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Taiwan-based MLOps startup InfuseAI raises $4.3M Series A led by Wistron Corporation

AI models not only take time to build and train, but also to deploy in an organization’s workflow. That’s where MLOps (machine learning operations) companies come in, helping clients scale their AI technology. InfuseAI, a MLOps startup based in Taiwan, announced today it has raised a $4.3 million Series A, led by original design manufacturer Wistron Corporation, with participation from Hive Ventures, Top Taiwan Venture Capital Group and Silicon Valley Taiwan Investments.

Founded in 2018, InfuseAI says the market for MLOps solutions is worth $30 million a year in Taiwan, with the global market expected to reach about $4 billion by 2025, according to research firm Cognilytica. Its clients include E.SUN, one of Taiwan’s largest banks, SinoPac Holdings and Chimei.

InfuseAI helps companies deploy and manage machine learning models with turnkey solutions like PrimeHub, a platform that includes a model training environment, cloud or on-premise cluster computing (including container orchestration with Kubernetes) and collaboration tools for teams. Another product, called PrimeHub Deploy, lets clients train, deploy, update and monitor AI models.

In a press statement, Hive Ventures founder and managing partner Yan Lee said, “As enterprises from manufacturing, healthcare, finance and other sectors seek to scale their AI operations and model deployments, they will require a platform like InfuseAI to allow seamless collaboration between developers and data scientists. InfuseAI fits perfectly into our investment thesis which is focused on platforms and software in the enterprise adoption cycle.”

You might have just missed the best time to sell your startup

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. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here

Happy Saturday, everyone. I do hope that you are in good spirits and in good health. I am learning to nap, something that has become a requirement in my life after I realized that the news cycle is never going to slow down. And because my partner and I adopted a third dog who likes to get up early, please join me in making napping cool for adults, so that we can all rest up for Vaccine Summer. It’s nearly here.

On work topics, I have a few things for you today, all concerning data points that matter: Q1 2021 M&A data, March VC results from Africa, and some surprising (to me, at least) podcast numbers.

On the first, Dan Primack shared a few early first-quarter data points via Refinitiv that I wanted to pass along. Per the financial data firm, global M&A activity hit $1.3 trillion in Q1 2021, up 93% from Q1 2020. U.S. M&A activity reached an all-time high in the first quarter, as well. Why do we care? Because the data helps underscore just how hot the last three months have been.

I’m expecting venture capital data itself for the quarter to be similarly impressive. But as everyone is noting this week, there are some cracks appearing in the IPO market, as the second quarter begins that could make Q2 2021 a very different beast. Not that the venture capital world will slow, especially given that Tiger just reloaded to the tune of $6.7 billion.

On the venture capital topic, African-focused data firm Briter Bridges reports that “March alone saw over $280 million being deployed into tech companies operating across Africa,” driven in part by “Flutterwave’s whopping $170 million round at a $1 billion valuation.”

The data point matters as it marks the most active March that the African continent has seen in venture capital terms since at least 2017 — and I would guess ever. African startups tend to raise more capital in the second half of the year, so the March result is not an all-time record for a single month. But it’s bullish all the same, and helps feed our general sentiment that the first quarter’s venture capital results could be big.

And finally, Index Ventures’ Rex Woodbury tweeted some Edison data, namely that “80 million Americans (28% of the U.S. 12+ population) are weekly podcast listeners, +17% year-over-year.” The venture capitalist went on to add that “62% of the U.S. 12+ population (around 176 million people) are weekly online audio listeners.”

As we discussed on Equity this week, the non-music, streaming audio market is being bet on by a host of players in light of Clubhouse’s success as a breakout consumer social company in recent months. Undergirding the bets by Discord and Spotify and others are those data points. People love to listen to other humans talk. Far more than I would have imagined, as a music-first person.

How nice it is to be back in a time when consumer investing is neat. B2B is great but not everything can be enterprise SaaS. (Notably, however, it does appear that Clubhouse is struggling to hold onto its own hype.)

Look I can’t keep up with all the damn venture capital rounds

TechCrunch Early Stage was this week, which went rather well. But having an event to help put on did mean that I covered fewer rounds this week than I would have liked. So, here are two that I would have typed up if I had had the spare hours:

  • Striim’s $50 million Series C. Goldman led the transaction. Striim, pronounced stream I believe, is a software startup that helps other companies move data around their cloud and on-prem setups in real time. Given how active the data market is today, I presume that the TAM for Striim is deep? Quickly flowing? You can supply a better stream-centered word at your leisure.
  • Kudo’s $21 million Series A. I covered Kudo last July when it raised $6 million. The company provides video-chat and conferencing services with support for  real-time translation. It had a good COVID-era, as you can imagine. Felicis led the A after taking part in the seed round. I’ll see if I can extract some fresh growth metrics from the company next week. One to watch.

And two more rounds that you also might have missed that you should not. Holler raised $36 million in a Series B. Per our own Anthony Ha, “[y]ou may not know what conversational media is, but there’s a decent chance you’ve used Holler’s technology. For example, if you’ve added a sticker or a GIF to your Venmo payments, Holler actually manages the app’s search and suggestion experience around that media.”

I feel old.

And in case you are not paying enough attention to Latin American tech, this $150 million Uruguayan round should help set you straight.

Various and sundry

Finally this week, some good news. If you’ve read The Exchange for any length of time, you’ve been forced to read me prattling on about the Bessemer cloud index, a basket of public software companies that I treat with oracular respect. Now there’s a new index on the market.

