeks to resolve, it will be cleared within about five minutes, the company says. The Uppbeat system clears the claim by checking the video description for the necessary credit and by checking the claim against its list of paid users. This is all automated, too, which helps to speed things up.

Image Credits: Uppbeat

Meanwhile, on the artists’ side, Uppbeat pays as their music is used — even by the free users.

The revenue from the premium subscriptions, and soon, advertising, is divided between the artists on a monthly basis, in proportion to the number of downloads the artist receives.

“What that means from the artists’ perspective is, on average, they’re going to make the same amount from tracks on the premium side as they do on the free side,” says Lewis. “It means, even for free usage, they will get paid,” he adds.

The site will also monetize through audio ads that play as you browse the tracks and listen to the music. (However, these are just promoting the paid plan for the time being.)

Browsing Uppbeat’s catalog is easy, too. The music is organized by genre, theme and style in colorful rows that aim to introduce all the different types of music and beats a YouTuber may need. For example, there’s music customized for use  in the background and other tracks that cater to different moods like inspiring, calm, happy, dramatic and more. A catalog of SFX (sound effects) is expected to be added in a few months, too.

Uppbeat believes its existing music industry connections with producers, composers and songwriters via Music Vine will help them to source higher-quality tracks than other free music services.

At present, the startup is self-funded through revenues from Music Vine, but Foster says they’ve had some VC interest. For now, though, the founders are looking to keep the ownership in-house, for the most part.

However, Uppbeat is experimenting with both a referral program and a profit-sharing scheme. The latter will allow YouTubers who bring Uppbeat new customers, then take the full revenue from those customers for two years’ time.

“We’re taking a massive sacrifice,” Foster admits. “But from from our perspective, the faster we can get Uppbeat out there and well-known in the YouTuber space, then we’re happy to share that [revenue]. We think it’s a cool idea to share that within the YouTuber community, rather than [take] a big private investment,” he notes.

The startup is also considering making shares in the company available to some larger YouTubers, Foster adds.

Today, Uppbeat is a team of eight employees and 12 freelancers, based in Leeds, U.K.

YouTube shuts down music companies’ use of manual copyright claims to steal creator revenue

 

Categories: Business News

Rivian raises $2.65B as it pushes toward production of its electric pickup

2021, January 20 - 12:38am

Rivian has raised $2.65 billion as it prepares to begin production this summer of its all-electric pickup truck.

The round, which was led by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., also included Fidelity Management and Research Company, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, Coatue and D1 Capital Partners as well as several other existing and new investors.

Rivian is now valued at $27.6 billion, according to a person familiar with the investment round.

The capital comes at a critical time for Rivian, which is undertaking the design, development, production and delivery of two consumer vehicles (the R1T pickup truck and the R1S SUV), and building out of its electric vehicle charging network as well as fulfilling an order for 100,000 commercial delivery vans for Amazon.

“The support and confidence of our investors enables us to remain focused on these launches while simultaneously scaling our business for our next stage of growth,” Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe said in a statement.

This latest round follows two years of heavy investment activity that began in earnest after the company unveiled its electric SUV and pickup truck at the 2018 LA Auto Show.

Just months after that reveal, Rivian announced a $700 million funding round led by Amazon. More deals and investments would follow, including a $500 million investment from Ford — along with a promise to collaborate on a future EV program — and a $350 million investment by Cox Automotive in September 2019. The company closed the year with an announcement that it had raised a $1.3 billion round led by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. with additional participation from Amazon, Ford Motor Company and funds managed by BlackRock.

The stream of capital didn’t stop in 2020. Rivian announced in July it had raised $2.5 billion in a round led by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. New investors Soros Fund Management LLC, Coatue, Fidelity Management and Research Company and Baron Capital Group along with existing shareholders Amazon and BlackRock joined the round.

To date, Rivian has raised $8 billion since the start of 2019.

Rivian’s factory in Normal, Illinois. Image Credits: Rivian

Rivian hasn’t held back on spending that capital. The company has put more than $1 billion into its factory in Normal, Illinois. The factory, which once produced the Mitsubishi Eclipse through a joint venture between Mitsubishi and Chrysler Corporation, has been completely updated and expanded.

The overhaul of the 3 million-square-foot factory is on schedule, but not yet complete, according to the company. A pilot line is operational and is producing validation prototypes of its R1T pickup truck daily.

Rivian also plans to produce the delivery vans for Amazon at the factory. The first van deliveries will be made to Amazon in late 2021.

Rivian is building its own EV charging network, but with an adventurous twist

Categories: Business News

In 2020, VCs invested $428M into US-based startups every day

2021, January 20 - 12:36am

Despite a pandemic that sparked a global recession, 2020 was still a record year for venture capital investments into American startups.

According to data shared by PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association, investors poured $156.2 billion into domestic startups last year, or around $428 million for each day of the year. The huge sum of money, however, was itself dwarfed by the amount of liquidity that American startups generated, some $290.1 billion.

The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.

The exit-value figure was a record as well, as were the 321 rounds worth $100 million — nearly one for each day of the year.

But while the U.S. venture capital market in 2020 was hot, it was not newly so. In 2018 and 2019, VCs invested around $140 billion into domestic startups, making last year’s $156 billion result a record, but not a shocking departure from previous years.

