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Pear hosted its invite-only demo day online year; here’s what you might have missed

Pear, the eight-year-old, Palo Alto, Calif.-based seed-stage venture firm that has, from its outset, attracted the attention of VCs who think the firm has an eye for nascent talent, staged its seventh annual demo day earlier this week, and while it was virtual, one of the startups has already signed a term sheet from a top-tier venture firm.

To give the rest of you a sneak peak, here’s a bit about all of the startups that presented, in broad strokes:


  1. ) AccessBell

What it does: Video conferencing platform for enterprise workflows

Website: accessbell.com

Founders: Martin Aguinis (CEO), Josh Payne (COO), Kamil Ali (CTO)

The pitch: Video has emerged as one of the prominent ways for enterprises to communicate internally and externally with their customers and partners. Current video conferencing tools like Zoom and WebEx are great for standalone video but they have their own ecosystems and don’t integrate into thousands of enterprise workflows. That means that API tools that do integrate, like Agora and Twilio, still require manual work from developer teams to customize and maintain. AccessBell is aiming to provide the scalability and reliability of Zoom, as well as the customizability and integrations of Twilio, in a low code integration and no code extensible customization platform.

It’s a big market the team is chasing, one that’s expected to grow to $8.6 billion by 2027. The cost right now for users who want to test out AccessBell is $27 per host per month.


2.) FarmRaise

What it does: Unlock financial opportunities for farmers to create sustainable farms and improve their livelihoods.

Website: farmraise.com

Founders: Jayce Hafner (CEO), Sami Tellatin (COO), Albert Abedi (Product)

The pitch: Over half of American farms don’t have the tools or bandwidth they need to identify ways to improve their farms and become profitable. The startup’s API links to farmers’ bank accounts, where its algorithm assesses financials to provide a “farm read,” scoring the farms’ financial health. It then regularly monitors farm data to continuously provide clean financials and recommendations on how to improve its customers’ farms, as well as to connect farmers with capital in order to improve their score. (It might suggest that a farm invest in certain sustainability practices, for example.)

Eventually, the idea is to also use the granular insights it’s garnering and sell these to hedge funds, state governments, and other outfits that want a better handle on what’s coming — be it around food security or climate changes.


3.) Sequel

What it does: Re-engineering life’s essential products – starting with tampons.

Website: thesequelisbetter.com

Founders: Greta Meyer (CEO),  Amanda Calabrese (COO)

The pitch: Founded by student athletes from Stanford, Sequel argues that seven out of 10 women don’t trust tampons, which were first designed in 1931 (by a man). New brands like Lola have catchy brands and new material, but they perform even worse than legacy products. Sequel has focused instead on fluid mechanics and specifically on slowing flow rates so a tampon wont leak before it’s full whether they’re in the “boardroom” or the “stadium.” The company says it has already filed patents and secured manufacturing partners and that it expects that the product will be available for consumers to buy directly from its website, as well as in other stores, next year.


4.) Interface Bio

What it does: Unlocking the therapeutic potential of the microbiome with a high-throughput pipeline for characterizing microbes, metabolites, and therapeutic response, based on years of research at Stanford.

Founders: Will Van Treuren, Hannah Wastyk

The pitch: The microbiome plays a major role in a wide range of human diseases, including heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and cancer. In fact, Interface’s founders — both of whom are PhDs —  say that microbiome-influenced diseases are responsible for four of the top 10 causes of death in the United States. So how do they better size on the opportunity to identify therapeutics by harnessing the microbiome? Well, they say they’ll do it via a “high-speed pipeline for characterizing metabolites and their immune phenotypes,” which they’ll create by developing the world’s largest database of microbiome-mediated chemistry, which the startup will then screen for potential metabolites that can lead to new therapies.


5.) Gryps

What it does: Gryps is tackling construction information silos to create a common information layer that gives building and facility owners quick, enriched and permanent access to document-centric information.

Website: gryps.io

Founders: Dareen Salama, Amir Tasbihi

The pitch: The vast size and complexity of the construction industry has resulted in all kinds of software and services that address various aspects of the construction processes, resulting in data and documents being spread across many siloed tools. Gryps says it picks up where all the construction-centered tools leave off: Taking delivery of the projects at the end of a construction job and providing all the information that facility owners need to operate, renovate, or build future projects through a platform that ingests data from various construction tools, mines the embedded information, then provides operational access through owner-centered workflows. 


6.) Expedock

What it does: Automation infrastructure for supply chain businesses, starting with AI-Powered Freight Forwarder solutions.

Website: expedock.com

Founders: King Alandy Dy (CEO), Jeff Tan (COO), Rui Aguiar (CTO)

The pitch: Freight Forwarders take care of all the logistics of shipping containers including financials, approvals and paper work for all the local entities on both sides of the sender and receiver geographies, but communications with these local entities are often done through unstructured data, including forms, documents, and emails and can subsequently eat up to 60% of operational expenses. Expedock is looking to transform the freight forwarding industry by digitizing and automating the processing and inputting of unstructured data into various local partner and governmental systems, including via a “huan in the loop” AI software service.


7.) Illume

What it does: A new way to share praise

Website: illumenotes.com

Founders: Sohale Sizar (CEO), Phil Armour (Engineering), Maxine Stern (Design)

The pitch: The process of thanking people is full of friction. Paper cards have to be purchased, signed, passed around; greetings on Facebook only mean so much. Using Illume, teams and individuals can download its app or come together on Slack and create a customized, private, and also shareable note. The nascent startup says one card typically has 10 contributors; it charging enterprises $3 per user per month, ostensibly so sales teams, among others, can use them.


8.) Quansa

What it does: Quansa improves Latin American workers’ financial lives via employer-based financial care

Website: quansa.io

Founders: Gonzalo Blanco, Mafalda Barros

The pitch: Fully 40% of employees across Latin America have missed work in the past 12 months due to financial problems. Quansa wants to help them get on the right track financially with the help of employers that use its software to link their employees’ payroll data with banks, fintechs and other financial institutions.

There is strength in numbers, says the firm. By funneling more customers to lenders through their employers, for example, these employees should ultimately be able to access to cheaper car loans, among other things.


9.) SpotlightAI

What it does: Spotlight turns sensitive customer information from a burden to an asset by using NLP techniques to identify, anonymize, and manage access to PII and other sensitive business data.

Website: hellospotlight.com

Founder: Austin Osborne (CEO)

The pitch: Data privacy legislation like GDPR and CCPA is creating an era where companies can no longer use their customer data to run their business due to the risks of fines, lawsuits, and negative media coverage. These lawsuits relating to misuse of personal data can reach billions of dollars and take years to settle. Spotlight’s software plugs into existing data storage engines via APIs and operates as a middleware within a company’s network. With advanced NLP and OCR techniques, it says it’s able to detect sensitive information in unstructured data, perform multiple types of anonymization, and provide a deep access control layer.


10.) Bennu

What it does: Bennu closes the loop on management communication

Website: bennu.io

Founder: Brenda Jin (CEO)

The pitch: Today’s work communication is done through forms, email, Slack, and docs; the timelines are unnatural.  Bennu is trying to solve the problem with communication loops that use integrations and smart topic suggestions to help employees prepare for substantive management conversations in seconds, not hours. 


