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Philippines payment processing startup PayMongo lands $12 million Series A led by Stripe

Stripe has led a $12 million Series A round in Manila-based online payment platform PayMongo, the startup announced today.

PayMongo, which offers an online payments API for businesses in the Philippines, was the first Filipino-owned financial tech startup to take part in Y Combinator’s accelerator program. Y Combinator and Global Founders Capital, another previous investor, both returned for the Series A, which also included participation from new backer BedRock Capital.

PayMongo partners with financial institutions, and its products include a payments API that can be integrated into websites and apps, allowing them to accept payments from bank cards and digital wallets like GrabPay and GCash. For social commerce sellers and other people who sell mostly through messaging apps, the startup offers PayMongo Links, which buyers can click on to send money. PayMongo’s platform also includes features like a fraud and risk detection system.

In a statement, Stripe’s APAC business lead Noah Pepper said it invested in PayMongo because “we’ve been impressed with the PayMongo team and the speed at which they’ve made digital payments more accessible to so many businesses across the Philippines.”

The startup launched in June 2019 with $2.7 million in seed funding, which the founders said was one of the largest seed rounds ever raised by a Philippines-based fintech startup. PayMongo has now raised a total of almost $15 million in funding.

Co-founder and chief executive Francis Plaza said PayMongo has processed a total of almost $20 million in payments since launching, and grown at an average of 60% since the start of the year, with a surge after lockdowns began in March.

He added that the company originally planned to start raising its Series A in in the first half of next year, but the growth in demand for its services during COVID-19 prompted it to start the round earlier so it could hire for its product, design and engineering teams and speed up the release of new features. These will include more online payment options; features for invoicing and marketplaces; support for business models like subscriptions; and faster payout cycles.

PayMongo also plans to add more partnerships with financial service providers, improve its fraud and risk detection systems and secure more licenses from the central bank so it can start working on other types of financial products.

The startup is among fintech companies in Southeast Asia that have seen accelerated growth as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many businesses to digitize more of their operations. Plaza said that overall digital transactions in the Philippines grew 42% between January and April because of the country’s lockdowns.

PayMongo is currently the only payments company in the Philippines with an onboarding process that was developed to be completely online, he added, which makes it attractive to merchants who are accepting online payments for the first time. “We have a more efficient review of compliance requirements for the expeditious approval of applications so that our merchants can use our platform right away and we make sure we have a fast payout to our merchants,” said Plaza.

If the momentum continues even as lockdowns are lifted in different cities, that means the Philippine’s central bank is on track to reach its goal of increasing the volume of e-payment transactions to 20% of total transactions in the country this year. The government began setting policies in 2015 to encourage more online payments, in a bid to bolster economic growth and financial inclusion, since smartphone penetration in the Philippines is high, but many people don’t have a traditional bank account, which often charge high fees.

Though lockdown restrictions in the Philippines have eased, Plaza said PayMongo is still seeing strong traction. “We believe the digital shift by Filipino businesses will continue, largely because both merchants and customers continue to practice safety measures such as staying at home and choosing online shopping despite the more lenient quarantine levels. Online will be the new normal for commerce.”

Is your startup the next TikTok?

Editor’s note: Get this free weekly recap of TechCrunch news that any startup can use by email every Saturday morning (7 a.m. PT). Subscribe here.

And I don’t mean building an app that gets the world addicted to short-form videos. I mean, where you build a huge company that spans the world and then get turned into a political football.

The Bytedance-owned app developer still appears headed for a shutdown in the US, after the already convoluted talks stalled out this past week. Each national government appears to require local ownership of a new entity, as Catherine Shu details, and the business partners are each claiming ownership. It’s a zero sum global game now for control of data and algorithms.

On the other side of the world, Facebook was quick to state that it would not be pulling out of the European Union this week even if it is forced to keep EU user data local, as Natasha Lomas covered. The company was clarifying a recent filing it had made that seemed to threaten otherwise — it doesn’t want to get TikTok’d.

For startups with physical supply chains, existing tensions are squeezing business activity from Chimerica out into other parts of the world, as Brian Heater wrote about the topic for Extra Crunch this week. Here’s what one founder told him:

Many [companies] are considering manufacturing in areas like Southeast Asia and India. Vietnam, in particular, has offered an appealing proposition for a labor pool, notes Ho Chi Minh City-based Sonny Vu, CEO of carbon-fiber products manufacturer Arevo and founder of deep tech VC fund Alabaster. “We’re friendly [with] the Americans and the West in general. Vietnam, they’ve got 100 million people, they can make stuff,” Vu explains. “The supply chains are getting more and more sophisticated. One of the issues has been the subpar supply chain … it’s not as deep and broad as as other places like China. That’s changing really fast and people are willing to do manufacturing. I’ve heard from my friends trying to make stuff in China, labor’s always this chronic issue.”

Danny Crichton blamed nationalistic US policies for undermining the country’s long-term commitment to leading global free trade and threatening its competitive future, in a provocative rant last weekend. There’s truth to that, but the underlying truth is that globalization worked, it just hasn’t work as well as hoped for a lot of people in the US and some other parts of the world. In addition to phenomenon like China’s industrial engine, for example, those cross-border flows of money and technology have helped nurture the startup ecosystem in Europe.

Mike Butcher, who has been covering startups for TechCrunch from London since last decade, writes about a new report from Index Ventures about this trend.

It used to be the case that in order to scale globally, European companies needed to spend big on launching in the U.S. to achieve the kind of growth they wanted. That usually meant relocating large swathes of the team to the San Francisco Bay Area, or New York. New research suggests that is no longer the case, as the U.S. has become more expensive, and as the opportunity in Europe has improved. This means European startups are committing much less of their team and resources to a U.S. launch, but still getting decent results…. Between 2008-2014, almost two-thirds (59%) of European startups expanded, or moved entirely, to the U.S. ahead of Series A funding rounds. However, between 2015-2019, this number decreased to a third (33%).

The report also highlights the economic problem of dividing up markets into political blocks. “European corporates invest three-quarters (76%) less than their U.S. counterparts on software,” Butcher adds about the report. “And this is normally on compliance rather than innovation. This means European startups are likely to continue to look to the U.S. for exits to corporates.”

The pain from failing to trade will come home sooner or later to each government, as Danny observes. But that could be longer than your current company exists. Instead, now is the time to pick the markets you can win, and plan for a world where success has a lower ceiling. And hey, if you’re lucky, your national government could pick you as its winner!

Want $100m ARR? Fix your churn

We’ve been recapping key moments from the Extra Crunch Stage at Disrupt this week, here’s a key segment from a panel Alex Wilhelm hosted about how to achieve the $100m ARR dream, featuring Egnyte CEO Vineet Jain:

After explaining that in the early stages of building a SaaS company it’s common to focus more on adding new revenue than “plugging the holes at the bottom,” [Jain] added that as a company matures and grows, more focus has to be paid to managing churn and retention. He said that dollar-based retention is a key metric in the SaaS world that startups are valued by, meaning that after securing a customer, your ability to upsell that same account over a “defined window of time” really matters.

Noting the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that bonuses at Egnyte are tied to retention, “I say, managing churn is the new revenue,” he added. “Focus on that disproportionately more than you would focus on just top-line growth” … . Egnyte, Jain added, drives to just one or two metrics (net new MRR, or gross MRR adds and churn). “Everything that we’re doing, all of us [at Egnyte] have to be measured with that number to say, ‘How are we doing as a company?’” So if your startup is post-Series A, listen to what Jain says on managing churn. After all his company reached $100 million ARR, has a few dozen million in the bank, grew 22% in Q2 and is EBITDA positive.

Summer of tech IPOs continues with Root, Corsair Gaming and of course, Palantir

While public markets have waffled on tech stocks lately, the overall momentum of unicorn IPOs has continued.

Except, Danny may have slowed things down a bit for Palantir? Here are the key headlines from the week:

As tech stocks dip, is insurtech startup Root targeting an IPO? (EC)

Chamath launches SPAC, SPAC and SPAC as he SPACs the world with SPACs

Palantir publishes 2020 revenue guidance of $1.05B, will trade starting Sept 30th

Following TechCrunch reporting, Palantir rapidly removes language allowing founders to ‘unilaterally adjust their total voting power’

In its 5th filing with the SEC, Palantir finally admits it is not a democracy

How has Corsair Gaming posted such impressive pre-IPO numbers? (EC)

Even more info about the best investors for you

We’re making another big update to The TechCrunch List of startup investors who write the first checks and lead the scary rounds, based on thousands of recommendations that we’ve been receiving from founders. Here’s more, from Danny:

Since the launch of the List, we’ve seen great engagement: tens of thousands of founders have each come back multiple times to use the List to scout out their next fundraising moves and understand the ever-changing landscape of venture investing.

We last revised The TechCrunch List at the end of July 30 with 116 new VCs based on founder recommendations, but as with all things venture capital, the investing world moves quickly. That means it’s already time to begin another update.

To make sure we have the best information, we need founders — from new founders who might have just raised their VC rounds to experienced founders adding another round to their cap tables — to submit recommendations. Thankfully, our survey is pretty short (about two minutes), and the help you can give other founders fundraising is invaluable. Please submit your recommendation soon.

Since our last update in July, we have already had 840 founders submit new recommendations, and we are now sitting at about 3,500 recommendations in total now. Every recommendation helps us identify promising and thoughtful VCs, helping founders globally cut through the noise of the industry and find the leads for their next checks.

Around TechCrunch

Extra Crunch Live: Join Index Ventures VCs Nina Achadjian and Sarah Cannon Sept 29 at 2 pm EDT/11 am PDT on the future of startup investing

TC Sessions Mobility 2020 kicks off in two weeks

Announcing the final agenda for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

Explore the global markets of micromobility at TC Sessions: Mobility

Don’t miss the Q&A sessions at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

Across the week

TechCrunch

Calling Helsinki VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

The highest valued company in Bessemer’s annual cloud report has defied convention by staying private

Human Capital: The Black founder’s burden

Thanks to Google, app store monopoly concerns have now reached India

Free VPNs are bad for your privacy

Extra Crunch

The Peloton effect

Edtech investors are panning for gold

3 founders on why they pursued alternative startup ownership structures

How Robinhood and Chime raised $2B+ in the last year

Dear Sophie: Possible to still get through I-751 and citizenship after divorce?

Equity: Why isn’t Robinhood a verb yet?

From Alex Wilhelm:

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s VC-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Natasha MascarenhasDanny Crichton and your humble servant gathered to chat through a host of rounds and venture capital news for your enjoyment. As a programming note, I am off next week effectively, so look for Natasha to lead on Equity Monday and then both her and Danny to rock the Thursday show. I will miss everyone.

But onto the show itself, here’s what we got into:

Bon voyage for a week, please stay safe and don’t forget to register to vote.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Indonesian cloud kitchen startup Yummy gets $12 million Series B led by SoftBank Ventures Asia

Yummy Corporation, which claims to be the largest cloud kitchen management company in Indonesia, has raised $12 million in Series B funding, led by SoftBank Ventures Asia. Co-founder and chief executive officer Mario Suntanu told TechCrunch that the capital will be used to expand into more major cities and on developing its tech platform, including data analytics.

Other participants in the round included returning investors Intudo Ventures and Sovereign’s Capital, and new backers Vectr Ventures, AppWorks, Quest Ventures, Coca Cola Amatil X and Palm Drive Capital. The Series B brings Yummy Corporation’s total raised so far to $19.5 million.

Launched in June 2019, Yummy Corporation’s network of cloud kitchens, called Yummykitchen, now includes more than 70 HACCP-certified facilities in Jakarta, Bandung and Medan. It partners with more than 50 food and beverage (F&B) companies, including major brands like Ismaya Group and Sour Sally Group.

During COVID-19 movement restrictions, Suntanu said Yummykitchen’s business showed “healthy growth” as people, confined mostly to their homes, ordered food for delivery. Funding will be used to get more partners, especially brands that want to digitize their operations and expand deliveries to cope with the continuing impact of COVID-19.

The number of cloud kitchens in Southeast Asia has grown quickly over the past year, driven by demand for food deliveries that began increasing even before the pandemic. But for F&B brands that rely on deliveries for a good part of their revenue, running their own kitchens and staff can be cost-prohibitive. Sharing cloud kitchens with other businesses can help increase their margins.

Other cloud kitchen startups serving Indonesia include Hangry and Everplate, but these companies and Yummy Corporation are all up against two major players: “super apps” Grab and Gojek, which both operate large networks of cloud kitchens that have the advantage of being integrated with their on-demand delivery services.

Suntanu said Yummy’s main edge compared to other cloud kitchens is that it also offers fully-managed location and kitchen operation services, in addition to kitchen facilities. This means Yummy’s partners, including restaurants and and F&B brands, don’t need to hire their own teams. Instead, food preparation and delivery is handled by Yummy’s workers. The company also provides its clients with a data analytics platform to help them with targeted ad campaigns and making their listings more visible on food delivery apps.

In a statement, Harris Yang, Souteast Asia associate at SoftBank Ventures Asia, said the firm invested in Yummy because “given the company’s strong expertise in the F&B industry and unique value proposition to brands, we believe that Yummy will continue to be the leader in this space. We are excited to support the team and help them scale their business in this emerging sector.”

Unity Software has strong opening, gaining 31% after pricing above its raised range

Whoever said you can’t make money playing video games clearly hasn’t taken a look at Unity Software’s stock price.

On its first official day of trading, the company rose more than 31%, opening at $75 per share before closing the day at $68.35. Unity’s share price gains came after last night’s pricing of the company’s stock at $52 per share, well above the range of $44 to $48 which was itself an upward revision of the company’s initial target.

Games like “Pokémon GO” and “Iron Man VR” rely on the company’s software, as do untold numbers of other mobile gaming applications that use the company’s toolkit for support. The company’s customers range from small gaming publishers to large gaming giants like Electronic Arts, Niantic, Ubisoft and Tencent.

Unity’s IPO comes on the heels of other well-received debuts, including Sumo Logic, Snowflake and JFrog .

TechCrunch caught up with Unity’s CFO, Kim Jabal, after-hours today to dig in a bit on the transaction.

According to Jabal, hosting her company’s roadshow over Zoom had some advantages, as her team didn’t have to focus on tackling a single geography per day, allowing Unity to “optimize” its time based on who the company wanted to meet, instead, of say, whomever was free in Boston or Chicago on a particular Tuesday morning.

Jabal’s comments aren’t the first that TechCrunch has heard regarding roadshows going well in a digital format instead of as an in-person presentation. If the old-school roadshow survives, we’ll be surprised, though private jet companies will miss the business.

Talking about the transaction itself, Jabal stressed the connection between her company’s employees, value  and their access to that same value. Unity’s IPO was unique in that existing and former employees were able to trade 15% of their vested holdings in the company on day one, excluding “current executive officers and directors,” per SEC filings.

That act does not seemed to have dampened enthusiasm for the company’s shares, and could have helped boost early float, allowing for the two sides of the supply and demand curves to more quickly meet close to the company’s real value, instead of a scarcity-driven, more artificial figure.

Regarding Unity’s IPO pricing, Jabal discussed what she called a “very data-driven process.” The result of that process was an IPO price that came in above its raised range, and still rose during its first day’s trading, but less than 50%. That’s about as good an outcome as you can hope for in an IPO.

One final thing for the SaaS nerds out there. Unity’s “dollar-based net expansion rate” went from very good to outstanding in 2020, or in the words of the S-1/A:

Our dollar-based net expansion rate, which measures expansion in existing customers’ revenue over a trailing 12-month period, grew from 124% as of December 31, 2018 to 133% as of December 31, 2019, and from 129% as of June 30, 2019 to 142% as of June 30, 2020, demonstrating the power of this strategy.

We had to ask. And the answer, per Jabal, was a combination of the company’s platform strength and how customers tend to use more of Unity’s services over time, which she described as growing with their customers. And the second key element was 2020’s unique dynamics that gave Unity a “tailwind” thanks to “increased usage, particularly in gaming.”

Looking at our own gaming levels in 2020 compared to 2019, that checks out.

This post closes the book on this week’s IPO class. Tired yet? Don’t be. Palantir is up next, and then Asana .

Homage announces strategic partnership with Infocom, one of Japan’s largest healthcare IT providers

Homage, a Singapore-based caregiving and telehealth company, has taken a major step in its global expansion plan. The startup announced today that it has received strategic investment from Infocom, the Japanese information and communications technology company that runs one of the largest healthcare IT businesses in the country. Infocom’s solutions are used by more than 13,000 healthcare facilities in Japan.

During an interview with TechCrunch that will air as part of Disrupt tomorrow, Homage co-founder and chief executive Gillian Tee said “Japan has one of the most ageing populations in the world, and the problem is that we need to start building infrastructure to enable people to be able to access the kind of care services that they need.” She added that Homage and Infocom’s missions align because the latter is also building a platform for caregivers in Japan, in a bid to help solve the shortage of carers in the country.

Homage raised a Series B earlier this year with the goal of entering new Asian markets. The company, which currently operates in Singapore and Malaysia, focuses on patients who need long-term rehabilitation or care services, especially elderly people. This makes it a good match for Japan, where more than one in five of its population is currently aged 65 or over. In the next decade, that number is expected to increase to about one in three, making the need for caregiving services especially acute.

The deal includes a regional partnership that will enable Homage to launch its services into Japan, and Infocom to expand its reach in Southeast Asia. Homage’s services include a caregiver-client matching platform and a home medical service that includes online consultations and house calls, while Infocom’s technology covers a wide range of verticals, including digital healthcare, radiology, pharmaceuticals, medical imaging and hospital information management.

In a statement about the strategic investment, Mototaka Kuboi, Infocom’s managing executive officer and head of its healthcare business division, said, “We see Homage as an ideal partner given the company’s unique cutting-edge technology and market leadership in the long-term care segment, and we aim to drive business growth not only in Homage’s core and rapidly growing market in Southeast Asia, but also regionally.”

Check out these Breakout Sessions at Disrupt 2020

We’re on the brink of the biggest Disrupt in TechCrunch history. It’s five days of education, exhibition, competition and connection that spans the globe. As you plan your schedule, keep this in mind: You’ll find some of the most insightful and downright interesting programming at Disrupt 2020 in our Breakout Sessions. And that, given our powerhouse agenda, is saying something.

Every Disrupt attendee can take part in the breakout sessions — they’re open to every pass level. Breakouts cover a range of topics and formats. You might watch startups pitch, attend a workshop or take in a panel discussion. No matter what, you’re bound to receive valuable insight that can inspire you and help your business.

Take advantage of our partners’ expertise and check out any (or all) of these breakout sessions. You’ll be glad you did.

 

Monday, September 14

11:00 am – 11:50 am

Sponsored by Adobe

How to Invest in Infrastructure to Deliver Experience 

Gabie Boko, Global VP Digital, Hewlett Packard Enterprise & Adobe VP of Platform Engineering, Anjul Bhambhri discuss digital transformation and experience delivery. 

 

12:00 pm – 12:30 pm

Sponsored by Taiwan Tech Arena

Taiwan Pavilion Pitch-off session 1

Featuring twenty startups in healthcare, IoT, blockchain, AR-VR, cyber security, E-learning, and green technology

 

Tuesday, September 15

9:00 am – 9:50 am

Sponsored by Silicon Valley Bank

Diversity as Disruption: Take action now to create a more diverse ecosystem

Recent events continue to demonstrate that change is not happening fast enough. How can we ensure the current social justice momentum is more than just talk? Guided by SVB’s recent research into the “4th wave of venture capital,” learn how three industry leaders are tackling the problem with real actions. By the close of the session, leave with tangible steps you can take today – whether as an individual or as a firm — to make a meaningful, move-the-needle impact in your organization.

 

9:00 am – 10:30 am

Sponsored by Taiwan Tech Arena

Taiwan Reception: Innovations and investment opportunities amid COVID19 Pandemics with Christine Tsai (500 Startups), Allan May (Life Science Angels)

Join Christine, Allan, Tico Blumenthal (Life Sciences Angels), and Laura Dietch (BioTrace Medical) to explore the investment and innovation framework in post-COVID19, and to discuss the driver of innovation healthcare amid the pandemic and economic collapse. TTA will also present the key anti-COVID19 innovative measurements in Taiwan to achieve the lowest infection rate around the world.

 

10:00 am – 10:30am

Sponsored by hub.brussels

Belgian Startup Pitch Competition

Hub.brussels invites you to join us for the 6th edition of our Belgian startup pitch competition.

 

12:00 pm – 12:30 pm

Taiwan Pavilion Pitch-off Session 2

Sponsored by Taiwan Tech Arena

Featuring twenty startups in AI solutions, softwares, big data, edge computing, and space technology

 

2:30 pm – 4:00 pm 

TC Include Reception sponsored by Sootchy

Sponsored by Sootchy

INVITE ONLY – TC Include kicks off this year’s founder cohort with organizational partners Black Female Founders, Female Founders Alliance, Latinx Startup Alliance and StartOut with remarks by Sootchy.