A first read of the data indicates that the U.S. venture capital market is still getting larger in scale and later-stage in focus. But inside those well-worn trends are a host of notable movements that both underscore what we observed last year in real-time and teach us something new about today’s venture capital market.

So far, 2021’s startup financing and exit market appears to be the mirror of what we saw in late 2020. So we’d best understand the past so we can forecast what we’ll see in Q1 of 2021.

To avoid getting too lost in the data, we’ll proceed by stage, pulling out key facts for each step of the startup lifecycle. Feel free to scroll to the one that makes the most sense for where your company is or where your fund invests.

Seed

In the U.S., seed deal count was high in 2020, around 5,227 per PitchBook’s estimates. Those rounds were worth just over $10 billion, making it the third year in a row in which American seed-stage startups managed around $10 billion in capital against around 5,000 rounds.

Boring, yeah? Not really. Inside those numbers are the whole year’s ups and downs: The fact that the seed data is so close to 2018 and 2019 levels is almost silly.

The real surprise from seed, per PitchBook’s report, is that these valuations actually fell on a year-over-year basis in 2020. This, despite the fact that seed deal sizes rose.

Considering these two trends at once, it appears likely that, on average, VC ownership as a percentage of seed-stage companies rose in 2020.

Frankly I was just surprised to see a form of startup valuation decrease after expanding for nearly a decade.

Categories: Business News

Fintech startup Vise brings on Andrew Fong (formerly Dropbox) as CTO

2021, January 20 - 12:00am

Vise, a fintech firm that focuses on helping financial advisors rather than automating them out of existence, has today announced that it is bringing on Andrew Fong as its chief technology officer.

Fong hails from Dropbox, where he served as VP of Infrastructure Engineering. He actually started out as a site reliability engineer at Dropbox back in 2012, climbing the ranks to engineering director, and then senior director of Engineering – head of Infrastructure before becoming to vice president.

Before Dropbox, Fong was an engineer at YouTube and Aol.

Vise brought on Fong to scale up its technical team following its most recent fundraise, a $45 million in Series B led by Sequoia Capital. In total, Vise has raised $63 million since launching on the TC Disrupt stage in 2019. You can check out the video of their demo here.

Meet Vise AI, the startup reimagining portfolio management

Vise uses AI to support financial advisors in their relationships with clients, giving them the ability to justify and explain (with data) the reason for making this or that investment, as well as the ability to customize a portfolio quickly.

Top of mind for Fong is scaling up the engineering department from 20 people to 75 by the end of the year, and Fong explained that diversity, equity and inclusion must be front and center in that endeavor.

“Vise is in the early stages of building out its engineering organization,” Fong told TechCrunch. “It’s imperative that we weave in DEI as a first principle to our recruiting at this stage and ensure we are maturing our processes with DEI in mind.”

At Dropbox, Fong started out as a team leader building a team of 40, and by the time he left, led a team of more than 250 people. He explained that he learned a lot during that eight-year period, and made a lot of mistakes, and was eager to see how that knowledge could be reapplied at a different firm.

“What would it be like to do this again with the knowledge I have now?” asked Fong. “What things would I do differently? How would I improve upon it? How can I actually take that knowledge and leverage it in a way that helps others in the industry or my peers at Vise? Can I provide a perspective that they don’t necessarily have today?”

Fong was first connected with Vise while he was still at Dropbox. He spoke to Vise co-founder Runik Mehrotra on an explanatory call, and remembers feeling like no matter where his path took him, he wanted to stay connected to Mehrotra and Vise.

“This is somebody that just has something about him,” he said of Mehrotra. “There’s just like an ‘it’ factor that made me feel like I wanted to work with him.”

Fong says that recruiting during COVID, with extremely limited face-to-face contact, is one of the biggest challenges ahead for both himself and Vise in general.

Trillions are at stake in the retirement wars, and Vise nets $14.5M from Sequoia to manage it

Categories: Business News

StackPulse announces $28M investment to help developers manage outages

2021, January 19 - 11:21pm

When a system outage happens, chaos can ensue as the team tries to figure out what’s happening and how to fix it. StackPulse, a new startup that wants to help developers manage these crisis situations more efficiently, emerged from stealth today with a $28 million investment.

The round actually breaks down to a previously unannounced $8 million seed investment and a new $20 million Series A. GGV led the A round, while Bessemer Venture Partners led the seed and also participated in the A. Glenn Solomon at GGV and Amit Karp at Bessemer will join the StackPulse board.

Nobody is immune to these outages. We’ve seen incidents from companies as varied as Amazon and Slack in recent months. The biggest companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon employ site reliability engineers and build customized platforms to help remediate these kinds of situations. StackPulse hopes to put this kind of capability within reach of companies, whose only defense is the on-call developers.

Company co-founder and CEO Ofer Smadari says that in the midst of a crisis with signals coming at you from Slack and PagerDuty and other sources, it’s hard to figure out what’s happening. StackPulse is designed to help sort out the details to get you back to equilibrium as quickly as possible.

FireHydrant lands $8M Series A for disaster management tool

First off, it helps identify the severity of the incident. Is it a false alarm or something that requires your team’s immediate attention or something that can be put off for a later maintenance cycle? If there is something going wrong that needs to be fixed right now, StackPulse can not only identify the source of the problem, but also help fix it automatically, Smadari explained.