11.) Playbook

What it does: Playbook automates the people coordination in your repeatable workflows with a simple system to create, execute and track any process with your team, customers, and more.

Website: startplaybook.com

Founders: Alkarim Lalani (CEO), Blaise Bradley (CTO)

The pitch: Whether you’re collecting time cards from 20 hourly workers every week, or managing 30 customer onboardings – you’re coordinating repetitive workflows across people over email and tracking it over spreadsheets. Playbook says it coordinates workflows between people at scale by taking programming concepts such as variables and conditional logic that let its customers model any workflow, and all packaged in an interface that enables anyone to build out their workflows in minutes.


12.) June Motherhood

What it does: Community-based care for life’s most important transitions.

Website: junemotherhood.com

Founders: Tina Beilinson (CEO), Julia Cole (COO), Sophia Richter (CPO)

The pitch: June is a digital health company focused on maternal health, with community at the core. Like a Livongo for diabetes management, June combines the latest research around shared appointments, peer-to-peer support and cognitive behavioral therapy to improve outcomes and lower costs, including through weekly programs and social networks that encourage peer-to-peer support. 


13.) Wagr

What it does: Challenge anyone to a friendly bet.

Website: wagr.us

Founders: Mario Malavé (CEO), Eliana Eskinazi (CPO)

The pitch: Wagr will allow sports fans to bet with peers in a social, fair, and simple way. Sending a bet requires just three steps, too: pick a team, set an amount, and send away. Wagr sets the right odds and handles the money.

Users can challenge friends, start groups, track leaderboards, and see what others are betting on, so they feel connected even if they aren’t together in the stadium. Customers pay a commission when they use the platform to find them a match, but bets against friends are free. The plan is to go live in Tennessee first and expand outward from there.


14.) Federato

What it does: Intelligence for a new era of risk

Website: federato.ai

Founders: Will Ross (CEO), William Steenbergen (CTO)

The pitch: Insurance companies are struggling to manage their accumulation of risk as natural catastrophes continue to grow in volume and severity. Reinsurance is no longer a reliable backstop, with some of the largest insurers taking $600 million-plus single-quarter losses net of reinsurance. 

Federato is building an underwriter workflow that uses dynamic optimization across the portfolio to steer underwriters to a better portfolio balance. The software lets actuaries and portfolio analysts drive high-level risk analysis into the hands of underwriters on the front lines to help them understand the “next best action” at a given point in time.


15.) rePurpose Global

What it does: A plastic credit platform to help consumer brands of any size go plastic neutral

Website: business.repurpose.global

Founders: Svanika Balasubramanian (CEO), Aditya Siroya (CIO), Peter Wang Hjemdahl (CMO

The pitch: Consumers worldwide are demanding businesses to take action on eliminating plastic waste, 3.8 million pounds of which are leaked into the environment every few minutes. Yet even as brands try, alternatives are often too expensive or worse for the environment. Through this startup, a brand can commit to the removal of a certain amount of plastic, which will then be removed by the startup’s loal watse management partners and recycled on the brand’s behalf (with rePurpose verifying that the process adheres to certain standards). The startup says it can keep a healthy margin while also running this plastic credit market, and that its ultimate vision is to our vision is to become a “one-stop shop for companies to create social, economic, and environmental impact.”


16.) Ladder

What it does: A professional community platform for the next generation

Website: ladder.io

Founders: Akshaya Dinesh (CEO), Andrew Tan

The pitch: LinkedIn sucks, everyone hates it. Ladder (which may have a trademark infringement battle ahead of it) is building a platform around community instead of networks. The idea is that users will opt in to join communities with like-minded individuals in their respective industries and roles of interest. Once engaged, they can participate in AMAs with industry experts, share opportunities, and have 1:1 conversations.

The longer term ‘moat’ is the data it collects from users, from which it thinks it can generate more revenue per user than LinkedIn. (By the way, this is the startup that has already signed a term sheet with a firm whose team was watching the demo day live on Tuesday.)


Exporta

How it works: Exporta is building a B2B wholesale marketplace connecting suppliers in Latin America with buyers in North America.

Website: exporta.io

Founders: Pierre Thys (CEO), Robert Monaco (President)

The pitch: The U.S. now imports more each year from Latin America than from China, but LatAm sourcing remains fragmented and manual. Exporta builds on-the-ground relationships to bring LatAm suppliers onto a tech-enabled platform that matches them to U.S. buyers looking for faster turnaround times and more transparent manufacturing relationships.


Via

What it does: Via helps companies build their own teams in new countries as simply as if they were in their HQ.

Website: via.work

Founders:  Maite Diez-Canedo, Itziar Diez-Canedo

The pitch: Setting up a team in a new country is very complex. Companies need local entities, contracts, payroll, benefits, accounting, tax, compliance…and the list goes on. Via enables companies to build their own teams in new countries quickly and compliantly by leveraging  local entities to legally employ teams on their behalf, and integrate local contracts, payroll, and benefits in one platform. By plugging into the local hiring ecosystem, Via does all the heavy lifting for its customers, even promising to stand up a team in 48 hours and at less expense than traditional alternatives. (It’s charging $600 per employee per month in Canada and Mexico, where it says it has already launched.)

Why are VCs launching SPACs? Amish Jani of FirstMark shares his firm’s rationale

It’s happening slowly but surely. With every passing week, more venture firms are beginning to announce SPACs. The veritable blitz of SPACs formed by investor Chamath Palihapitiya notwithstanding, we’ve now seen a SPAC (or plans for a SPAC) revealed by Ribbit Capital, Lux Capital, the travel-focused venture firm Thayer Ventures, Tusk Ventures’s founder Bradley Tusk, the SoftBank Vision Fund, and FirstMark Capital, among others. Indeed, while many firms say they’re still in the information-gathering phase of what could become a sweeping new trend, others are diving in headfirst.

To better understand what’s happening out there, we talked on Friday with Amish Jani, the cofounder of FirstMark Capital in New York and the president of a new $360 million tech-focused blank-check company organized by Jani and his partner, Rick Heitzmann. We wanted to know why a venture firm that has historically focused on early-stage, privately held companies would be interested in public market investing, how Jani and Heitzmann will manage the regulatory requirements, and whether the firm may encounter conflicts of interest, among other things.

If you’re curious about starting a SPAC or investing in one or just want to understand how they relate to venture firms, we hope it’s useful reading. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: Why SPACs right now? Is it fair to say it’s a shortcut to a hot public market, in a time when no one quite knows when the markets could shift?

AJ: There are a couple of different threads that are coming together. I think the first one is the the possibility that [SPACs] works and really well. [Our portfolio company] DraftKings [reverse-merged into a SPAC] and did a [private investment in public equity deal]; it was a fairly complicated transaction and they used this to go public and the stock has done incredibly well.

In parallel, [privately held companies] over the last five or six years could raise large sums of capital, and that was pushing out the the timeline [to going public] fairly substantially. [Now there are] tens of billions of dollars in value sitting in the private markets and [at the same time] an opportunity to go public and build trust with public shareholders and leverage the early tailwinds of growth.

TC: DraftKings was valued at $3 billion when it came out and it’s now valued at $17 billion, so it has performed really, really well. What makes an ideal target for a SPAC versus a traditional IPO? Does having a consumer-facing business help get public market investors excited? That seems the case.

