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As it adds Jeremy Milken to the partnership, Watertower Ventures nears $50 million close for its new fund

Derek Norton and Jeremy Milken have known each other for twenty years. Over their longtime personal and professional relationship, the two Los Angeles-based serial entrepreneurs have invested in each other’s companies and investment firms, but never worked together until now.

Milken is taking the plunge into institutional investing, joining Norton as a partner in Watertower Ventures just as the firm prepares to close on a $50 million new fund.

It’s an auspicious time for both Los Angeles-based businessmen, as the LA venture community sees a wave of technology talent relocating from New York and San Francisco in the newly remote work culture created by the COVID-19 epidemic.

“I see two things happen. One people look at the effects of where the market’s going. We’re seeing a lot more companies that are starting up now as a result of a [the pandemic],” said Norton. “New company formation is happening faster than before covid. [And] a lot of venture capitalists that have relocated to LA. They’ve moved down to LA for lifestyle reasons and they’re saying that they don’t need to go back to San Francisco.”

For Milken, the opportunity to get into venture now is a function of the company creation and acceleration of digital adoption that Norton referenced. “The pandemic is accelerating change in the marketplace. Things that might have taken a decade are taking two years now,” Milken said.

These opportunities are creating an opening for Watertower Ventures in markets far beyond the Hollywood hills. The firm, whose original thesis focused on Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, is now cutting checks on investments in Texas and Utah, and spending much less time looking for companies in the Bay Area.

Derek Norton, founder, Watertower Ventures: Image Credit: Watertower Ventures

Norton’s latest fund is the only the most recent act in a career that has seen the investor traverse the financial services digital media and the early days of the internet. Norton built Digital Boardwalk, a pioneering internet service provider and the second commercial partner for the trailblazing browser service, Netscape.

Later, at Jeffries Technologies, and the $120 million Entertainment Media Ventures seed and early stage venture capital fund, Norton was intimately involved in bringing tech to market and focusing on early stage investments. With that in mind, the Watertower Ventures group, which launched in 2017 with a small, $5 million fund, is a return to those roots.

The plan, even at the time, was always to raise a larger fund. After founding and running the boutique investment banking business at Watertower Group, Norton knew he had to raise a starter fund to prove the thesis he was working on.

That thesis was to provide a bridge between early stage companies and large technology companies using the network that Norton has built in the Southern California tech and entertainment community over decades.

“We want to take our contacts at Google, Apple, Facebook, Disney, Microsoft, Cisco, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and other companies we believe should have a relationship with our portfolio companies, and help the CEOs and management teams more effectively do business development,” Norton told SoCal Tech when he closed his first fund in 2017. “We want to connect them to the right person at those companies to create a commercial relationship. That has a really large impact on early stage companies, who typically don’t have a deep network of relationships, and the ability to get to those type of people. It’s because of our advisory business that we have those relationships, and that’s also why those relationships stay fresh and active, versus people who aren’t in those businesses. It’s almost a full time job to maintain that, and that’s where our value-add is.”

Milken, who has spent his professional career in entrepreneurship, was ready to try investing, and was intimately familiar with Watertower and its portfolio, as an investor in the firm’s first $5 million fund.

“Two years ago we started having those conversations,” said Norton in an interview. “As Jeremy exited his business in September it created the opportunity to go out and raise together as the evolution of our partnership.”

Jeremy Milken, general partner, Watertower Ventures. Image Credit: Watertower Ventures

With the new capital coming in, Norton expects to back some 30 to 35 companies, he said. And, in a testament to the first fund’s performance, which has it in the top decile of venture funds for its vintage, Norton said he was able to raise the capital amidst the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 70 percent of the existing portfolio has been marked up, according to Norton.

Even though limited partners, the investors who back venture funds, were reluctant to commit capital to new firms in March and April, fundraising returned with a vengeance in June and July, according to Norton. The paper performance likely was enough to woo additional limited partners and individual investors including TikTok chief executive Kevin Mayer, the former head of streaming at Disney.

Mayer’s presence in the firm’s investor base is a testament to the firm’s pitch to founders. “We view fundraising as a massive distraction for these early stage companies from their business. We try to deliver that network that’s ours to those founders,” said Norton.

