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African payment startup Chipper Cash raises $13.8M Series A

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has closed a $13.8 million Series A funding round led by Deciens Capital and plans to hire 30 new staff globally.

The raise caps an event filled run for the San Francisco based payments company, founded two years ago by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled.

The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.

The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds.

Two years and $22 million in total capital raised later, Chipper Cash offers its mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.

“We’re now at over one and a half million users and doing over a $100 million dollars a month in volume,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.

Chipper Cash does not release audited financial data, but does share internal performance accounting with investors. Deciens Capital and Raptor Group co-led the startup’s Series A financing, with repeat support from 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures .

Deciens Capital founder Dan Kimmerling confirmed the fund’s lead on the investment and review of Chipper Cash’s payment value and volume metrics.

Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout: a merchant-focused, fee-based mobile payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business.

The company will use its latest round to hire up to 30 people across operations in San Francisco, Lagos, London, Nairobi and New York — according to Serunjogi.

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

Chipper Cash has already brought on a new compliance officer, Lisa Dawson, whose background includes stints with the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and Citigroup’s anti-money laundering department.

“You know in the world we live in the AML side is very important so it’s an area that we want to invest in from the get go,” said Serunjogi.

He confirmed Dawson’s role aligned with getting Chipper Cash ready to meet regulatory requirements for new markets, but declined to name specific countries.

With the round announcement, Chipper Cash also revealed a corporate social responsibility component to its business. Related to current U.S. events, the startup has formed the Chipper Fund for Black Lives.

“We’ve been huge beneficiaries of the generosity and openness of this country and its entrepreneurial spirit,” explained Serunjogi. “But growing up in Africa, we’ve were able to navigate [the U.S.] without the traumas and baggage our African American friends have gone through living in America.”

The Chipper Fund for Black Lives will give 5 to 10 grants of $5,000 to $10,000. “The plan is to give that to…people or causes who are furthering social justice reforms,” said Serunjogi.

In Africa, Chipper Cash has placed itself in the continent’s major digital payments markets. As a sector, fintech has become Africa’s highest funded tech space, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Those ventures, and a number of the continent’s established banks, are in a race to build market share through financial inclusion.

By several estimates — including The Global Findex Database — the continent is home to the largest percentage of the world’s unbanked population, with a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Increasingly, Nigeria has become the most significant fintech market in Africa, with the continent’s largest economy and population of 200 million.

Chipper Cash expanded there in 2019 and faces competition from a number of players, including local payments venture Paga. More recently, outside entrants have jumped into Nigeria’s fintech scene.

In 2019, Chinese investors put $220 million into OPay (owned by Opera) and PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale first in West Africa and then the broader continent.

Over the next several years, expect to see market events — such as fails, acquisitions, or IPOs — determine how well funded fintech startups, including Chipper Cash, fare in Africa’s fintech arena.

Comcast launches SportsTech startup accelerator with NASCAR and others

Comcast NBCUniversal believes its can access startup innovation while supporting future Olympic gold-medalists.

The American mass media company launched its new SportsTech accelerator today, based in part, on that impetus.

TechCrunch attended a briefing with Comcast execs at 30 Rock NYC to learn more about the initiative.

The SportsTech accelerator is a partnership across Comcast NBCUniversal’s sports media brands: NBC Sports, Sky Sports and the Golf Channel.

The program brings in industry partners NASCAR, U.S. Ski & Snowboard and USA Swimming — all of whose sports broadcast on Comcast NBC channels.

Starting today, pre-Series A sports technology startups can apply to become part of a 10-company cohort.

Accepted ventures will gain $50,000 in equity-based funding and enter SportsTech’s three-month accelerator boot camp — with sports industry support and mentorship — to kick off at Comcast’s Atlanta offices August 2020.

Boomtown Accelerators will join Comcast in managing the SportsTech program, with both sharing a minimum of 6% equity in selected startups.

Industry partners, such as NASCAR and U.S. Ski & Snowboard, will play an advisory role in startup selection, but won’t add capital.

An overarching objective for SportsTech emerged during conversations with execs and Jenna Kurath, Comcast’s VP for Startup Partner Development, who will run the new accelerator.

Comcast and partners aim to access innovation that could advance the business and competitive aspects of each organization.

From McDonald’s McD Tech Labs to Mastercard’s Start Path, corporate incubators and accelerators have become common in large cap America, where companies look to tap startup ingenuity and deal-flow to adapt and hedge disruption.

Toward its own goals, SportsTech has designated several preferred startup categories. They include Business of Sports, Team and Coach Success and Athlete and Player Performance.

SportsTech partners, such as NASCAR, hope to access innovation to drive greater audience engagement. The motorsport series (and its advertising-base) has become more device-distributed, and NASCAR streams more race-day data live, from the pits to the driver’s seat.

“The focus has grown into what are we going to do to introduce more technology in the competition side of the sport…the fan experience side and how we operate as a business,” said NASCAR Chief Innovation Officer Craig Neeb.

“We’re confident we’re going to get access to some incredibly strong and innovative companies,” he said of NASCAR’s SportsTech participation.

U.S. Ski & Snowboard — the nonprofit that manages America’s snowsport competition teams  — has an eye on performance and medical tech for its athletes.