AJ: It comes down to the nature and the growth characteristics and the sustainability of the business. The early businesses that are going out, as you point out, tend to be consumer based, but I think there’s as good an opportunity for enterprise software companies to use the SPAC to go public.

SPAC [targets] are very similar to what you would want in a traditional IPO: companies with large markets, extremely strong management teams, operating profiles that are attractive, and long term margin profiles that are sustainable, and to be able to articulate [all of that] and have the governance and infrastructure to operate in a public context. You need to be able to do that across any of these products that you use to get public.

TC: DraftKings CEO Jason Robins is an advisor on your SPAC. Why jump into sponsoring one of these yourselves?

AJ: When he was initially approached, we were, like most folks, pretty skeptical. But as the conversations evolved, and we began to understand the amount of customization and flexibility [a SPAC can offer], it felt very familiar. [Also] the whole point of backing entrepreneurs is they do things differently. They’re disruptive, they like to try different formats, and really innovate, and when we saw through the SPAC and the [actual merger] this complex transaction where you’re going through an M&A and raising capital alongside that and it’s all happening between an entrepreneur and a trusted partner, and they’ve coming to terms before even having to talk about all of these things very publicly, that felt like a really interesting avenue to create innovation.

For us, we’re lead partners and directors in the companies that we’re involved with; we start at the early stages at the seed [round] and Series A and work with these entrepreneurs for over a decade, and if we can step in with this product and innovate on behalf of our entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in tech more broadly, we think there’s a really great opportunity to push forward the process for how companies get public.

TC: You raised $360 million for your SPAC. Who are its investors? Are the same institutional investors who invest in your venture fund? Are these hedge funds that are looking to deploy money and also potentially get their money out faster?

AJ: I think a bit of a misconception is this idea that most investors in the public markets want to be hot money or fast money. You know, there are a lot of investors that are interested in being part of a company’s journey and who’ve been frustrated because they’ve been frozen out of being able to access these companies as they’ve stayed private longe. So our investors are some are our [limited partners], but the vast majority are long-only funds, alternative investment managers, and people who are really excited about technology asa long term disrupter and want to be aligned with this next generation of iconic companies.

TC: How big a transaction are you looking to make with what you’ve raised?

AJ: The targets that we’re looking for are going to look very similar to the kind of dilution that a great company would take going public —  think of that 15%, plus or minus, around that envelope. As you do the math on that, you’re looking at a company that’s somewhere around $3 billion in value.  We’re going to have conversations with a lot of different folks who we know well, but that’s that’s generally what we’re looking for.

TC: Can you talk about your “promote,” meaning how the economics are going to work for your team?

AJ: Ours [terms] are very standard to the typical SPAC. We have 20% of the original founders shares. And that’s a very traditional structure as you think about venture funds and private equity firms and hedge funds: 20% is is very typical.

TC: It sounds like your SPAC might be one in a series.

AJ: Well, one step at a time. The job is to do this really well and focus on this task. And then we’ll see based on the reaction that we’re getting as we talk to targets and how the world evolves whether we do a second or third one.

TC: How involved would you be with the management of the merged company and if the answer is very, does that limit the number of companies that might want to reverse-merge into your SPAC?

AJ: The management teams of the companies that we will target will continue to run their businesses. When we talk about active involvement, it’s very much consistent with how we operate as a venture firm, [meaning] we’re a strong partner to the entrepreneur, we are a sounding board, we help them accelerate their businesses, we give them access to resources, and we leverage the FirstMark platform. When you go through the [merger], you look at what the existing board looks like, you look at our board and what we bring to bear there, and then you decide what makes the most sense going forward. And I think that’s going to be the approach that we take.

TC: Chamath Palihapitiya tweeted yesterday about a day when there could be so many VCs with SPACs that two board members from the same portfolio company might approach it to take it public. Does that sound like a plausible scenario and if so, what would you do?

AJ: That’s a really provocative and interesting idea and you could take that further and say, maybe they’ll form a syndicate of SPACs. The way I think about it is that competition is a good thing. It’s a great thing for entrepreneurship, it’s a good thing overall.

The market is actually really broad. I think there’s something like 700-plus private unicorns that are out there. And while there are a lot of headlines around the SPAC, if you think about technology-focused people with deep tech backgrounds, that pool gets very, very limited, very quickly. So we’re pretty excited about the ability to go have these conversations.

You can listen in on more of this conversation, including around liquidation issues and whether FirstMark will target its own portfolio companies or a broader group or targets, here.

Allbirds CEO Joey Zwillinger on the startup’s $100 million round, profitability, and SPAC mania

As people spend less time out in the world and more time daydreaming about when a vaccine will arrive, lifestyle shoes are only gaining traction.

One obvious beneficiary is Allbirds, the San Francisco-based maker of comfortable, sustainable kicks that launched in 2016 and quickly became a favorite in Silicon Valley circles before taking off elsewhere.

Though the company saw its business slow this year because of the pandemic, its products are now available to purchase in 35 countries and its 20 brick-and-mortar stores are sprinkled throughout the U.S. and Europe, with another outpost in Tokyo and several shops in China.

Investors clearly see room for more growth. Allbirds just closed on $100 million in Series E funding at roughly the same $1.6 billion valuation it was assigned after closing on $27 million in Series D funding earlier this year, and blank-check companies have been calling, says cofounder and CEO Joey Zwillinger. He talked with us earlier this week in a chat that has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: Your shoes are sold worldwide. What are your biggest markets?

JZ: The biggest market by far is the U.S., and the same day that we started here in 2016, we also launched in New Zealand, so that’s been very good to us over the last four years, too. But we’ve seen growth in Japan and Korea and China and Canada and Australia. We have a network of warehouses globally that lets us reach 2.5 billion people [who], if they were so inclined, could get their product in three days. We’re proud of the infrastructure we’ve set up.

TC: We’ve all worn shoes a lot less than we might have expected in 2020. How has that impacted your business?

JZ: We’re growing but definitely not at the same pace we would be had the pandemic not occurred. We’re predominantly digital in terms of how we reach people, but stores are important for us. And we had to switch [those] off completely and lost a portion of our sales for a long time.

TC: Did you have to lay off your retail employees?

JZ: A large portion of our retail force was unable to work, but we were luckily able to keep them fully paid for four months, plus [some received] government benefits if they got that. And now all of our 20 stores are up and running again in a way that’s totally safe and everyone feels really comfortable.

We also donated shoes to frontline workers — 10,000 pairs or around a million dollars’ worth.

TC: What does Allbirds have up its sleeve, in terms of new offerings?

JZ: We just launched our native mobile app, and through it we’re able to give our more loyal fans exclusives. It’s a really cool experience that blends technology with fashion. You can try on shoes in a virtual mirror; you’re given information [about different looks] that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

We also launched wool-based weather-proofed running shoes in April that have blown away our expectations but [were fast discovered by] people who haven’t really been running for 10 to 15 years and are running again [because of gym closures]. It’s a super high-stakes category and one that’s hard to break into because people buy on repeat. But we spent two years making it. It’s not like we launched it because of the pandemic. It’s a shoe for 5K to 10K distances — it’s not a marathon shoe or a trail shoe — and that we’ve been able to clearly articulate that speaks to its success, I think.

TC: What about clothing?