 

Wednesday, September 16

9:00 am – 9:50 am

Sponsored by Consulate General of Canada in San Francisco

“Grow North”: How Canada Empowers Investors and Founders

Come listen to a group of Canadian founders who will talk about their start-ups and how Canada has helped them grow and succeed globally.

 

10:00 am – 11:00 am

Sponsored by StartUp Bahrain

Bahrain: Your gateway to the Middle East and beyond

INVITE ONLY – With its supportive ecosystem, advanced digital infrastructure, flexible and pioneering regulations; rapid growth in funding opportunities and a liberal market, Bahrain is the ideal testbed for startups and scaleups to test their products and solutions before growing and expanding across the Middle East

 

10:00 am – 10:30 am 

Sponsored by JETRO

Japanese Startup Pitches

Come see the latest exciting technology and services coming from Japan.

 

11:00 am – 11:30 am 

Sponsored by KOCCA

Join Us to Watch Seven Amazing Startups from Korea

K-pop? K-Drama? K-Games? K-Entertainment? All startups with K-contents will show off during this Pitch Off

 

12:00 pm – 12:50 pm 

Sponsored by Envestnet | Yodlee

Making Data Meaningful for the FinTech Ecosystem

Open finance/banking represents a new era of financial data transparency. It brings an unprecedented opportunity for FinTechs to provide personalized guidance consumers need to improve financial wellness. Envestnet | Yodlee experts will discuss empowering the entire FinTech ecosystem with enriched financial data and insights, plus the future of open banking in the U.S.

 

Thursday, September 17

10:00 am – 11:30 am

Sponsored by Dassault Systèmes

Dassault Systemes’s 3DEXPERIENCE Lab Global Accelerator Program

INVITE ONLY – 3DEXPERIENCE Lab is Dassault Systèmes’s global innovation program that offers innovative startups free access to Dassault Systèmes collaborative Design, Engineering, Simulation & Data Intelligence solutions, along with mentoring, and marketing support for two years. Come; learn how the Lab selects, mentors and supports its startups!

 

10:00 am – 10:50 am

Sponsored by AppsFlyer

Advertising Disrupted: What User Privacy Means For Marketers

This session offers the unique opportunity to join a live recording of AppsFlyer’s industry podcast, Next in Marketing. Mike Shields, podcast host and former Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, AdWeek and Digiday editor along with guests (Brian Quinn, US President & GM, AppsFlyer and Ana Milicevic, Co-founder and Principal, Sparrow Advisers) will delve into the ecosystem’s pivotal privacy updates, including Apple’s IDFA opt-out and the impact of iOS 14 to measurement and attribution, as well as targeting in a cookieless world. You’ll also hear about the future of personalization post-regulations in this session that is sure to address the most pressing issues and headlines on the mind of marketers globally.

 

12:00 pm – 12:50 pm

Sponsored by KITE

It Takes An Ecosystem To Innovate: Startups, Corporations and the Connectors that Bring Them Together

Startups plus large enterprises can fuel each other’s growth and bottom line, whether it’s a partnership, investment or acquisition. But bringing the right ones together needs more than serendipity: it requires a dynamic ecosystem that includes consultants, accelerators and VCs (aka the connectors). We sit down with top leaders from around the ecosystem to learn how they discover innovative solutions — and get to outcomes — faster.

 

And for those who want to upgrade to a Disrupt Digital PRO Pass you can get access to these sessions:

Tuesday, September 15

10:30 am – 10:50 am

Sponsored by All Raise

Showing Your Work: VCs Investing in Diversity Share Their Secrets

More than 80% of venture capital firms don’t have a single Black investor and 68% of firms don’t have any female partners. As VCs across the country urgently seek to diversify both their investing teams and their portfolios, they could learn a lot from these amazing investors, who have made diversity a central part of their investing thesis from the start. Join us for a candid conversation about the power of investing in underrepresented founders and tapping into over $4.4 trillion in value. This panel will be moderated by Pam Kostka, CEO of All Raise featuring Sarah Kunst, Founder & Managing Director at Cleo Capital and Christie Pitts, General Partner at Backstage Capital who are both leading VCs who focus their investments on founders from underrepresented backgrounds.

 

11:30 am – 11:50 am

Sponsored by Toyota

Innovating with Fuel Cells

James Kast demonstrates how Toyota continues to navigate the innovation of fuel cells and the implementation across numerous industries.

 

That’s a mighty fine breakout lineup if we do say so ourselves. Yep, we’re tooting our own horn. Don’t let all that valuable expertise go to waste. Make sure you carve out time in your Disrupt schedule for insight and inspiration!

Extra Crunch Friday roundup: Edtech funding surges, Poland VC survey, inside Shift’s SPAC plan, more

I live in San Francisco, but I work an East Coast schedule to get a jump on the news day. So I’d already been at my desk for a couple of hours on Wednesday morning when I looked up and saw this:

What color is the sky this morning pic.twitter.com/nt5dZp5wWc

— Walter Thompson (@YourProtagonist) September 9, 2020

As unsettling as it was to see the natural environment so transformed, I still got my work done. This is not to boast: I have a desk job and a working air filter. (People who make deliveries in the toxic air or are homeschooling their children while working from home during a global pandemic, however, impress the hell out of me.)

Not coincidentally, two of the Extra Crunch stories that ran since our Tuesday newsletter tie directly into what’s going on outside my window:

As this guest post predicted, a suboptimal attempt I made to track a delayed package using interactive voice response (IVR) indeed poisoned my customer experience, and;

Sheltering in place to avoid the novel coronavirus — and wildfire smoke — is fueling growth in the video-game industry, perhaps one factor in Unity Software Inc.’s plan to go public ahead of competitor Epic Games. In a two-part series, we looked at how the company has expanded beyond games and shared a detailed financial breakdown.

We covered a lot of ground this week, so scroll down or visit the recently redesigned Extra Crunch home page. If you’d like to receive this roundup via email each Tuesday and Friday, please click here.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch; I hope you have a relaxing and safe weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor
@yourprotagonist


Bear and bull cases for Unity’s IPO

In a two-part series that ran on TechCrunch and Extra Crunch, former media columnist Eric Peckham returned to share his analysis of Unity Software Inc.’s S-1 filing.

Part one is a deep dive that explains how the company has grown beyond gaming to develop multiple revenue streams and where it’s headed.

For part two on Extra Crunch, he studied the company’s numbers to offer some context for its approximately $11 billion valuation.


10 Poland-based investors discuss trends, opportunities and the road ahead

The Palace of Culture and Science is standing reminder of communism in Warsaw, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland.

Image Credits: Edwin Remsberg (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

As we’ve covered previously, the COVID-19 pandemic is making the world a lot smaller.

Investors who focus on their own backyards still have an advantage, but the ability to set up a quick coffee meeting with a promising investor is no longer one of them.

Even though some VCs are cutting first checks after Zoom calls, regional investors’ personal networks are still a trump card. Tourists will always rely on guide books, however, which is why we continue to survey investors around the world.

A Dealroom report issued this summer determined that 97 VC funds backed more than 1,600 funding rounds in Poland last year. With over 2,400 early- and late-stage startups and 400,000 engineers in the country, it’s easy to see why foreign investors are taking notice.

Editor-at-large Mike Butcher reached out to several investors who focus on Warsaw and Poland in general to learn more about the startups fueling their interest across fintech, gaming, security and other sectors:

  • Bryony Cooper, managing partner, Arkley Brinc VC
  • Anna Wnuk-Błażejczyk, investor relations manager, Experior.vc
  • Rafał Roszak, investment director, YouNick Mint
  • Michal Mroczkowski, partner, Market One Capital
  • Marcus Erken, partner, Sunfish Partners
  • Borys Musielak, partner, SMOK Ventures
  • Mathias Åsberg, partner, Nextgrid
  • Kuba Dudek, SpeedUp Venture Capital Group
  • Marcin Laczynski, partner, Next Road Ventures
  • Michał Rokosz, partner, Inovo Venture Partners

We’ll run the conclusion of his survey next Tuesday.


Brands that hyper-personalize will win the next decade

Customer Relationship Management and Leader Concepts on Whiteboard

Image Credits: cnythzl (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Even for fledgling startups, creating a robust customer service channel — or at least one that doesn’t annoy people — is a reliable way to keep users in the sales funnel.

Using AI and automation is fine, but now that consumers have grown used to asking phones and smart speakers to predict the weather and read recipe instructions, their expectations are higher than ever.

If you’re trying to figure out what people want from hyper-personalized customer experiences and how you can operationalize AI to give them what they’re after, start here.


VCs pour funding into edtech startups as COVID-19 shakes up the market

For today’s edition of The Exchange, Natasha Mascarenhas joined Alex Wilhelm to examine how the pandemic-fueled surge of interest in edtech is manifesting on the funding front.

The numbers suggest that funding will far surpass the sector’s high-water mark set in 2018, so the duo studied the numbers through August 31, which included a number of mega-rounds that exceeded $100 million.

“Now the challenge for the sector will be keeping its growth alive in 2021, showing investors that their 2020 bets were not merely wagers made during a single, overheated year,” they conclude.


How to respond to a data breach

Digital Binary Code on Red Background. Cybercrime Concept

Image Credits: WhataWin (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The odds are low that someone’s going to enter my home and steal my belongings. I still lock my door when I leave the house, however, and my valuables are insured. I’m an optimist, not a fool.

Similarly: Is your startup’s cybersecurity strategy based on optimism, or do you have an actual response plan in case of a data breach?

Security reporter Zack Whittaker has seen some shambolic reactions to security lapses, which is why he turned in a post-mortem about a corporation that got it right.

“Once in a while, a company’s response almost makes up for the daily deluge of hypocrisy, obfuscation and downright lies,” says Zack.


Shift’s George Arison shares 6 tips for taking your company public via a SPAC

Number 6 By Railroad Tracks During Sunset

Image Credits: Eric Burger/EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

There’s a lot of buzz about special purpose acquisition companies these days.

Used-car marketplace Shift announced its SPAC in June 2020, and is on track to complete the process in the next few months, so co-founder/co-CEO George Arison wrote an Extra Crunch guest post to share what he has learned.

Step one: “If you go the SPAC route, you’ll need to become an expert at financial engineering.”


Dear Sophie: What is a J-1 visa and how can we use it?

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

I am a software engineer and have been looking at job postings in the U.S. I’ve heard from my friends about J-1 Visa Training or J-1 Research.

What is a J-1 status? What are the requirements to qualify? Do I need to find a U.S. employer willing to sponsor me before I apply for one? Can I get a visa? How long could I stay?

— Determined in Delhi


As direct listing looms, Palantir insiders are accelerating stock sales

While we count down to the September 23 premiere of NYSE: PLTR, Danny Crichton looked at the “robust secondary market” that has allowed some investors to acquire shares early.

“Given the number of people involved and the number of shares bought and sold over the past 18 months, we can get some insight regarding how insiders perceive Palantir’s value,” he writes.


Use ‘productive paranoia’ to build cybersecurity culture at your startup

Vector illustration of padlocks and keys in a repeating pattern against a blue background.

Image Credits: JakeOlimb / Getty Images

Zack Whittaker interviewed Bugcrowd CTO, founder and chairman Casey Ellis about the best practices he recommends for creating a startup culture that takes security seriously.

“It’s an everyone problem,” said Ellis, who encouraged founders to promote the notion of “productive paranoia.”

Now that the threat envelope includes everyone from marketing to engineering, employees need to “internalize the fact that bad stuff can and does happen if you do it wrong,” Ellis said.

Do Ventures launches $50 million fund for Vietnamese startups, backed by Naver, Vertex and other notable LPs

Vy Le and Dzung Nguyen, the founders and general partners of Do Ventures, an investment firm focused on early-stage Vietnamese startups

Vy Le and Dzung Nguyen, the founders and general partners of Do Ventures, an investment firm focused on early-stage Vietnamese startups

New investment firm Do Ventures announced today the first closing of its fund for Vietnamese startups, which is backed by several of Asia’s most notable institutional investors. Called Do Ventures Fund I, the investment vehicle has hit more than half of its $50 million target, with limited partners including Korean internet giant Naver; Sea, whose businesses include Garena and Shopee; Singapore-based venture capital firm Vertex Holdings; and Korean app developer Woowa Brothers.

Do Ventures was founded by general partners Nguyen Manh Dung, former CEO of CyberAgent Ventures Vietnam and Thailand, and Vy Hoang Uyen Le, previously a general partner at ESP Capital. Its first fund will focus on early-stage companies and invest in seed to Series B rounds.

Both of its founders have a long track record of working with Vietnamese startups. Nguyen was an early investor in companies including Tiki.vn, one of Vietnam’s largest online marketplaces; food delivery platform Foody.vn; and digital marketing company CleverAds. Before she became an investor, Le was a serial entrepreneur and served as chief executive officer at fashion e-commerce company Chon.vn and VinEcom, the e-commerce project launched by Vietnamese real estate conglomerate Vingroup.

In an email, Le told TechCrunch that Do Ventures Fund I is industry agnostic, but will structure its investments into two tiers. The first will consist of B2C platforms, including education, healthcare and social commerce, that serve younger users, and are addressing changes in consumer behavior caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The second tier will include B2B platforms that can provide services for companies in the first tier, and allow them to expand regionally with SaaS solutions for data and e-commerce services.

Do Ventures’ founders say that between 2016 and 2019, the amount of startup funding in Vietnam grew eight-fold to $861 million last year. But there are still only a few funds that focus specifically on the country, which means early-stage Vietnamese startups often run into funding gaps.

One of the firm’s goals is to help founders weather the impact of COVID-19, so their companies can continue growing in spite of the pandemic.

“We hope tech startups can enable traditional businesses to digitize faster and better adapt to the new normal,” Le said. “For consumers, we hope tech startups can transform customer experience in all aspects of daily life, and bring more accessibility to consumers in remote areas.”

The firm will take a hands-on approach to its investments, helping companies develop new business models. Do Ventures plans to set up an automatic reporting system that collects data about how its portfolio companies are performing, which its general partners say will enable them support startups’ operations, including product development, business organization, supply chain development, and overseas expansion.

The Disrupt 2020 Labor Day flash sale ends tonight

As the Labor Day weekend winds down here in the states, so too does our flash sale and your chance to save $100 on a Digital Pro pass to Disrupt 2020. Fight off your holiday food coma long enough to buy your pass before 11:59 p.m. (PT) tonight.

Disrupt 2020 takes place September 14-18, and you can’t afford to miss this global opportunity to learn new startup skills, add to your investment portfolio, build brand awareness, expand your network and do whatever it takes to drive your business forward.

We’re also celebrating 10 years of Disrupt. How crazy is that? As part of the celebration, we formed the TC10 — a remarkable group of entrepreneurs and investors who’ve been a big part of Disrupt for the past 10 years. Meet the TC10 here.

They’ll show up throughout Disrupt 2020 and play an important role in our newest event, the Pitch Deck Teardown sessions. Throughout Disrupt, top VCs and entrepreneurs will look at submitted pitch decks, dissect them slide-by-slide and discuss what works and what doesn’t. Want the Teardown treatment? Submit your pitch deck here.

What else can you do with your Digital Pro pass? Take a deep dive into the Disrupt 2020 agenda where you’ll find an incredible line up of experts, founders, investors, tech icons and visionaries. You’ll lean in and learn from folks like Bumble CEO, Whitney Wolfe Herd, Cloudflare Co-founder, Michelle Zatlyn and Sequoia Capital’s Roelof Botha. You’ll even hear from celebrities like Kerry Washington, who’s making quite a name for herself as a tech investor.

Explore hundreds of early-stage startups — including the TC Top Picks —  in Digital Startup Alley. Our virtual venue makes it easy to find them and connect.

Take your networking global. The virtual nature of Disrupt 2020 allows anyone from any location to participate, and that spells exponential opportunity. Keep organized and on schedule with CrunchMatch, our AI-powered platform that doesn’t just connect you with people, it connects you with the right people. Simply answer a few quick questions during registration, and you’re ready to schedule 1:1 virtual meetings with founders, investors or other Disrupt attendees.

There’s a metric ton more — the Extra Crunch Stage, Startup Battlefield, interactive Q&As and breakout sessions. TL;DR — you can’t afford to miss the abundant opportunities waiting for you at Disrupt 2020. Buy your Digital Pro Pass before the flash sale ends tonight at 11:59 p.m. (PT) and save $100.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Meet the TC Top Picks for Disrupt 2020

We’ve been extremely privileged to witness thousands of early stage startups launch and take flight at Disrupt over the past 10 years, and they just keep getting bettter. You’ll be hard-pressed to find more creative, game-changing startups than the ones that earned our TC Top Picks designation for Disrupt 2020.

The all-virtual nature of this Disrupt meant we received applications from startups around the world. Talk about a tough vetting process! Highly determined and highly caffeinated TechCrunch editors took on the task of narrowing the field to find the best of the best.

The TC Top Picks program showcases outstanding early-stage startups across these categories: Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, Biotech/HealthTech, Education/Social Impact, Enterprise/SaaS, Fintech, Mobility, Retail/E-commerce, Robotics/Hardware/IOT and Security/Privacy.

Each TC Top Pick will exhibit in Digital Startup Alley Package and have an exclusive, virtual interview with a TechCrunch writer. We record the interviews and promote them across our social media platforms. It’s terrific exposure and they make a killer long-term marketing tool, so consider applying to the TC Top Pick program next year.

It’s time to announce the Disrupt 2020 TC Top Picks cohort. Peruse these 26 impressive startups, buy your pass to Disrupt, and make a plan to connect with them in Digital Startup Alley. Opportunity knocks!

AI/Machine Learning

iLoF – Intelligent Lab on Fiber

Kings Distributed Systems

Resonance AI

 

Biotech/HealthTech

Nutrix

Parrots Inc.

SmartTab

 

Education/Social Impact

CPRWrap Inc

Platform Good

Rocky.ai

 

Enterprise/SaaS

Aurelius

Evertracker

 

FinTech

Crediverso

Kaoshi

Lizuna

 

Retail/E-commerce

ecosavers club

Patturn

Thelittleloop

 

Mobility

Bonnet

ConnectMyEV Inc.

Eambu

 

Robotics/Hardware/IOT

Kibus Petcare

LimeLoop

WATTS Battery

 

Security + Privacy

Allthenticate

Hummingbirds AI

WebTotem

How one VC firm wound up with no-code startups as part of its investing thesis

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. 

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

How one VC firm wound up with no-code startups as part of its investing thesis

Throughout all the chaos of 2020’s economic upheaval in the startup world, I’ve worked to pay more attention to low-code and no-code services. The short gist of chats I’ve had with investors and founders and public company execs in the past few weeks is that market awareness of no-code/low-code terminology is starting to spread more broadly.

Why? Again, summarizing aggressively, it seems that the gap between what different business units need (marketing, say) and what in-house or external engineering teams are capable of providing is widening. This means there is more total pain in the market, hunting for a solution, often with a tooling budget in hand.

Enter no-code and low-code startups, and even big-company services alike that can help non-developers do more without having to beg for engineering inputs.

I spoke with Arun Mathew this week. He’s a partner at Accel, a venture firm that has invested in all sorts of companies that you’ve heard of — including Webflow, which raised a $72 million Series A last August that Mathew led for his firm. (More on the round here, and notes from TechCrunch on Webflow’s early days here, and here, if you are curious.)

More interesting than that single round is how Accel wound up building a thesis around no-code startups. According to Mathew, Accel had made large investments into companies like Qualtrics, for example, when they were already pretty big and had found product-market fit. That same general approach led to the Webflow deal last year.

At the time, Webflow “wasn’t really defining what they were doing as n- code, they just said ‘we have a very simple drag and drop UI, to build websites, and soon full web applications, very simply,’ ” he told TechCrunch. But, according to Mathew, what Webflow was doing “lined up really well” with the “rising movement of no-code.”

From there, Accel “made a couple [more no-code] investments in Europe where [it has] an early-stage team and a growth team,” along with a few more in India. In the investor’s view, some of the investing activity was “thesis driven because we think [no-code is] a really interesting theme,” but some of the deals “happened opportunistically” where Accel had found “really talented founders in the space that we thought was interesting, executing on a vision that we found appealing.”

In the “span of a year, year-and-a-half,” Accel totted up “seven or eight companies in this no-code space,” which over the last five or six quarters became “a real thesis” for the firm, Mathew said. Accel now has “a global team” of around a dozen people “spending a lot of our time in and around no-code” he added.

Apologies for the length there, but what Mathew said makes me feel a bit less behind. After dipping a toe into learning more about no-code services and tooling (and, yes, low-code as well) it felt somewhat like I was playing catch-up. But as I covered that Webflow round and have since started paying more attention to no-code as well, perhaps you and I are right on time.

(We also recently ran an investor survey on the no-code topic, so hit it up if you want more VC scribbles on the topic.)