“Wearable technology [to measure performance]…is an area of interest…and things like computer vision and artificial intelligence for us to better understand technical elements, are quite interesting,” said Troy Taylor, U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Director of High Performance.

US Ski Team

Credit: U.S. Ski & Snowboard

Some of that technology could boost prospects of U.S. athletes, such as alpine skiers Tommy Ford and Mikaela Shiffrin, at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

In a $7.75 billion deal inked in 2014, Comcast NBCUniversal purchased the U.S. broadcast rights for Olympic competition —  summer and winter —  through 2032.

“We asked ourselves, ‘could we do more?’ The notion of an innovation engine that runs before, during and after the Olympics. Could that give our Team USA a competitive edge in their pursuit for gold?,” said Jenna Kurath.

The answer came up in the affirmative and led to the formation of Comcast’s SportsTech accelerator.

Beyond supporting Olympic achievement, there is a strategic business motivation for Comcast and its new organization.

“The early insights we gain from these companies could lead to other commercial relationships, whether that’s licensing or even acquisition,” Will McIntosh, EVP for NBC Sports Digital and Consumer Business, told TechCrunch.

SportsTech is Comcast’s third accelerator, and the organization has a VC fund, San Francisco-based Comcast Ventures — which has invested in the likes of Lyft, Vimeo and Slack and racked up 67 exits, per Crunchbase data.

After completing the SportsTech accelerator, cohort startups could receive series-level investment or purchase offers from Comcast, its venture arm or industry partners, such as NASCAR.

“Our natural discipline right now is…to have early deliverables. But overtime, with our existing partners, we’ll have conversations about who else could be a logical value-add to bring into this ecosystem,” said Bill Connors, Comcast Central Division President.

Impossible adds ‘ground pork’ and ‘sausages’ to its lineup of plant-based foods

Impossible Foods made huge waves in the food industry when it came up with a way of isolating and using “heme” molecules from plants to mimic the blood found in animal meat (also comprised of heme), bringing a new depth of flavor to its vegetarian burger.

This week at CES, the company is presenting the next act in its mission to get the average consumer to switch to more sustainable, plant-based proteins: it unveiled its version of pork — specifically ground pork, which will be sold as a basic building block for cooking as well as in sausage form. It’s a critical step, given that pork is the most-eaten animal product in the world.

Impossible has set up shop in CES’s outdoor area, situated near a line of food trucks, and it will be cooking food for whoever wants to come by. (I tasted a selection of items made from the new product — a steamed bun, a meatball, some noodles and a lettuce wrap — and the resemblance is uncanny, and not bad at all.) And after today, the new product will be making its way first to selected Burger King restaurants in the US before appearing elsewhere.

It may sound a little far-fetched to see a food startup exhibiting and launching new products at a consumer electronics show, attended by 200,000 visitors who will likely by outnumbered by the number of TVs, computers, phones, and other electronic devices on display. Indeed, Impossible is the only food exhibitor this year.

But if you ask Pat Brown, the CEO and founder of Impossible Foods (pictured right, at the sunny CES stand in the cold wearing a hat), the company is in precisely the right place.

“To me it’s very natural to be at CES,” he said in an interview this week at the show. “The food system is the most important technology on earth. It is absolutely a technology, and an incredibly important one, even if it doesn’t get recognised as such. The use of animals as a food technology is the most destructive on earth. And when Impossible was founded, it was to address that issue. We recognised it as a technology problem.”

That is also how Impossible has positioned itself as a startup. Its emergence (it was founded 2011) dovetailed with an interesting shift in the world of tech. The number of startups were booming, fuelled by VC money and a boom in smartphones and broadband. At the same time, we were starting to see a new kind of startup emerging built on technology but disrupting a wide range of areas not traditionally associated with technology. Technology VCs, looking for more opportunities (and needing to invest increasingly larger funds), were opening themselves up to consider more of the latter opportunities.

Impossible has seized the moment. It has raised around $777 million to date from a list of investors more commonly associated with tech companies — they include Khosla, Temasek, Horizons Ventures, GV, and a host of celebrities — and Impossible is now estimated to be valued at around $4 billion. Brown told me it is currently more than doubling revenues annually.  

With his roots in academia, the idea of Brown (who has also done groundbreaking work in HIV research) founding and running a business is perhaps as left-field a development as a food company making the leap from commodity or packaged good business to tech. Before Impossible, Brown said that he had “zero interest” in becoming an entrepreneur: the bug that has bitten so many others at Stanford (where he was working prior to founding Impossible) had not bitten him.

“I had an awesome job where I followed my curiosity, working on problems that I found interesting and important with great colleagues,” he said.

That changed when he began to realise the scale of the problem resulting from the meat industry, which has led to a well-catalogued list of health, economic and environmental impacts (including increased greenhouse gas emissions and the removal of natural ecosystems to make way for farming land. “It is the most important and consequential issue for the future of the world, and so the solution has to be market-based,” he said. “The only way we can replace themes that are this destructive is by coming up with a better technology and competing.”

Pork is a necessary step in that strategy to compete. America, it seems, is all about beef and chicken when it comes to eating animals. But pigs and pork take the cake when you consider meat consumption globally, accounting for 38% of all meat production, with 47 pigs killed on average every second of every day. Asia, and specifically China, figure strongly in that demand. Consumption of pork in China has increased 140% since 1990, Impossible notes.