We launched underwear and socks last year in a small launch. We developed a textile that hasn’t been used before — it’s a blend of tree fiber and merino wool because our view is that nature can unlock magic. Underwear is typically synthetic — it’s made from plastics — or cotton, which isn’t a great material for a whole bunch of reasons. [Meanwhile] ours is phenomenal for temperature control; it also feels like cashmere.

TC: Patagonia really advertises its social and environmental values. Do you see Allbirds evolving in a similar way, with a growing spate of offerings?

JZ: I’m incredibly humbled by [the comparison]. Given their environmental stewardship of the retail sector, we hope we’re compared to them. But they are much more of an outdoor brand — not a competitor so to speak. And we’d love to share more of the retail world with them so we can do our environmental thing together.

TC: You just raised funding. Are you profitable and, if not, is profitability in sight?

JZ: We’ve been profitable for most of our existence. Having some discipline as we grow is good. We’re not close to the profitability that we’ll eventually have, but we’re still a small company in investment mode. After we emerge from the pandemic, we’ll enter a ramping-up phase.

TC: Everyone and their brother is raising money for a blank-check company, or SPAC, which can make it a lot faster for a private company to go public. Have you been approached, and might this option interest you?

JZ: Yes and no. Yes we’ve been approached, and no, we’re [not interested]. We want to build a great company and being public might be something that helps enable that for a whole bunch of reasons. But we want to do it at the right time, in a way that helps the business grow in the most durable and sustainable fashion. Just jumping at the opportunity of a SPAC without doing the rigorous prep the way we want to, we’re not super focused on that

The Not Company, a maker of plant-based meat and dairy substitutes in Chile, will soon be worth $250M

The Not Company, Latin America’s leading contender in the plant-based meat and dairy substitute market, is about to close on an $85 million round of funding that would value it at $250 million, according to sources familiar with the company’s plans.

The latest round of funding comes on the heels of a series of successes for the Santiago-based business. In the two years since NotCo launched on the global stage, the company has expanded beyond its mayonnaise product into milk, ice cream and hamburgers. Other products, including a chicken meat substitute, are also on the product roadmap, according to people familiar with the company.

NotCo is already selling several products in Chile, Argentina and Latin America’s largest market — Brazil — and has signed a blockbuster deal with Burger King to be the chain’s supplier of plant-based burgers. It’s in this Burger King deal that NotCo’s approach to protein formulation is paying dividends, sources said. The company is responsible for selling 48 sandwiches per store per day in the locations where it’s supplying its products, according to one person familiar with the data. That figure outperforms Impossible Foods per-store sales, the person said.

NotCo is also now selling its burgers in grocery stores in Argentina and Chile. And while the company is not break-even yet, sources said that by December 2021 it could be — or potentially even cash flow positive.

NotCo co-founders Karim Pichara, Matias Muchnick and Pablo Zamora. Image Credit: The Not Company

With the growth both in sales and its diversification into new products, it’s little wonder that investors have taken note.

Sources said that the consumer brand-focused private equity firm L Catterton Partners and the Biz Stone-backed Future Positive were likely investors in the new financing round for the company. Previous investors in NotCo include Bezos Expeditions, the personal investment firm of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; the London-based CPG investment firm, The Craftory; IndieBio; and SOS Ventures.

Alternatives to animal products are a huge (and still growing) category for venture investors. Earlier this month Perfect Day closed on a second tranche of $160 million for that company’s latest round of financing, bringing that company’s total capital raised to $361.5 million, according to Crunchbase. Perfect Day then turned around and launched a consumer food business called the Urgent Company.


These recent rounds confirm our reporting in Extra Crunch about where investors are focusing their time as they try to create a more sustainable future for the food industry. Read more about the path they’re charting.


Meanwhile, large food chains continue to experiment with plant-based menu items and push even further afield into cell-based meat using cultures from animals. KFC recently announced that it would be expanding its experiment with Beyond Meat’s chicken substitute in the U.S. — and would also be experimenting with cultured meat in Moscow.

Behind all of this activity is an acknowledgement that consumer tastes are changing, interest in plant-based diets are growing, and animal agriculture is having profound effects on the world’s climate.

As the website ClimateNexus notes, animal agriculture is the second-largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels. It’s also a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution and biodiversity loss.

There are 70 billion animals raised annually for human consumption, which occupy one-third of the planet’s arable and habitable land surface, and consume 16% of the world’s freshwater supply. Reducing meat consumption in the world’s diet could have huge implications for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If Americans were to replace beef with plant-based substitutes, some studies suggest it would reduce emissions by 1,911 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Horizon Quantum raises $3.23M for its quantum software development tools

Horizon Quantum is part of a new crop of startups that focus on building new tools for building software for quantum computers. The Singapore-based company, which is hardware-agnostic but also launched a close partnership with Rigetti Computing in 2018, today announced that it has raised a $3.23 million funding round led by Sequoia Capital India. Previous investors SGInnovate, Abies Ventures, DCVC, Qubit Protocol, Summer Capital and Posa CV also participated.

At its core, Horizon Quantum aims to democratize quantum development. Because there is very little about quantum computing that is intuitive, the company argues, it will take a new set of tools to help today’s developers tackle quantum. What makes Horizon unique is that it takes conventional source code and then automatically analyzes that to figure out where a quantum computer could speed up an algorithm. Right now, the company can identify potential speedups in code written for Matlab and Octave.

“The conventional approach to developing quantum applications is to explicitly specify the individual steps of a quantum algorithm, or to use a library where such explicit steps are specified. What makes our approach unique is that we construct quantum algorithms directly from conventional source code, automatically identifying places where it can be sped up,” explained Si-Hui Tan, the chief science officer at Horizon Quantum. “Everything that relates to quantum mechanics happens under-the-hood and on-the-fly in our compiler. This automation is what alleviates the need for any quantum knowledge. All our users have to do is to provide their program in a conventional programming language.”

Horizon Quantum’s Joe Fitzsimons (CEO) and Si-Hui Tan (CSO).

At the same time, the company’s tools also make life for experienced quantum software developers easier by giving them the tools to write more succinct code that is also automatically optimized for the underlying quantum processors.

“We’re building a compiler that can go all the way from conventional, classical, code down to the control signals sent to the quantum hardware,” Quantum Horizon CEO Joe Fitzsimons told me in an email. “We’re still building, and we have a lot still to do, but we’ve demonstrated key parts of the technology, from identifying speedups in classical code down to characterising and mitigating errors in quantum processors. Our hope is that it will make quantum computing more easily accessible for the millions of software developers out there, and will allow us to leverage quantum computing in new domains (we specifically think about domains like geophysics for the energy sector and computational fluid dynamics for aerospace and automotive sectors).”

The company says it will use the new funding to help bring its technology to market and engage with its early customers.

Spike raises $8 million to make your email look like a chat app

Asynchronous chat apps like Slack have done their best to kill email, but maybe the key to chat replacing email is just making email look like chat? That’s the idea of Spike, a productivity startup that has built an email app that organizes emails into chat bubbles with an interface that encourages users to keep it short and simple.

Spike’s software began with a focus solely on re-skinning the email experience, but today they’re also launching support for collaborative notes and tasks into their interface as they look to provide a cohesive solution for productivity. The company is fitting an awful lot of functionality into one window, but they hope that streamlining these apps together can leave users spending less time tabbing through separate windows and more time getting stuff done.