After the incident has been resolved, it can also help with a post-mortem to figure out what exactly went wrong by pulling in all of the alert communications and incident data into the platform.

As the company emerges from stealth, it has some early customers, and 35 employees based in Portland, Oregon and Tel Aviv. Smadari says that he hopes to have 100 employees by the end of this year. As he builds the organization, he is thinking about how to build a diverse team for a diverse customer base. He believes that people with diverse backgrounds build a better product. He adds that diversity is a top level goal for the company, which already has an HR leader in place to help.

Glenn Solomon from GGV, who will be joining the company board, saw a strong founding team solving a big problem for companies and wanted to invest. “When they described the vision for the product they wanted to build, it made sense to us,” he said.

Customers are impatient with down time and Solomon sees developers on the front line trying to solve these issues. “Performance is more important than ever. When there is downtime, it’s damaging to companies,” he said. He believes StackPulse can help.

How you react when your systems fail may define your business

Categories: Business News

UK’s WhiteHat rebrands as Multiverse, raises $44M to build tech apprenticeships in the US

2021, January 19 - 11:08pm

University education is getting more expensive, and at the moment it feels a bit like a Petri dish for infections, but the long-term trends continue to show a dramatic growth in the number of people worldwide getting degrees beyond high school, with one big reason for this being that a college degree generally provides better economic security.

But today, a startup that is exploring a different route for those interested in technology and knowledge worker positions — specifically by way of apprenticeships to bring in and train younger people on the job — is announcing a significant round of growth funding to see if it can provide a credible, scalable alternative to that model.

Multiverse, a U.K. startup that works with organizations to develop these apprenticeships, and then helps source promising, diverse candidates to fill those roles, has raised $44 million, funding that it will be using to spearhead a move into the U.S. market after picking up some 300 clients in the U.K. and thousands of apprentices.

The Series B is being led by General Catalyst (which has been especially active this week with U.K. startups: it also led a large round yesterday for Bloom & Wild), with GV (formerly known as Google Ventures), Audacious Ventures, Latitude and SemperVirens also participating. Index Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners, which first invested in the company in its $16 million Series A in 2020, also participated.

Valuation is not being disclosed, but for what it’s worth, the round was one that generated a lot of interest. In between getting pitched this story and publishing it, the size of the Series B grew by $8 million (it was originally closed at $36 million). The FT notes that the valuation was around $200 million with this round, but the company says that is “speculation on the FT’s part.”

UK’s Bloom & Wild raises $102M to seed its flower delivery service across Europe

The company was originally co-founded as WhiteHat and is officially rebranding today. Co-founder Euan Blair (who happens to be the son of the former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and his accomplished barrister wife Cherie Booth Blair) said the name change was because the original name was a reference to how the startup sought to “hack the system for good.”

However, he added, “The scale has become bigger and more evolved.” The new name is to convey that — as in gaming, which is probably the arena where you might have heard this term before — “anything is possible.”

There are “multiple universes” one can inhabit as a post-18 young adult, Blair continued. While it’s been assumed that to get into tech, the obvious route was a two-to-four year (and often more) tour through college or university to pick up a higher education degree, the bet that Multiverse is making here is that apprenticeships can easily, and widely, become another. “We want to build an outstanding alternative to university and college,” he said. These typically last 1.5 years. 

The idea of an “outstanding alternative” is especially important when thinking of how to target more marginalized groups and how this ties up with how tech companies are looking to be more diverse in the future, without cutting down on the quality of what people are getting out of the experience, or the resulting talent that is getting recruited.

There’s long been a stigma attached to less prestigious institutions, and putting money or effort into another channel to perpetuate that doesn’t really make sense or point to progress.

Blair said that currently over half of the people making their way through Multiverse are people of color, and 57% are women, and the plan is to build tools to make that an even firmer part of its mission. 

The startup sees itself as part tech company and part education enterprise.

It works with tech companies and others to open up opportunities for people who have not had any higher education or any training, where fresh high school graduates can come in, learn the ropes of a job while getting paid and then continue on working their way up the ladder with that knowledge base in place.

Apprenticeships on the platform right now range from data analysts through to exhibition designers, and the idea is that by opening up and targeting the U.S. market, the breadth, number and location of roles will grow.

This is not just a social enterprise: There is actual money in this area. Blair said that prices it charges the companies it works with range by qualification, “but are broadly around the $15,000 mark.” (The individuals applying don’t pay anything, and they will also be paid by the companies providing the apprenticeships.)

On the educational front, Multiverse doesn’t just connect people as a recruiter might: it has a team in place to build out what the “curriculum” might be for a particular apprenticeship, and how to deliver and train people with the requisite skills alongside the practice experience of working, and more.

That latter role, of course, has taken on a more poignant dimension in the last year: Concepts like remote training and virtual mentorship have very much come into their own at a time when offices are largely standing empty to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Regardless of what happens in the year ahead — fingers crossed that vaccinations and other efforts will help us collectively move past where we are right now — many believe that the infrastructure that has been put into place to keep working virtually will continue to be used, which bodes well for a company like Multiverse that is building a business around that, both with technology it creates itself and will bring in from third parties and partners.