Pigs’ collective footprint in the world is also huge: there are 1.44 billion of them, and their collective biomass totals 175 kg, twice as much as the biomass of all wild terrestrial vertebrates, Impossible says.

Whether Impossible’s version of pork will be enough or just an incremental step is another question. Ground meat is not the same as creating structured proteins that mimic the whole-cuts that are common (probably more common) when it comes to how pork is typically cooked (ditto for chicken and beef and other meats).

That might likely require more capital and time to develop.

For now, Impossible is focused on building out its business on its own steam: it’s not entertaining any thoughts of selling up, or even of licensing out its IP for isolating and using soy leghemoglobin — the essential “blood” that sets its veggie proteins apart from other things on the market. (I think of licensing out that IP, as the equivalent of how a tech company might white label or create APIs for third parties to integrate its cool stuff into their services.)

That means there will be inevitable questions down the line about how Impossible will capitalise to meet demand for its products. Brown said that for now there are no plans for IPOs or to raise more externally, but pointed out that it would have no problem doing either.

Indeed, the company has built up an impressive bench of executives and other talent to meet those future scenarios. Earlier this year, Impossible hired Dennis Woodside — the former Dropbox, Google and Motorola star– as its first president. And its CFO, David Lee, joined from Zynga back in 2015, with a stint also in the mass-market food industry, having been at Del Monte prior to that.

Lee told me that the company has essentially been running itself as a public company internally in preparation for a time when it might follow in the footsteps of its biggest competitor, Beyond Meat, and go public.

“From a tech standpoint I’m absolutely confident that we can outperform what we get from animals in affordability, nutrition and deliciousness,” said Brown. “This entire industry is most destructive by far and has major responsibility in terms of climate and biodiversity, but it going to be history and we are going to replace it.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Introducing ‘Dear Sophie,’ an advice column for U.S.-bound immigrant employees

Sophie Alcorn
Contributor

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.

Extra Crunch is excited to announce the launch of “Dear Sophie,” an advice column with answers for all your questions on attracting, hiring and retaining immigrant employees — and more.

Dear Sophie is a collaborative forum hosted by ExtraCrunch and curated by Sophie Alcorn, certified as a Specialist Attorney in Immigration and Nationality Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law, the fastest-growing immigration law firm in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.”


Dear Reader,

As I pack my bags to speak at TechCrunch Disrupt in Berlin this week, I’m happy to announce the first edition of my new column, Dear Sophie. I’m excited to answer your questions about U.S. immigration!

And, If you’re in the area, I invite you to join me at Disrupt Berlin 2019. You can use promo code ALCORN for discounted admission and meet me in person for a free consultation with CrunchMatch, or attend one of my two sessions: 

Hope to see you there,

Sophie


Dear Sophie: I’m scared: I feel like I should really be in Silicon Valley to grow my company, but everything I read about immigration makes it sound so hard. Is my dream possible?

— Dreaming in Dresden

Dear Dreaming: Yes, coming to the U.S. to build a startup is absolutely possible. In fact, I see founders like you do it all the time. Your dream is valid and definitely worth pursuing.

The first piece of advice I’d give you is to be careful about which news sources you trust! You might not be getting the whole story. While dramatic changes are taking place in the United States, we still have a functioning immigration system that allows people to come live and work here — people just like you. 

The second piece of advice I have is to research the many visa and green card options that can allow you to come to the United States and grow your company (you can read about them on my blog). You’ll find that some visas grant you the ability to work for the short-term or the long-term (potentially), and some allow you to visit and see what things are like here. 

With these visas, you can find a co-founder and build the early stage of your company, establish a U.S. branch of your existing business, seek venture capital and so much more. 

The third piece of advice I have is to really clarify why you want to come to America — that way, you can be strategic about achieving your goals. You might require a little guidance here, which is one example of where immigration lawyers like myself can be helpful. 

When I meet people in your situation, I reassure them that, not only are they safe to dream with me, but I’ve also helped hundreds of people just like them realize their dreams, even when they didn’t believe it was possible. Almost everybody who comes here once asked the same questions you’re asking.

My last piece of advice is simply to follow your heart. The world needs your ideas and contributions. There are lots of resources and ways to get informed and educated, which is the first step on this journey. Once you have a clear vision, you can work to make your dream a reality — It’s not always easy, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

You’ve already asked for help, which is a great way to get started. I wish you the best!

Dear Sophie: I have a startup that has been quite successful in Germany. What’s the best way for me to spend some time in the United States exploring product-market fit, gauging business development, and talking to venture capitalists?

— Founder in Frankfurt

Dear Founder: Congratulations on your startup! And bravo for considering taking steps toward strengthening the U.S. marketplace. 

The first thing I suggest you decide is how long it will likely take for you to accomplish your goals. 

If you think you can get the answers you need in less than 90 days, the answer is pretty simple: apply for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), which is available to citizens of about 40 countries (including Germany). You’re allowed to visit for business or pleasure with ESTA, but you’re not allowed to work — and you must definitely depart the United States before the end of the authorized period. 