“I think we’re in a unique position starting with a fresh fund here,” says Norton. “Uncertainty creates opportunity and people are bringing solutions. We haven’t noticed any slowdown whatsoever, we’re working with twenty five companies per week. Since the inception of the fund, we haven’t seen deal flow at this level.”

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.

‘A perfect storm for first time managers,’ say VCs with their own shops

Until very recently, it had begun to seem like anyone with a thick enough checkbook and some key contacts in the startup world could not only fund companies as an angel investor but even put himself or herself in business as a fund manager.

It helped that the world of venture fundamentally changed and opened up as information about its inner workings flowed more freely. It didn’t hurt, either, that many billions of dollars poured into Silicon Valley from outfits and individuals around the globe who sought out stakes in fast-growing, privately held companies — and who needed help in securing those positions.

Of course, it’s never really been as easy or straightforward as it looks from the outside. While the last decade has seen many new fund managers pick up traction, much of the capital flooding into the industry has accrued to a small number of more established players that have grown exponentially in terms of assets under management. In fact, talk with anyone who has raised a first-time fund and you’re likely to hear that the fundraising process is neither glamorous nor lucrative and that it’s paved with very short phone conversations. And that’s in a bull market.

What happens in what’s suddenly among the worst economic environments the world has seen? First and foremost, managers who’ve struck out on their own suggest putting any plans on the back burner. “I would love to be positive, and I’m an optimist, but I would have to say that now is probably one of the toughest times” to get a fund off the ground, says Aydin Senkut, who founded the firm Felicis Ventures in 2006 and just closed its seventh fund.

“It’s a perfect storm for first-time managers,” adds Charles Hudson, who launched his own venture shop, Precursor Ventures, in 2015.

Hitting pause doesn’t mean giving up, suggests Eva Ho, cofounder of the three-year-old, seed-stage L.A.-based outfit Fika Ventures, which last year closed its second fund with $76 million. She says not to get “too dismayed” by the challenges.

Still, it’s good to understand what a first-time manager is up against right now, and what can be learned more broadly about how to proceed when the time is right.

Know it’s hard, even in the best times

As a starting point, it’s good to recognize that it’s far harder to assemble a first fund than anyone who hasn’t done it might imagine.

Hudson knew he wanted to leave his last job as a general partner with SoftTech VC when the firm — since renamed Uncork Capital — amassed enough capital that it no longer made sense for it to issue very small checks to nascent startups. “I remember feeling like, Gosh, I’ve reached a point where the business model for our fund is getting in the way of me investing in the kind of companies that naturally speak to me,” which is largely pre-product startups.

Hudson suggests he miscalculated when it came to approaching investors with his initial idea to create a single GP fund that largely backs ideas that are too early for other VCs. “We had a pretty big LP based [at SoftTech] but what I didn’t realize is the LP base that’s interested in someone who is on fund three or four is very different than the LP base that’s interested in backing a brand new manager.”

Hudson says he spent a “bunch of time talking to fund of funds, university endowments — people who were just not right for me until someone pulled me aside and just said, ‘Hey, you’re talking to the wrong people. You need to find some family offices. You need to find some friends of Charles. You need to find people who are going to back you because they think this is a good idea and who aren’t quite so orthodox in terms of what they want to see in terms partner composition and all that.’”

Collectively, it took “300 to 400 LP conversations” and two years to close his first fund with $15 million. (It’s now raising its third pre-seed fund).

Ho says it took less time for Fika to close its first fund but that she and her partners talked with 600 people in order to close their $41 million debut effort, adding that she felt like a “used car salesman” by the end of the process.

Part of the challenge was her network, she says. “I wasn’t connected to a lot of high-net-worth individuals or endowments or foundations. That was a whole network that was new to me, and they didn’t know who the heck I was, so there’s a lot of proving to do.” A proof-of-concept fund instilled confidence in some of these investors, though Ho notes you have to be able to live off its economics, which can be miserly.