Market Notes

For Market Notes this week, we have four things. First, riffs from chats with two public company execs about the software market, some public market stuff and then some neat Airbnb spend data by which I am confounded:

  • I spoke with Apple MDM company Jamf’s CFO Jill Putman this week, after her company reported its first set of earnings as a public company. I wanted to know a bit more about the education market — a hot topic here at TechCrunch, given outsized rounds and huge market demand — and the medical world.
  • Regarding the software market for education, Putman noted that schools are buying lots of hardware, and that software sales should follow. Our read from that is that the boom in education software is not going to slow for some time as schools work on reopening.
  • Ditto the medical market, where Jamf has found uptake as hospitals roll out hardware to patients and families thereof to facilitate all sorts of demand that COVID has engendered. (Hardware needs software, enter Jamf!)
  • Chatting with the CFO our key takeaway was that there are still sectors that could generate a continued COVID tailwind, even if not all Jamf customers fit that bill. For startups that did catch a wave, this is probably good news.
  • And then there was Yext, a company that helps other companies’ customers find accurate information about them around the Web, and has recently gotten into the search game. Yext launched at a TechCrunch conference back in 2009, which is a neat bit of history. Anyway, Yext is public company now and we wanted to chat about which industries are driving growth for the former startup, and how the general climate for software is for the company, so we got on Zoom with its CEO, Howard Lerman.
  • So, which sectors are accelerating from Yext’s perspective? Government, education (again), insurance and financial services. Let that guide your take on the health of various startups.
  • Turning to the business climate, Lerman had some notes: “I will tell you in Q2,” he said, “things came back a bit from Q1.” In what sense? Retention rates, for one, according to the CEO. A return to form is welcome, but Lerman did caution that some companies were slower to “pull the trigger on big deals.”
  • Lerman also said that his perspective on the macro-climate has bounced back as well from a local-minima set around 30 days ago.

Public company execs are pretty guarded in how they talk because they have to be. But what Putman and Lerman seemed to intimate is that economic damage — provided you are selling to business, and not individuals — seems more contained on a per-sector basis than I would have anticipated. And that there are some good things ahead, at least in a handful of hot sectors.

Opening our aperture a bit, some SaaS companies struggled this week to meet investor expectations, even as more companies added themselves to the IPO queue. It’s going to be very busy for a few quarters. (Speaking of which, you can find the good and bad from the new Sumo IPO filing here.)

The economy is still garbage for many, but at least for companies it’s improving. And on that note, some data regarding Airbnb. According to the folks over at Edison Trends, things are going better for the home-booking site than I would have guessed. Per the group:

  • Airbnb’s bookings recovery outstripped its traditional rivals, growing “32% week-over-week” from late April into early June.
  • And, most critically: “Airbnb spending in July was up 22% over the previous July, and spending the week of August 17 was 75% higher than the equivalent week in 2019.”

Wild, right? Perhaps that’s why Airbnb has filed to go public.

Various and Sundry

We’re a tiny bit short on space, so I’ll keep our V&S dose short this week to respect your time. Here’s what I couldn’t not share:

And with that, we are out of room. Hugs, fist bumps and good vibes, and thank you so much for reading this little newsletter on the weekends. It’s a treat to write, and I hope you like it.

Hit me up with notes at alex.wilhelm@techcrunch.com. (I don’t know if you reply to this email if I will get the response. But try it so that we can find out?)

Alex

The week’s biggest IPO news had nothing to do with Monday’s S-1 deluge

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. (You can sign up for the newsletter here!)

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

The week’s biggest IPO news had nothing to do with Monday’s S-1 deluge

During Monday’s IPO wave I was surprised to see Asana join the mix. 

After news had broken in June that the company had raised hundreds of millions in convertible debt, I hadn’t guessed that the productivity unicorn wouldn’t give us an S-1 in the very next quarter. I was contentedly wrong. But the reason why Asana’s IPO is notable isn’t really much to do with the company itself, though do take the time to dig into its results and history

What matters about Asana’s debut is that it appears set to test out a model that, until very recently, could have become the new, preferred way of going public amongst tech companies. 

Here’s what I mean: Instead of filing to go public, and raising money in a traditional IPO, or simply listing directly, Asana executed two, large, convertible debt offerings pre-debut, thus allowing it to direct list with lots of cash without having raised endless equity capital while private.

The method looked like a super-cool way to get around the IPO pricing issue that we’ve seen, and also provide a ramp to direct listing for companies that didn’t get showered with billions while private. (That Asana co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s trust led the debt deal is simply icing on this particular Pop-Tart).

This brief column was going to be all about how we may see unicorns follow the Asana route in time, provided that its debt-powered direct listing goes well. But then the NYSE got permission from the SEC to allow companies to raise capital when they direct-list.

In short, some companies that direct-list in the future will be able to sell a bloc of shares at a market-set value that would have previously set their “open” price. So instead of flogging the stock and setting a price and selling shares to rich folks and then finding out what public investors would really pay, all that IPO faff is gone and bold companies can simply offer shares at whatever price the market will bear. 

All that is great and cool, but as companies will be able to direct-list and raise capital, the NYSE’s nice news means that Asana is blazing a neat trail, but perhaps not one that will be as popular as we had expected.

The NASDAQ is working to get in on the action. As Danny said yesterday on the show, this new NYSE method is going to crush traditional IPOs, provided that we’re understanding it during this, its nascent period.

Market Notes

Look, this week was bananas, and my brain is scrambled toast. You, like myself, are probably a bit confused about how it is only finally Saturday and not the middle of next week. But worry not, I have a quick roundup of the big stuff from our world. And, notes from calls with the COO of Okta and the CEO of Splunk, from after their respective earnings report: 

Over to our chats, starting with Okta COO and co-founder Frederic Kerrest:

  • Okta had a good quarter. But instead of noodling on just the numbers, we wanted to chat with its team about the accelerating digital transformation and what they are seeing in the market. 
  • On the SMB side, Kerrest reported little to no change. This is a bit more bullish than we anticipated, given that it seemed likely that SMB customers would have taken the largest hit from COVID.
  • Kerrest also told us some interesting stuff about how the wave of COVID-related spend has changed: “We actually have seen the COVID ‘go home and remote work very quickly’ [thing], we’ve actually seen that rush subside a little bit, because you know now we’re five months into [the pandemic], so they had to figure it out.”
  • This is a fascinating comment for the startup world
  • Okta is big and public and is going to grow fine for a while. Whatever. For smaller companies aka startups that were seeing COVID-related tailwinds, I wonder how common seeing “that rush subside a little bit” is. If it is very common, many startups that had taken off like a rocket could be seeing their growth come back to Earth.
  • And if they raised a bunch of money off the back of that growth at a killer valuation, they may have just ordered shoes that they’ll struggle to grow into.

And then there was new McLaren F-1 sponsor Splunk, data folks who are in the midst of a transition to SaaS that is seeing the firm double-down on building ARR and letting go of legacy incomes:

  • I spoke with CEO Doug Merritt, kicking off with a question about his use of the word “tectonic” regarding the shift to data-driven decisions from Splunk’s earnings report. (“As organizations continue to adapt to tectonic societal shifts brought on by COVID-19, one thing is constant: the power of data to radically transform business.”)
  • I wanted to know how far down the American corporate stack that idea went; are mid-size businesses getting more data-savvy? What about SMBs? Merritt was pretty bullish: “We’re getting to tectonic,” he said during our call, adding that before “it really was the Facebooks, the Googles, the Apples, the DoorDashes, [and] the LinkedIns that were using [Splunk].” But now, he said, even small restaurant chains are using data to better track their performance. 
  • Relating this back to the startup world, I’ve been curious if lots of stuff that you and I think is cool, like low-code business app development, will actually find as wide a footing in the market as some expect. Why? Because most small and medium-sized businesses are not tech companies at all. But if Merritt is right, then the CEO of Appian might be right as well about how many business apps the average company is going to have in a few years’ time.

And finally for Market Notes, my work BFF and IRL friend Ron Miller wrote about Box’s earnings this week, and how the changing world is bolstering the company. It’s worth a read. (Most public software companies are doing well, mind.)

Various and Sundry

We’re already over length, so I’ll have to keep our bits-and-bobs section brief. Thus, only the brightest of baubles for you, my friend:

And with that, we are out of room. Hugs, fist bumps and good vibes, 

Alex

Palantir and the great revenue mystery

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. You can subscribe to the newsletter here if you haven’t yet.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

Palantir and the great revenue mystery

As I write to you on Friday afternoon, the Palantir S-1 has yet to drop, but TechCrunch did break some news regarding the impending filing and just how big the company actually is. Please forgive the block quote, but here’s our reporting:

In screenshots of a draft S-1 statement dated yesterday (August 20), Palantir is listed as generating revenues of roughly $742 million in 2019 (Palantir’s fiscal year is a calendar year). That revenue was up from $595 million in 2018, a gain of roughly 25%. […] Palantir lists a net loss of roughly $580 million for 2019, which is almost identical to its loss in 2018. The company listed a net loss percentage of 97% for 2018, improving to a loss of 78% for last year.

A few notes from this. First, those losses are flat icky. Palantir was founded in 2003 or 2004 depending on who you read, which means that it’s an old company. And it was running an effective -100% net margin in 2018? Yowza.

Second, what the flocking frack is that revenue number? Did you expect to see Palantir come in with revenues of less than $1 billion? If you did, well done. After a deluge of articles over the years discussing just how big Palantir had become, I was anticipating a bit more (more here for context). Here are two examples:

  • Reporting from TechCrunch that Palantir expected “more than $1 billion in contracts” in 2014
  • Reporting from Bloomberg that Palantir had “booked deals totaling $1.7 billion in 2015”

Notably, Palantir’s real revenue result, or one very close to it, made it into Business Insider this April. The reporting makes the company’s S-1 less of a climax and more of a denouement. But, hey, we’re still glad to have the filing.

The Exchange will have a full breakdown of Palantir’s numbers Monday morning, but I think what Palantir coverage over the years shows is that when companies decline to share specific revenue figures that are clear, just presume that what they do share is misleading. (ARR is fine, trailing revenue is fine, “contract” metrics are useless.)

Market Notes

The Exchange spent a lot of time digging into e-commerce venture capital results this week, including notes from some VCs about why e-commerce-focused startups aren’t raising as much as we might have guessed.

Overstock!

We got a chance to fire a question over to the CEO of Overstock.com on the matter, adding to what we learned from private investors on the same topic. So here’s the online retailer’s CEO Jonathan Johnson, answering our question on how many smaller vendors are signing up to sell on its platform during today’s e-comm boom:

We have had increased demand to sell on Overstock and we are adding new partners daily. To protect the customer experience, we have become more selective and have increased the requirements to become a selling partner on our site. Our customers’ experience is critical to our long-term success and if partners cannot perform to our operational standards, we do not allow them to sell on our site.

We care because Shopify and BigCommerce are stacking up new rev, and we were curious how widely the e-commerce step-change from major platforms extended. Seems like all of them are eating.

How today’s evolving economic landscape isn’t working out better for e-commerce-focused startups is still a surprise. Normally when the world changes rapidly, startups do well. This time it seems that Amazon and a few now-public unicorns are snagging most of the gains.

Airbnb!

Anyhoo, onto the Airbnb world; we have a few data points to share this week. According to Edison Trends data that was shared with us, here’s how Airbnb is doing lately:

  • Per Edison Trends, “Airbnb July spend was 22% higher than it had been in 2019” in the United States.
  • From the same source, Airbnb has seen U.S. spend rise around 10% week-over-week “increase in customer spending” since April 27th.

This explains why the company is prepping to go public sooner rather than later: The second-half of Q2 was a ramp back to normal for the company, and July was pretty good by the looks of it. If Airbnb is worth what it once was is not clear, but the company is certainly doing better than we might have expected it to. (More on the comeback here.)

For more on the big unicorn IPOs, I wrote a digest on Friday that should help ground you. I can say that with some confidence, as I wrote it to ground myself!

Various and Sundry

Finally some loose ends and other notes like an after-dinner amuse-bouche:

  • A PE deal caught our eye, namely that the Williams Formula 1 team has been sold to Dorilton Capital. We had two thoughts: First, who is that. And second, it’s all good so long as they make the car faster but still slower than Haas F1, the official team of this newsletter, I’ve just decided. (Note to F1 lawyers: I am kidding, please don’t sue.)
  • The folks at Sensor Tower sent over some fintech data this week that we tucked into our pocket for this newsletter. According to the data and analytics firm, “the five largest mobile payment apps saw their average monthly active users grow 41.5% year-over-year in 1H20 when compared to 1H19” for “Cash App, Venmo, PayPal, Zelle, and Google Pay.”
  • Now, we’ve covered fintech often on The Exchange because it matters. But we’ve mostly been covering the startup/unicorn side of things. The above growth rates for some of the incumbent-led apps was a surprise, with faster growth than we would have guessed.
  • If momentum from the majors is good or bad for startups, we leave to you to decide.
  • Robinhood raised more money on the back of its huge revenue gains.
  • Until the Palantir brouhaha, the lead story of our missive today was going to be about BlockFi, which we’re still working to understand. The crypto outfit just raised more money, so we got curious. I wound up chatting with the CEO on Twitter about, you know, what BlockFi is. Turns out it’s like a credit union, but in the crypto space. That seems fair enough. Credit unions work! Maybe this will, too! We have some questions into the company, the answers to which we might post if they are interesting. (The company has detractors, as well.)
  • made a bad bet.
  • The Exchange chatted with a number of VC firms this week, including Tribeca Venture Partners for the first time. We caught up with Brian Hirsch from the firm, who told us a bit about the SaaS market (doing better than anticipated pre-COVID thanks to “rocket fuel” from the accelerating digital transformation) and the future of New York and cities in general (going to be fine long-term). We’ll cut out the best bits from the chat for next week if we have time.

And we’ll wrap with a tiny note from Greg Warnock, managing director at Mercato via email about the late-stage venture capital market. We asked for “notes on current valuation trends, in particular re: ARR/run rate multiples.” Here’s what we heard back:

I think valuations are correlated with economic activity and certainly something like COVID would qualify, but it’s very much a lagging indicator. It takes a while for entrepreneurs’ expectations to shift. Once they feel like the economy has moved in a permanent way, they begin to rethink. The first thing that they experience a little bit more urgency. They start from a belief that they can raise money any time they want, from anyone they want. Soon they realize there are fewer investors in market, that those opportunities appear less frequently, and each one should be managed more carefully. From there they go to thinking about terms. They might have to be flexible around some terms or some construct. Finally, they go to just fundamentally thinking about valuation in terms of multiples.

Going back to my first comment about economic factors being a lagging indicator, COVID related shocks haven’t moved through the system yet. It will take something more like a year for all the expectations to shift. My experience is that a shift in the economy from an investor standpoint creates a flight to quality. Companies with lackluster performance are first to feel lack of options in fundraising and exits. High performing businesses are the last ones to experience a change in valuation multiples. It disproportionately affects average businesses more quickly and more dramatically than high quality businesses which may feel no significant effects.

Hugs, fist bumps and good vibes,

Alex

Almost everything you need to know about SPACs

Feeling as if you should better understand special purpose acquisition vehicles – or SPACS — than you do? You aren’t alone.

Like most casual observers, you’re probably already aware that Paul Ryan now has a SPAC, as does baseball executive Billy Beane and Silicon Valley stalwart Kevin Hartz. You probably know, too, that entrepreneur Chamath Palihapitiya seemed to kick off the craze around SPACS — blank-check companies that are formed for the purpose of merging or acquiring other companies — in 2017 when he raised $600 million for a SPAC. Called Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings, it was ultimately used to take a 49% stake in the British spaceflight company Virgin Galactic.

But how do SPACS come together in the first place, how they work exactly, and should you be thinking of launching one? We talked this week with a number of people who are right now focused on almost nothing but SPACs to get our questions — and maybe yours, too — answered.

First, why are these things suddenly spreading like weeds?

Kevin Hartz — who we spoke with after his $200 million blank-check company made its stock market debut on Tuesday — said their popularity ties in part to “Sarbanes Oxley and the difficulty in taking a company public the traditional route.”

Troy Steckenrider, an operator who has partnered with Hartz on his newly public company, said the growing popularity of SPACs also ties to a “shift in the quality of the sponsor teams,” meaning that more people like Hartz are shepherding these vehicles versus “people who might not be able to raise a traditional fund historically.”

Indeed, according to the investment bank Jefferies, 76% of last year’s SPACs were sponsored by industry executives who “typically have public company experience or have sold their prior business and are seeking new opportunities,” up from 65% in 2018 and 32% in 2017.

Don’t forget, too, that there are whole lot of companies that have raised tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital and whose IPO plans may have been derailed or slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some need a relatively frictionless way to get out the door, and there are plenty of investors who would like to give them that push.

How does one start the process of creating a SPAC?

The process is really no different than a traditional IPO, explains Chris Weekes, a managing director in the capital markets group at the investment bank Cowen. “There’s a roadshow that will incorporate one-on-one meetings between institutional investors and the SPAC’s management team” to drum up interest in the offering.

At the end of it, institutional investors like mutual funds, private equity funds, and family offices buy into the offering, along with a smaller percentage of retail investors.

Who can form a SPAC?

Basically anyone who wants to create one and who can persuade shareholders to buy its shares.

These SPACs all seem to sell their shares at $10 apiece. Why?

Easier accounting? Tradition? It’s not entirely clear, though Weekes says $10 has “always been the unit price” for SPACs and continues to be, with the very occasional exception, such as with Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square Capital Management.

Last month it launched a $4 billion SPAC that sold units for $20 each.

Have SPACS changed structurally over the years?

Funny you should ask! This gets a little more technical, but when buying a unit of a SPAC, institutional investors typically get a share of common stock and a warrant or a fraction of a warrant. A warrant is security that entitles the holder to buy the underlying stock of the issuing company at a fixed price at a later date; warrants are used as deal sweeteners to keep investors involved with a company.)

Earlier in time, when a SPAC announced the company it planned to buy, institutional investors in the SPAC — who had to sign NDA-type agreements — would vote yes to the deal if they wanted to keep their money in, and no to the deal if they wanted to redeem their shares and get out. But sometimes investors would team up and threaten to torpedo the deal if they weren’t given founder shares or other preferential treatment. (“There was a bit of bullying in the marketplace,” says Weekes.)

Regulators have since separated the right to vote and the right to redeem one’s shares, meaning investors today can vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and still redeem their capital, making the voting process more perfunctory and enabling most deals to go through as planned.

Does that mean SPACs are more safe? They haven’t had the best reputation historically.

They’ve “already gone through their junk phase,” suspects Albert Vanderlaan, an attorney in the tech companies group of Orrick, the global law firm. “In the ’90s, these were considered a pretty junky situation,” he says. “They were abused by foreign investors. In the early 2000s, they were still pretty disfavored.” Things could turn on a dime again, he suggests, but over the last couple of years, the players have changed for the better, which is making a big difference.

How much of the money raised does a management team like Hartz and Steckenrider keep?

The rough rule of thumb is 2% of the SPAC value, plus $2 million, says Steckenrider. The 2% roughly covers the initial underwriting fee; the $2 million then covers the operating expenses of the SPAC, from the initial cost to launch it to legal preparation, accounting, and NYSE or NASDAQ filing fees. It’s also “provides the reserves for the ongoing due diligence process,” he says.

Is this money like the carry that VCs receive, and do a SPAC’s managers receive it no matter how the SPAC performs?

Yes and yes.

Here’s how Hartz explains it: “On a $200 million SPAC, there’s a $50 million ‘promote’ that is earned at $10 a share if the transaction consummates at $10 a share,” which, again, is always the traditional size of a SPAC. “But if that company doesn’t perform and, say, drops in half over a year or 18-month period, then the shares are still worth $25 million.”

Hartz calls “egregious,” though he and Steckenrider formed their SPAC in exactly the same way, rather than structure it differently.  

Says Steckrider, “We ultimately decided to go with a plain-vanilla structure [because] as a first-time spec sponsor, we wanted to make sure that the investment community had as as easy as a time as possible understanding our SPAC. We do expect to renegotiate these economics when we go and do the [merger] transaction with the partner company,” he adds.

From a mechanics standpoint, what happens right after SPAC has raised its capital?

The money is moved into a blind trust until the management team decides which company or companies it wants to acquire. Share prices don’t really move much during this period as no investors know (or should know, at least) what the target company will be yet.

Does a $200 million SPAC look to acquire a company that’s valued at around the same amount?

No. According to law firm Vinson & Elkins, there’s no maximum size of a target company — only a minimum size (roughly 80% of the funds in the SPAC trust).

In fact, it’s typical for a SPAC to combine with a company that’s two to four times its IPO proceeds in order to reduce the dilutive impact of the founder shares and warrants.

In the case of Hartz’s and Steckenrider’s SPAC (it’s called “one”), they are looking to find a company “that’s approximately four to six times the size of our vehicle of $200 million,” says Harzt, “so that puts us around in the billion dollar range.”