“Email is a collection of your tasks, so why should it be separated from where your other tasks are?” asks CEO Dvir Ben-Aroya.

The new functionality widens the ambitions of the software but also refocuses the app on a more complete business use case. Ben-Aroya admits that the company hasn’t pushed monetization very hard in the past, instead looking to scale up its base of free users in an effort to eventually scale up inside organizations. As the app looks to bring small businesses and larger enterprises onboard, the app is keeping its free tier, but to get past limits on message history and note/task creation users are going to have to upgrade to a $7.99 per month per user plan ($5.99 per month when billed annually).

Alongside its product news, the startup also shared today that it has raised $8 million in a Series A round led by Insight Partners . Wix, NFX and Koa Labs also participated in the round. The company plans to use the cash to aggressively scale hiring and double its team this year.

“[W]e see a massive addressable market for centralized communication hubs to connect disparate messaging channels,” Insight Partners VP Daniel Aronovitz said in a statement. “The current climate and associated macro-tailwinds behind remote teamwork have only strengthened our belief that there is a sizable and growing demand for digital collaboration tools.”

The company’s platform is compatible with most email services and the app is available on Android, iOS, Mac and Windows.

Email startups are often privy to some of a user’s most sensitive data and can receive a lot of inquiries regarding privacy. As a result, Ben-Aroya believes his company is far ahead of competitors when it comes to safety. “Unlike many other available email clients, we’re never touching, manipulating, using, reusing or selling any part of the user data,” he says.

Spike has raised $16 million in funding to date.

Investors in LatAm get bitten by the hotel investment bug as Ayenda raises $8.7 million

Some of Latin America’s leading venture capital investors are now backing hotel chains.

In fact, Ayenda, the largest hotel chain in Colombia, has raised $8.7 million in a new round of funding, according to the company.

Led by Kaszek Ventures, the round will support the continued expansion of Ayenda’s chain of hotels in Colombia and beyond. The hotel operator already has 150 hotels operating under its flag in Colombia and has recently expanded to Peru, according to a statement.

Financing came from Kaszek Ventures and strategic investors like Irelandia Aviation, Kairos, Altabix and BWG Ventures.

The company, which was founded in 2018, now has more than 4,500 rooms under its brand in Colombia and has become the biggest hotel chain in the country.

Investments in brick and mortar chains by venture firms are far more common in emerging markets than they are in North America. The investment in Ayenda mirrors big bets that SoftBank Group has made in the Indian hotel chain Oyo and an investment made by Tencent, Sequoia China, Baidu Capital and Goldman Sachs, in LvYue Group late last year, amounting to “several hundred million dollars”, according to a company statement.

“We’re seeking to invest in companies that are redefining the big industries and we found Ayenda, a team that is changing the hotel’s industry in an unprecedented way for the region”, said Nicolas Berman, Kaszek Ventures partner.

Ayenda works with independent hotels through a franchise system to help them increase their occupancy and services. The hotels have to apply to be part of the chain and go through an up to 30-day inspection process before they’re approved to open for business.

“With a broad supply of hotels with the best cost-benefit relationship, guests can travel more frequently, accelerating the economy,” says Declan Ryan, managing partner at Irelandia Aviation.

The company hopes to have more than 1 million guests in 2020 in their hotels. Rooms list at $20 per-night, including amenities and an around the clock customer support team.

Oyo’s story may be a cautionary tale for companies looking at expanding via venture investment for hotel chains. The once high-flying company has been the subject of some scathing criticism. As we wrote:

The New York Times  published an in-depth report on Oyo, a tech-enabled budget hotel chain and rising star in the Indian tech community. The NYT wrote that Oyo offers unlicensed rooms and has bribed police officials to deter trouble, among other toxic practices.

Whether Oyo, backed by billions from the SoftBank  Vision Fund, will become India’s WeWork is the real cause for concern. India’s startup ecosystem is likely to face a number of barriers as it grows to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley.

The Org nabs $8.5M led by Founders Fund to build a global database of company org charts

LinkedIn has cornered the market when it comes to putting your own professional profile online and using it to network for jobs, industry connections and professional development. But when it comes to looking at a chart of the people, and specifically the leadership teams, who make up organizations more holistically, the Microsoft-owned network comes up a little short: you can search by company names, but chances are that you get a list of people based on their connectivity to you, and otherwise in no particular order (including people who may no longer even be at the company). And pointedly, there is little in the way of verification to prove that someone who claims to be working for a company really is.

Now, a startup called The Org is hoping to take on LinkedIn and address that gap with an ambitious idea: to build a database (currently free to use) of organizational charts for every leading company, and potentially any company in the world, and then add on features after that, such as job advertising, for example organizations looking to hire people where there are obvious gaps in their org charts.

With 16,000 companies profiled so far on its platform, a total of 50,000 companies in its database and around 100,000 visitors per month, The Org is announcing $11 million in funding: a Series A of $8.5 million, and a previously unannounced seed round of $2.5 million.

Led by Founders Fund, the Series A also includes participation from Sequoia and Balderton, along with a number of angels. Sequoia is actually a repeat investor: it also led The Org’s $2.5 million seed round, which also had Founders Fund, Kevin Hartz, Elad Gil, Ryan Petersen, and SV Angel in it. Keith Rabois, who is now a partner at Founders Fund but once held the role of VP of business and corporate development at LinkedIn, is also joining the startup’s board of directors.

Co-headquartered in New York and Copenhagen, Denmark, The Org was co-founded by Christian Wylonis (CEO) and Andreas Jarbøl, partly inspired by a piece in online tech publication The Information, which provided an org chart for the top people at Airbnb (currently numbering 90 entries).

“This article went crazy viral,” Wylonis said in an interview. “I would understand why someone would be interested in this outside of Airbnb, but it turned out that people inside the company were fascinated by it, too. I started to think, when you take something like an org chart and made it publicly facing, I think it just becomes interesting.”

So The Org set out to build a bigger business based on the concept.

For now, The Org is aimed at two distinct markets: those outside the company who might most typically be interested in who is working where and doing what — for example, recruiters, those in human resources departments who are using the data to model their own organizational charts, or salespeople; and those inside the company (or again, outside) who are simply interested in seeing who does what.

The Org is aiming to have 100,000 org charts on its platform by the end of the year, with the longer-term goal being to cover 1 million. For now, the focus is on adding companies in the US before expanding to other markets.

But while the idea of building org charts for many companies sounds easy enough, there is also a reason why it hasn’t been done yet: it’s not nearly as simple as it looks. That is one reason why even trying to surmount this issue is of interest to top VCs — particularly those who have worked in startups and fast-growing tech companies themselves.

“Today, information about teams is unstructured, scattered, and unverified, making it hard for employees and recruiters to understand organizational structures,” said Roelof Botha, partner at Sequoia Capital, in a statement.

“Organizational charts were the secret weapon to forging partnerships during my 20 years as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and Europe. Yet, they are a carefully guarded secret, which have to be painstakingly put together by hand,” said Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen, general partner at Balderton Capital, in a statement. “The Org is surfacing this critical information, improving efficiency from the sales floor to the boardroom.”

“Up-to-date org charts can be useful for everything from recruiting to sales, but they are difficult and time consuming to piece together,” added Rabois in a statement. “The Org is making this valuable information easily accessible in a way we were never able to do at LinkedIn.”