Indeed, the ecosystem of companies building tools to deliver educational content, provide training and work collaboratively has really boomed in the pandemic, giving companies like Multiverse a large library of options for how to bring people into new work situations. (Google, which is now an investor in Multiverse, is very much one of the makers of such education tools.)

Apprenticeships are an interesting area for a startup to tackle. Traditionally, it’s a term that would have been associated mainly with skilled labor positions, rather than “knowledge workers.”

But you can argue that with the bigger swing that the globe has seen away from industrial and towards knowledge economies, there is an argument to be made for building more enterprises and opportunities for an ever wider pool of users, rather than expecting everyone to be shoehorned into the models of the last 50 years. (The latter would essentially imply that college is possibly the only way up.)

You might also be fair to claim that Blair’s connections helped him secure funding and open doors with would-be customers, and that might well be the case, but ultimately the startup will live or die by how well it executes on its premise, whether it finds a good way to connect more people, engage them in opportunities and keep them on board.

This is what really attracted the investors, said Joel Cutler, managing director and co-founder of General Catalyst.

“Euan has a genuine belief that this is important, and when you talk to him, you get a  feeling of manifest destiny,” Cutler said in an interview. In response to the question of family connections, he said that this was precisely the kind of issue that the technology industry should be tackling to fight.

“Of all the industries to break the mold of where you went to school, it should be the tech world that will do that, since it is far more of a meritocracy than others. This is the perfect place to start to break that mold,” he said. “Education will be super valuable but apprenticeships will also be important.” He noted that another company that General Catalyst invests in, Guild Education, is addressing similar opportunities, or rather the gaps in current opportunities, for older people.

Categories: Business News

Microsoft invests in Cruise in new $2 billion round

2021, January 19 - 11:04pm

Cruise has raised $2 billion in a new equity round that has pushed its valuation up to $30 billion and delivered Microsoft as an investor and partner.

GM, Honda and other institutional investors have also put more capital into Cruise as the autonomous vehicle company inches closer to commercializing its technology.

While Microsoft’s capital is important, the partnership might provide equal and longer-term value for Cruise, at least in the two companies’ views. Under the long-term strategic partnership, Cruise will use Azure, Microsoft’s cloud and edge computing platform, for its yet-to-be launched autonomous vehicle ride-hailing service.

Any autonomous vehicle company aiming to commercialize — meaning bring their tech to the public at scale — needs a robust cloud computing platform. Operating fleets of self-driving vehicles that will shuttle people and even packages generates a massive amount of data, making cloud services one of the bigger costs for an AV company.

Cruise’s partnership with Microsoft aims to provide benefits for both companies. Cruise will be able to lock in lower prices for cloud services and Microsoft will be able to test some of its bleeding-edge systems that can handle workloads needed to bring machine learning and robotics — like autonomous vehicles — to life and at scale.

“Advances in digital technology are redefining every aspect of our work and life, including how we move people and goods,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement. “As Cruise and GM’s preferred cloud, we will apply the power of Azure to help them scale and make autonomous transportation mainstream.”

The partnership extends to GM as well, according to Tuesday’s announcement. Microsoft will be GM’s preferred public cloud provider to help the automaker accelerate several of it digitization initiatives as well as streamline operations across digital supply chains.

The partnership will not only allow Cruise to accelerate the commercialization of its all-electric, self-driving vehicles, it helps “GM realize even more benefits from cloud computing as we launch 30 new electric vehicles globally by 2025 and create new businesses and services to drive growth, GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said.

Cruise taps former Delta executive for COO post as it creeps toward commercialization

Categories: Business News

ETH spin-off LatticeFlow raises $2.8M to help build trustworthy AI systems

2021, January 19 - 11:00pm

LatticeFlow, an AI startup that was spun out of ETH Zurich in 2020, today announced that it has raised a $2.8 million seed funding round led by Swiss deep-tech fund btov and Global Founders Capital, which previously backed the likes of Revolut, Slack and Zalando.

The general idea behind LatticeFlow is to build tools that help AI teams build and deploy AI models that are safe, reliable and trustworthy. The problem today, the team argues, is that models get very good at finding the right statistical patterns to hit a given benchmark. That makes them inflexible, though, since these models were optimized for accuracy in a lab setting, not for robustness in the real world.

“One of the most commonly used paradigms for evaluating machine learning models is just aggregate metrics, like accuracy. And, of course, this is a super coarse representation of how good a model really is,” Pavol Bielik, the company’s CTO explained. “What we want to do is, we provide systematic ways of monitoring models, assessing their reliability across different relevant data slices and then also provide tools for improving these models.”

Image Credits: LatticeFlow

Building these kinds of models that are more flexible yet still provide robust results will take a new arsenal of tools, though, as well as the right team with deep expertise in these areas. Clearly, though, this is a founding team with the right background. In addition to CTO Bielik, the founding team includes Petar Tsankov, the company’s CEO and former senior researcher and lecturer at ETH Zurich, as well as ETH professors Martin Vechev, who leads the Secure, Reliable and Intelligence Systems lab at ETH, and Andreas Krause, who leads ETH’s Learning & Adaptive Systems lab. Tsankov’s last startup, DeepCode, was acquired by cybersecurity firm Snyk in 2020.