Where does the rest of the money come from if the partner company is many times larger than the SPAC itself?

It comes from PIPE deals, which, like SPACs, have been around forever and come into and out of fashion. These are literally “private investments in public equities” and they get tacked onto SPACs once management has decided on the company with which it wants to merge.

It’s here that institutional investors get different treatment than retail investors, which is why some industry observers are wary of SPACs.

Specifically, a SPAC’s institutional investors — along with maybe new institutional investors that aren’t part of the SPAC — are told before the rest of the world what the acquisition target is under confidentiality agreements so that they can decide if they want to provide further financing for the deal via a PIPE transaction.

The information asymmetry seems unfair. Then again, they’re restricted not only from sharing information but also from trading the shares for a minimum of four months from the time that the initial business combination is made public. Retail investors, who’ve been left in the dark, can trade their shares any time.

How long does a SPAC have to get all of this done?

It varies, but the standard seems to be around two years.

What do you call that phase of the deal after the partner company has been identified and agrees to merge, but before the actual combination?

That’s called De-SPACing and during this stage of things, the SPAC has to obtain shareholder approval through that vote we talked about, followed by a review and commenting by the SEC.

Toward the end of this stretch — which can take 12 to 18 weeks — bankers aretaking out the new operating team and, in the style of a traditional roadshow, getting the story out to analysts who cover the segment so when the combined new company is revealed, it receives the kind of support that keeps public shareholders interested in a company.

Will we see more people from the venture world like Palihapitiya and Hartz start SPACs?

So far, says Weekes, he’s seeing less interest from VCs in sponsoring SPACs and more interest from them in selling their portfolio companies to a SPAC. As he notes, “Most venture firms are typically a little earlier stage investors and are private market investors, but there’s an uptick of interest across the board, from PE firms, hedge funds, long-only mutual funds.”

That might change if Hartz has anything to do with it. “We’re actually out in the Valley, speaking with all the funds and just looking to educate the venture funds,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of requests in. We think we’re going to convert [famed VC] Bill Gurley from being a direct listings champion to the SPAC champion very soon.”

In the meantime, Hartz says his SPAC doesn’t have a specific target in mind yet. But he does takes issue with the word “target,” preferring instead “partner” company.

“A target sounds like we’re trying to assassinate somebody.”

InfraDigital helps Indonesian schools digitize tuition and enrollment

In Indonesia, about half of adults are “underbanked,” meaning they don’t have access to bank accounts, credit cards and other traditional financial services. A growing list of tech companies are working on solutions, from Payfazz, which operates a network of financial agents in small towns, to digital payment services from GoJek and Grab. As a result, financial inclusion is increasing for consumers and small businesses in Southeast Asia’s largest country, but one group remains underserved: schools.

InfraDigital was founded in 2018 by chief executive officer Ian McKenna and chief operating officer Indah Maryani. Both have backgrounds in financial tech, and their platform enables parents to pay school tuition with the same digital services they use for electricity bills or online shopping. The startup currently serves about 400 schools and recently raised a Series A led by AppWorks.

Many Indonesian schools still rely on cash payments, which are often delivered by kids to their teachers.

“My kid had just started school, and one day I spotted my wife giving him an envelope full of cash for tuition. He was only three years old,” McKenna said. “That triggered my curiosity about how these financial systems work.”

To give parents an easier alternative, InfraDigital, which is registered with Indonesia’s central bank, partners with banks, convenience store chains like Indomaret, online wallets and digital payment services like GoPay to allow them to send tuition money online.

“The way you pay your electricity bill, it’s likely that your school is already there, regardless of whether you have a bank account or live in a really remote place” where many people make cash payments for services at convenience stores, McKenna said. The startup is now working on a system for schools in areas that don’t have access to convenience store chains and banks.

Before building InfraDigital’s network, McKenna and Maryani had to understand why many schools still rely on cash payments and paper ledgers to manage tuition.

“Banks have been trying to tap into the education market for a long time, 12 to 15 years probably, but no one has become the biggest bank for schools,” said Maryani. “The reason behind that is because they come in with their own products and they don’t try to resolve the issues schools are facing. Since they are focused on the consumer side, they don’t really see schools or other offline businesses as their customers, and there is a lot of customization that they need to do.”

For example, a school might have 2,000 students and charge each of them about USD $10 a month in school fees. But they also collect separate payments for books, uniforms, and building fees. InfraDigital’s founders say schools typically send out an average of about 2.5 invoices a month.

Digitizing payments also makes it easier for schools to track their finances. InfraDigital provides its clients with a backend application for accounting and enrollment management. It automatically tracks tuition payments as they come in.

“People don’t get paid that much and they are ridiculously busy taking care of thousands of kids. It’s really, really tough,” McKenna said. “When you’re giving them a solution, it’s not about features, it’s not about tools, it’s about the practicalities of their day-to-day life and how we are going to assist them with it. So you remove that burden from them.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in movement restriction orders in different areas of Indonesia, InfraDigital’s founders say the platform was able to forecast trends even before schools officially closed. They started surveying schools in their client base, and sent back data to help them forecast how school closures would affect their income.

“From the school’s perspective, it’s a really damaging situation, with 30% to 60% income drops. Teachers don’t get paid. If the economy goes down, parents at lower-income schools, which are a big part of our client base, won’t be able to pay,” McKenna said. “It’s built into the model, and we’ll continue seeing that however long the economic impact of COVID-19 lasts.”

Tune in tomorrow and watch five startups compete at Pitchers & Pitches

Ever hear the expression, “every master was once a disaster?” Now apply that to developing a well-crafted pitch. It takes practice and honest feedback to make a masterful pitch, and that’s exactly what you’ll get when you participate in our next Pitchers & Pitches. It’s 50 percent competition, 50 percent masterclass and 100 percent free.

Join us tomorrow, August 13, at 4 p.m. ET / 1 p.m. PT as five randomly chosen Digital Startup Alley exhibitors present their rapid-fire pitches to a panel of TC editors and expert VCs. (take a peek at this session’s competitors and judges below).

Get ready to take notes, ask questions — this is an interactive educational event — and apply what you learn to pump up your own 60-second pitch. Here’s another reason to pay close attention to the live pitches; the viewing audience decides which founder throws the best pitch. It’s a competition after all, with a prize and everything.

And it’s a pretty awesome prize if we do say so ourselves. The winner walks away with a consulting session with cela, a company that connects early-stage startups to accelerators and incubators that can help scale their businesses.

Anyone can attend Pitchers & Pitches — and learn valuable tips in the process — but only companies exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley at Disrupt 2020 can compete. If you’d like a shot at competing in our next Pitchers & Pitches event on September 2, purchase a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package. You’ll be ready to exhibit and pitch your startup genius to thousands of disrupt attendees from around the world.

Attending Pitchers & Pitches also gives you time to check out the new virtual Disrupt platform before it goes live in September, meet and video network with other P&P attendees and connect with the five pitching founders in their virtual booth in the startup expo.

It’s time to name names — judges are standing by to give their best feedback for this session. The panel consists of two TechCrunch editors — Zack Whittaker and Natasha Mascarhenas and two leading VCs — Sydney Thomas and Curtis Rodgers. When it comes to pitches, this group’s heard ‘em all — the good, the bad and the ugly. Follow their advice and you might just make it into the first category.

And here are the five startups ready to wring every advantage out of tomorrow’s competition.

Myneral Labs

Centrly

Primeclass

CarpeMed

Cirtru

Register here for the next Pitchers & Pitches — tomorrow, August 13 at 4 p.m. ET / 1 p.m. PT. Learn to master your pitch and get ready to make the most of all the opportunities you’ll find at Disrupt 2020.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Startups Weekly: What countries want your startup?

Editor’s note: Get this free weekly recap of TechCrunch news that any startup can use by email every Saturday morning (7am PT). Subscribe here.

They say business needs certainty to succeed, but new tech startups are still getting funded aggressively despite the pandemic, recession, trade wars and various large disasters created by nature or humans. But before we get to the positive data, let’s spend some time reviewing the hard news — there is a lot of it to process.

TikTok is on track to get banned if it doesn’t get sold first, and leading internet company Tencent’s WeChat is on the list as well, plus Trump administration has a bigger “Clean Network” plan in the works. The TikTok headlines are the least significant part, even if they are dominating the media cycle. The video-sharing social network is just now emerging as an intriguing marketing channel, for example. And if it goes, few see any real opening in the short-form video space that market leaders aren’t already deep into. Indeed, TikTok wasn’t a startup story since the Musical.ly acquisition. It was actually part of an emerging global market battle between giant internet companies, that is being prematurely ended by political forces. We’ll never know if TikTok could have continued leveraging ByteDance’s vast resources and protected market in China to take on Facebook directly on its home turf.

Instead of quasi-monopolies trying to finish taking over the world, those with a monopoly on violence have scrambled the map. WeChat is mainly used by the Chinese diaspora in the US, including many US startups with friends, family and colleagues in China. And the Clean Network plan would potentially split the Chinese mobile ecosystem from iOS and Android globally.

Let’s not forget that Europe has also been busy regulating foreign tech companies, including from both the US and China. Now every founder has to wonder how big their TAM is going to be in a world cleaved back the leading nation-states and their various allies.

“It’s not about the chilling effect [in Hong Kong],” an American executive in China told Rita Liao this week about the view in China’s startup world. “The problem is there won’t be opportunities in the U.S., Canada, Australia or India any more. The chance of succeeding in Europe is also becoming smaller, and the risks are increasing a lot. From now on, Chinese companies going global can only look to Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.”

The silver lining, I hope, is that tech companies from everywhere are still going to be competing in regions of the world that will appreciate the interest.

Startup fundraising activity is booming and set to boom more

A fresh analysis from our friends over at Docsend reveals that startup investment activity has actually sped up this year, at least by the measure of pitchdeck activity on its document management platform used by thousands of companies in Silicon Valley and globally (which makes it a key indicator of this hard-to-see action).

Founders are sending out more links than before and VCs are racing through more decks faster, despite the gyrations of the pandemic and other shocks. Meanwhile, many startups shared that they had cut back hard in March and now have more room to wait or raise on good terms. Docsend CEO Russ Heddleston concludes that the rest of the year could actually see activity increase further as companies finish adjusting to the latest challenges and are ready to go back out to market.

All this should shape how you approach your pitchdeck, he writes separately for Extra Crunch. Additional data shows that decks should be on the short side, must include a “why now” slide that addresses the COVID-19 era, and show big growth opportunities in the financials.

Image Credits: Cadalpe (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

SaaS founders could transcend VC fundraising via securitized debt

“In one decade, we went from buying licenses for software to paying monthly for services and in the process, revolutionized the hundreds of billions spent on enterprise IT,” Danny Crichton observes. “There is no reason why in another decade, SaaS founders with the metrics to prove it shouldn’t have access to less dilutive capital through significantly more sophisticated debt underwriting. That’s going to be a boon for their own returns, but a huge challenge for VC firms that have been doubling down on SaaS.”

Sure, the market is sort of providing this with various existing venture debt vehicles, and by other routes like private equity (which has acquired a taste for SaaS metrics this past decade). Danny sees a more sophisticated world evolving, as he details on Extra Crunch this week. First, he sees underwriters tying loans to recurring revenues, even to the point that your customers could be your assets that the bank takes if you go bust. The trend could then build from there:

Part two is to take all those individual loans and package them together into a security… Imagine being an investor who believes that the world is going to digitize payroll. Maybe you don’t know which of the 30 SaaS providers on the market are going to win. Rather than trying your luck at the VC lottery, you could instead buy “2018 SaaS payroll debt” securities, which would give you exposure to this market that’s safer, if without the sort of exponential upside typical of VC investments. You could imagine grouping debt by market sector, or by customer type, or by geography, or by some other characteristic.

Image Credits: Hussein Malla / AP

Help the startup scene in Beirut

Beirut is home to a vibrant startup scene but like the rest of Lebanon it is reeling from a massive explosion at its main port this week. Mike Butcher, who has helped connect TechCrunch with the city over the years, has put together a guide to local people and organizations that you can help out, along with stories from local founders about what they are overcoming. Here’s Cherif Massoud, a dental surgeon turned founder of invisible-braces startup Basma:

We are a team of 25 people and were all in our office in Beirut when it happened. Thankfully we all survived. No words can describe my anger. Five of us were badly injured with glass shattered on their bodies. The fear we lived was traumatizing. The next morning day, we went back to the office to clean all the mess, took measurements of all the broken windows and started rebuilding it. It’s a miracle we are alive. Our markets are mainly KSA and UAE, so customers were still buying our treatments online, but the team needed to recover so we decided to take a break, stop the operations for a few days and rest until next Monday.

How to build a great “revenue stack”

Every business has been scrambling to figure out online sales and marketing during the pandemic. Fortunately the Cambrian explosion of SaaS products began years ago and now there are many powerful options for revenue teams of all shapes and sizes. The problem is how to put everything together right for your company’s needs. Tim Porter and Erica La Cava of Madrona Venture Group have created a framework for how to build what they call the “revenue stack.” While most companies are already using some form of CRM, communications and agreement management software generally, each one needs to figure out four new “capabilities.” What they define as revenue enablement, sales engagement, conversational intelligence and revenue operations.

Here’s a sample from Extra Crunch, about sales engagement:

Some think of sales engagement as an intelligent e-mail cannon and analysis engine on steroids. While in reality, it is much more. Consider these examples: How can I communicate with prospects in a way that is both personalized and efficient? How do I make my outbound sales reps more productive and enable them to respond more quickly to leads? What tools can help me with account-based marketing? What happened to that email you sent out to one of your sales prospects?

Now, take these questions and multiply them by a hundred, or even a thousand: How do you personalize a multitouch nurture campaign at scale while managing and automating outreach to many different business personas across various industry segments? Uh-oh. Suddenly, it gets very complicated. What sales engagement comes down to is the critical understanding of sending the right information to the right customer, and then (and only then) being able to track which elements of that information worked (e.g., led to clicks, conversations and conversions) … and, finally, helping your reps do more of that. We see Outreach as the clear leader here, based in Seattle, with SalesLoft as the number two. Outreach in particular is investing considerably in adding additional intelligence and ML to their offering to increase automation and improve outcomes.

Around TechCrunch

Hear how working from home is changing startups and investing at Disrupt 2020

Extra Crunch Live: Join Wealthfront CEO Andy Rachleff August 11 at 1pm EDT/10am PDT about the future of investing and fintech

Register for Disrupt to take part in our content series for Digital Startup Alley exhibitors

Boston Dynamics CEO Rob Playter is coming to Disrupt 2020 to talk robotics and automation

Across the week

TechCrunch
The tale of 2 challenger bank models

Majority of tech workers expect company solidarity with Black Lives Matter

‘Made in America’ is on (government) life support, and the prognosis isn’t good

What Microsoft should demand in exchange for its ‘payment’ to the US government for TikTok

Equity Monday: Could Satya and TikTok make ByteDance investors happy enough to dance?

Extra Crunch
5 VCs on the future of Michigan’s startup ecosystem

Eight trends accelerating the age of commercial-ready quantum computing

A look inside Gmail’s product development process

The story behind Rent the Runway’s first check

After Shopify’s huge quarter, BigCommerce raises its IPO price range

#EquityPod

From Alex Wilhelm:

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

As ever, I was joined by TechCrunch managing editor Danny Crichton and our early-stage venture capital reporter Natasha Mascarenhas. We had Chris on the dials and a pile of news to get through, so we were pretty hyped heading into the show.

But before we could truly get started we had to discuss Cincinnati, and TikTok. Pleasantries and extortion out of the way, we got busy:

It was another fun week! As always we appreciate you sticking with and supporting the show!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PT and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

YC-backed Statiq wants to bootstrap India’s EV charging network

Electric vehicles (EVs) are spreading throughout the world. While Tesla has drawn the most attention in the United States with its luxurious and cutting-edge cars, EVs are becoming a mainstay in markets far away from the environs of California.

Take India for instance. In the local mobility market, two- and three-wheel vehicles are starting to emerge as a popular option for a rapidly expanding middle class looking for more affordable options. EV versions are popular thanks to their reduced maintenance costs and higher reliability compared to gasoline alternatives.

Two-wheeled electric scooters are a fast-growing segment of India’s mobility market.

There’s just one problem, and it’s the same one faced by every country which has attempted to convert from gasoline to electric: how do you build out the charging station network to make these vehicles usable outside a small range from their garage?

It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem. You need EVs in order to make money on charging stations, but you can’t afford to build charging stations until EVs are popular. Some startups have attempted to build out these networks themselves first. Perhaps the most famous example was Better Place, an Israeli startup that raised $800 million in venture capital before dying from negative cash flow back in 2013. Tesla has attempted to solve the problem by being both the chicken and egg by creating a network of Superchargers.

That’s what makes Statiq so interesting. The company, based in the New Delhi suburb of Gurugram, is bootstrapping an EV charging network using a multi-revenue model that it hopes will allow it to avoid the financial challenges that other charging networks have faced. It’s in the current Y Combinator batch and will be presenting at Demo Day later this month.

Akshit Bansal and Raghav Arora, the company’s co-founders, worked together previously as consultants and built a company for buying photos online, eventually reaching 50,000 monthly actives. They decided to make a pivot — a hard pivot really — into EVs and specifically charging equipment.

Statiq founders Raghav Arora and Akshit Bansal. Photos via Statiq

“We felt the need to do something about the climate because we were living in Delhi and Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India is home to a lot of the polluted cities in the world. So we wanted to do something about it,” Bansal said. As they researched the causes of pollution, they learned that automobile exhaust represented a large part of the problem locally. They looked at alternatives, but EV charging stations remain basically non-existent across the country.

Thus, they founded Statiq in October 2019 and officially launched this past May. They have installed more than 150 charging stations in Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai and the surrounding environs.

Let’s get to the economics though, since that to me is the most fascinating part of their story. Statiq as I noted has a multi-revenue model. First, end users buy a subscription from Statiq to use the network, and then users pay a fee per charging session. That session fee is split between Statiq and the property owner, giving landlords who install the stations an incremental revenue boost.

A Statiq charging station. Photo via Statiq

When it comes to installation, Statiq has a couple of tricks up its sleeves. First, the company’s charging equipment — according to Bansal — costs roughly a third of the equivalent cost of U.S. equipment. That makes the base technology cheaper to acquire. From there, the company negotiates installations with landlords where the landlords will pay the fixed costs of installation in exchange for that continuing session charge fee.

On top of all that, the charging stations have advertising on them, offering another income stream particularly in high-visibility locations like shopping malls which are critical for a successful EV charging network.

In short, Statiq hasn’t had to outlay capital in order to put in place their charging equipment — and they were able to bootstrap before applying to YC earlier this year. Bansal said the company had dozens of charging stations and thousands of paid sessions on its platform before joining their YC batch, and “we are now growing 20% week-over-week.”

What’s next? It’s all about deliberate scaling. The EV market is turning on in India, and Statiq wants to be where those cars are. Bansal and his co-founder are hoping to ride the wave, continuing to build out critical infrastructure along the way. India’s government will likely continue to help: its approved billions of dollars in incentives for EVs and for charging stations, tipping the economics even further in the direction of a clean car future.

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.

Singaporean startup Partipost gets $3.5 million to let anyone become an influencer

Partipost, a Singapore-based marketing startup that lets anyone with a social media profile sign up for influencer campaigns, has raised $3.5 million in new funding. The round was led by SPH Ventures, the investment arm of publisher Singapore Press Holdings, with participation from Quest Ventures and other investors.

The funding will be used to grow Partipost’s current operations in Singapore, Indonesia and Taiwan, and expand into Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, other Southeast Asian markets with heavy social media usage. Since launching its mobile app in 2018, Partipost says it has added about 200,000 influencers to its platform, and that over the past 12 months, it has helped conduct 2,500 social media marketing campaigns for more than 850 brands, including Adidas, Arnott’s, Red Bull, Chope and Gojek.

According to benchmark report released in March by Influencer Marketing Hub, the influencer marketing industry is expected to be worth about $9.7 billion in 2020, with companies spending increasing amounts on social media campaigns and working with more “micro-influencers.” To serve them, the report said that more than 380 new influencer marketing agencies and platforms were launched last year, joining a roster of companies that already include AspireIQ, Upfluence, BuzzSumo, SparkToro and Inzpsire.me, to name just a few examples.

While most of these companies focus on helping brands identify the influencers with the widest social media reach, Partipost lets anyone sign up to take part in a campaign.

“Partipost’s main difference is that we believe that everyone can be an influencer,” founder and chief executive officer Jonathan Eg told TechCrunch. “Even if you have 200 followers, you can be one. We want to create a new market that we believe will be the future. Everyone can post on social media, write a review or give some feedback and be paid for it.”

“We want to empower everyone to monetize off their own data and influence and not just allow the big tech companies to do so,” he added.