The approach that The Org is taking to building these profiles so far has been a collaborative one. While The Org itself might establish some company names and seed and update them with information from publicly available sources, that approach leaves a lot of gaps.

This is where a crowdsourced, wiki-style approach comes in. As with other company-based networking services such as Slack, users from a particular company can use their work email addresses to sign into that organization’s profile, and from there they can add or modify entries as you might enter data in a wiki — the idea being that multiple people getting involved in the edits helps keep the company’s org chart more accurate.

While The Org’s idea holds a lot of promise and seems to fill a hole that other companies like LinkedIn — or, from another direction, Glassdoor — do not address in their own profiling of companies, I can see some challenges, too, that it might encounter as it grows.

Platforms that provide insights into a company landscape, such as LinkedIn or Glassdoor, are ultimately banked more around individuals and their own representations. That means that by their nature these platforms may not ever provide complete pictures of businesses themselves, just slices of it. The Org, on the other hand, starts from the point of view of presenting the company itself, which means that the resulting gaps that arise might be more apparent if they never get filled in, making The Org potentially less useful as a tool.

Similarly, if these charts are truly often closely guarded by companies (something I don’t doubt is true, since they could pose poaching risks, or copycats in the form of companies attempting to build org structures based on what their more successful competitors are doing), I could see how some companies might start to approach The Org with requests to remove their profiles and corresponding charts.

Wylonis said that “99%” of companies so far have been okay with what The Org is building. “The way that we see it is that transparency is of interest to the people who work there,” he said. “I think that everyone should strive for that. Why block it? The world is changing and if the only way to keep your talent is by hiding your org chart you have other problems at your company.”

He added that so far The Org has not had any official requests, “but we have had informal enquiries about how we get our information. And some companies email us about changes. And when an individual person gets in touch and says, ‘I don’t want to be here,’ we delete that. But it’s only happened a handful of times.” It’s not clear whether that proportion stays the same, or goes up or down, as The Org grows.

In the meantime, the other big question that The Org will grapple with is just how granular should it go?

“I hope that one day we can have an updated and complete org chart for every business, but that might prove difficult,” Wylonis said. Indeed, that could mean mapping out 1 million people at Walmart, for example. “For the biggest companies, it may be that it works to map out the top 500, with the top 30-40 for smaller companies. And people can always go in and make corrections to expand those if they want.”

Instamojo acquires Times Internet’s GetMeAShop to serve more small businesses in India

Instamojo, a Bangalore-based startup that helps merchants and small businesses accept digital payments, establish presence and sell on the web, has acquired Times Internet-owned Gurgaon-based startup GetMeAShop.

The deal is worth $5 million and includes conglomerate Times Internet making an investment in Instamojo, Sampad Swain, co-founder and chief executive of the Bangalore-based startup, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Hundreds of millions of people have come online in India in the last decade thanks to proliferation of low-cost Android smartphones and availability to some of the world’s cheapest mobile data plans. But most small businesses, especially neighbourhood stores and merchants, remain offline.

A wave of startups in the country today are trying to make it easier for these merchants and businesses to come online. GetMeAShop is one such startup. It runs a platform that allows businesses to set up their website, build an online store, and make it easier for merchants or individuals to engage with — and sell to — their customers through social apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

For Instamojo, this acquisition is not surprising. The seven-year-old startup began its journey as a payments provider for small businesses. Over the years, it has launched an online store, an app store, and a lending service to serve more needs of a business. “This acquisition will allow us to become a full-fledged operating system for businesses,” said Swain.

Instamojo has amassed 1.2 million merchants on its platform. “It took us seven years to get a million merchants on the platform. Now we are adding more than 2,000 a day. We are on track to hit 2 million merchants by the end of this year,” he said.

More to follow shortly…

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.”

Silicone 3D printing startup Spectroplast spins out of ETHZ with $1.5M

3D printing has become commonplace in the hardware industry, but because few materials can be used for it easily, the process rarely results in final products. A Swiss startup called Spectroplast hopes to change that with a technique for printing using silicone, opening up all kinds of applications in medicine, robotics and beyond.

Silicone is not very bioreactive, and of course can be made into just about any shape while retaining strength and flexibility. But the process for doing so is generally injection molding, great for mass-producing lots of identical items but not so great when you need a custom job.

And it’s custom jobs that ETH Zurich’s Manuel Schaffner and Petar Stefanov have in mind. Hearts, for instance, are largely similar but the details differ, and if you were going to get a valve replaced, you’d probably prefer yours made to order rather than straight off the shelf.

“Replacement valves currently used are circular, but do not exactly match the shape of the aorta, which is different for each patient,” said Schaffner in a university news release. Not only that, but they may be a mixture of materials, some of which the body may reject.

But with a precise MRI the researchers can create a digital model of the heart under consideration and, using their proprietary 3D printing technique, produce a valve that’s exactly tailored to it — all in a couple of hours.

ethz siliconeprinting 1

A 3D-printed silicone heart valve from Spectroplast.

Although they have created these valves and done some initial testing, it’ll be years before anyone gets one installed — this is the kind of medical technique that takes a decade to test. So in the meantime they are working on “life-improving” rather than life-saving applications.

One such case is adjacent to perhaps the most well-known surgical application of silicone: breast augmentation. In Spectroplast’s case, however, they’d be working with women who have undergone mastectomies and would like to have a breast prosthesis that matches the other perfectly.

Another possibility would be anything that needs to fit perfectly to a person’s biology, like a custom hearing aid, the end of a prosthetic leg or some other form of reconstructive surgery. And of course, robots and industry could use one-off silicone parts as well.

ethz siliconeprinting 2

There’s plenty of room to grow, it seems, and although Spectroplast is just starting out, it already has some 200 customers. The main limitation is the speed at which the products can be printed, a process that has to be overseen by the founders, who work in shifts.

Until very recently Schaffner and Stefanov were working on this under a grant from the ETH Pioneer Fellowship and a Swiss national innovation grant. But in deciding to depart from the ETH umbrella they attracted a 1.5 million Swiss franc (about the same as dollars just now) seed round from AM Ventures Holding in Germany. The founders plan to use the money to hire new staff to crew the printers.

Right now Spectroplast is doing all the printing itself, but in the next couple of years it may sell the printers or modifications necessary to adapt existing setups.

You can read the team’s paper showing their process for creating artificial heart valves here.

ThredUp, whose second-hand goods will start appearing at Macy’s and JCPenney, just raised a bundle

ThredUp, the 10-year-old fashion resale marketplace, has a lot of big news to boast about lately. For starters, the company just closed on $100 million in fresh funding from an investor syndicate that includes Park West Asset Management, Irving Investors and earlier backers Goldman Sachs Investment Partners, Upfront Ventures, Highland Capital Partners and Redpoint Ventures.

The round brings ThredUP’s total capital raised to more than $300 million, including a previously undisclosed $75 million investment that it sewed up last year.

A potentially even bigger deal for the company is a new resale platform that both Macy’s and JCPenney are beginning to test out, wherein ThedUp will be sending the stores clothing that they will process through their own point-of-sale systems, while trying to up-sell customers on jewelry, shoes, and other accessories.