ESTA could be great for a short business trip or a brief accelerator program in Silicon Valley. Be careful with programs that run longer than 90 days. I’ve seen founders in these longer programs leave on day 88 to go back home for a week and then return to the U.S. to complete the program, hoping that this is a safe workaround of the time limit. Remember that ESTA is a non-immigrant status, and if Customs and Border Protection suspects that you are trying to live here or work here, they have the authority to deny your entry to the United States. 

On the other hand, if you know you’ll need to spend 4-6 months in the U.S. without interruption, I suggest you talk to an attorney about the possibility of applying for a B-1/B-2 visitor visa (even if you have ESTA). A visitor visa allows you to stay in the U.S. for up to six months on a single visit. 

People often ask me how long they can stay in the U.S. during a calendar year or how long they need to be outside of the United States after a six-month visit. While there is no fixed answer to these questions, I remind them that ESTA, B-1, and B-2 are non-immigrant statuses, Customs and Border Protection has the authority to deny you entry if you appear to be living or working in the U.S. In my experience, reentry seems OK when people are spending less than 50% of the time in the country as visitors. Still, it’s always best to talk with an attorney about your particular situation. For example, sometimes our clients request that we provide them with letters of support explaining why their trip is temporary, which they can show to the officers at the airport if they get questioned.

I encourage people in your situation to at least come for 90 days. It’s a great opportunity to network, have some great conversations, and clarify your long-term goals in the U.S. Take some time to think about it, reach out online, so you have things set up before you arrive, and plan out your finances so you can make the most of your trip. I’m wishing you every success!

Dear Sophie: I am a venture capitalist, and my fund recently had great success. We’re now raising a second round and building out the infrastructure of our organization. I have a brilliant contractor working for me who scouts new startups. She was born in India, just got her Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from an Ivy League university, and was also recently accepted back into a Master’s program there. I want to help her plan for her future. Can she keep working for me after OPT, or should she go back to school? How do these choices affect her prospects for short-term and long-term chances for immigration?

— Venture in Venice Beach

Los Angeles-based BuildOps, subcontracting software for real estate, raises $5.8 million

Software development companies tackling services for niche industries, like commercial real estate subcontracting, continue to find Los Angeles to be fertile ground for development.

The latest company to raise funding from a clutch of investors is BuildOps, which raised $5.8 million in seed financing from some big names in the Los Angeles tech ecosystem.

Led by Fika Ventures, with additional investments from MetaProp VC, Global Founders Capital, CrossCut Ventures, TenOneTen, IGSB, 1984 Ventures, L2 Ventures, GroundUp, NBA all-star Metta World Peace, Oberndorf Enterprises, Wolfson Group and scouts from Sequoia Capital, the new financing will be used to support the company’s continued growth.

BuildOps sells software that integrates scheduling, dispatching, inventory management, contracts, workflow and accounting into a single software package for commercial real estate contractors with staff ranging from a few dozen to several hundred employees.

Software for the service industry is nothing new for Los Angeles entrepreneurs. The unicorn ServiceTitan hails from the greater Los Angeles area and a number of other software as a service businesses are calling the greater Los Angeles area home.

It’s hard to argue with the size of the commercial construction market. Over the past three years, commercial construction spending grew from $626 billion to $807 billion, according to data provided by the company. And while most large vendors — architects, general contractors and property management companies — have some project management software, the fragmented group of subcontractors that provide services to those customers has remained resistant to adopting new technologies, the company said.

The firm was co-founded by former ServiceTitan developer Neeraj Mittal; Microsoft, Nextag, Swurv and Fundly former executive Steve Chew; and Alok Chanani, who previously founded a commercial real estate company and was a former commander of a transportation unit of the Army in Iraq.

“At BuildOps, we are on a mission to bring a true all-in-one solution on the latest technology to the people who keep America’s hospitals, power plants and commercial real estate running. We are privileged to be working closely with some of the country’s top commercial contractors,” said Chanani.

That sentiment is echoed by Liquid 2 Ventures managing partner and former National Football League superstar, Joe Montana .

“Liquid 2 Ventures has an investment thesis in supporting America’s working class and I just love the idea of making their lives far easier and better. You have one solution that does it all and talks seamlessly to every single part of their business from parts to ordering to inventory and more,” said Montana in a statement. “There are very few world-class technology solutions for commercial subcontractors like this and we believe in the founders.”

DJI launches new industrial drones for agriculture and new services for industry customers

DJI announced two new drones and a new initiative to support first responders during natural disasters and recovery missions with drone technologies as it moves to consolidate its position as the leading drone technology provider.

The company hyped its new multispectral drone as the world’s first fully integrated multispectral imaging drone to enable more efficient land management and the Agras T16, which is a spray drone to apply fertilizers and pesticides to field crops and orchards.

For first responders, the company is working with pre-selected U.S.-based partners to equip state and local public safety agencies with hardware and software from the company.  Initially DJI is working with public and volunteer institutions like the Los Angeles Fire Department, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, and the volunteer-based Public Safety Unmanned Response Team North Texas. Companies distributing and managing services include FlyMotion and Axon (which was formerly known as Taser International).

These partnerships are being pursued even as the U.S. military has officially banned the use of DJI drones over security concerns since 2017. The military still purchases DJI drones on a case-by-case basis, but there have been a number of red flags raised by U.S. defense and intelligence officials over the potential threat that using Chinese equipment may pose to national security.