Aspiring influencers browse brand campaigns on Partipost’s app and apply to take part by submitting a post draft. If the brand approves it, the user can then go ahead and post it on their social media profiles.

The amount of cash they earn is based on how much engagement each post receives. According to the company’s website, most campaigns require a minimum of 200 followers or more, and successful users can earn an average of $5 to $150 per campaign, depending on the brand’s payout structure.

One of Partipost’s selling points for brands is that it enables them to sign up thousands of influencers for a campaign in a single day, help them react quickly to online trends. Part of the funding will also be used to build data tools to help brands match campaigns with Partipost users more efficiently. The company says it expects to increase its base of aspiring influencers to one million within the next 18 months.

As part of the funding, SPH Ventures chief executive officer Chua Boon Ping will join Partipost’s board, while Quest Ventures partner Jeffrey Seah will become an observer.

In a media statement, Chua said, “Social influencer marketing is one of the fastest growing segments within Digital marketing. Hence, we are very excited to lead Partipost’s Series A round to further accelerate its growth. We are impressed by Partipost’s strong traction in Singapore, Indonesia and Taiwan as a young startup and look forward to partnering it to scale to new markets.”

‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ and the limits of today’s game economies

Kaiser Hwang
Contributor

Kaiser Hwang is a longtime member of the games community and a vice president at Forte, an organization building an open economic platform for games.

“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is a bonafide wonder. The game has been setting new records for Nintendo, is adored by players and critics alike and provides millions of players a peaceful escape during these unprecedented times.

But there’s been something even more extraordinary happening on the fringe: Players are finding ways to augment the game experience through community-organized activities and tools. These include free weed-pulling services (tips welcome!) from virtual Samaritans, and custom-designed items for sale — for real-world money, via WeChat Pay and AliPay.

Well-known personalities and companies are also contributing, with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” scribe Gary Whitta hosting an A-list celebrity talk show using the game, and luxury fashion brand Marc Jacobs providing some of its popular clothing designs to players. 100 Thieves, the white-hot esports and apparel company, even created and gave away digital versions of its entire collection of impossible-to-find clothes.

This community-based phenomenon gives us a pithy glimpse into not only where games are inevitably going, but what their true potential is as a form of creative, technical and economic expression. It also exemplifies what we at Forte call “community economics,” a system that lies at the heart of our aim in bringing new creative and economic opportunities to billions of people around the world.

What is community economics?

Formally, community economics is the synthesis of economic activity that takes place inside, and emerges outside, virtual game worlds. It is rooted in a cooperative economic relationship between all participants in a game’s network, and characterized by an economic pluralism that is unified by open technology owned by no single party. And notably, it results in increased autonomy for players, better business models for game creators, and new economic and creative opportunities for both.

The fundamental shift that underlies community economics is the evolution of games from centralized entertainment experiences to open economic platforms. We believe this is where things are heading.

Federal court rules WhatsApp and Facebook’s malware exploit case against NSO Group can proceed

A U.S. federal court judge ruled on Thursday that WhatsApp and parent company Facebook’s lawsuit against Israeli mobile surveillance software company NSO Group can go forward. Phyllis Hamilton, Chief Judge of the United Stated District Court of the Northern District of California, denied most of the arguments NSO Group made when it filed a motion to dismiss the suit in April (a copy of her decision is embedded below).

Last October, WhatsApp and Facebook filed a complaint alleging that NSO Group exploited an audio-calling vulnerability in the messaging app to send malware to about 1,400 mobile devices, including ones that belonged to journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, diplomats and senior government officials.

WhatsApp and Facebook also claim that NSO Group developed a data program called Pegasus that extracted data, including messages, browser history and contacts, from phones, and sold support services to customers including the Kingdom of Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Mexico.

In its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, one of NSO Group’s arguments was that its business dealings with foreign governments, which it said use its technology to fight terrorism and other serious crimes, granted it immunity from lawsuits filed in U.S. courts under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA). In her decision, Judge Hamilton wrote that NSO Group failed to qualify because it was not incorporated or formed in the U.S.

In an email to TechCrunch, a WhatsApp spokesperson said “We are pleased with the Court’s decision permitting us to move ahead with our claims that NSO engaged in unlawful conduct. The decision also confirms that WhatsApp will be able to obtain relevant documents and other information about NSO’s practices.”

TechCrunch has also contacted NSO Group for comment. When the lawsuit was filed in October, the company stated, “In the strong possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them.”

WhatsApp vs NSO Group, cour… by TechCrunch on Scribd

Startups Weekly: The world is eating tech

Editor’s note: Get this free weekly recap of TechCrunch news that any startup can use by email every Saturday morning (7am PT). Subscribe here.

You could almost hear the internet cracking apart this week as international businesses pulled away from Hong Kong and the US considered a ban on TikTok. Software can no longer eat the entire world like it had attempted last decade. Startups across tech-focused industries face a new reality, where local markets and efforts are more protected and supported by national governments. Every company now has a smaller total addressable market, whether or not it succeeds in it.

Facebook, for example, appears to be getting an influx of creators who are worried about losing TikTok audiences, as Connie Loizos investigated this week. This might mean more users, engagement and ultimately revenue for many consumer startups, and any other companies that rely on paid marketing through Facebook’s valuable channels. But it means fewer platforms to diversify to, in case you don’t want to rely on Facebook so much for your business.

As trade wars look more and more like cold wars, it also means that Facebook itself will have a more limited audience than it once hoped to offer its own advertisers. After deciding to reject requests from Hong Kong-based Chinese law enforcement, it seems to be on the path to getting blocked in Hong Kong like it is on the mainland. But as with other tech companies, it doesn’t really have a choice — the Chinese government has pushed through legal changes in the city that allow it to arrest anyone in the world if it claims they are organizing against it. Compliance with China would bring on government intervention in the US and beyond, among other reasons why doing so is a non-starter. 

This also explains why TikTok itself already pulled out of Hong Kong, despite being owned by mainland China-based Bytedance. The company is still reeling from getting banned in India last week and this maneuver is trying to the subsidiary look more independent. Given that China’s own laws allow its government to access and control private companies, expect many to find that an empty gesture.

Startups should plan for things to get harder in general. See: the next item below.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Student visas have become the next Trump immigration target

International students will not be allowed to stay enrolled at US universities that offer only remote classes this coming academic year, the Trump administration decided this past week. As Natasha Mascarenhas and Zack Whittaker explore, many universities are attempting a hybrid approach that tries to allow some in-person teaching without creating a community health problem.

Without this type of approach, many students could lose their visas. Here’s our resident immigration law expert, Sophie Alcorn, with more details on Extra Crunch:

International students have been allowed to take online classes during the spring and summer due to the COVID-19 crisis, but that will end this fall. The new order will force many international students at schools that are only offering remote online classes to find an “immigration plan B” or depart the U.S. before the fall term to avoid being deported.

At many top universities, international students make up more than 20% of the student body. According to NAFSA, international students contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported or created 458,000 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year. Apparently, the current administration is continuing to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” when it comes to immigration.

Universities are scrambling as they struggle with this newfound untenable bind. Do they stay online only to keep their students safe and force their international students to leave their homes in this country? Or do they reopen to save their students from deportation, but put their communities’ health at risk?

For students, it means finding another school, scrambling to figure out a way to depart the States (when some home countries will not even allow them to return), or figuring out an “immigration plan B.”

Who knows how many startups will never exist because the right people didn’t happen to be at the right place at the right time together? What everyone does know is that remote-first is here to stay.

No Code goes global

A few tech trends seem unstoppable despite any geopolitics, and one seems to be the universal human goal of making enterprise software suck less. (Okay, nearly universal.) Alex Nichols and Jesse Wedler of CapitalG explain why now is the time for no code software and what the impact will bel, in a very popular article for Extra Crunch this week. Here’s their setup:

First, siloed cloud apps are sprawling out of control. As workflows span an increasing number of tools, they are arguably getting more manual. Business users have been forced to map workflows to the constraints of their software, but it should be the other way around. They need a way to combat this fragmentation with the power to build integrations, automations and applications that naturally align with their optimal workflows.

Second, architecturally, the ubiquity of cloud and APIs enable “modular” software that can be created, connected and deployed quickly at little cost composed of building blocks for specific functions (such as Stripe for payments or Plaid for data connectivity). Both third-party API services and legacy systems leveraging API gateways are dramatically simplifying connectivity. As a result, it’s easier than ever to build complex applications using pre-assembled building blocks. For example, a simple loan approval process could be built in minutes using third-party optical character recognition (a technology to convert images into structured data), connecting to credit bureaus and integrating with internal services all via APIs. This modularity of best-of-breed tools is a game changer for software productivity and a key enabler for no code.

Finally, business leaders are pushing CIOs to evolve their approach to software development to facilitate digital transformation. In prior generations, many CIOs believed that their businesses needed to develop and own the source code for all critical applications. Today, with IT teams severely understaffed and unable to keep up with business needs, CIOs are forced to find alternatives. Driven by the urgent business need and assuaged by the security and reliability of modern cloud architecture, more CIOs have begun considering no code alternatives, which allow source code to be built and hosted in proprietary platforms.

Photo: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Palantir has finally filed to go public

It’s 16 years old, worth $26 billion and widely used by private and public entities of all types around the world, but this employer of thousands is counted as a startup tech unicorn, because, well, it was one of the pioneers of growing big, raising bigger, and staying private longer. Aileen Lee even mentioned Palantir as one of the 39 examples that helped inspire the “unicorn” term back in 2013. Now the secretive and sometimes controversial data technology provider is finally going to have its big liquidity event — and is filing confidentially to IPO, which means the finances are still staying pretty secret.

Alex Wilhelm went ahead and pieced together its funding history for Extra Crunch ahead of the action, and concluded that “Palantir seems like the Platonic ideal of a unicorn. It’s older than you’d think, has a history of being hyped, its valuation has stretched far beyond the point where companies used to go public, and it appears to be only recently growing into its valuation.”

It also appears to be one of the unicorns that has seen a lot of upside lately. It has been in the headlines recently for cutting big-data deals with governments for pandemic work, on top of a long-standing relationship with the US military and other arms of the government. As with Lemonade, Accolade and a range of other IPOing tech companies that we have covered in recent weeks, it is presumably in a positive business cycle and primed to take advantage of an already receptive market.

(Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Meaningful change from BLM

In an investor survey for Extra Crunch this week, Megan Rose Dickey checked in with eight Black investors about what they are investing in, in the middle of what feels like a new focus on making the tech industry more representative of the country and the world. Here’s how Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital responded when Megan asked what meaningful change might come from the recent heightened attention on the Black Lives Matter movement.

I happen to be on the more optimistic side of things. I’m not at a hundred percent optimistic, but I’m close to that. I think that there’s an undeniable unflinching resolve right now. I think that if we were to go back to status quo, I would be incredibly surprised. I guess I would not be shocked, unfortunately, but I would be surprised. It would give me pause about the effectiveness of any of the work that we do if this moment fizzles out and doesn’t create change. I do think that there is going to be a shift. I can already feel it. I know that more people who are representative of this country are going to be writing checks, whether through being hired, or taken through the ranks, or starting their own funds, and our own funds. I think there’s more and more capital that’s going to flow to underrepresented founders. That alone, I think, will be a huge shift.

Around TechCrunch

Extra Crunch support expands into Argentina, Brazil and Mexico

Five reasons to attend TC Early Stage online

Hear from James Alonso and Adam Zagaris how to draw up your first contracts at Early Stage

Hear how to manage your enterprise infrastructure from Sam Pullara at TechCrunch Early Stage

Kerry Washington is coming to Disrupt 2020

Amazon’s Alexa heads Toni Reid and Rohit Prasad are coming to Disrupt

Ade Ajao, Maryanna Saenko, Charles Hudson, Ulili Onovakpuri and Melissa Bradley are coming to Disrupt

Minted’s Mariam Naficy will join us at TechCrunch Early Stage

Across the week

TechCrunch

14 VCs discuss COVID-19 and London’s future as a tech hub

Societal upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic underscores need for new AI data regulations

PC shipments rebound slightly following COVID-19-fueled decline

Here’s a list of tech companies that the SBA says took PPP money

Equity Monday: Uber-Postmates is announced, three funding rounds and narrative construction

Regulatory roadblocks are holding back Colombia’s tech and transportation industries

Extra Crunch

In pandemic era, entrepreneurs turn to SPACs, crowdfunding and direct listings

Four views: Is edtech changing how we learn?

VCs are cutting checks remotely, but deal volume could be slowing

GGV’s Jeff Richards: ‘There is a level of resiliency in Silicon Valley that we did not have 10 years ago’

Logistics are key as NYC startup prepares to reopen office

#EquityPod

From Alex:

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We wound up having more to talk about than we had time for but we packed as much as we could into 34 minutes. So, climb aboard with DannyNatasha and myself for another episode of Equity.

Before we get into topics, a reminder that if you are signing up for Extra Crunch and want to save some money, the code “equity” is your friend. Alright, let’s get into it:

Whew! Past all that we had some fun, and, hopefully, were of some use. Hugs and chat Monday!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PT and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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.

Singapore-based caregiving startup launches Homage Health for online and home medical consultations

Homage, the Singapore-based startup that matches families and caregivers, has launched a new service that provides home medical visits, telehealth consultations and medication delivery. Called Homage Health, the service was already being developed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but co-founder and CEO Gillian Tee told TechCrunch that its launch was accelerated because many of the company’s caregiving recipients are elderly or have long-term health conditions, and are at higher risk for the disease.

Backed by investors including HealthXCapital, Alternate Ventures and KDV Capital, Homage launched in 2016 with a caregiving program that focuses on people who need long-term assisted living and rehabilitation care. This integrates with Homage Health because the platform’s caregivers, including nurses, are able to provide in-person support for online consultations with doctors and help followup on recommended healthcare regimens.

Before launching Homage Health, the startup worked with healthcare organizations to deliver mobile medical services, including doctor house calls, for its clients, and telehealth consultations as part of its COVID-19 response. Even before the pandemic, however, there was demand because many clients need regular health screenings.

“Particularly with COVID-19, as an essential service, we felt a higher impetus to ensure our care recipients can continue to gain access to in-home and caregiving services,” she said.

“A key example would be where our care recipients can receive speech therapy through teleconsultations,” she added. “For specific hallmark assessment sessions where a therapy care plan is defined, or where subsequent delivery is adjusted due to progressional improvements made, in-person sessions can be conducted, leading to best health, accessibility and cost outcomes.”

Having caregivers, medical sessions and prescriptions records on one platform also makes long-term healthcare management easier. For example, Homage can provide baseline medical assessment reports for medical and care providers.

Homage prescreens doctors before adding them to the platform. All of them are registered with the Singapore Medical Council, have a minimum of five years practicing medicine and receive medical teleconsultation training. The service can be used to diagnose common conditions, like the cold or allergies, or when prescriptions need to be refilled. It can also provide the follow-up consultations needed by people recovering from strokes or with chronic conditions like Parkinson’s disease and hypertension.

Homage Health will expand to include more rehabilitation and therapy categories. Basic teleconsultations have a flat fee of SGD $20, excluding prescriptions and delivery fees. Mobile medical services, which start at SGD $180, include at-home blood tests, home visits by doctors and minor surgery like wound care and drainage.

Steve Case and Clara Sieg on how the COVID-19 crisis differs from the dot-com bust

Steve Case and Clara Sieg of Revolution recently spoke on TechCrunch’s new series, Extra Crunch Live. Throughout the hour-long chat, we touched on numerous subjects, including how diverse founders can take advantage during this downturn and how remote work may lead to growth outside Silicon Valley. The pair have a unique vantage point, with Steve Case, co-founder and former CEO of AOL turned VC, and Clara Sieg, a Stanford-educated VC heading up Revolution’s Silicon Valley office.

Together, Case and Sieg laid out how the current crisis is different from the dot-com bust of the late nineties. Because of the differences, their outlook is bullish on the tech sector’s ability to pull through.

And for everyone who couldn’t join us live, the full video replay is embedded below. (You can get access here if you need it.)

Case said that during the run-up to the dot-com bust, it was a different environment.

“When we got started at AOL, which was back in 1985, the Internet didn’t exist yet,” Case said. “I think 3% of people were online or online an hour a week. And it took us a decade to get going. By the year 2000, which is sort of the peak of AOL’s success, we had about half of all the U.S. internet traffic, and the market value soared. That’s when suddenly, when any company with a dot-com name was getting funded. Many were going public without even having much in the way of revenues. That’s not we’re dealing with now.”

Venture partner Sieg agreed, pointing to the number of funds currently available in the venture capital asset class. Unlike twenty years ago when valuations were based on unsubstantiated future growth, the current crisis happened during a period of steady expansion. Because of this, funds and startups are in a better position to make it to the other side of this pandemic, she said.

Sieg pointed to one of Revolution Venture’s portfolio companies, Mint House, which aims to build a better temporary housing experience for business travelers. The company raised $15 million in May 2019, and according to Sieg, it focused on being capital-efficient from the start instead of chasing growth for its own sake. She said the company went from almost 90% occupancy to zero overnight and yet now, after a slight pivot, it’s back to a 60-65% occupancy rate by moving quickly to providing housing to healthcare workers.

The company’s strong balance sheet gave it room to pivot, she said.

And yet there are challenges. Sieg pointed out that for the first time in Revolution’s history, the firm’s funds are investing without meeting founder teams in person. It’s a longer process than the old way, she said, though noted that it levels the playing field for founders outside of the traditional circle. Investors have more time on their hands now, so she encourages founders to be persistent and keep reaching out for virtual meetings.

“I think it is important to take advantage of this time where you have people sitting around with more availability on their calendars and more willingness to engage,” Sieg said. “The nice thing about removing some of the in-person components is there’s a stronger focus on market opportunity, product and company, and the real metrics that [founders] can show. Removing some of that person-to-person noise and just focusing on the business means that a lot of these biases are going to be overcome.”

The pair said they believe some companies will have a strong tailwind coming out of this crisis. Case and Sieg pointed to trends that are rapidly accelerating: e-commerce, telehealth and direct-to-consumer companies. In this new environment, Case said location will matter more than ever. While he points out there are many smart people in Silicon Valley, there’s a reason why, for example, Monsanto is in St. Louis. “Some of the smartest people around healthtech are in Minneapolis where UnitedHealth is, or Rochester, Minnesota where Mayo is, or with MD Anderson in Texas or in Ohio with Cleveland Clinic or Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.”

“There are also specific categories that resonate now more than ever,” Sieg said. “We’re investors in a company called Bright Cellars that ships wine to your house. Obviously, people are staying at home, and they’re drinking a lot more. And [Bright Cellars] has been positively impacted by [stay-at-home orders] from a revenue perspective. There’s a company like Bloomscape, which is in Detroit, Michigan, and they’ve had their challenges with keeping their supply chain up and running, but they managed to do so. People are finding a lot of comfort in gardening and taking care of plants because it is something that can be done at home and feel like you’re engaged with something that’s alive, and you see the progression when you’re stuck at home.”

Steve Case is looking at founders who are managing today, but also imagining for the future. One example is Clear, he said, which fast-tracked the development of a flight pass for healthcare workers. And now, when people start flying again, the company will return to its strong core business while having additional momentum around this new business that provides passes to hospitals and arenas. This wouldn’t have happened if it was not for this crisis, Case said.

“I think [the COVID-19 crisis] is one of those shake-the-snowglobe moments where things are being reassessed,” Case said, “and one of the areas I think it’s going to accelerate is what I’ve called the ‘third wave of the internet.’”

Case explained he wrote about this new phase a few years ago in his book, aptly titled “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future.” According to Case’s thesis, the first wave was when AOL and other providers were introducing and onboarding users to the Internet. The second wave was when apps and software could be created using existing infrastructure. And now, according to this thought, the internet is meeting the real world with new solutions. The current crisis is accelerating the development of telehealth, smart cities, and industries in regulated sectors.

“Perseverance is going to matter more,” Case said. “The tough problems don’t lend themselves to overnight successes. It’s going to be a slog, and kind of like AOL of a 10-year in the making overnight success.”

The dot-com bust upended a lot of startups, and the COVID-19 crisis will do the same though with different results.

“The third wave of the Internet is when the Internet meets the real world, Steve Case said. “It’s things like health care, food, smart cities, and many other areas that haven’t changed much in the first and second waves that are going to change a lot in the third wave. We believe it’s going to be a different playbook.”


Vietnamese online pharmaceutical marketplace BuyMed raises $2.5 million

BuyMed, a Vietnamese startup that wants to fix Southeast Asia’s complex pharmaceutical distribution networks, announced today it has raised $2.5 million in pre-Series A funding. Investors include Sequoia Capital India’s Surge early-stage accelerator program, and Genesia Ventures. Returning investor Cocoon Capital also participated.

Founded in 2018, BuyMed operates Thuocsi.vn, a pharmaceutical distribution platform in Vietnam. Over the past 12 months, the company says it has tripled its annual revenue, and now plans to add new product lines, including cosmetics, medical devices, supplements and medical services, with the goal of becoming a “one-stop marketplace” for supplies needed by healthcare providers in Southeast Asia.