It says a lot that traditional retailers are coming to see gently used items as a potential revenue stream for themselves, and little wonder given the size of the resale market, estimated to be a $24 billion market currently and projected to become a $51 billion market by 2023.

We talked yesterday with ThredUp founder and CEO James Reinhart to learn more about its tie-up with the two brands and to find out what else the startup is stitching together.

TC: You’ve partnered with Macy’s and JCPenney. Did they approach you or is ThredUp out there pitching traditional retailers?

JR: I think [the two companies] have been thinking about resale for some time. They’re trying to figure out how to best serve their customers. Meanwhile, we’ve been thinking about how we power resale for a broader set of partners, and there was a meeting of the minds six months ago

We’re positioned now where we can do this really effectively in-store, so we’re starting with a pilot program in 30 to 40 stores, but we could scale to 300 or 400 stores if we wanted.

TC: How is this going to work, exactly, with these partners?

JR: We have the [software and logistics] architecture and the selection to put together carefully curated selections of clothing for particular stores, including the right assortment of brands and sizes, depending on where a Macy’s is located, for example. Macy’s then wraps a high-quality experience around [those goods]. Maybe it’s a dress, but they wrap a handbag and scarves and jewelry around the dress purchase. We feel [certain] that future consumers will buy new and used at the same time.

TC: Who is your demographic, and please don’t say everyone.

JR: It is everyone. It’s not a satisfying answer, but we sell 30,000 brands. We serve lots of luxury customers with brands like Louis Vuitton, but we also sell Old Navy. What unites customers across all brands is they want to find brands that they couldn’t have afforded new; they’re trading up to brands that, full price, would have been too much, so Old Navy shoppers are [buying] Gap [whose shopper are buying] J. Crew and Theory and all the way up. Consistently, what we hear is [our marketplace] allows customers to swap out their wardrobes at higher rates than would be possible otherwise, and it feels to them like they’re doing it in a more [environmentally] responsible way.

TC: What percentage of your shoppers are also consigning goods?

JR: We don’t track that closely, but it’s typically about a third.

TC: Do you think your customers are buying higher-end goods with a mind toward selling them, to defray their overall cost? I know that’s the thinking of CEO Julie Wainwright at [rival] The RealReal. It’s all supposed to be a kind of virtuous circle of shopping.

JR:  We like to talk about buying the handbag, then selling it, but plenty of people will also buy a second-hand Banana Republic sweater because it’s a value [and because] fashion is the second-most polluting industry on the planet.

TC: How far are you going to combat that pollution? I’m just curious if you’re in any way try to bolster the sale of hemp, versus maybe nylon, clothes for example.

JR: We aren’t driving material selection. Our thesis is: we want to stay out of the fashion business and instead ensure there’s a responsible way for people to buy second hand.

TC: For people who haven’t used ThredUp, walk through the economics. How much of each sale does someone keep?

JR: On ThredUp, it isn’t a uniform payment; it depends instead on the brand. On the luxury end, we pay [sellers] more than anyone else — we pay up to 80 percent when we resell it. If it’s Gap or Banana Republic, you get maybe 10 or 15 or 20 percent based on the original price of the item.

TC: How would you describe your standards? What goes into the reject pile?

JR: We have high standards. Items have to be in like-new or gently used condition, and we reject more than half of what people send us. But I think there’s probably more leeway for the Theory’s and J.Crew’s of the world than if you’re buying a Chanel dress.

TC: Unlike some of your rivals, you don’t sell to men. Why not?

JR: Men’s is a small market in secondhand. Men wear the same four colors — blue, black, gray and brown — so it’s not a big resale market. We do sell kids’ clothing, and that’s a big part of our market.

TC: When Macy’s now sells a dress from ThredUp, how much will you see from that transaction?

JR: We can’t share the details of the economics.

TC: How many people are now working for ThredUp?

JR: We have less than 200 in our corporate office in San Francisco, and 50 in Kiev, and then across four distribution centers — in Phoenix; Mechanicsburg [Pa.]; Atlanta; and Chicago — we have another 1,200 employees.

TC: You’ve now raised a lot of money in the last year. How will it be used?

JR: On our resale platform [used by retailers like Macy’s] and on building our tech and operations and building new distribution centers to process more clothing. We can’t get people to stop sending us stuff. [Laughs.]

TC: Before you go, what’s the most under-appreciated aspect of your business?

JR: The logistics behind the scenes. I think for every great e-commerce business, there are incredible logistics [challenges to overcome] behind the scenes. People don’t appreciate how hard that piece is, alongside the data. We’re going to process our 100 millionth item by the end of this year. That’s a lot of data.

Energy Vault raises $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund as energy storage grabs headlines

Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.

The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.

Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.

The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.

Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.

“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.

Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.

Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.

“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”

For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.

The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.

The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.

The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.

One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.

Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.

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.”

Toast, the restaurant management platform, has raised $250M at a $2.7B valuation

Restaurant sales hit $825 billion last year in the U.S., but with margins averaging at only three to five percent per business, they’re always looking for an edge on efficiency and just generally running things in a smarter way. A startup called Toast, which has built a popular platform for restaurant management, has closed a hefty round of funding to double down on that opportunity to do that.

The company has raised $250 million on a valuation of $2.7 billion, money that it will use to invest in building technology to help restaurants with marketing, recruitment and operational efficiency, as well as start to think about expanding to more territories outside the U.S.

The basics of the funding were flagged earlier today by Prime Unicorn Index and we reached out to the company to confirm. It is being led by TCV and Tiger Global Management, with participation from Bessemer Venture Partners and T. Rowe Price Associates funds and other existing investors.

This Series E is a big bump up for the company: in its previous round in July 2018, the company was valued at $1.4 billion — partly the result of strong growth at the company. While it’s not disclosing revenue numbers or whether it is yet profitable, Toast currently serves tens of thousands of businesses — covering a range of sizes from independent venues to smaller chains — and in the last year tallied up transactions in the tens of billions of dollars, seeing growth of some 148 percent in its revenues, according to CFO Tim Barash.

The restaurant business represents a big opportunity for e-commerce companies, but there have been some notable stumbles where ambitions have not been met with success. Groupon, which spent several years acquiring and organically building a point of sale and restaurant management business, first drastically cut down and then finally called it quits and sold off its efforts, called Breadcrumb, in 2016. Amazon also pulled out of point of sale services (aimed at more than restaurants) and has in certain regions also pulled back on other restaurant efforts like its order management and delivery platform.

Barash said in an interview that he thinks the key to why Toast has steadily grown its business through all that is because a large proportion of its own employees — some 70 percent — have worked in the food service industry themselves.

“I was first a busboy, and then I worked in pizza delivery for years,” he said. “Seventy percent of our employees have worked at restaurants, including those in our product leadership, and that helps us understand the problem.”

Restaurants, as Barash points out, are complicated. “They are essentially manufacturers and retailers at the same time, all in one small physical footprint,” and so the key to building products for them is to understand that and the challenges they face in building and running those businesses.

And that’s before you consider the many other factors that can make restaurants a dicey game, from changing cuisine tastes, to changing eating habits — many get food delivered today — to the precariousness of the commercial real estate market and so much more.

The aim of Toast is to build tools to apply data science and orderly IT processes to address whichever of those variables that can be controlled by the restaurant.