She also says that as someone who’d worked at Google and helped found the location data company Factual, she underestimated the work involved in running a small fund. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve started these companies and run these big teams. How how different could it be?” But “learning the motions and learning what it’s really like to run the funds and to administer a fund and all responsibilities and liabilities that come with it . . . it made me really stop and think, ‘Do I want to do this for 20 to 30 years, and if so, what’s the team I want to do it with?’”

Investors will offer you funky deals; avoid these if you can

First-time managers often look to close on a big anchor investor as a positive indicator to other backers, and some LPs will take advantage of their real or perceived desperation to lock something down. Yet seizing certain opportunities can actually send the wrong signal, depending on the scenario.

In Hudson’s case, an LP offered him two options: either a typical LP agreement wherein the outfit would write a small check, or an option wherein it would make a “significant investment that would have been 40% of our first fund,” says Hudson.

Unsurprisingly, the latter offer came with a lot of strings. Namely, the LP said it wanted to have a “deeper relationship” with Hudson, which he took to mean it wanted a share of Precursor’s profits beyond what it would receive as a typical investor in the fund.

“It was very hard to say no to that deal, because I didn’t get close to raising the amount of money that I would have gotten if I’d said yes for another year,” says Hudson. He still thinks it was the right move, however. “I was just like, how do I have a conversation with any other LP about this in the future if I’ve already made the decision to give this away?”

Fika similarly received an offer that would have made up 25 percent of the outfit’s debut fund, but the investor wanted a piece of the management company. It was “really hard to turn down because we had nothing else,” recalls Ho. But she says that other funds Fika was talking with made the decision simpler. “They were like, ‘If you sign on to those terms, we’re out.” The team decided that taking a shortcut that could damage them longer term wasn’t worth it.

Your LPs have questions, but you should question LPs, too

More so than most first-time managers, Senkut started off with certain financial advantages, having been the first product manager at Google and enjoying the fruits of its IPO before leaving the outfit in 2005 along with many other Googleaires, as they were dubbed at the time.

It allowed him to start putting money to work immediately. Still, as he tells it, it was “not a friendly time a decade ago” to raise outside capital, with most solo general partners spinning out of other venture funds —  not search engines. As an outsider, to crack into the venture industry, he largely tried to shadow angel investor Ron Conway, working checks into some of the same deals that Conway was backing.

“If you want to get into the movie industry, you need to be in hit movies,” says Senkut. “If you want to get into the investing industry, you need to be in hits. And the best way to get into hits is to say, ‘Okay. Who has an extraordinary number of hits, who’s likely getting the best deal flow,’ because the more successful you are, the better companies you’re going to see, the better the companies that find you.”

Senkut has developed an enviable track record over time, including stakes in Credit Karma, which was just gobbled up by Intuit, and Plaid, sold in January to Visa. Those kinds of exits may give him more confidence than managers earlier in their careers might muster. Still, Senkut also says it’s very important for anyone raising a fund to not just answer LPs’ questions but to also ask the right questions of them.

He says, for example, that with Felicis’s newest fund, the team asked many managers outright about how many assets they have under management, how much of those assets are dedicated to venture and private equity, and how much of their allotment to each was already taken.

Felicis did this so it doesn’t find itself in a position of making a capital call that an investor can’t meet, especially given that in recent years, many institutional investors have been writing out checks to VCs at a faster pace than ever been before and have, in many cases, too much of their capital in the venture industry at this point.

In fact, Felicis added new managers who “had room” while cutting back some existing LPs “that we respected . .. because if you ask the right questions, it becomes clear whether they’re already 20% over-allocated [to the asset class] and there’s no possible way [they are] even going to be able to invest if they want to.”

It’s smart thinking and, when the market eventually eases up again, and new funds can again capture the attention of investors, certainly something to keep in mind.

Did African startups raise $496M, $1B or $2B in 2019?

Five years ago, it was hard to come by any numbers for annual VC investment in Africa. These days the challenge is choosing which number to follow.

That’s the case for three venture funding studies for Africa that turned up varied results.

The numbers and variance

Investment stats released by media outlet Disrupt Africa, data-base WeeTracker and Africa focused fund Partech have left some people scratching their heads.