BuyMed verifies suppliers on its platform, improving safety and reducing the risk of medications making its way into the grey market (or unofficial distribution channels). The startup currently has 700 verified suppliers, distributors and manufacturers on its platform, who serve over 7,000 healthcare providers.

In a press statement, Genesia Ventures general partner Takahiro Suzuki, said, “There is still a tremendous opportunity for growth and improvement in Vietnam’s pharmaceutical supply chain and we believe that BuyMed’s founders have the experience, execution and operational management necessary to tackle this problem.”

BuyMed Co-founder and CEO Peter Nguyen formerly served as a consultant for companies like Eli Lilly, Roche and Siemens, helping them create more efficient operations and supply chains.

Nguyen told TechCrunch that there are no major multi-brand distributors in Vietnam, so most pharmaceutical manufacturers and brands need to set up their own networks. This means the process of getting medications and other pharmaceutical supplies to healthcare providers is highly-fragmented.

There are roughly 200 domestic manufacturers in Vietnam, in addition to imported brands, and their products are handled by over 3,000 distributors. While about 2% of pharmacies in Vietnam are part of a franchise or chain, the vast majority are independent. This means distributors need to serve over 40,000 independent pharmacies and about 5,000 independent clinics.

Nguyen added that fragmentation is similar in many other Southeast Asian markets, giving BuyMed an opportunity to expand across the region.

Thuocsi.vn’s usage has grown over the last 60 days, as more Vietnamese pharmacies source from online channels. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, BuyMed has expanded its platform so more of its partners can sell online, and added safety measures like frequent warehouse and office sanitization and a no-contact drop-off and cash collection system.

6 investment trends that could emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic

Rocio Wu
Contributor

Rocio Wu is a venture partner at F-Prime Capital who focuses on early-stage investments in software/applied AI, fintech and frontier tech investments.

While some U.S. investors might have taken comfort from China’s rebound, we still find ourselves in the early innings of this period of uncertainty.

Some epidemiologists have estimated that COVID-19 cases will peak in April, but PitchBook reports that dealmaking was down -26% in March, compared to February’s weekly average. The decline is likely to continue in coming weeks — many of the deals that closed last month were initiated before the pandemic, and there is a lag between when deals are made and when they are announced.

However, there’s still hope. A recent report concluded that because valuations are lower and there’s less competition for deals, “the best-performing vintages tend to be those that invest at the nadir of a downturn and into the early stage of recovery.” There are countless examples from the 2008 recession, including many highly valued VC-backed businesses such as WhatsApp, Venmo, Groupon, Uber, Slack and Square. Other early-stage VCs seem to have arrived at a similar conclusion.

Also, early-stage investing seems more resilient. During the last recession, angel and seed activity increased 34% as interest in the stage boomed during a period of prolonged growth.

Furthermore, there is still capital to be deployed in categories that interested investors before the pandemic, which may set the new order in a post-COVID-19 world. According to data provider Preqin Ltd., VC dry powder rose for a seventh consecutive year to roughly $276 billion in 2019, and another $21 billion were raised last quarter. And looking at the deals on the early-stage side that were made year to date, especially in March, the vertical categories that garnered the most funding were enterprise SaaS, fintech, life sciences, healthcare IT, edtech and cybersecurity.

Image Credits: PitchBook

That said, if VCs have the capital to deploy and are able to overcome the obstacle of “having never met in person,” here are six investment trends that could emerge when the pandemic is over.

1. Future of work: promoting intimacy and trust

Clubhouse voice chat leads a wave of spontaneous social apps

Forget the calendar invite. Just jump into a conversation. That’s the idea powering a fresh batch of social startups poised to take advantage of our cleared schedules amidst quarantine. But they could also change the way we work and socialize long after COVID-19 by bringing the free-flowing, ad-hoc communication of parties and open office plans online. While “Live” has become synonymous with performative streaming, these new apps instead spread the limelight across several users as well as the task, game, or discussion at hand.

The most buzzy of these startups is Clubhouse, an audio-based social network where people can spontaneously jump into voice chat rooms together. You see the unlabeled rooms of all the people you follow, and you can join to talk or just listen along, milling around to find what interests you. High-energy rooms attract crowds while slower ones see participants slip out to join other chat circles.

Clubhouse blew up this weekend on VC Twitter as people scrambled for exclusive invites, humblebragged about their membership, or made fun of everyone’s FOMO. For now, there’s no public app or access. The name Clubhouse perfectly captures how people long to be part of the in-crowd.

Clubhouse was built by Paul Davison, who previously founded serendipitous offline people-meeting location app Highlight and reveal-your-whole-camera-roll app Shorts before his team was acquired by Pinterest in 2016. This year he debuted his Alpha Exploration Co startup studio and launched Talkshow for instantly broadcasting radio-style call-in shows. Spontaneity is the thread that ties Davison’s work together, whether its for making new friends, sharing your life, transmitting your thoughts, or having a discussion.

It’s very early days for Clubhouse. It doesn’t even have a website. There’s no telling exactly what it will be like if or when it officially launches, and Davison and his co-founder Rohan Seth declined to comment. But the positive reception shows a desire for a more immediate, multi-media approach to discussion that updates what Twitter did with text.

Sheltered From Surprise

What quarantine has revealed is that when you separate everyone, spontaneity is a big thing you miss. In your office, that could be having a random watercooler chat with a co-worker or commenting aloud about something funny you found on the internet. At a party, it could be wandering up to chat with group of people because you know one of them or overhear something interesting. That’s lacking while we’re stuck home since we’ve stigmatized randomly phoning a friend, differing to asynchronous text despite its lack of urgency.

Clubhouse founder Paul Davison. Image Credit: JD Lasica

Scheduled Zoom calls, utilitarian Slack threads, and endless email chains don’t capture the thrill of surprise or the joy of conversation that giddily revs up as people riff off each other’s ideas. But smart app developers are also realizing that spontaneity doesn’t mean constantly interrupting people’s life or workflow. They give people the power to decide when they are or aren’t available or signal that they’re not to be disturbed so they’re only thrust into social connection when they want it.

Houseparty chart ranks via AppAnnie

Houseparty embodies this spontaneity. It’s become the breakout hit of quarantine by letting people on a whim join group video chat rooms with friends the second they open the app. It saw 50 million downloads in a month, up 70X over its pre-COVID levels in some places. It’s become the #1 social app in 82 countries including the US, and #1 overall in 16 countries.

Originally built for gaming, Discord lets communities spontaneously connect through persistent video, voice, and chat rooms. It’s seen a 50% increase in US daily voice users with spikes in shelter-in-place early adopter states like California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington. Bunch, for video chat overlayed on mobile gaming, is also climbing the charts and going mainstream with its user base shifting to become majority female as they talk for 1.5 million minutes per day. Both apps make it easy to join up with pals and pick something to play together.

The Impromptu Office

Enterprise video chat tools are adapting to spontaneity as an alternative to heavy-handed, pre-meditated Zoom calls. There’s been a backlash as people realize they don’t get anything done by scheduling back-to-back video chats all day.

  • Loom lets you quickly record and send a video clip to co-workers that they can watch at their leisure, with back-and-forth conversation sped up because videos are uploaded as they’re shot.

  • Around overlays small circular video windows atop your screen so you can instantly communicate with colleagues while most of your desktop stays focused on your actual work.

  • Screen exists as a tiny widget that can launch a collaborative screenshare where everyone gets a cursor to control the shared window so they can improvisationally code, design, write, and annotate.

Screen

  • Pragli is an avatar-based virtual office where you can see if someone’s in a calendar meeting, away, or in flow listening to music so you know when to instantly open a voice or video chat channel together without having to purposefully find a time everyone’s free. But instead of following you home like Slack, Pragli lets you sign in and out of the virtual office to start and end your day.

Raising Our Voice

While visual communication has been the breakout feature of our mobile phones by allowing us to show where we are, shelter-in-place means we don’t have much to show. That’s expanded the opportunity for tools that take a less-is-more approach to spontaneous communication. Whether for remote partying or rapid problem solving, new apps beyond Clubhouse are incorporating voice rather than just video. Voice offers a way to rapidly exchange information and feel present together without dominating our workspace or attention, or forcing people into an uncomfortable spotlight.

High Fidelity is Second Life co-founder Philip Rosedale’s $72 million-funded current startup. After recently pivoting away from building a virtual reality co-working tool, High Fidelity has begun testing a voice and headphones-based online event platform and gathering place. The early beta lets users move their dot around a map and hear the voice of anyone close to them with spatial audio so voices get louder as you get closer to someone, and shift between your ears as you move past them. You can spontaneously approach and depart little clusters of dots to explore different conversations within earshot.

An unofficial mockup of High Fidelity’s early tests. Image Credits: DigitalGlobe (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

High Fidelity is currently using a satellite photo of Burning Man as its test map. It allows DJs to set up in different corners, and listeners to stroll between them or walk off with a friend to chat, similar to the real offline event. Since Burning Man was cancelled this year, High Fidelity could potentially be a candidate for holding the scheduled virtual version the organizers have promised.

Houseparty’s former CEO Ben Rubin and Skype GM of engineering Brian Meek are building a spontaneous teamwork tool called Slashtalk. Rubin sold Houseparty to Fortnite-maker Epic in mid-2019, but the gaming giant largely neglected the app until its recent quarantine-driven success. Rubin left.

His new startup’s site explains that “/talk is an anti-meeting tool for fast, decentralized conversations. We believe most meetings can be eliminated if the right people are connected at the right time to discuss the right topics, for just as long as necessary.” It lets people quickly jump into a voice or video chat to get something sorted without delaying until a calendared collab session.

Slashtalk co-founder Ben Rubin at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015

Whether for work or play, these spontaneous apps can conjure times from our more unstructured youth. Whether sifting through the cafeteria or school yard, seeing who else is at the mall, walking through halls of open doors in college dorms, or hanging at the student union or campus square, the pre-adult years offer many opportunities for impromptu social interation.

As we age and move into our separate homes, we literally erect walls that limit our ability to perceive the social cues that signal that someone’s available for unprompted communication. That’s spawned apps like Down To Lunch and Snapchat acquisition Zenly, and Facebook’s upcoming Messenger status feature designed to break through those barriers and make it feel less desperate to ask someone to hang out offline.

But while socializing or collaborating IRL requires transportation logistics and usually a plan, the new social apps discussed here bring us together instantly, thereby eliminating the need to schedule togetherness ahead of time. Gone too are the geographic limits restraining you to connect only with those within a reasonable commute. Digitally, you can pick from your whole network. And quarantines have further opened our options by emptying parts of our calendars.

Absent those frictions, what shines through is our intention. We can connect with who we want and accomplish what we want. Spontaneous apps open the channel so our impulsive human nature can shine through.

Sprout.ai raises $2.5M to speed up insurance claims

Sprout.ai, an insurtech incubated at London’s Imperial College that is applying AI to insurance claims,, has raised $2.5 million in additional seed funding. Leading the round is Amadeus Capital Partners, with participation from Playfair Capital, and Techstars.

Founded in 2018, Sprout.ai has developed AI-based software that it says enables insurance claims to be settled within “just 24 hours”. Specifically, it uses natural language processing and optical character recognition to understand unstructured insurance claim data, and then combines this with real-time external data such as weather, geolocation, business and medication information, to automate claims or escalate them for further human analysis.

“Our mission is to enable insurers to pay out successful claims inside 24 hours,” Sprout.ai co-founder and CEO Niels Thone tells me. “Currently the average claims settlement time in the U.K. is 25 days. This is mainly caused by a lack of information at the start of the claims journey and a lot of manual touch points throughout the journey. This causes two problems: bad customer experiences and high operational costs for claims teams”.

To remedy this, insurance companies can plug their existing systems into Sprout.ai’s “Contextual AI” solution, which provides what Thone says is a much more complete data capture at the start of the claims process, and then is able to automatically validate incoming claims and predict the next necessary steps in the process.

This sees the big bulk of claims sent straight through for processing, resulting in them being settled in record time. “This way claim handlers only have to focus on the really complex claims, where their specialised skill set is actually needed,” says the Sprout.ai CEO.

“The secret lies in accessing the underlying unstructured data, such as pdfs, images, documents, etc.,” he adds. “This is where all the actual ‘data gold’ or, as we call it, ‘data sprouts’ lie, so it’s pertinent that you have the means to extract and structure this data as well as leverage it for further claims verification. Sprout.ai has developed proprietary algorithms in both the OCR and NLP fields to enable very accurate and fast extraction of this underlying data”.

Asked about Sprout.ai’s revenue model, Thone says the insurtech operates via a transactional model, whereby it charges a fee per claim processed. “The fee is volume dependent, which means that the more claims we process for a client, the cheaper the price per claim becomes,” he explains.

Meanwhile, Sprout.ai, which was previously called BlockClaim, says it will use the investment to further build out its data science and engineering team, and expand its sales operations. The U.K. startup is also making plans for U.S. expansion.

Startups Weekly: Where social startups will get funding in the future

[Editor’s note: Want to get this free weekly recap of TechCrunch news that startups can use by emailSubscribe here.] 

While consumer tech has matured as a startup category in recent years, many investors continue to be bullish on specific trends like online gaming, voice, and the unbundling of platforms in favor of focused social networks. That’s the key takeaway from a survey that Josh Constine and Arman Tabatabai did this week with 16 of the most active investors in key social product categories over on Extra Crunch. Here’s an excerpt of the responses, from Olivia Moore and Justine Moore of CRV:

  • “Unbundling of YouTube.” You can build a big company by targeting a vertical within YouTube with a product that has better features and more opportunities for creator monetization. Twitch is a great example of this! We’re also watching early-stage companies like Supergreat (in beauty) and Tingles (ASMR).

  • Voice as a social medium. Voice continues to pick up steam as a broadcast medium via podcasting, but we haven’t seen a lot in social or P2P voice yet. We think a successful platform will leverage the fact that voice content can be created and consumed while doing other things. We’re big fans of companies like TTYL and Drivetime that are making strides here!

  • Flexible digital identities. Gen Zers are online constantly but have different preferences across platforms/friend groups about how they want to “show up” digitally. The rise of “Finsta” accounts is one good example of this. Companies like Facemoji already help users create social content using a curated digital avatar — we’re excited to see what else founders build here!

  • Synchronous, shared mobile experiences. We’re bullish on apps that connect users in real time to have a shared social experience. Most apps now are “single-player,” which creates scroll fatigue. HQ Trivia was an early example more on the entertainment side, while companies like Squad help users browse the internet and watch TikTok together.

Other respondees include: Connie Chan (Andreessen Horowitz). Alexis Ohanian (Initialized Capital), Niko Bonatsos (General Catalyst), Josh Coyne (Kleiner Perkins), Wayne Hu (Signal Fire), Alexia Bonatsos (Dream Machine), Josh Elman (angel investor), Aydin Senkut (Felicis Ventures), James Currier (NFX), Pippa Lamb (Sweet Capital), Christian Dorffer (Sweet Capital), Jim Scheinman (Maven Ventures), Eva Casanova (Day One Ventures) and Dan Ciporin (Canaan).

EC subscribers please note: a second part of this survey will be running this coming week, focused specifically on social investing in the COVID-19 era.

Are VCs investing — or maintaining?

Speaking of financing, who is actually writing checks right at this moment in time?

“I’ve seen a lot of VCs talking about being open for business,” Eniac Ventures founding partner Hadley Harris proclaimed on a fundraising-trend panel this week, “and I’ve been pretty outspoken on Twitter that I think that’s largely bullshit and sends the wrong message to entrepreneurs.” Instead, as Connie Loizos covered for us on TechCrunch, he said he didn’t have time to talk to more founders because he was so busy helping existing portfolio companies.

Not every investor agrees with that viewpoint —  VC Twitter features many an anecdote about fresh companies getting funding. 

Let’s just hope that both things are true, because it is already rough out there. 

Does your startup qualify for a PPP loan? (And should you apply?)

Two debates have been raging around government support for startups. First, the big, messy new Paycheck Protection Program — designed to cover expenses for small businesses — does seem to be somewhat available to startups, based on revisions published by the Small Business Administration late last week. But things get complicated quick depending on your fundraising and cap table, as Jon Shieber covered last weekend for TechCrunch. Venture firms typically have controlling interests in a portfolio of companies that total more than 500 people, so if such a firm also has a controlling interest in your startup, you may not be eligible. Even if the VC stake is under 50%, preferred terms that came with the fundraising may your application afoul of the rules.

To help founders work through their own situations faster, startup lawyer William Carleton wrote a quick guide for Extra Crunch. Here’s where he says you need to start:

Do you have a minority investor which controls protective covenants in your charter, or which controls a board seat afforded certain veto rights on board decisions? If the answer to either fork of that question is “yes,” you almost certainly have confirmed that you will need to amend your charter and/or other governing documents before proceeding with a PPP application.

The other aspect, of course, is whether startups should be applying for this in the first place. Congress broadly intended the money to go towards small to medium sized businesses, most of whom would never be considered for venture. Shieber’s article is full of comments on that topic, if you feel like weighing in….

The commercial real estate comeuppance

If you’re like me, and you’ve started companies in the Bay Area and struggled to find office space you could afford, enjoy this bit of schadenfraude as you plot your remote-first future. Because the commercial real estate industry is facing an existential crisis after many, many years of rent-seeking upon the Silicon Valley tech economy (and everyone else).

Connie explored this exploding topic with a range of startups, investors and CRE agents in a big feature for TechCrunch this week. One analyst “expects the market to come down by ‘at least 10% and probably 20% to 30%’ from where commercial space in San Francisco has priced in several years, which is $88 per square foot, according to CBRE. Driving the expected drop is the 2 million square feet that will come onto the market in the city as soon as it’s possible — space that companies want to get off their books.”

It’s quite possible to imagine even bigger declines, given the broader hits that most any possible tenant is also taking to their budgets. Who knows, maybe this whole process will even help make the Bay Area and other wealthy metros a little more affordable again.

GettyImages 960803498

Edtech gets hot again, according to investors

After lots of money and lots of struggle over the past decade, edtech is suddenly hot again thanks to the pandemic. Natasha Mascaranhas has been covering the trend recently, and dug in this week with a big investor survey on the category for Extra Crunch.

“One investor pivoted from spending a third of their time looking at edtech companies to devoting almost all their time to the sector,” she tells me. “Another, who has been bullish for years on edtech, says its business as usual for them, but that competition may arise. An ed-tech focused fund thinks the sector has been underfunded for a while, so the moment of reckoning has begun.”

Respondents include:

Across the week:

TechCrunch

Economists haven’t thrown out the models yet (but they will)

Five CEOs on their evolution in the femtech space

Equity Monday: Hunting for green shoots amid the startup data

Extra Crunch

How SaaS startups should plan for a turbulent Q2

Fintech’s uneven new reality has helped some startups, harmed others

Fast-changing regulations give virtual care startups a chance to seize the moment

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson on shifting a 3,000-person company to fully remote

Amid unicorn layoffs, Boston startups reflect on the future

#EquityPod

From Alex:

We started with a look at Clearbanc  and its runway extension not-a-loan program, which may help startups survive that are running low on cash. Natasha covered it for TechCrunch. Most of us know about Clearbanc’s revenue-based financing model; this is a twist. But it’s good to see companies work to adapt their products to help other startups survive.

Next we chatted about a few rounds that Danny covered, namely Sila’s $7.7 million investment to help build technology that could take on the venerable and vulnerable ACH, and Cadence’s $4 million raise to help with securitization. Even better, per Danny, they are both blockchain-using companies. And they are useful! Blockchain, while you were looking elsewhere, has done some cool stuff at last.

Sticking to our fintech theme — the show wound up being super fintech-heavy, which was an accident — we turned to SoFi’s huge $1.2 billion deal to buy Galileo, a Utah-based payments company that helps power a big piece of UK-based fintech. SoFi is going into the B2B fintech world after first attacking the B2C realm; we reckon that if it can pull the move off, other financial technology companies might follow suit.

Tidying up all the fintech stories is this round up from Natasha and Alex, working to figure out who in fintech is doing poorly, who’s hiding for now, and who is crushing it in the new economic reality.

Next we touched on layoffs generally, layoffs at ToastAngelList, and not LinkedIn — for now. Per their plans to not have plans to have layoffs. You figure that out.

And then at the end, we capped with good news from Thrive and Index. We didn’t get to Shippo, sadly. Next time!

Listen to the full thing here!

Commercial real estate could be in trouble — even after this is over

Commercial real estate owners, brokers, and landlords have collectively made many hundreds of billions of dollars a year in recent years as the economy zipped along.

Now, they’re getting clobbered by the pandemic-fueled economic crisis. Worse, their industry may be forever changed by it.