“This program builds on DJI’s growing commitment to the public safety industry, as more than 900 public safety organizations across the United States, including the Los Angeles Fire Department, are deploying DJI drones for lifesaving activities,” said Romeo Durscher, Director of Public Safety Integration at DJI. “To date, at least 278 people around the world have been rescued from peril by drones and this program will ensure that many more lives are saved by mitigating the risks to emergency responders on the ground and on the front lines of natural disasters.”

Drone hardware and software distributed through the program will include DJI’s most advanced technologies including the DJI Matrice 200 series and Mavic 2 Enterprise series drones, accessories and batteries, powerful visual and thermal cameras, DJI’s FlightHub drone fleet management software, and DJI AeroScope for airspace management and unauthorized drone detection and mitigation. In addition, DJI will provide technical support, repair services, and on-site manpower to help organizations more effectively and efficiently deploy drone technology in times of need.

“Over the past year DJI has focused on delivering enterprise-grade drone technology that enables some of the most sophisticated businesses and government agencies in America to safely and securely deploy drone technology into their daily operations,” said Mario Rebello, Vice President and Americas Regional Manager at DJI. “This year we aim to put our easy-to-use drones in the hands of farmers, agronomists, and land stewards to help manage their lands in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way, while also making sure we equip emergency responders with access to the industry’s best tools and support they need to rapidly respond and save lives during natural disasters.”

DJI also took the opportunity to show off its drones as a platform for other technology developers, with FLIR Systems introducing its first multi-gas detector integrated with the DJI Matrice 210 drone for applications in chemical, industrial and environmental monitoring. DJI is allowing for even more development with the creation of a DJI X-Port, a gimbal attachment that allows hardware developers to integrate their own sensors, cameras, and arrays. The X-Port features built-in communication APIs, SkyPort integration, and . a gimbal debugging interface to bring more sensors to market.

Finally, the company introduced new service protection plans like the “Enterprise Shield Basic Renew”, which offers a reduced price product replacement for a damaged drone within one year of purchase and a “Shield Plus Renew” plan, which offers unlimited product replacements or free repair services within a year for the coverage amount a company purchases.

Cities that didn’t win HQ2 shouldn’t be counted out

Scott Andes
Contributor

Scott Andes is the program director for the National League of Cities City Innovation Ecosystem program.

The more than year-long dance between cities and Amazon for its second headquarters is finally over, with New York City and Washington, DC, capturing the big prize. With one of the largest economic development windfalls in a generation on the line, 238 cities used every tactic in the book to court the company – including offering to rename a city “Amazon” and appointing Jeff Bezos “mayor for life.”

Now that the process, and hysteria, are over, and cities have stopped asking “how can we get Amazon,” we’d like to ask a different question: How can cities build stronger start-up ecosystems for the Amazon yet to be built?

In September 2017, Amazon announced that it would seek a second headquarters. But rather than being the typical site selection process, this would become a highly publicized Hunger Games-esque scenario.

An RFP was proffered on what the company sought, and it included everything any good urbanist would want, with walkability, transportation and cultural characteristics on the docket. But of course, incentives were also high on the list.

Amazon could have been a transformational catalyst for a plethora of cities throughout the US, but instead, it chose two superstar cities: the number one and five metro areas by GDP which, combined, amounts to a nearly $2 trillion GDP. These two metro areas also have some of the highest real estate prices in the country, a swath of high paying jobs and of course power — financial and political — close at hand.

Perhaps the take-away for cities isn’t that we should all be so focused on hooking that big fish from afar, but instead that we should be growing it in our own waters. Amazon itself is a great example of this. It’s worth remembering that over the course of a quarter century, Amazon went from a garage in Seattle’s suburbs to consuming 16 percent — or 81 million square feet — of the city’s downtown. On the other end of the spectrum, the largest global technology company in 1994 (the year of Amazon’s birth) was Netscape, which no longer exists.

The upshot is that cities that rely only on attracting massive technology companies are usually too late.

At the National League of Cities, we think there are ways to expand the pie that don’t reinforce existing spatial inequalities. This is exactly the idea behind the launch of our city innovation ecosystems commitments process. With support from the Schmidt Futures Foundation, fifty cities, ranging from rural townships, college towns, and major metros, have joined with over 200 local partners and leveraged over $100 million in regional and national resources to support young businesses, leverage technology and expand STEM education and workforce training for all.

The investments these cities are making today may in fact be the precursor to some of the largest tech companies of the future.

With that idea in mind, here are eight cities that didn’t win HQ2 bids but are ensuring their cities will be prepared to create the next tranche of high-growth startups. 

Austin

Austin just built a medical school adjacent to a tier one research university, the University of Texas. It’s the first such project to be completed in America in over fifty years. To ensure the addition translates into economic opportunity for the city, Austin’s public, private and civic leaders have come together to create Capital City Innovation to launch the city’s first Innovation District at the new medical school. This will help expand the city’s already world class startup ecosystem into the health and wellness markets.

Baltimore

Baltimore is home to over $2 billion in academic research, ranking it third in the nation behind Boston and Philadelphia. In order to ensure everyone participates in the expanding research-based startup ecosystem, the city is transforming community recreation centers into maker and technology training centers to connect disadvantaged youth and families to new skills and careers in technology. The Rec-to-Tech Initiative will begin with community design sessions at four recreation centers, in partnership with the Digital Harbor Foundation, to create a feasibility study and implementation plan to review for further expansion.