From high to low, Partech pegged total 2019 VC for African startups at $2 billion, compared to WeeTracker’s $1.3 billion estimate and Disrupt Africa’s $496 million.

That’s a fairly substantial spread of $1.5 billion between the assessments. The variance filtered down to country VC valuations, though it was a little less sharp.

Africa VC markets 2019Partech and WeeTracker shared the same top-three countries for 2019 VC investment in Africa — Nigeria, Kenya, and Egypt — but with hundred-million dollar differences.

Disrupt Africa came up with a different lead market for startup investment on the continent — Kenya — though its $149 million estimate for the East African country was some $500 million lower than Partech and WeeTracker’s VC leader, Nigeria.

So what accounts for the big deviations? TechCrunch spoke to each organization (and reviewed the reports) and found the contrasting stats derive from different methodologies — namely defining what constitutes a startup and an African startup.

Partech’s larger overall VC valuation for the continent comes from broader parameters for companies and quantifying investment.

“We do not limit the definition of startups by age of the incorporation or size of funds raised,” Partech General Partner Tidjane Deme told TechCrunch.

This led the fund, for example, to include Visa’s $200 million investment in Nigerian financial-services company Interswitch . The corporate round was certainly tech-related, though few would classify Interswitch — which launched in 2002, acquires companies, and has a venture fund — as a startup.

Partech’s higher annual VC value for Africa’s startups could also connect to tallying confidential investment data.

“We…collect and analyze undisclosed deals, accessing more detailed information thanks to our relationships within the ecosystem,” the fund’s report disclosed.

WeeTracker’s methodology also included data on undisclosed startup investments and opened up the count to funding sources beyond VC.

“Debt/loans, grants/awards/prizes/non-equity assistance, crowdfunding, [and] ICOs are included,” WeeTracker clarified in a methodology note.

Disrupt Africa used a more conservative approach across companies and investment. “We are a bit more narrow on what we consider a startup to be,” the site’s co-founder Tom Jackson told TechCrunch.

“In the clearest scenario, an African startup would be headquartered in Africa, founded by an African, and have Africa as its primary market,” Disrupt Africa’s report stated  — though Jackson noted all these factors don’t always align.

“Disrupt Africa tackles this issue on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Partech was more liberal in its definition of an African startup, including investment for tech-companies that count Africa as their primary market, but not insisting they be incorporated or operate HQs on the continent.

Andela FoundersThat opened up inclusion of large 2019 rounds to Africa focused, New York headquartered tech-talent accelerator Andela and investment to Opera’s verticals, such as OPay in Nigeria.

In addition to following a more conservative definition of African startup, Disrupt Africa’s report was more particular to early-stage ventures. The site’s report primarily counted investment for companies founded within the last five year and excluded “spin-offs of corporates or any other large entity…that [has]…developed past the point of being a startup.”

Commonalities across reports

For all the differences on annual VC counts for Africa, there were some common threads across WeeTracker, Partech, and Disrupt Africa’s investment reports.

The first was the rise of Nigeria — which has Africa’s largest population and economy — as the top destination for startup VC investment on the continent.

The second was the prominence of fintech as the most funded startup sector across Africa, gaining 54% of all VC in Partech’s report and $678 million of the $1.3 billion to startups in WeeTracker’s study.

VC inequality

An unfortunate commonality in each report was the preponderance of startup investment going to English speaking Africa. No francophone country made it into the the top five in any of the three reports. Only Senegal registered on Partech’s country-list, with a small $16 million in VC in 2019.

The Dakar Angel Network launched last year to bridge the resource gap for startups in French-speaking African countries.

Final sum

There may not be a right or wrong stat for annual investment to African startups, just three reports with different methodologies that capture unique snapshots.

Partech and WeeTracker offer a broader view of multiple types of financial support going to tech companies operating in Africa. Disrupt Africa’s assessment is more specific to a standard definition of VC going to startups originating and operating in Africa.

Three reports with varying numbers on the continent’s startup investment is a definite upgrade to what was available not so long ago: little to no formal data on VC in Africa.