To state the obvious, extracting rent from nearly anyone right now is problematic. According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, just 69% of U.S. households had paid their rent by April 5 compared with the 81% who’d paid by March 5 and the 82% who paid by the same time last year.

That statistic will almost assuredly look worse by May 5, given the soaring numbers of both laid-off and furloughed employees.

On the commercial side, the problem is beginning to look as dire. In addition to the countless small retail and restaurant businesses that may be forced to permanently vacate their commercial spaces because they can no long afford them, a growing number of corporate chains is also beginning to prove unwilling or able to pay their rent.

WeWork, for example, has stopped paying rent at some U.S. locations while it tries to renegotiate leases, says the WSJ, this even as the co-working company continues to charge its own tenants.

Staples, Subway and Mattress Firm have also stopped paying rent as a way to strong-arm building owners into rent reductions, lease amendments and other courses of action designed to offset the losses they are incurring because of the coronavirus.

Ch, ch, ch, changes

The question begged is what happens next. While some may look to muscle their way into distressed assets, it’s very possible that more broadly, the commercial real estate market will never look the same.

For one thing, while small retailers and restaurants melt away, some of their online rivals are beefing up. Amazon, despite no shortage of bad publicity, gains market share by the day. In fact, this week, it again sailed into trillion-dollar territory.

The online streetwear marketplace StockX is also booming, as we reported a few weeks ago. As said its CEO, Scott Cutler, at the time: “[W]e’ve always been a marketplace of scarcity, but now you can’t actually go into a real retail location, so you’re coming to StockX.”

The landscape may change particularly quickly in markets like San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and New York, where not only is there a density of independent shops and restaurants, but startup employees and other white collar workers are suddenly working from home — and perfecting the art of distributed teamwork.

Consider Nelson Chu, the founder and CEO of Cadence, a seed-stage, 17-person securitization platform startup in New York. After recently landing $4 million in funding, Cadence signed a lease last month with a landlord who has agreed to start charging the outfit only when it is able to move into its new uptown digs.

It’s a good deal for Cadence, which doesn’t have to worry about paying for square footage it can’t use. Nevertheless, Chu notes that being forced to work remotely has awakened him to the possibility of incorporating more remote work into the startup’s processes.

“You always question whether remote work will impact business continuity,” says Chu “But now that we’re forced to do it, we haven’t skipped a beat. There could be something to be said for having less office space and allowing the people who commute from out of state to not have to be in the office every day.”

It’s easy to imagine that, using tools like Slack, Google Sheets, and Zoom, other founders and management teams that hadn’t already joined the telecommuting trend are coming to the same conclusion.

Taking care of business

The possibility isn’t lost on real estate companies.

“Remote work is something we’re thinking a lot about right now,” says Colin Yasukochi, director of research and analysis at the commercial real estate services giant CBRE. “People are right now being forced to do it,” but “I think some will inevitably stick” to working remotely, he says. “The question of how many, and for how long, is unknown.”

Certainly, it’s not the trend CBRE or others in the real estate world were expecting this year. An “outlook” report published by CBRE last November sounded understandably rosy. “Barring any unforeseen risks,” it said at the time, “resilient economic activity, strong property fundamentals, low interest rates and the relative attractiveness of real estate as an asset class” collectively suggested that 2020 would be a “very good year” for commercial real estate.

In the ensuing months, of course, that unforeseen risk has prompted shutdowns that have led to layoffs across nearly every sector of the economy. It has also — by the very nature of it being a viral contagion — made it highly likely that even when people are allowed to re-occupy commercial spaces, they’ll be less enthusiastic about dense workspaces.

This is doubly true if they know they can get their work done outside the office.

It could well lead to reduced demand for office space later on. It could also mean the same amount of space — or perhaps even more —  with reconfigured office layouts. No one yet knows, including commercial estate brokers.

Mark George, a San Jose, Calif.-based broker with the commercial real estate company Cresa, is currently working from home, where he shares an office with his wife, who is also working remotely for the first time. It’s nice to be home with their children, says George, but being housebound makes it harder to get a pulse on industry changes, particular in his industry.

Brokers are “somewhat isolated,” he says. “Touring activity has dried up because we can’t show space. City Hall is closed in every municipality, so you can’t pull permits. The industry is really shut down.”

George said that “deals that were at the finish line probably got signed” before the coronavirus really took hold in the U.S. But the “deals that were close and not quite there? Every deal I’ve seen has been put on ice. Everyone is in a holding pattern.”

A Cresa colleague of George in San Francisco, Brandon Leitner, echoes the sentiment, saying that “things are not moving fast.” Still, Leitner expects the firm — which handles clients as big as Twitter to Series A and even seed-stage companies — will see a deluge of activity once the city’s current stay-in-place mandate is lifted and brokers can start showing properties again.

Specifically, Leitner expects the market to come down by “at least 10% and probably 20% to 30%” from where commercial space in San Francisco has priced in several years, which is $88 per square foot, according to CBRE. Driving the expected drop is the 2 million square feet that will come onto the market in the city as soon as it’s possible — space that companies want to get off their books.

That’s a lot, particularly given that there is roughly 3.2 million square feet of commercial space available already, according to CBRE’s Yasukochi, who adds that a “good amount” came onto the market in the last six months alone.

Say it ain’t so

That’s not great for landlords, who are “hesitant right now to put a new number on the market,” says Leitner.

He offers that they are “realistic” and likely to “make as many concessions as they can” to hang on to and attract new tenants. Of course, there’s only so much they can do. They typically have debt to contend with, meaning that if there’s a sustained downturn, or fewer people return to the office, they will themselves be relying on their relationships with lenders to see them through.

George, the San Jose-based broker, believes lenders will be inclined to help in order to preserve their own investments. The Federal Reserve may also give the banks the ability to defer mortgage payments, which would make it easier for property owners to put off charging rent.

Even still, whether the commercial real estate market comes all the way back after Covid-19 remains to be seen.

“This [pandemic] is something we’ve never experienced before,” notes Yasukochi. He says CBRE’s economists estimate the next two quarters will be “very tough.” At the same time, he says, the market “might see a substantial” uptick in the four quarter.

“It really depends on whether demand bounces back, and whether expansion plans will be put on hold, or permanently [shelved].”

For now, he seems optimistic about a return to business as usual, particularly within his home market of San Francisco.

It “feels like things go wrong really fast in the Bay Area,” says Yasukochi. “But typically, they come back really fast, too.”

No doubt industry players are counting on it.

YC startup Felix wants to replace antibiotics with programmable viruses

Right now the world is at war. But this is no ordinary war. It’s a fight with an organism so small we can only detect it through use of a microscope — and if we don’t stop it, it could kill millions of us in the next several decades. No, I’m not talking about COVID-19, though that organism is the one on everyone’s mind right now. I’m talking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

You see, more than 700,000 people died globally from bacterial infections last year — 35,000 of them in the U.S. If we do nothing, that number could grow to 10 million annually by 2050, according to a United Nations report.

The problem? Antibiotic overuse at the doctor’s office or in livestock and farming practices. We used a lot of drugs over time to kill off all the bad bacteria — but it only killed off most, not all, of the bad bacteria. And, as the famous line from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park goes, “life finds a way.”

Enter Felix, a biotech startup in the latest Y Combinator batch that thinks it has a novel approach to keeping bacterial infections at bay – viruses.

Phage killing bacteria in a petri dish

It seems weird in a time of widespread concern over the corona virus to be looking at any virus in a good light but as co-founder Robert McBride explains it, Felix’s key technology allows him to target his virus to specific sites on bacteria. This not only kills off the bad bacteria but can also halt its ability to evolve and once more become resistant.

But the idea to use a virus to kill off bacteria is not necessarily new. Bacteriophages, or viruses that can “infect” bacteria, were first discovered by an English researcher in 1915 and commercialized phage therapy began in the U.S. in the 1940’s through Eli Lilly and Company. Right about then antibiotics came along and Western scientists just never seemed to explore the therapy further.

However, with too few new solutions being offered and the standard drug model not working effectively to combat the situation, McBride believes his company can put phage therapy back at the forefront.

Already Felix has tested its solution on an initial group of 10 people to demonstrate its approach.

Felix researcher helping cystic fibrosis patient Ella Balasa through phage therapy

“We can develop therapies in less time and for less money than traditional antibiotics because we are targeting orphan indications and we already know our therapy can work in humans,” McBride told TechCrunch . “We argue that our approach, which re-sensitizes bacteria to traditional antibiotics could be a first line therapy.”

Felix plans to deploy its treatment for bacterial infections in those suffering from cystic fibrosis first as these patients tend to require a near constant stream of antibiotics to combat lung infections.

The next step will be to conduct a small clinical trial involving 30 people, then, as the scientific research and development model tends to go, a larger human trial before seeking FDA approval. But McBride hopes his viral solution will prove itself out in time to help the coming onslaught of antibiotic resistance.

“We know the antibiotic resistant challenge is large now and is only going to get worse,” McBride said. “We have an elegant technological solution to this challenge and we know our treatment can work. We want to contribute to a future in which these infections do not kill more than 10 million people a year, a future we can get excited about.”

Dahmakan, a Malaysian “full-stack” food delivery startup, raises $18 million Series B

Dahmakan, a full-stack food delivery startup based in Malaysia, announced today that it has closed a $18 million Series B. Investors include Rakuten Capital, White Star Capital, JAFCO Asia and GEC-KIP Fund, along with participation from South Korean food delivery app Woowa Brothers, and returning investors Partech Partners and Y Combinator.

This brings Dahmakan’s total funding to about $28 million. Its previous round of financing was announced last May.

Launched by former executives from FoodPanda, Dahmakan was the first Malaysian startup to participate in Y Combinator’s startup accelerator program. Operational costs for food delivery companies are notoriously high, and eat away at their profitability, but Dahmakan is among several startups that use “cloud” kitchens, located closer to customers, in order to reduce delivery costs.

The foundation of the startup’s full-stack platform is an operating system that controls nearly every step of its operations, from recipe development to last-mile delivery, and its cloud kitchens are part of “satellite” hubs placed around different cities to be closer to customers.

Instead of delivering from restaurants, Dahmakan creates its own meals, offering about 40 options each week from a database of 2,000 dishes. It selects its weekly menu based on customer data, including food preferences and spending habits, along with market research.

Then customers are given a menu and pick from a schedule of delivery times. Other startups trying to make food delivery more efficient in Southeast Asia by using a vertically-integrated model and cloud kitchens include Grain, which s backed by investors including Openspace Ventures, First Gourmet and Singha Ventures.

In a press statement about Dahmakan’s funding, White Star Capital managing partner Eric Martineau-Fortin said “Dahmakan is well-positioned to serve the growing demand for food delivery services in Southeast Asia with its unique, technology-forward approach of taking control of the entire value chain to provide affordable delivery options to SEA’s rising middle class.”

On-demand tutoring app Snapask gets $35 million to expand in Southeast Asia

Snapask, an on-demand tutoring app, announced today that it has raised $35 million in Series B funding. Earmarked for the startup’s expansion in Southeast Asia, the round was led by Asia Partners and Intervest.

Launched in Hong Kong five years ago, Snapask has now raised a total of $50 million and operates in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and South Korea. Its other investors have included Kejora Ventures, Ondine Capital and SOSV Chinaccelerator (Snapask participated in its accelerator program).

Founder and CEO Timothy Yu said Snapask will expand into Vietnam and focus on markets in Southeast Asia where there is a high demand for tutoring and other private education services. It will also open a regional headquarter in Singapore and develop video content and analytics products for its platform.

The company now has a total of 3 million students, with 1.3 million who registered over the past twelve months (including a recent surge that Yu attributes to students studying at home after COVID-19 related school cancellations). Over the past year, 100,000 tutors have applied, taking Snapask’s current total to 350,000 applicants.

Yu says that over 2 million questions are asked by students each month on the platform, with each subscriber typically asking about 60 questions a month, during tutoring sessions that last between 15 to 20 minutes. The majority, or about two-thirds, of the questions are about math and science-related topics.

One thing all of Snapask’s markets have in common are highly-competitive public exams to enter top universities, says Yu. The exams have both a positive and negative effect on education, he adds.

“Students have a very clear objective about what topics they need to study, so that is driving a very lucrative market in the tutoring industry. But I think what Snapask focuses on is that exams are important, but you should do it the right way. We’re about self-directed learning. It’s not necessary to go to three-hour classes every day after school. If you need specific help on a question, you can ask for it immediately.”

While at university, Yu worked as a math tutor, and sometimes spent a total of two hours commuting to sessions that lasted the same amount of time. In markets like Malaysia or Indonesia, many educators chose to work in major cities, leaving students in rural areas with less options. The goal of Snapask is to help solve those issues and connect tutors with more students.

Yu says the average time for students to connect with a tutor after asking a question is about 15 to 20 minutes, which it is able to do because of machine learning-based technology that matches them based on educational styles, subject and availability. Snapask’s matching algorithms are also based on how students engage with tutors (for example, if they respond better to concise or longer, more elaborate answers). Students can also pick up to 15 to 20 tutors for their favorites list, who are prioritized when matching.

Yu says Snapask screens tutors by looking at their university transcripts and public exam results. Then they go through a probation period on the platform to assess how they interact with students. The platform also tracks how many messages are sent during a tutoring session and response times to make sure that tutors are explaining students’ questions instead of just giving them the answers.

Tutors can talk to up to 10 students at a time through Snapask’s platform. Yu says Snapask tutors in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea who spend about two hours per day answering questions usually make about $1,200 a month, while those who work about four to five hours a day can make about $4,000 to $5,000 a month. The company uses different pricing models in Southeast Asian markets, and Yu says tutors there can make about 50% to 60% more than they would at traditional tutoring jobs.

Other study apps focused on students some of the same markets as Snapask include ManyTutors and Mathpresso, whose products combine tutoring services with tools that let students upload math questions, which are then scanned with optical character recognition to provide instant answers. Yu says Snapask is focusing on one-on-one tutoring because it wants to differentiate by creating a “holistic experience.”

“A lot of students come to Snapask after using OCR tools, which we know that user surveys, but they can’t get to certain steps. They still need someone to help them understand what is happening,” he says. “So we try not to use technology for every component in teaching, but to make it more efficient and scalable, and we’re creating a holistic experience to differentiate us.”

Created to help employees figure out health benefits, HealthJoy raises $30 million

HealthJoy, a platform designed to make it easier for employees to use their healthcare benefits, has raised $30 million in Series C funding led by Health Velocity Capital. Returning investors also participated, including U.S. Venture Partners, Chicago Ventures, Epic Ventures, Brandon Cruz and Clint Jones. This brings HealthJoy’s total funding so far to $53 million.

By integrating with healthcare service providers and partnering with benefit consultant agencies, HealthJoy simplifies the process of finding and using benefits. Its features include an AI-based virtual assistant and healthcare concierges. The startup says it has a monthly login rate of 33% and that its clients, which now includes 500 employers, see a tenfold increase in the employee use of benefits, including telemedicine.

Since TechCrunch covered HealthJoy’s Series B round last year, the company has launched two new services. One is a price transparency tool called HealthJoy Rewards that allows companies to provide incentives for employees to use more cost-efficient services.

“For example, an MRI in Chicago can vary in price from around $500 for an independent clinic to around $3,500 in a hospital system,” HealthJoy founder and CEO Justin Holland told TechCrunch. “Our rewards platform allows companies to customize the incentive, but we provide nearly 100 recommendations. We’re showing an amazing ROI for companies that have adopted the program since we’re targeting high-cost procedures.”

The second new service is called HealthJoy EAP, an employee assistance program that Holland says is a priority for further development. It gives 24/7 access to short-term counseling, with several sessions available for free.

“Addressing mental heath is of extreme importance for companies in today’s world. Access to traditional counseling is on decline in many rural areas due to lack of access. In cities, costs have risen so many users are priced out of the market,” he says.

The funding will also be used to improve HealthJoy’s virtual assistant, develop new services, integrate with more partners and aggregate data. HealthJoy plans to add 200 employees in its Chicago office during 2021, with the goal of doubling its engineering team. Future plans include working with more small- to medium-sized businesses and a potential partnership to serve Medicare recipients.

Other startups focused on employee benefits include League, Catch and Collective Health. Holland says HealthJoy integrates with, instead of competing with, benefits administration platforms and differentiates by being able to work with any benefits package.

Health Velocity Capital partner Saurabh Bhansali will join HealthJoy’s board of directors. In a press statement, Bhansali said “HealthJoy offers proven technology solutions to help navigate employees through our nation’s complex and costly healthcare system, one that costs US employees over $1.2 trillion each year. Healthjoy has shown that it can deliver substantial cost savings to employers while simplifying the employee healthcare experience.”

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.”

Voodoo Games thrives by upending conventional product design

Will Robbins
Contributor

Will Robbins is an early-stage investor at Contrary.
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Voodoo Games is one of the most interesting startups alive today. In mid-2018, it had 150 million MAUs and raised $200 million from Goldman Sachs, yet I’ve never heard anyone mention the company. That might be normal for an obscure enterprise SaaS play, but Voodoo is consumer-facing through and through.

Quantitative success aside, Voodoo upends much of the conventional thinking about product design and gaming. If it can do it, how can similar strategies apply to other products?

But first, some background: What is Voodoo Games?

Voodoo is best described as a product conglomerate. Take a look at its App Store page. It has dozens of generic-looking apps. The basic playbook is:

  • Quickly build a relatively low-quality, single-purpose game.
  • Make sure one mechanic is really fun. It doesn’t matter if users churn 20 minutes after downloading it.

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…

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…

Samasource CEO Leila Janah passes away at 37

The startup community has lost another moral leader today.

Leila Janah, a serial entrepreneur who was the CEO and founder of machine learning training data company Samasource, passed away at the age of 37 due to complications from Epithelioid Sarcoma, a form of cancer, according to a statement from the company.

She focused her career on social and ethical entrepreneurship with the goal of ending global poverty, founding three distinct organizations over her career spanning the for-profit and non-profit worlds. She was most well-known for Samasource, which was founded a little more than a decade ago to help machine learning specialists develop better ML models through more complete and ethical training datasets.

Janah and her company were well ahead of their time, as issues related to bias in ML models have become top-of-mind for many product leaders in Silicon Valley today. My TechCrunch colleague Jake Bright had just interviewed Janah a few weeks ago, after Samasource raised more than $15 million in venture capital, according to Crunchbase.

In its statement, the company said:

We are all committed to continuing Leila’s work, and to ensuring her legacy and vision is carried out for years to come. To accomplish this, Wendy Gonzalez, longtime business partner and friend to Leila, will take the helm as interim CEO of Samasource. Previously the organization’s COO, Wendy has spent the past five years working alongside Leila to craft Samasource’s vision and strategy.

In addition to Samasource, Janah founded SF-based Samaschool, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income workers learn critical freelancing skills by helping them negotiate the changing dynamics in the freelance economy. The organization has built partnerships with groups like Goodwill to empower them to offer additional curricular resources within their own existing programs and initiatives.

Janah also founded LXMI, a skin-care brand that emphasized organic and fair-trade ingredients, with a focus on sourcing from low-income women’s cooperatives in East Africa. Founded three years ago, the company raised a seed round from the likes of NEA, Sherpa, and Reid Hoffman according to Crunchbase.

Across all of her initiatives, Janah consistently put the concerns of under-represented people at the forefront, and designed organizations to empower such people in their daily lives. Her entrepreneurial spirit, commitment, and integrity will be sorely missed in the startup community.

Our editor Josh Constine had this to say of Janah’s impact. “Leila was propulsive. Being around her, you’d swear there were suddenly more hours in the day just based on how much she could accomplish. Yet rather than conjuring that energy through ruthless efficiency, she carried on with grace and boundless empathy. Whether for her closest friends or a village of strangers on the other side of the world, she embraced others’ challenges as her own. Leila turned vulnerability into an advantage, making people feel so comfortable in her presence that they could unwind their personal and professional puzzles. Leila is the kind of founder we need more of, and she’ll remain an example of how to do business with heart.”

Here are all 21 companies from Alchemist Accelerator’s latest batch

We’re down in Sunnyvale, CA today, where Alchemist Accelerator is hosting a demo day for its most recent batch of companies. This is the 23rd class to graduate from Alchemist, with notable alums including LaunchDarkly, MightyHive, Matternet, and Rigetti Computing. As an enterprise accelerator, Alchemist focuses on companies that make their money from other businesses, rather than consumers.

21 companies presented in all, each getting five minutes to explain their mission to a room full of investors, media, and other founders.

Here are our notes on all 21 companies, in the order in which they presented:

i-50: Uses AI to monitor human actions on production lines, using computer vision to look for errors or abnormalities along the way. Founder Albert Kao says that 68% of manufacturing issues are caused by human error. The company currently has 3 paid pilots, totalling $190k in contracts.

Perimeter: A data visualization platform for firefighters and other first responders, allowing them to more quickly input and share information (such as how a fire is spreading) with each other and the public. Projecting $1.7M in revenue within 18 months.