Buffalo

The 120-acre Buffalo Niagara Medical Center (BNMC) is home to eight academic institutions and hospitals and over 150 private technology and health companies. To ensure Buffalo’s startups reflect the diversity of its population, the Innovation Center at BNMC has just announced a new program to provide free space and mentorship to 10 high potential minority- and/or women-owned start-ups.

Denver

Like Seattle, real estate development in Denver is growing at a feverish rate. And while the growth is bringing new opportunity, the city is expanding faster than the workforce can keep pace. To ensure a sustainable growth trajectory, Denver has recruited the Next Generation City Builders to train students and retrain existing workers to fill high-demand jobs in architecture, design, construction and transportation. 

Providence

With a population of 180,000, Providence is home to eight higher education institutions – including Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design – making it a hub for both technical and creative talent. The city of Providence, in collaboration with its higher education institutions and two hospital systems, has created a new public-private-university partnership, the Urban Innovation Partnership, to collectively contribute and support the city’s growing innovation economy. 

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh may have once been known as a steel town, but today it is a global mecca for robotics research, with over 4.5 times the national average robotics R&D within its borders. Like Baltimore, Pittsburgh is creating a more inclusive innovation economy through a Rec-to-Tech program that will re-invest in the city’s 10 recreational centers, connecting students and parents to the skills needed to participate in the economy of the future. 

Tampa

Tampa is already home to 30,000 technical and scientific consultant and computer design jobs — and that number is growing. To meet future demand and ensure the region has an inclusive growth strategy, the city of Tampa, with 13 university, civic and private sector partners, has announced “Future Innovators of Tampa Bay.” The new six-year initiative seeks to provide the opportunity for every one of the Tampa Bay Region’s 600,000 K-12 students to be trained in digital creativity, invention and entrepreneurship.

These eight cities help demonstrate the innovation we are seeing on the ground now, all throughout the country. The seeds of success have been planted with people, partnerships and public leadership at the fore. Perhaps they didn’t land HQ2 this time, but when we fast forward to 2038 — and the search for Argo AISparkCognition or Welltok’s new headquarters is well underway — the groundwork will have been laid for cities with strong ecosystems already in place to compete on an even playing field.

How did Thumbtack win the on-demand services market?

Earlier today, the services marketplace Thumbtack held a small conference for 300 of its best gig economy workers at an event space in San Francisco.

For the nearly ten-year-old company the event was designed to introduce some new features and a redesign of its brand that had softly launched earlier in the week. On hand, in addition to the services professionals who’d paid their way from locations across the U.S. were the company’s top executives.

It’s the latest step in the long journey that Thumbtack took to become one of the last companies standing with a consumer facing marketplace for services.

Back in 2008, as the global financial crisis was only just beginning to tear at the fabric of the U.S. economy, entrepreneurs at companies like Thumbtack andTaskRabbit were already hard at work on potential patches.

This was the beginning of what’s now known as the gig economy. In addition to Thumbtack and TaskRabbit, young companies like Handy, Zaarly, and several others — all began by trying to build better marketplaces for buyers and sellers of services. Their timing, it turns out, was prescient.

In snowy Boston during the winter of 2008, Kevin Busque and his wife Leah were building RunMyErrand, the marketplace service that would become TaskRabbit, as a way to avoid schlepping through snow to pick up dog food .

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Marco Zappacosta, a young entrepreneur whose parents were the founders of Logitech, and a crew of co-founders including were building Thumbtack, a professional services marketplace from a home office they shared.

As these entrepreneurs built their businesses in northern California (amid the early years of a technology renaissance fostered by patrons made rich from returns on investments in companies like Google and Salesforce.com), the rest of America was stumbling.

In the two years between 2008 and 2010 the unemployment rate in America doubled, rising from 5% to 10%. Professional services workers were hit especially hard as banks, insurance companies, realtors, contractors, developers and retailers all retrenched — laying off staff as the economy collapsed under the weight of terrible loans and a speculative real estate market.

Things weren’t easy for Thumbtack’s founders at the outset in the days before its $1.3 billion valuation and last hundred plus million dollar round of funding. “One of the things that really struck us about the team, was just how lean they were. At the time they were operating out of a house, they were still cooking meals together,” said Cyan Banister, one of the company’s earliest investors and a partner at the multi-billion dollar venture firm, Founders Fund.

“The only thing they really ever spent money on, was food… It was one of these things where they weren’t extravagant, they were extremely purposeful about every dollar that they spent,” Banister said. “They basically slept at work, and were your typical startup story of being under the couch. Every time I met with them, the story was, in the very early stages was about the same for the first couple years, which was, we’re scraping Craigslist, we’re starting to get some traction.”

The idea of powering a Craigslist replacement with more of a marketplace model was something that appealed to Thumbtack’s earliest investor and champion, the serial entrepreneur and angel investor Jason Calcanis.

Thumbtack chief executive Marco Zappacosta

“I remember like it was yesterday when Marco showed me Thumbtack and I looked at this and I said, ‘So, why are you building this?’ And he said, ‘Well, if you go on Craigslist, you know, it’s like a crap shoot. You post, you don’t know. You read a post… you know… you don’t know how good the person is. There’re no reviews.’” Calcanis said. “He had made a directory. It wasn’t the current workflow you see in the app — that came in year three I think. But for the first three years, he built a directory. And he showed me the directory pages where he had a photo of the person, the services provided, the bio.”