Snyk bags another $200M at $2.6B valuation 9 months after last raise

It’s also worth noting that Vechev, who previously co-founded ETH spin-off ChainSecurity, and his group at ETH previously developed ERAN, a verifier for large deep learning models with millions of parameters, that last year won the first competition for certifying deep neural networks. While the team was already looking at creating a company before winning this competition, Vechev noted that gave the team the confirmation that it was on the right path.

Image Credits: LatticeFlow

“We want to solve the main AI problem, which is making AI usable. This is the overarching goal,” Vechev told me. “[…] I don’t think you can actually found the company just purely based on the certification work. I think the kinds of skills that people have in the company, my group, Andreas [Krause]’s group, they all complement each other and cover a huge space, which I think is very, very unique. I don’t know of other companies who have covered this range of skills in these pressing points and have done groundbreaking work before.”

LatticeWorks already has a set of pilot customers who are trialing its tools. These include Swiss railways (SBB), which is using it to build a tool for automatic rail inspections, Germany’s Federal Cyber Security Bureau and the U.S. Army. The team is also working with other large enterprises that are using its tools to improve their computer vision models.

“Machine Learning (ML) is one of the core topics at SBB, as we see a huge potential in its application for an improved, intelligent and automated monitoring of our railway infrastructure,” said Dr. Ilir Fetai and Andre Roger, the leads of SBB’s AI team. “The project on robust and reliable AI with LatticeFlow, ETH, and Siemens has a crucial role in enabling us to fully exploit the advantages of using ML.”

For now, LatticeFlow remains in early access. The team plans to use the funding to accelerate its product development and bring on new customers. The team also plans to build out a presence in the U.S. in the near future.

Categories: Business News

Conversa Health expands its Series B round to $20M

2021, January 19 - 11:00pm

Portland, Oregon-based Conversa Health, a virtual care and communication platform that helps health organizations stay in touch with their patients and customers, today announced that it has expanded its Series B funding round from $12 million to $20 million. The round is still co-led by Builders VC and Northwell Health’s venture arm Northwell Ventures. Additional investors include UH Ventures, the venture arm of University Hospitals and VC firms P5 Health Ventures, Epic Ventures, StartUp Health and Nassau Street Ventures, as well Genesis Merchant Capital and J-Ventures, which came in as new investors in this expanded round.

“There’s been a recognition, especially with COVID, that the need for automated and virtual — which are two big trends in healthcare — were on the horizon but now the horizon has been pulled in because of COVID and the healthcare system recognizes that that’s going to be required to be able to allow access for patients and improve both the experience for patients and providers, and get better outcomes and do it at lower cost,” Conversa CEO Murray Brozinsky told me.

Brozinsky actually believes that within the next decade, 80% of care will be done remotely. This will allow for more personalized and evidence-based care, but it will also require investments in automation.

“Conversa links providers’ EHRs and other patient data to best-of-breed interactive digital care pathways and clinical analytics engine to automate care management 24×7. This improves care plan adherence pre and post visit, reducing costs and generating better outcomes for patients,” said Builders VC partner and Conversa board member Mark Goldstein. “Conversa’s enterprise platform and library of digital pathways are used by providers to care for patients across their populations, as opposed to one-off point solutions. It fills an enormous gap in the market.”

Conversa Health raises $12M Series B for its digital health platform

Given the pandemic, it’s maybe no surprise that Conversa’s business also boomed. The number of customers the company its services has grown fourfold while its financial metrics are up 6x because a lot of its larger companies have expanded their use of the platform.

The team decided to expand the existing Series B round to help it capitalize on this momentum and to bring on more engineers in order to scale the platform. Brozinsky believes that the need for a platform like Conversa’s will remain after the pandemic ends. In addition, the company is also already rolling out support for vaccination programs in its service to help educate consumers but also help in monitoring efforts after people get their shots.

“Everything we’re hearing from health systems, they recognize that they need to be prepared for this to happen again, they still need to care for the core demographics that haven’t changed — this aging population — with an acute shortage of healthcare workers,” Brozinsky said. “So the need for the systems and these platforms is going to be more acute and the investment is not so much an additional cost but an enormous return.”

Categories: Business News

K Health expands into virtual childcare and raises $132 million at a $1.5 billion valuation

2021, January 19 - 10:05pm

K Health, the virtual healthcare provider that uses machine learning to lower the cost of care by providing the bulk of the company’s health assessments, is launching new tools for childcare on the heels of raising cash that values the company at $1.5 billion.

The $132 million round raised in December will help the company expand and help pay for upgrades, including an integration with most electronic health records — an integration that’s expected by the second quarter.

Throughout 2020 K Health has leveraged its position operating at the intersection of machine learning and consumer healthcare to raise $222 million in a single year.

This appetite from investors shows how large the opportunity is in consumer healthcare as companies look to use technology to make care more affordable.

For K Health, that means a monthly subscription to its service of $9 for unlimited access to the service and physicians on the platform, as well as a $19 per-month virtual mental health offering and a $19 fee for a one-time urgent care consultation.