Einsite: Computer vision-based analytics for mining and construction. Sensors and cameras are mounted on heavy machines (like dump trucks and excavators). Footage is analyzed in the cloud, with the data ultimately presented to job site managers to help monitor progress and identify issues. Founder Anirudh Reddy says the company will have $1.2M in bookings and be up and running on 2100 machines this year.

Mall IQ: A location-based marketing/analytics SDK for retail stores and malls to tie into their apps. Co-founder Batu Sat says they’ve built an “accurate and scalable” method of determining a customer’s indoor position without GPS or additional hardware like Bluetooth beacons.

Ipsum Analytics: Machine learning system meant to predict the outcome of a company’s ongoing legal cases by analyzing the relevant historical cases of a given jurisdiction, judge, etc. First target customer is hedge funds, helping them project how legal outcomes will impact the market.

Vincere Health: Works with insurance companies to pay people to stop smoking. They’ve built an app with companion breathalyzer hardware; each time a user checks in with the breathalyzer to prove they’re smoking less, the user gets paid. They’ve raised $400k so far.

Harmonize: A chat bot system for automating HR tasks, built to work with existing platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams. An employee could, for example, message the bot to request time off — the request is automatically forwarded to their manager, presenting them with one-click approve/deny buttons which handle everything behind the scenes. The company says it currently has 400 paying customers and is seeing $500k in ARR, projecting $2M ARR in 2020.

Coreshell Technologies: Working on a coating for lithium-Ion batteries which the company says makes them 25% cheaper and 50% faster to produce. The company’s co-founder says they have 11 patents filed, with 2 paid agreements signed and 12 more in the pipeline.

in3D: An SDK for 3D body scanning via smartphone, meant to help apps do things like gather body measurements for custom clothing, allow for virtual clothing try-ons, or create accurate digital avatars for games.

Domatic: “Intelligent power” for new building construction. Pushes both data and low-voltage power over a single “Class 2” wire , making it easier/cheaper for builders to make a building “smart”. Co-founder Jim Baldwin helped build Firewire at Apple, and co-founder Gladys Wong was previously a hardware engineer at Cisco.

MeToo Kit: a kit meant to allow victims of sexual assault or rape to gather evidence through an at-home, self-administered process. Co-founder Madison Campbell says that they’ve seen 100k kits ordered by universities, corporations, non-profits, and military organizations. The company garnered significant controversy in September of 2019 after multiple states issued cease-and-desist letters, with Michigan’s Attorney General arguing that such a kit would not be admissible in court. Campbell told Buzzfeed last year that she would “never stop fighting” for the concept.

AiChemist Metal: Building a thin, lightweight battery made of copper and cellulose “nanofibers”. Co-founder Sergey Lopatin says the company’s solution is 2-3x lighter, stronger, and cheaper than alternatives, and that the company is projecting profitability in 2021. Focusing first on batteries for robotics, flexible displays, and electric vehicles.

Delightree: A task management system for franchises, meant to help owners create and audit to-dos across locations. Monitors online customer reviews, automatically generating potential tasks accordingly. In pilot tests with 3 brands with 16 brands on a waitlist, which the company says translates to about $400k in potential ARR.

DigiFabster: A ML-powered “smart quoting” tool for manufacturing shops doing things like CNC machining to make custom parts and components. Currently working with 125 customers, they’re seeing $500k in ARR.

NachoNacho: Helps small/medium businesses monitor and manage software subscriptions their employees sign up for. Issues virtual credit cards which small businesses use to sign up for services; you can place budgets on each card, cancel cards, and quickly determine where your money is going. Launched 9 months ago, NachoNacho says it’s currently working with over 1600 businesses.

Zapiens: a virtual assistant-style tool for sharing knowledge within a company, tied into tools like Slack/Salesforce/Microsoft 365. Answers employee questions, or uses its understanding of each employee’s expertise to find someone within the company who can answer the question.

Onebrief: A tool aiming to make military planning more efficient. Co-founder/Army officer Grant Demaree says that much of the military’s planning is buried in Word/Powerpoint documents, with inefficiencies leading to ballooning team sizes. By modernizing the planning approach with a focus on visualization, automation and data re-usability, he says planning teams could be smaller yet more agile.

Perceive: Spatial analytics for retail stores. Builds a sensor that hooks into existing in-store lighting wiring to create a 3D map of stores, analyzing customer movement/behavior (without face recognition or WiFi/beacon tracking) to identify weak spots in store layout or staffing.

Acoustic Wells: IoT devices for monitoring and controlling production from oil fields. Analyzes sound from pipes “ten thousand feet underground” to regulate how a machine is running, optimizing production while minimizing waste. Charges monthly fee per oil well. Currently has letters of intent to roll out their solution in over 1,000 wells.

SocialGlass: A marketplace for government procurement. Lets governments buy goods/services valued under $10,000 without going through a bidding process, with SocialGlass guaranteeing they’ve found the cheapest price. Currently working with 50+ suppliers offering 10,000 SKUs.

Applied Particle Technology: Continuous, realtime worker health/safety tracking for industrial environments. Working on wireless, wearable monitors that stream environmental data to identify potential exposure risks. Focusing first on mining and metals industries, later moving into construction, firefighting, and utilities environments.

Ophelia Brown’s Blossom Capital raises new $185M European early-stage fund

Blossom Capital, the early-stage VC firm co-founded by ex-Index Ventures and LocalGlobe VC Ophelia Brown, is announcing a second fund, less than 12 months since fund one was closed.

The new fund, which is described as “heavily oversubscribed,” sits at $185 million. That’s up from $85 million first time around.

Blossom’s remit remains broadly the same: to be the lead investor in European tech startups at Series A, along with doing some seed deals, too. In particular, the VC will continue to focus on finance, design, marketplaces, travel, developer-focused tools, infrastructure and “API-first” companies.

Its differentiator is pitched as so-called “high conviction” investing, which sees it back fewer companies by writing larger cheques, along with claiming to have close ties to U.S. top tier investors ready to back portfolios at the next stage.

And whilst a “bridge to the valley” is a well worn claim by multiple European VCs, Blossom’s track record so far bares this is out somewhat, even if it nascent. Of the firm’s portfolio, travel booking platform Duffel has received two follow-on investment rounds led by Benchmark and Index Ventures; cybersecurity automation platform Tines received follow-on investment led by Accel Partners; and payments unicorn Checkout.com is also backed by Insight Partners.

In addition, I understand that about half of Blossom’s LPs are in the U.S., and that all of the firm’s original LPs invested in this second fund, which Brown concedes was a lot easier to raise than the first. That’s presumably down to the up round valuations Blossom is already able to tout.

Citing benchmark data from Cambridge Associates and Preqin, Blossom says it sits in the top 5% of funds of 2018/2019 vintage in the U.S. and EU. Although, less than a year old, I would stress that it is still very early days.

More broadly, Brown and Blossom’s other partners — Imran Gohry, Louise Samet and Mike Hudack — argue that the most successful European companies historically are those that were able to attract U.S. investors but that companies no longer need to relocate to the U.S. to seize the opportunity.

“When we looked at the data it was very clear at the growth stage that, outside of Index and Accel, the most successful European outcomes were driven by the combination of European early-stage investors and top-tier U.S. growth investors,” explained Blossom Capital partner, Imran Ghory, in a statement. “From day one we prioritised building those relationships, both to share knowledge but also provide a bridge for European founders to access the best growth capital as they scale”.

Challenger business bank Qonto raises $115 million round led by Tencent and DST Global

French startup Qonto has raised a $115 million Series C funding round led by Tencent and DST Global. Today’s news comes a few days after another French fintech startup Lydia raised some money from Tencent.

Existing investors Valar and Alven are also participating in today’s funding round. TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus and Adyen CFO Ingo Uytdehaage are also joining the round. Qonto says that it represents the largest funding round for a French fintech company.

Qonto is a challenger bank, or a neobank, but for B2B use cases. Instead of attracting millions of customers like N26 or Monzo, Qonto is serving small and medium companies as well as freelancers in Europe.

According to the startup, business banking in Europe is broken. The company thinks it can provide a much better user experience with an online- and mobile-first product.

The company has managed to attract 65,000 companies over the past two years and a half. The product is currently live in France, Italy, Spain and Germany. In 2019 alone, Qonto has managed €10 billion in transaction volume.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to double down on its existing markets, develop new features that make the platform works better in each country based on local needs and hire more people. The team should grow from 200 to 300 employees within a year.

Qonto obtained a payment institution license in June 2018 and has developed its own core banking infrastructure. Around 50% of the company’s user base is currently using Qonto’s own core banking system. Others are still relying on a third-party partner.

Moving from one back end to another requires some input from customers, which explains why there are still some customers using the legacy infrastructure. Over the coming months, Qonto plans to launch new payment features that should convince more users to switch to Qonto’s back end.

Even more important, Qonto plans to obtain a credit institution license, which could open up a ton of possibilities when it comes to features and revenue streams. The company says that it should have its new license by the end of the year.

For instance, you could imagine being able to get a credit card, apply for an overdraft and get a small loan with Qonto.

Compared to traditional banks, Qonto lets you open a bank account more easily. After signing up, Qonto offers a modern interface with your activity. You can export your transactions in no time, manage your expenses and get real-time notifications. Qonto also integrates with popular accounting tools.

When it comes to payment methods, Qonto gives you a French IBAN as well as debit cards. You can order physical or virtual cards whenever you want, customize limits and freeze a card. Qonto also supports direct debit and checks. Like many software-as-a-service products, you can also manage multiple user accounts and customize permission levels.

PayU acquires controlling stake in Indian credit business PaySense, to merge it with LazyPay

PayU is acquiring a controlling stake in fintech startup PaySense at a valuation of $185 million and plans to merge it with its credit business LazyPay as the nation’s largest payments processor aggressively expands its financial services offering.

The Prosus-owned payments giant said on Friday that it will pump $200 million — $65 million of which is being immediately invested — into the new enterprise in the form of equity capital over the next two years. PaySense, which employs about 240 people, has served more than 5.5 million consumers to date, a top executive said.

Prior to today’s announcement, PaySense had raised about $25.6 million from Nexus Venture Partners, and Jungle Ventures, among others. PayU became an investor in the five-year-old startup’s Series B financing round in 2018. Regulatory filings show that PaySense was valued at about $48.7 million then.

The merger will help PayU solidify its presence in the credit business and become one of the largest players, said Siddhartha Jajodia, Global Head of Credit at PayU, in an interview with TechCrunch. “It’s the largest merger of its kind in India.” he said. The combined entity is valued at $300 million, he said.

PaySense enables consumers to secure long-term credit for financing their new vehicle purchases and other expenses. Some of its offerings overlap with those of LazyPay, which primarily focuses on providing short-term credit to consumers to facilitate orders on food delivery platforms, e-commerce websites and other services. Its credit ranges between $210 and $7,030.

Cumulatively, the two services have disbursed over $280 million in credit to consumers, said Jajodia. He aims to take this to “a couple of billion dollars” in the next five years.

PaySense’s Prashanth Ranganathan and PayU’s Siddhartha Jajodia pose for a picture

As part of the deal, PaySense and LazyPay will build a common and shared technology infrastructure. But at least for the immediate future, LazyPay and PaySense will continue to be offered as separate services to consumers, explained Prashanth Ranganathan, founder and chief executive of PaySense, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Overtime as the businesses get closer, we will make a call if a consolidation of brands is required. But for now, we will let consumers direct us,” added Ranganathan, who will serve as the chief executive of the combined entity.

There are about a billion debit cards in circulation in India today, but only about 20 million people have a credit card. (The official government figures show that about 50 million credit cards are active in India, but many individuals tend to have more than one card.)

This has meant that most Indians don’t have a traditional credit score, so they can’t secure loans and a range of other financial services from banks. Scores of startups in India today are attempting to address this opportunity by using other signals and alternative data — such as the kind of a smartphone a person has — to evaluate whether they are worthy of being granted some credit.

Digital lending is a $1 trillion opportunity (PDF) over the four and a half years, according to estimates from Boston Consulting Group.

PayU’s Jajodia said PaySense and LazyPay will likely explore building new offerings such as credit for small and medium businesses. He did not rule out exploring getting a stake in more fintech startups in the future. PayU has already invested north of half a billion dollars in its India business. Last year, it acquired Wibmo for $70 million.

“At PayU, our ambition is to build financial services using data and technology. Our first two legs have been payments [processing] and credit. We will continue to scale both of these businesses. Even this acquisition was about getting new capabilities and a strong management team. If we find more companies with some unique assets, we may look at them,” he said.

PayU leads the payments processing market in India. It competes with Bangalore-based RazorPay. In recent years, RazorPay has expanded to serve small businesses and enterprises. In November, it launched corporate credit cards and other services to strengthen its neo banking play.

Indian tech startups raised a record $14.5B in 2019

Indian tech startups have never had it so good.

Local tech startups in the nation raised $14.5 billion in 2019, beating their previous best of $10.5 billion last year, according to research firm Tracxn .

Tech startups in India this year participated in 1,185 financing rounds — 459 of those were Series A or later rounds — from 817 investors.

Early stage startups — those participating in angel or pre-Series A financing round — raised $6.9 billion this year, easily surpassing last year’s $3.3 billion figure, according to a report by venture debt firm InnoVen Capital.

According to InnoVen’s report, early stage startups that have typically struggled to attract investors saw a 22% year-over-year increase in the number of financing deals they took part in this year. Cumulatively, at $2.6 million, their valuation also increased by 15% from last year.

Also in 2019, 128 startups in India got acquired, four got publicly listed, and nine became unicorns. This year, Indian tech startups also attracted a record number of international investors, according to Tracxn.

This year’s fundraise further moves the nation’s burgeoning startup space on a path of steady growth.

Since 2016, when tech startups accumulated just $4.3 billion — down from $7.9 billion the year before — flow of capital has increased significantly in the ecosystem. In 2017, Indian startups raised $10.4 billion, per Tracxn.

“The decade has seen an impressive 25x growth from a tiny $550 million in 2010 to $14.5 billion in 2019 in terms of the total funding raised by the startups,” said Tracxn.

What’s equally promising about Indian startups is the challenges they are beginning to tackle today, said Dev Khare, a partner at VC fund Lightspeed Venture Partners, in a recent interview to TechCrunch.

In 2014 and 2015, startups were largely focused on building e-commerce solutions and replicating ideas that worked in Western markets. But today, they are tackling a wide-range of categories and opportunities and building some solutions that have not been attempted in any other market, he said.

Tracxn’s analysis found that lodging startups raised about $1.7 billion this year — thanks to Oyo alone bagging $1.5 billion, followed by logistics startups such as Elastic Run, Delhivery, and Ecom Express that secured $641 million.

176 horizontal marketplaces, more than 150 education learning apps, over 160 fintech startups, over 120 trucking marketplaces, 82 ride-hailing services, 42 insurance platforms, 33 used car listing providers, and 13 startups that are helping businesses and individuals access working capital secured funding this year. Fintech startups alone raised $3.2 billion this year, more than startups operating in any other category, Tracxn told TechCrunch.

The investors

Sequoia Capital, with more than 50 investments — or co-investments — was the most active venture capital fund for Indian tech startups this year. (Rajan Anandan, former executive in charge of Google’s business in India and Southeast Asia, joined Sequoia Capital India as a managing director in April.) Accel, Tiger Global Management, Blume Ventures, and Chiratae Ventures were the other top four VCs.

Steadview Capital, with nine investments in startups including ride-hailing service Ola, education app Unacademy, and fintech startup BharatPe, led the way among private equity funds. General Atlantic, which invested in NoBroker and recently turned profitable edtech startup Byju’s, invested in four startups. FMO, Sabre Partners India, and CDC Group each invested in three startups.

Venture Catalysts, with over 40 investments including in HomeCapital and Blowhorn, was the top accelerator or incubator in India this year. Y Combinator, with over 25 investments, Sequoia Capital’s Surge, Axilor Ventures, and Techstars were also very active this year.

Indian tech startups also attracted a number of direct investments from top corporates and banks this year. Goldman Sachs, which earlier this month invested in fintech startup ZestMoney, overall made eight investments this year. Among others, Facebook made its first investment in an Indian startup — social-commerce firm Meesho and Twitter led a $100 million financing round in local social networking app ShareChat.

Meet Europe’s top VCs at Disrupt Berlin

Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, from Sequoia to Benchmark to Accel, are investing more and more dollars overseas, as more globally-minded unicorns crop up across Europe.

As Forbes recently noted, U.S. VCS are “bonkers for European startups,” with “more money … flowing into European tech than ever.” Seems like a great time to sit down with U.S. and European investors to get a better sense of what’s happening here. Conveniently, we’re gathering top venture capitalists at our annual European conference, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, next week.

For starters, we’ll have Forward Partners managing partner Nic Brisbourne, Target Global partner Malin Holmberg and DocSend founder Russ Heddleston together to provide exclusive fundraising advice to entrepreneurs. They’ll sit down with me for 45 minutes to shed light on the biggest challenges founders face while raising VC, how to perfectly crap your pitch and how to know if an investor is interested in your upstart.

Sequoia’s Andrew Reed, who’s worked on the firm’s investments in Bird, Figma, Front, Loom, Rappi, UiPath and more, will join us, too. From Index Ventures, a noted U.S. and U.K. investor, we’ll welcome principal Hannah Seal. From Atomico, a European venture capital firm, partner Sophia Bendz, partner Siraj Khaliq, partner Hiro Tamura and partner Niall Wass will all be in attendance. And from SoftBank, we’ll hear from SoftBank Vision Fund investment director Carolina Brochado and SoftBank Investment Advisors partner David Thevenon.

Roxanne Varza will give an update on Station F, the world’s biggest startup campus based in Paris. Varza first unveiled Station F at TechCrunch Disrupt back in December 2016; naturally, we’re excited to see what she has to stay this time.

As for others making the trip to Berlin from the U.S., we’ve got Joyance Partners investment partner Holly Jacobus and Accomplice partner Ash Egan on deck. The rest of the line-up includes some of Europe’s top VCs, including Accel partner Andrei Brasoveanu, Blossom Capital partner Louise Dahlborn Samet, Balderon Capital partner Suranga Chandratillake and principal Colin Hanna, Luminous Ventures founding partner Isabel Fox, Amadeus Capital Partners partner Volker Hirsch, Point Nine Capital partner Christoph Janz, dynamics.vs partner Tanja Kufner, Northzone partner Paul Murphy, Ada Ventures founding partner Matt Penneycard and Dawn Capital partner Evgenia Plotnikova.

Read the entire Disrupt Berlin agenda here. Tickets to the show are still available!

Meet Europe’s top VCs at Disrupt Berlin

Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, from Sequoia to Benchmark to Accel, are investing more and more dollars overseas, as more globally-minded unicorns crop up across Europe.

As Forbes recently noted, U.S. VCS are “bonkers for European startups,” with “more money … flowing into European tech than ever.” Seems like a great time to sit down with U.S. and European investors to get a better sense of what’s happening here. Conveniently, we’re gathering top venture capitalists at our annual European conference, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, next week.

For starters, we’ll have Forward Partners managing partner Nic Brisbourne, Target Global partner Malin Holmberg and DocSend founder Russ Heddleston together to provide exclusive fundraising advice to entrepreneurs. They’ll sit down with me for 45 minutes to shed light on the biggest challenges founders face while raising VC, how to perfectly crap your pitch and how to know if an investor is interested in your upstart.

Sequoia’s Andrew Reed, who’s worked on the firm’s investments in Bird, Figma, Front, Loom, Rappi, UiPath and more, will join us, too. From Index Ventures, a noted U.S. and U.K. investor, we’ll welcome principal Hannah Seal. From Atomico, a European venture capital firm, partner Sophia Bendz, partner Siraj Khaliq, partner Hiro Tamura and partner Niall Wass will all be in attendance. And from SoftBank, we’ll hear from SoftBank Vision Fund investment director Carolina Brochado and SoftBank Investment Advisors partner David Thevenon.

Roxanne Varza will give an update on Station F, the world’s biggest startup campus based in Paris. Varza first unveiled Station F at TechCrunch Disrupt back in December 2016; naturally, we’re excited to see what she has to stay this time.

As for others making the trip to Berlin from the U.S., we’ve got Joyance Partners investment partner Holly Jacobus and Accomplice partner Ash Egan on deck. The rest of the line-up includes some of Europe’s top VCs, including Accel partner Andrei Brasoveanu, Blossom Capital partner Louise Dahlborn Samet, Balderon Capital partner Suranga Chandratillake and principal Colin Hanna, Luminous Ventures founding partner Isabel Fox, Amadeus Capital Partners partner Volker Hirsch, Point Nine Capital partner Christoph Janz, dynamics.vs partner Tanja Kufner, Northzone partner Paul Murphy, Ada Ventures founding partner Matt Penneycard and Dawn Capital partner Evgenia Plotnikova.

Read the entire Disrupt Berlin agenda here. Tickets to the show are still available!