Oyo’s revenue surged in FY19, but loss widened, too

Budget-lodging startup Oyo reported a loss of $335 million on $951 million revenue globally for the financial year ending March 31, 2019, and pledged to cut down on its spending as the India-headquartered startup grows more cautious about its aggressive expansion.

The six-year-old startup’s growing revenue, up from $211 million in financial year ending March 31, 2018, is in line with the company’s ambitions to be in a clear path to profitability this year, said Abhishek Gupta, Global CFO of OYO Hotels & Homes, in a statement.

But the startup’s loss has widened, too. Its consolidated loss increased from 25% in FY18 to 35% in FY19, it said. In India, where Oyo clocked $604 million in revenue in FY19, it was able to reduce its loss to 14% (from 24%) of revenue in FY19 to $83 million.

The startup, which today operates more than 43,000 hotels with over a million rooms in 800 cities in 80 nations, said its expansion to China and other international markets contributed to the loss.

“These markets constituted 36.5% of the global revenues. While consistently improving operating economics in mature markets like India where it’s already seeing an improvement in gross margins, the company is determined to bring in the same fiscal discipline in emerging markets in the coming financial year,” the startup said in a statement.

Oyo has come under scrutiny in recent months for its aggressive expansion in a manner that some analysts have said is not sustainable. The startup, which rebrands and renovates independent budget hotels, has also engaged in sketchy ways to sign up new hotels, as documented by the New York Times earlier this year.

In recent months, Oyo executives have acknowledged that the startup grew too fast and is confronting a number of “teething issues.” Oyo has laid off at least 3,000 employees, mostly in India, in last three months.

Local Indian laws require every startup to disclose their annual financials. Most of them filed their financials in early October.

More to follow shortly…

Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s companies, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale payment solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets such as Nigeria, India and Mexico.

Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

The future of transportation industry is bursting at the seams with startups aiming to bring everything from flying cars and autonomous vehicles to delivery bots and even more efficient freight to roads.

One investor who is right at the center of this is Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, a seed-stage venture capital fund for entrepreneurs changing the future of transportation.

TechCrunch is excited to announce that Brennan will join us on stage for TC Sessions: Mobility.

In case you missed last year’s event, TC Sessions: Mobility is a one-day conference that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon. The event will be held May 14, 2020 in the California Theater in San Jose, Calif.

Brennan is known as much for his popular FoT newsletter as his investments, which include May Mobility, Nauto, nuTonomy, Joby Aviation, Skip and Roadster.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

Online catering marketplace ezCater gets another $150M at a $1.25B valuation

In 2007, Stefania Mallett and Briscoe Rodgers conceived of ezCater, an online marketplace for business catering, and began building the company in Mallet’s Boston home, mostly at her kitchen table.

Recently, sitting at that same table, Mallett negotiated with Brad Twohig of Lightspeed Venture Partners the final terms of a $150 million Series D-1 at a $1.25 billion valuation. Lightspeed, alongside GIC, co-led the round, with participation from Light Street Capital, Wellington Management, ICONIQ Capital and Quadrille Capital.

“Raising money or getting to unicorn status, it’s all nice validation but that’s not the purpose, the purpose of being in business is to grow a very successful company with happy customers and happy employees,” Mallett, ezCater’s chief executive officer, told TechCrunch. “We are going to have cupcakes with unicorns on them. That will take us about a half hour, then we will get back to work.”

EzCater co-founder and CEO Stefania Mallett

Mallett compares ezCater to Expedia . The travel company doesn’t own and operate hotels, nor do they create them. EzCater, similarly, works with 60,500 restaurants and caterers around the U.S. to fulfill orders, but at no point do they work directly with food nor make any deliveries themselves.

Since its inception, the ezCater marketplace has grown considerably, expanding 100 percent annually for the last eight years, Mallett tells us. Though, like most unicorns, ezCater isn’t profitable yet.

Both Mallett and Rodgers are software industry veterans, establishing engineering careers prior to tackling business catering. The pair bootstrapped the company until 2011, when they secured a small Series A investment of $2.7 million. That same year, U.S. foodtech startups raised $176 million, per PitchBook. EzCater would go on to raise more than $300 million in equity funding, including its latest round, and VC interest in foodtech would explode. Already this year, U.S. foodtech startups have brought in $626 million after pulling in a whopping $5 billion in 2018.