The first three years were spent developing a list of vendors that the company had verified with a mailing address, a license, and a certificate of insurance for people who needed some kind of service. Those three features were all Calcanis needed to validate the deal and pull the trigger on an initial investment.

“That’s when I figured out my personal thesis of angel investing,” Calcanis said.

“Some people are market based; some people want to invest in certain demographics or psychographics; immigrant kids or Stanford kids, whatever. Mine is just, ‘Can you make a really interesting product and are your decisions about that product considered?’ And when we discuss those decisions, do I feel like you’re the person who should build this product for the world And it’s just like there’s a big sign above Marco’s head that just says ‘Winner! Winner! Winner!’”

Indeed, it looks like Zappacosta and his company are now running what may be their victory lap in their tenth year as a private company. Thumbtack will be profitable by 2019 and has rolled out a host of new products in the last six months.

Their thesis, which flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day, was to build a product which offered listings of any service a potential customer could want in any geography across the U.S. Other companies like Handy and TaskRabbit focused on the home, but on Thumbtack (like any good community message board) users could see postings for anything from repairman to reiki lessons and magicians to musicians alongside the home repair services that now make up the bulk of its listings.

“It’s funny, we had business plans and documents that we wrote and if you look back, the vision that we outlined then, is very similar to the vision we have today. We honestly looked around and we said, ‘We want to solve a problem that impacts a huge number of people. The local services base is super inefficient. It’s really difficult for customers to find trustworthy, reliable people who are available for the right price,’” said Sander Daniels, a co-founder at the company. 

“For pros, their number one concern is, ‘Where do I put money in my pocket next? How do I put food on the table for my family next?’ We said, ‘There is a real human problem here. If we can connect these people to technology and then, look around, there are these global marketplace for products: Amazon, Ebay, Alibaba, why can’t there be a global marketplace for services?’ It sounded crazy to say it at the time and it still sounds crazy to say, but that is what the dream was.”

Daniels acknowledges that the company changed the direction of its product, the ways it makes money, and pivoted to address issues as they arose, but the vision remained constant. 

Meanwhile, other startups in the market have shifted their focus. Indeed as Handy has shifted to more of a professional services model rather than working directly with consumers and TaskRabbit has been acquired by Ikea, Thumbtack has doubled down on its independence and upgrading its marketplace with automation tools to make matching service providers with customers that much easier.

Late last year the company launched an automated tool serving up job requests to its customers — the service providers that pay the company a fee for leads generated by people searching for services on the company’s app or website.

Thumbtack processes about $1 billion a year in business for its service providers in roughly 1,000 professional categories.

Now, the matching feature is getting an upgrade on the consumer side. Earlier this month the company unveiled Instant Results — a new look for its website and mobile app — that uses all of the data from its 200,000 services professionals to match with the 30 professionals that best correspond to a request for services. It’s among the highest number of professionals listed on any site, according to Zappacosta. The next largest competitor, Yelp, has around 115,000 listings a year. Thumbtack’s professionals are active in a 90 day period.

Filtering by price, location, tools and schedule, anyone in the U.S. can find a service professional for their needs. It’s the culmination of work processing nine years and 25 million requests for services from all of its different categories of jobs.

It’s a long way from the first version of Thumbtack, which had a “buy” tab and a “sell” tab; with the “buy” side to hire local services and the “sell” to offer them.

“From the very early days… the design was to iterate beyond the traditional model of business listing directors. In that, for the consumer to tell us what they were looking for and we would, then, find the right people to connect them to,” said Daniels. “That functionality, the request for quote functionality, was built in from v.1 of the product. If you tried to use it then, it wouldn’t work. There were no businesses on the platform to connect you with. I’m sure there were a million bugs, the UI and UX were a disaster, of course. That was the original version, what I remember of it at least.”

It may have been a disaster, but it was compelling enough to get the company its $1.2 million angel round — enough to barely develop the product. That million dollar investment had to last the company through the nuclear winter of America’s recession years, when venture capital — along with every other investment class — pulled back.

“We were pounding the pavement trying to find somebody to give us money for a Series A round,” Daniels said. “That was a very hard period of the company’s life when we almost went out of business, because nobody would give us money.”

That was a pre-revenue period for the company, which experimented with four revenue streams before settling on the one that worked the best. In the beginning the service was free, and it slowly transitioned to a commission model. Then, eventually, the company moved to a subscription model where service providers would pay the company a certain amount for leads generated off of Thumbtack.

“We weren’t able to close the loop,” Daniels said. “To make commissions work, you have to know who does the job, when, for how much. There are a few possible ways to collect all that information, but the best one, I think, is probably by hosting payments through your platform. We actually built payments into the platform in 2011 or 2012. We had significant transaction volume going through it, but we then decided to rip it out 18 months later, 24 months later, because, I think we had kind of abandoned the hope of making commissions work at that time.”

While Thumbtack was struggling to make its bones, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest were raking in cash. The founders thought that they could also access markets in the same way, but investors weren’t interested in a consumer facing business that required transactions — not advertising — to work. User generated content and social media were the rage, but aside from Uber and Lyft the jury was still out on the marketplace model.