Today, Toast’s products include point of sale services as well as reporting and analytics; display systems for kitchens; online ordering and delivery interfaces; and loyalty programs. It also builds its own hardware, which includes handheld order pads, payment and ordering terminals, self-service kiosks and displays for guests. It also offers links through to a network of some 100 partners, such as Grubhub for takeout food, when a restaurant does not cover those services or functions directly, to help stitch together services to work on its platform.

Tomorrow, the plan is to use the funding to enhance all of those with more advanced features that speak to some of the bigger issues and concerns Barash said its customers are voicing today.

That will include better and more services aimed at guest engagement and retention; better ways to recruit and keep people in an industry that has a high turnover of employees; and of course more tools to address how efficiently a business is operating to make it more profitable. The company has committed some $1 billion in the next five years to R&D to build more hardware and software.

Having access to this kind of tech and platform is a big deal, especially for independently owned places that hope to compete against bigger chains without having to compromise on their core competency: making unique and delicious food.

In the meantime, Barash said that while Toast itself is no stranger to approaches from larger players itself — he declined to say who but said many who have ambitions to do more business with the restaurant industry had approached it over the years — the company’s long-term vision is to grow bigger and remain its own boss.

It’s an ambition that has hit the spot with investors that have an appetite for high-growth businesses.

“At TCV, we invest in companies that have the potential to reshape entire industries. By providing restaurants of all sizes with access to innovative technology, Toast is leveling the playing field and leading the industry’s transition to the cloud,” said David Yuan, general partner at TCV, in a statement, who is joining the board with this round. “Our investment will enable Toast to extend their platform beyond point-of-sale and guest-facing technology, and in doing so, create a powerful SaaS platform with a superlative business model. We’re excited to partner with Toast as they accelerate the growth of the community they serve.”

Job Today gets a $16M top up as it preps for Brexit bump

Accel-backed mobile-first jobs app Job Today has pulled in another $16M — an expansion to its November 2016 $20M Series B round. It raised a $10M Series A in January of the same year.

The 2015 founded startup offers a mobile app for job seekers that does away with the need for a CV.

Instead job seekers create a profile in the app and can apply to relevant jobs. Employers can then triage potential applicants via the app and chat to any they like the look of via its messaging platform.

The approach has been especially popular with fast turnover jobs in the service industry, such as hospitality and retail.

Job Today says it has more than five million job seekers registered on its platform, and claims to have delivered more than 100 million candidate applications to the 400,000+ predominantly small businesses posting jobs via the app to date (with 1M+ jobs posted). It currently operates in two markets: Spain and the UK.

The additional funding will be put towards expanding its presence in the UK market — where it says it’s seen “significant growth” in both job postings and candidate applications.

It says the overall volume of applications has increased by 46% year-on-year in the market, with the number of applications per candidate growing by 32% in the same period. The likes of Costa Coffee, Pret A Manger and Eat are named as among its “regular hirers”.

It’s also envisaging a Brexit bump for the local casual job market, as the UK’s decision to leave the European Union looks set to impact the supply of labor for employers…

Commenting in a statement, CEO Eugene Mizin, said: “The casual job market is often the first to experience the effects from macro-economic forces and Brexit will mean that many non-skilled and non-British workers will leave the UK. This will create a demand to fill casual jobs and create new opportunities for the less-skilled school, college and university leavers entering the workforce for the first time in 2019.”

The Series B expansion funds are coming from New York based investor 14W.

Job Today says it got additional growth uplift after integrating with Google Jobs — aka Google search’s built in AI-powered jobs engine. This launched in the UK in July 2018, and Job Today said it saw 101% growth in users in the first month of integration.

SessionM customer loyalty data aggregator snags $23.8 M investment

SessionM announced a $23.8 million Series E investment led by Salesforce Ventures. A bushel of existing investors including Causeway Media Partners, CRV, General Atlantic, Highland Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers also contributed to the round. The company has now raised over $97 million.

At its core, SessionM aggregates loyalty data for brands to help them understand their customer better, says company co-founder and CEO Lars Albright. “We are a customer data and engagement platform that helps companies build more loyal and profitable relationships with their consumers,” he explained.

Essentially that means, they are pulling data from a variety of sources and helping brands offer customers more targeted incentives, offers and product recommendations “We give [our users] a holistic view of that customer and what motivates them,” he said.

Screenshot: SessionM (cropped)

To achieve this, SessionM takes advantage of machine learning to analyze the data stream and integrates with partner platforms like Salesforce, Adobe and others. This certainly fits in with Adobe’s goal to build a customer service experience system of record and Salesforce’s acquisition of Mulesoft in March to integrate data from across an organization, all in the interest of better understanding the customer.

When it comes to using data like this, especially with the advent of GDPR in the EU in May, Albright recognizes that companies need to be more careful with data, and that it has really enhanced the sensitivity around stewardship for all data-driven businesses like his.

“We’ve been at the forefront of adopting the right product requirements and features that allow our clients and businesses to give their consumers the necessary control to be sure we’re complying with all the GDPR regulations,” he explained.

The company was not discussing valuation or revenue. Their most recent round prior to today’s announcement, was a Series D in 2016 for $35 million also led by Salesforce Ventures.

SessionM, which was founded in 2011, has around 200 employees with headquarters in downtown Boston. Customers include Coca-Cola, L’Oreal and Barney’s.

Cogito scores $37M as AI-driven sentiment analysis biz grows

Cogito announced a $37 million Series C investment today led by Goldman Sachs Growth Equity. Previous investors Salesforce Ventures and OpenView also chipped in. Mark Midle of Goldman Sachs’ Merchant Banking Division, has joined Cogito’s Board of Directors

The company has raised over $64 million since it emerged from the MIT Human Dynamics Lab back in 2007 trying to use the artificial intelligence technology available at the time to understand sentiment and apply it in a business context.

While it took some time for the technology to catch up with the vision, and find the right use case, company CEO and founder Joshua Feast says today they are helping customer service representatives understand the sentiment and emotional context of the person on the line and give them behavioral cues on how to proceed.

“We sell software to very large software, premium brands with many thousands of people in contact centers. The purpose of our solution is to help provide a really wonderful service experience in moments of truth,” he explained. Anyone who deals with a large company’s customer service has likely felt there is sometimes a disconnect between the person on the phone and their ability to understand your predicament and solve your problem.

Cogito in action giving customer service reps real-time feedback.

He says using his company’s solution, which analyzes the contents of the call in real time, and provides relevant feedback, the goal is to not just complete the service call, but to leave the customer feeling good about the brand and the experience. Certainly a bad experience can have the opposite effect.

He wants to use technology to make the experience a more human interaction and he recognizes that as an organization grows, layers of business process make it harder for the customer service representative to convey that humanity. Feast believes that technology has helped create this problem and it can help solve it too.

While the company is not talking about valuation or specific revenue at this point, Feast reports that revenue has grown 3X over the last year. Among their customers are Humana and Metlife, two large insurance companies, each with thousands of customer service agents.

Cogito is based in downtown Boston with 117 employees at last count, and of course they hope to use the money to add on to that number and help scale this vision further.

“This is about scaling our organization to meet client’s needs. It’s also about deepening what we do. In a lot of ways, we are only scratching the surface [of the underlying technology] in terms of how we can use AI to support emotional connections and help organizations be more human,” Feast said.