EzCater has benefited from this boom. The company raised a $100 million Series D just 10 months ago.

“We really didn’t need the money, we have quite a lot of money in the bank from the last round,” Mallett said. “There was so much talk of a funding winter and a recession coming so we said maybe we should try to raise money and then people jumped on it so we thought OK, why not? If there is a funding winter, we’re set; if not, well, we are still set.”

The investment comes hot off the heels of ezCater’s acquisition of Monkey Group, a cloud platform for take-out, delivery and catering. Mallett declined to disclose terms of the deal but said the partnership makes ezCater the indisputable market leader in catering management software. The company will use its recently expanded war chest to accelerate its international expansion and, potentially, continue its M&A streak. As for the future, an initial public offering is amongst the possibilities.

“We certainly are considering it,” Mallett said. “As we’ve grown, we’ve become more sophisticated and mature; that puts us in a good position to continue operating as a successful standalone company or be acquired by a public company or go public if we see an opportunity to do that. We are not wedded to any of these outcomes.”

These women are disrupting their industries one click at a time

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When it comes to emerging technology we don’t always think of women in lifestyle. Instead, our minds dart to computer programmers, IT gurus and software developers. 

Thanks to these forward-thinking female entrepreneurs however, that’s all starting to change. They’ve turned their hard work and determination into thriving businesses – all thanks to a bright idea, and a helping hand from the right devices. 

These days, if you’re a busy content creator or a business mogul in the making – there’s nothing more important than having the best tools. But how do you choose which products to go with? Easy – you go with the ones that help you do your best work.  Read more…

More about Tech, Entrepreneurship, Entrepreneurs, Women In Tech, and Consumer Tech

Southern California needs to find its hub for it to develop its own tech ecosystem

Recognizing the tens of billions of dollars that the Southern Californian region leaves on the table, because it hasn’t taken its rightful place in the American technology industry, a new group called  the Alliance for Southern California Innovation has just released a report to analyze how SoCal can work to assume its pole position.

Through interviews with 100 leaders of the technology ecosystem and an analysis of venture capital funding for the region, the organization has concluded (with the help of the Boston Consulting Group) that the promise of a regional rival to Northern California’s silicon valley won’t be fulfilled without the establishment of a geographic hub and a willingness to overcome regional differences.

Founded by Steve Poizner last year to accelerate the growth of a startup entrepreneurial ecosystem in Southern California, The Alliance is building a network of investors, entrepreneurs and universities to provide ballast in the south to the dominance of the Northern California tech industry.

The Alliance estimates that Southern California’s tech community could be one-third the size of Silicon Valley’s by supporting or further developing the six pillars it already has for innovation to occur.

The potential impact making these changes could have is an added 200,000 new jobs and growth of $100 billion for the whole economic region.

“Over the past several years we have observed a significant decrease in startups leaving SoCal,” said Greg Becker, CEO of Silicon Valley Bank . “We’ve also seen a substantial inflow of venture capital from all over the world.”

In fact, as is well-reported, the luster of Silicon Valley is fading. As BCG writes in its report:

The good news for SoCal and any region with tech ambitions is that the Bay Area has in some ways been too successful. Our research revealed a saturation level causing unprecedented challenges, starting with exorbitant housing prices and runaway operating costs that accelerate a startup’s “burn rate”—its monthly spending.

Los Angeles investor Mark Suster, a general partner with Upfront Ventures, has been beating the drum for Los Angeles as a new tech hub for a while — and billion dollar exits for Ring and Dollar Shave Club, in addition to the public offering for Snap, lend credence to his position.

Suster has also noted for years that the region produces more technology doctorates than any other geography in the United States. Caltech generates more patents than any other university while UCLA boasts more startups founded by its graduate than any other school in the nation. Meanwhile, UCSD in San Diego has a deep bench of biotechnology expertise stemming from its proximity to the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, the Salk Institute, and the Scripps Research Institute.