To patients and investors the pitch is that the data K Health has managed to acquire through partnerships with organizations like the Israel health maintenance organization Maccabi Healthcare Services, which gave up decades of anonymized data on patients and health outcomes to train K Health’s predictive algorithm, can assess patients and aid the in diagnoses for the company’s doctors.

In theory that means the company’s service essentially acts as a virtual primary care physician, holding a wealth of patient information that, when taken together, might be able to spot underlying medical conditions faster or provide a more holistic view into patient care.

For pharmaceutical companies that could mean insights into population health that could be potentially profitable avenues for drug discovery.

In practice, patients get what they pay for.

The company’s mental health offering uses medical doctors who are not licensed psychiatrists to perform their evaluations and assessments, according to one provider on the platform, which can lead to interactions with untrained physicians that can cause more harm than good.

While company chief executive Allon Bloch is likely correct in his assessment that most services can be performed remotely (Bloch puts the figure at 90%), they should be performed remotely by professionals who have the necessary training.

There are limits to how much heavy lifting an algorithm or a generalist should do when it comes to healthcare, and it appears that K Health wants to push those limits.

“Drug referrals, acute issues, prevention issues, most of those can be done remotely,” Bloch said. “There’s an opportunity to do much better and potentially cheaper. 

K Health has already seen hundreds of thousands of patients either through its urgent care offering or its subscription service and generated tens of millions in revenue in 2020, according to Bloch. He declined to disclose how many patients used the urgent care service versus the monthly subscription offering.

Telemedicine companies, like other companies providing services remotely, have thrived during the pandemic. Teladoc and Amwell, two of the early pioneers in virtual medicine, have seen their share prices soar.

Backing K Health are a group of investors led by GGV Capital and Valor Equity Partners. Kaiser Permanente’s pension fund and the investment offices of the owners of 3G Capital (the Brazilian investment firm that owns Burger King and Kraft Heinz), along with 14W, Max Ventures, Pico Partners, Marcy Venture Partners, Primary Venture Partners and BoxGroup also participated in the round. 

Organizations working with the company include Maccabi Healthcare; the Mayo Clinic, which is investigating virtual care models with the company; and Anthem, which has white-labeled the K Health service and provides it to some of the insurer’s millions of members.

Categories: Business News

PPRO nabs $180M at a $1B+ valuation to bring together the fragmented world of payments

2021, January 19 - 9:15pm

The pandemic has hastened a shift of most commerce becoming e-commerce in the last year, and that has brought a new focus on startups that are helping to enable that process.

In the latest development, PPRO, a London-based startup that has built a platform to make it easier for marketplaces, payment providers and other e-commerce players to enable localised payments — that is, make and take payments in whatever form local customers prefer to use, which extend well beyond basic payment cards — has closed a round of $180 million, funding that catapults PPRO’s valuation to over $1 billion.

PPRO (pronounced “P-pro”, as in payments professionals) plans to use the funding to continue expanding in newer markets.

Simon Black, PPRO’s CEO, said in an interview that two particular areas of focus in the coming year will be more activity in Asian countries like Singapore and Indonesia, as well as Latin America, where the company acquired a local player, allpago, back in 2019.

In both cases, the opportunity comes in the form of high growth stemming from more transactions moving online, as well as the chaos that is the fragmented payments market.

The capital is coming from a group of investors that includes Eurazeo Growth, Sprints Capital and Wellington Management. It comes on the heels of a $50 million round the company raised last August from Sprints, along with Citi and HPE Growth; and a further $50 million it picked up in 2018 led by strategic investor PayPal.

PayPal leads $50M round for PPRO, a profitable cross-border payment specialist

PayPal, alongside Citi, Mastercard Payment Gateway Services, Mollie and Worldpay are among PPRO’s 100 large global customers, which use the company’s APIs for a variety of functions, including localised gateway, processing and merchant acquirer services.

The flood of activity coming from consumers and businesses buying more online — a by-product of the pandemic leading to many businesses shutting down physical operations for the moment — has seen the company double transaction volumes between Q4 2020 and the same quarter in 2019.

PPRO is not the only company to be targeting that opportunity.

The fragmentation of financial services overall — where realistically, there is only a handful of types of transactions that might be made (usually: deposits, payments, credit), but quite literally thousands of permutations and methods to make them, with specific markets and their populations typically coalescing around their own localised selections.

That has led to the rise of a number of companies providing what has come to be called “banking as a service” or “fintech as a service,” where a tech provider stitches together in the background a number of services, sometimes thousands, and makes it easier for their customers, by way of an API, to plug in those services for their own customers to use more easily, most often connected to a range of other services provided to them like money management.

Others in this wider space that includes payments and other fintech services include the likes of Rapyd, Mambu, Thought Machine, Temenos, Edera, Adyen, Stripe and newer players like Unit, with many of these raising large amounts of money in recent times in particular to double down on what is currently a rapidly expanding market.

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

The unique aspect of PPRO is that it was an early mover in the area of identifying the conundrum of fragmentation in payments for companies that operate in more than one country or region, and that it has continued to play only in payments, without a jump to adjacent services.

“We’re ultra focused because the local payments problem is actually growing,” said Black, who believes that “the disconnect between what a consumer wants to use, but also their appetite and the proliferation of payment options” all contribute to more complexity (with the trade-off being more choices for consumers, but equally possibly too much choice?).