“For our company that was not a Facebook or a Twitter or Pinterest, at that time, at least, that we needed revenue to show that we’re going to be able to monetize this,” Daniels said. “We had figured out a way to sign up pros at enormous scale and consumers were coming online, too. That was showing real promise. We said, ‘Man, we’re a hot ticket, we’re going to be able to raise real money.’ Then, for many reasons, our inexperience, our lack of revenue model, probably a bunch of stuff, people were reluctant to give us money.”

The company didn’t focus on revenue models until the fall of 2011, according to Daniels. Then after receiving rejection after rejection the company’s founders began to worry. “We’re like, ‘Oh, shit.’ November of 2009 we start running these tests, to start making money, because we might not be able to raise money here. We need to figure out how to raise cash to pay the bills, soon,” Daniels recalled. 

The experience of almost running into the wall put the fear of god into the company. They managed to scrape out an investment from Javelin, but the founders were convinced that they needed to find the right revenue number to make the business work with or without a capital infusion. After a bunch of deliberations, they finally settled on $350,000 as the magic number to remain a going concern.

“That was the metric that we were shooting towards,” said Daniels. “It was during that period that we iterated aggressively through these revenue models, and, ultimately, landed on a paper quote. At the end of that period then Sequoia invested, and suddenly, pros supply and consumer demand and revenue model all came together and like, ‘Oh shit.’”

Finding the right business model was one thing that saved the company from withering on the vine, but another choice was the one that seemed the least logical — the idea that the company should focus on more than just home repairs and services.

The company’s home category had lots of competition with companies who had mastered the art of listing for services on Google and getting results. According to Daniels, the company couldn’t compete at all in the home categories initially.

“It turned out, randomly … we had no idea about this … there was not a similarly well developed or mature events industry,” Daniels said. “We outperformed in events. It was this strategic decision, too, that, on all these 1,000 categories, but it was random, that over the last five years we are the, if not the, certainly one of the leading events service providers in the country. It just happened to be that we … I don’t want to say stumbled into it … but we found these pockets that were less competitive and we could compete in and build a business on.”

The focus on geographical and services breadth — rather than looking at building a business in a single category or in a single geography meant that Zappacosta and company took longer to get their legs under them, but that they had a much wider stance and a much bigger base to tap as they began to grow.

“Because of naivete and this dreamy ambition that we’re going to do it all. It was really nothing more strategic or complicated than that,” said Daniels. “When we chose to go broad, we were wandering the wilderness. We had never done anything like this before.”

From the company’s perspective, there were two things that the outside world (and potential investors) didn’t grasp about its approach. The first was that a perfect product may have been more competitive in a single category, but a good enough product was better than the terrible user experiences that were then on the market. “You can build a big company on this good enough product, which you can then refine over the course of time to be greater and greater,” said Daniels.

The second misunderstanding is that the breadth of the company let it scale the product that being in one category would have never allowed Thumbtack to do. Cross selling and upselling from carpet cleaners to moving services to house cleaners to bounce house rentals for parties — allowed for more repeat use.

More repeat use meant more jobs for services employees at a time when unemployment was still running historically high. Even in 2011, unemployment remained stubbornly high. It wasn’t until 2013 that the jobless numbers began their steady decline.

There’s a question about whether these gig economy jobs can keep up with the changing times. Now, as unemployment has returned to its pre-recession levels, will people want to continue working in roles that don’t offer health insurance or retirement benefits? The answer seems to be “yes” as the Thumbtack platform continues to grow and Uber and Lyft show no signs of slowing down.

“At the time, and it still remains one of my biggest passions, I was interested in how software could create new meaningful ways of working,” said Banister of the Thumbtack deal. “That’s the criteria I was looking for, which is, does this shift how people find work? Because I do believe that we can create jobs and we can create new types of jobs that never existed before with the platforms that we have today.”

Amazon, Facebook, Google and other tech giants urge Trump to continue DACA program

 America’s tech industry has urged President Donald Trump and other political leaders to continue a program that allows undocumented young immigrants to remain in the country. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is an initiative that was established by former President Obama. Also known as the Dreamers Program, it gives young immigrants the opportunity to stay in the U.S., to… Read More

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Boy Scouts of America to allow transgender boys to enroll

The Associated Press reports that Boy Scouts of America will allow transgender children who identify as boys to enroll in scouting programs.

Rebecca Rausch, a spokeswoman for the organization, emailed a statement Monday. She said the organization’s leadership had considered a recent case in Secaucus, New Jersey, where an 8-year-old transgender child had been asked to leave his Scout troop after parents and leaders found out he is transgender, but the change was made because of the larger conversation about gender identity going on around the country.

“For more than 100 years, the Boy Scouts of America, along with schools, youth sports and other youth organizations, have ultimately deferred to the information on an individual’s birth certificate to determine eligibility for our single-gender programs,” the statement said. “However, that approach is no longer sufficient as communities and state laws are interpreting gender identity differently, and these laws vary widely from state to state.”

In Britain, the home of scouting, it’s just “The Scouts.

In fact, here’s the list of countries with more than a handful of scout troops, where girls can’t join:

Nigeria

Pakistan

Saudi Arabia

Sudan

United States

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