However, to thrive, BCG recommends taking six steps to bolster the the ecosystem and its chances to begin to catch up to Silicon Valley.

The consulting firm says that Southern California needs more local venture capital; the individual geographies need to work to promote their regional strengths; regions need to collaborate more closely with each other; founders need to start gunning for that IPO slot instead of taking acquisition offers; the region’s commitment to diversity needs to be emphasized; and finally the embarrassment of entrepreneurial riches needs to be promoted abroad.

“Southern California is a region of extreme innovation; however, it is so spread-out, making it hard to navigate,” said Steve Poizner founder and board chair of the Alliance, in a statement. “We believe by finding, filtering and aggregating exciting startups from top universities, research institutes, and incubators/accelerators, we can demonstrate the combined strength of SoCal in a compelling way to top investors and thought leaders.”

Do VC woes extend to portfolio companies? For Rothenberg, probably not

 As VC brands go, Rothenberg Ventures has seen better days. The firm built up a reputation as an up-and-coming early-stage investor. But Silicon Valley soured on Rothenberg Ventures last year; lawsuits ensued. So it hasn’t been a good year for Mike Rothenberg. But what about the Rothenberg Ventures portfolio? Read More

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DeepGraph feeds enterprise sales teams with hyper-targeted warm leads

 The best way to grow sales is to better understand sales, but unfortunately that’s often easier said than done. Kemvi, a seed-stage startup, is launching out of stealth today to announce DeepGraph, which helps sales teams reach the right potential customers at the right time. The company has closed north of $1 million in seed financing from Seabed VC, Neotribe Ventures, Kepha… Read More

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A look inside the Skopje startup scene

 On Wednesday I had the unique pleasure of hanging out with a a bunch of Macedonian startup founders and was very impressed. The Balkans have long been a promising spot for startups – the cost of living is low and the talent level is high – and this visit was unique in that everyone was fully prepared to pitch on a global scale. The winners of the pitch-off were Letz, a cool… Read More

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Data Collective and SynBioBeta founder John Cumbers launch a seed stage biotech fund

 Data Collective (DCVC) is bringing Dr. John Cumbers, the founder of synthetic biology platform SynBioBeta and setting him up with his own biotech fund for pre-seed and seed stage startups, aptly called the DCVC SynBioBeta Fund. DCVC co-managing partner Matt Ocko, who spoke to TechCrunch about the new development didn’t have an exact number set aside for the new fund but did mention… Read More

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China’s newest source of on-demand hype, rental bicycles, gets its first unicorn

A bike sprocket cut out of titanium There can be no hype without a unicorn. China’s newest startup money pit — bicycle rentals on-demand — now has its first billion-dollar valued company.
The industry has sucked in more than $300 million from investors this year alone — that’s counting just one company — and now Ofo has become the first in the space to reach the much-coveted $1 billion… Read More

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mClinica raises $6.3M to map healthcare data in Southeast Asia

Scattered colorful medical pills and capsules Health startups are pulling in money in Southeast Asia. A week after wellness-focused insurance brokerage CXA drew $25 million from investors, fellow Singapore-based startup mClinica has announced a $6.3 million Series A raise. mClinica was founded in 2012 and its mission is to provide healthcare data in Southeast Asia, much like Nielsen and other traditional analyst houses, through an… Read More

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Venture capital in 2017 is when the rubber hits the road for returns

road In the United States, VC funds raised a whopping $40.6 billion in 2016[1]. It was the largest year for VC fundraising since 2000 when the venture industry raked in a jaw dropping $101.4 billion[1]. Yet the 2016 exit market was a mixed bag.
Despite many forecasting (hoping?) that herds of unicorns would enter the public market in 2016, the IPO market was lackluster at best. There were only 31 U.S. Read More

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GigRove wants to match skilled freelancers and startups with spare rooms

GigRove Bootstrapping London-based startup GigRove is looking to carve out a niche in the collaborative consumption space as a matching platform for digital workers with itchy feet and startups with a spare room and pressing skills need. Which is all very zeitgeisty in these digital nomad/citizen of nowhere times. Read More

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