As Black sees it, the company’s focus on payments has given it more momentum to build better tech specifically to address that globally.

“PPRO is building solutions for performance in industrial strength. It’s growing rapidly because there are no other players that are truly global. We are globalizing to support the needs of customers who want to nationalize, so we have an opportunity to focus on payments, to be a strategic outsource partner.”

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for product expansion: alongside payments, Black highlighted product compliance and providing better analytics as two areas where the company is already active and will be doing more for customers.

“Where we partner and provide value is in anticipating changes in consumer demand,” he noted. “We monitor how customers are using those methods and — whether you are a service provider or furniture or travel company — determine which are the best relevant payment methods.” Services like open banking, tools for banks to enable allowing payments directly from customers’ accounts, or buy-now-pay-later payments, are examples, he said, of areas that speak of further opportunities.

Mambu raises $135M at a $2B+ valuation for a SaaS platform that powers banking services

“We are delighted to support Simon and the team at PPRO as they continue to develop best-in-class local payment solutions,” commented Nathalie Kornhoff-Brüls, managing director at Eurazeo Growth, in a statement. “All signs for the future indicate that digital commerce, and even more so cross-border commerce, will continue to grow exponentially while innovation in payment methods remains strong. As a result, facilitating local payments is becoming increasingly complex. Payment service providers, however, no longer have a choice as merchants and their customers are pushing for the adoption.”

“PPRO has proven to be the go-to problem solver in this area, providing the local payments technology and expertise that the world’s biggest payment players rely on. Our investment reflects our confidence in the growth potential for PPRO and we’re excited to support PPRO and its team on their journey,” added Voria Fattahi, a partner at Sprints Capital, in a separate statement.

Categories: Business News

Qualcomm-backed chipmaker Kneron nails Foxconn funding, deal

2021, January 19 - 7:00pm

A startup based out of San Diego and Taipei is quietly nailing fundings and deals from some of the biggest names in electronics. Kneron, which specializes in energy-efficient processors for edge artificial intelligence, just raised a strategic funding round from Taiwan’s manufacturing giant Foxconn and integrated circuit producer Winbond.

The deal came a year after Kneron closed a $40 million round led by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing’s Horizons Ventures. Amongst its other prominent investors are Alibaba Entrepreneurship Fund, Sequoia Capital, Qualcomm and SparkLabs Taipei.

Kneron declined to disclose the dollar amount of the investment from Foxconn and Winbond due to investor requests but said it was an “eight figures” deal, founder and CEO Albert Liu told TechCrunch in an interview.

Founded in 2015, Kneron’s latest product is a neural processing unit that can enable sophisticated AI applications without relying on the cloud. The startup is directly taking on the chips of Intel and Google, which it claims are more energy-consuming than its offering. The startup recently got a talent boost after hiring Davis Chen, Qualcomm’s former Taipei head of engineering.

Among Kneron’s customers are Chinese air conditioning giant Gree and German autonomous driving software provider Teraki, and the new deal is turning the world’s largest electronics manufacturer into a client. As part of the strategic agreement, Kneron will work with Foxconn on the latter’s smart manufacturing and newly introduced open platform for electric vehicles, while its work with Winbond will focus on microcontroller unit (MCU)-based AI and memory computing.

“Low-power AI chips are pretty easy to put into sensors. We all know that in some operation lines, sensors are quite small, so it’s not easy to use a big GPU [graphics processing unit] or CPU [central processing unit], especially when power consumption is a big concern,” said Liu, who held R&D positions at Qualcomm and Samsung before founding Kneron.

Kneron launches its new AI chip to challenge Google and others

Unlike some of its competitors, Kneron designs chips for a wide range of use cases, from manufacturing, smart homes, smartphones, robotics, surveillance and payments, to autonomous driving. It doesn’t just make chips but also the AI software embedded in the chips, a strategy that Liu said differentiates his company from China’s AI darlings like SenseTime and Megvii, which enable AI service through the cloud.

Kneron has also been on a less aggressive funding pace than these companies, which fuel their rapid expansion through outsize financing rounds. Six-year-old SenseTime has raised about $2.6 billion to date, while nine-year-old Megvii has banked about $1.4 billion. Kneron, in comparison, has raised just over $70 million from a Series A round.

Like the Chinese AI upstarts, Kneron is weighing an initial public offering. The company is expected to make a profit in 2023, Liu said, and “that will probably be a good time for us to go IPO.”

Categories: Business News

Google backs India’s Dunzo in $40 million funding round

2021, January 19 - 6:57pm

Google is writing a check to another startup in India. The Android-maker, which last year unveiled a $10 billion fund to invest in the world’s second-largest internet market, said on Tuesday that it is participating in a $40 million investment round of hyperlocal delivery startup Dunzo, a Bangalore-based firm that it has also previously backed.

Five-year-old Dunzo said Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria among others participated in its Series E financing round, which brings its to-date raise to $121 million.

Dunzo operates an eponymous hyper-local delivery service in nearly a dozen cities in India, including Bangalore, Delhi, Noida, Pune, Gurgaon, Powai, Hyderabad and Chennai. Users get access to a wide range of items across several categories, from grocery, perishables, pet supplies and medicines to dinner from their neighborhood stores and restaurants.

Google-backed Dunzo raises $45M to expand its hyperlocal delivery startup in India

E-commerce accounts for less than 3% of all retail sales in India, according to industry estimates. Mom and pop stores and other neighborhood outlets that dot tens of thousands of cities, towns, villages and slums across the country drive most of the sales in the nation.

In a way, Dunzo is reimagining how e-commerce and delivery could be done in India, thereby posing a challenge to Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart, as well as local food and grocery delivery startups such as Swiggy, Zomato, BigBasket and Grofers. Several people also use Dunzo to pick up and move random items such as a laptop charger or a wallet or a lunch box from one point in the city to another.

“As merchants go digital, Dunzo is helping small businesses in their digital transformation journey in support of business recovery,” said Caesar Sengupta, VP, Google, in a statement. “Through our India Digitization Fund, we’re committed to partnering with India’s innovative startups to build a truly inclusive digital economy that will benefit everyone.”

Kabeer Biswas, chief executive and co-founder of Dunzo, said the startup has grown its annual gross merchandise value business to about $100 million. (GMV used to a popular metric that several e-commerce firms relied on to demonstrate their growth; however, it’s one of the meaningless ways to gauge a startup’s growth. Most firms have stopped using GMV. Additionally, when a startup speaks GMV language, traditionally it has meant they are anything but close to profitability, which happens to be true in the case of Dunzo.)

“Dunzo’s mission resonated stronger than ever in 2020. We have been amazed by everything merchants and users have started to depend on the platform for. We truly believe we are writing a playbook for how hyperlocal businesses can be built with sustainable unit economics and capital responsibility. As a team, we are more focused than ever to enable local Merchants to get closer to their Users and build one of the most loved consumer brands in the country,” Biswas said in a statement.

Google, which invested $4.5 billion in Jio Platforms last year, recently backed social news app DailyHunt and Glance, a part of ad giant InMobi Group that is aggressively expanding ways to populate content on Android users’ lockscreens. Google is also in talks with local social media ShareChat and may alone invest more than $100 million in the Indian startup, TechCrunch reported earlier this month. Talks about Google’s interest in ShareChat has previously also been reported by local media houses Economic Times and ET Now.

Google and Snap in talks to invest in India’s ShareChat

Categories: Business News

Health insurance startup Alan launches free medical app Alan Baby

2021, January 19 - 6:50pm

French startup Alan is generating 100% of its revenue from health insurance products — and that isn’t going to change. But the company wants to start a conversation with a bigger use base. Alan is going to launch multiple mobile apps that let you learn more about health topics, contact a doctor and chat with the community.

“We are proud to announce today that we’re launching free medical apps for everyone,” co-founder and CEO Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve said in a virtual press conference. “We’re going to develop services for specific groups of people who are facing specific issues or questions.”

And the company is starting with Alan Baby. As you can guess from the name, Alan Baby helps you stay on top of your baby’s health. The company has chosen to focus on that segment as your baby’s health can be a great source of mental stress.

When you first open the app, you get a feed of articles on specific topics, from sleep to nutrition and child development. You can get relevant articles by entering the birthdate of your child as you often don’t have the same questions at day one and day 100.

If you’re concerned about data, Alan says that it doesn’t leverage data for its insurance products — you can optionally enter the age in Alan Baby to customize content but that’s it. Health insurance companies in France don’t have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to data. Companies sign a health insurance contract for their employees. Insurance companies can’t accept or deny someone after that. They can’t set a higher price due to medial history.

While parents usually have 10 pediatrician appointments in the first year, you may have a burning question that cannot wait that long. From Alan Baby, you can start a text discussion with a doctor. The company says users should expect an answer within 24 hours.

Alan had already hired doctors for a similar messaging feature for its users who are covered under the health insurance products. The company is opening up that feature to more users beyond its paid customers.

Finally, people who install Alan Baby can interact with each other in the community section. It works a bit like an online forum on health topics, except that it’s mobile-first and Alan wants to moderate it with some help from its doctors.

“Thanks to what we’re setting up for parents, we will be able to extend it to other topics soon,” Samuelian-Werve said. He names fertility, mental health or diabetes as potential topics for other free apps.

While the apps are going to be free, the company expects to attract new clients for its health insurance thanks to those new apps. Essentially, Alan is broadening the top of its sales funnel with free apps.

Alan Baby is rolling out progressively in France. There’s a waitlist and the iOS app is available to pre-order (for free) in the App Store.

An update on the health insurance products

Back in October, Samuelian-Werve told me that 100,000 were covered through Alan. A few months later, 139,000 people are covered through one Alan insurance product or another. Overall, 8,300 companies have chosen the company as their health insurance provider. Basically, Alan’s user base has more than doubled in 2020.

In France, employees are covered by both the national healthcare system and private insurance companies. So Alan convinces other companies to use its product for its employees. The company has obtained its own health insurance license, which means that it can customize its health insurance products completely depending on the segment and client.

The company is also operating in Spain and Belgium. But it’s been a slow start with 300 members in Spain and 500 members in Belgium. Alan is going to focus on those two markets before launching new countries in the future.

Health insurance startup Alan lets you chat with a doctor

Categories: Business News

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