Meet the Lux Health + Tech Index. Per Lux Capital, it’s an “index of 57 publicly traded companies that together best represent the rapidly emerging Health + Tech investment theme.” Sure, this is branded to the extent that, akin to the Bessemer collection, it is tied to a particular focus of the backing venture capital firm. But what the new Lux index will do, as with the Bessemer collection, is track how a particular venture firm is itself tracking the public comps for their portfolio.

That’s a useful thing to have. More of this, please.

Alex

Tech in Mexico: A confluence of Latin America, the US and Asia

Kevin Xu
Contributor

Kevin Xu is an early-stage investor and founder of Interconnected, a bilingual newsletter covering tech, business and U.S.-Asia relations.

Mexico has been known as an up-and-coming tech hub and a gateway to the Latin American market. As an investor focused on developer-centered products, open-source startups and infrastructure technology companies with a particular interest in emerging market innovation, I have been wanting to do some firsthand learning there.

So, despite the ongoing pandemic, I took all the necessary precautions and spent roughly seven weeks in Mexico from January to March. I spent most of my time meeting founders to get a handle on what they are building, why they are pursuing those ideas, and how the entire ecosystem is evolving to support their ambitions.

Knowledge transfer is not the only trend flowing in the U.S.-Asia-LatAm nexus. Competition is afoot as well.

The U.S.-Asia-LatAm nexus

One fascinating, though not surprising, observation was how much LatAm entrepreneurs look to Asian tech giants for product inspiration and growth strategies. Companies like Tencent, DiDi and Grab are household names among founders. This makes sense because the market conditions in Mexico and other parts of LatAm resemble China, India and Southeast Asia more than the U.S.

What often happens is entrepreneurs first look to successful startups in the U.S. to emulate and localize. As they find product-market fit, they start to look to Asian tech companies for inspiration while morphing them to suit local needs.

One good example is Rappi, an app that started out as a grocery delivery service. Its future ambition is squarely to become the superapp of LatAm: It is expanding aggressively both geographically and productwise into delivery for restaurant orders, pharmacy and even COVID tests. It’s also introducing new payment, banking and financial-service products. Rappi Pay launched in Mexico just a few weeks ago, while I was still in the country.

Rappi now looks more like Meituan and Grab than any of its U.S. counterparts, and that’s not an accident. SoftBank, whose portfolio contains many of these Asian tech giants, invested heavily in Rappi’s previous two rounds and now has a $5 billion fund dedicated to the LatAm region. The knowledge and experience accumulated from Asian tech in the last 10 years is transferring to like-minded firms like Rappi, right under Silicon Valley’s proverbial nose.

U.S.-Asia-LatAm competition

Knowledge transfer is not the only trend flowing in the U.S.-Asia-LatAm nexus. Competition is afoot as well.

Because of similar market conditions, Asian tech giants are directly expanding into Mexico and other LatAm countries. The one I witnessed up close during my visit was DiDi.

DiDi’s foray into LatAm started in January 2018 with its acquisition of 99, a Brazilian ride-sharing company. In April 2018, DiDi entered Mexico with its bread-and-butter ride-sharing service. It wasn’t until April 2019 that DiDi launched its food delivery service, DiDi Food, in Monterrey and Guadalajara — two of the largest cities in Mexico. Its expansion hasn’t slowed down since, with a 10% extra earnings incentive to lure delivery drivers.

DiDi delivery worker recruitment promotion banner outside venue

Image Credits: Kevin Xu

My Airbnb in Mexico City happened to be two blocks away from the large WeWork building where DiDi’s local office was located. Every day, I saw a long line of people responding to the earning incentives — waiting outside to get hired as DiDi delivery workers.

Meanwhile, the Uber office that’s literally one block away had hardly any foot traffic. As Uber and Rappi fight for more wealthy consumers, DiDi is working to attract lower-income users to grab market share, hoping that one day some of these people will reach the middle class and become profitable customers.

Otrium raises $120 million for its end-of-season fashion marketplace

Otrium has raised a $120 million round just a year after raising its $26 million Series B round. BOND and returning investor Index Ventures are leading the round. Existing investor Eight Roads Ventures is also participating.

The concept behind Otrium is quite simple. When items reach the end-of-season status, brands can list those items on Otrium and keep selling them. Otrium is currently available in Europe. Right now, many brands have their own end-of-season sales. But there are some limits to this model.

Those companies often can’t sell their entire back inventory this way. Moreover, the most luxurious fashion brands don’t necessarily want to put a cheaper price tag on their items in their own stores. That’s why a lot of clothing produced stays unsold — and by unsold, it means that those items often get destroyed.

With Otrium, brands can add another sales channel for those specific items. And selling those items online makes a ton of sense as you don’t want to manage small end-of-season inventories across multiple stores. One big online inventory is all you need.

And because some brands are reluctant about selling outdated items, Otrium tries to be as friendly as possible with fashion companies. They retain control over pricing, merchandising and visibility of their excess inventory.

The startup also recently launched advanced analytics. The idea here is that Otrium can help brands identify evergreen products that should remain available year after year.

“We believe that the fashion world will see a rebalancing in the next few years, with more sales being driven by iconic items that brands sell year after year, and will be less reliant on new seasonal launches,” co-founder and CEO Milan Daniels said in a statement.

And it would be a win-win for everyone involved. Otrium would end up selling items that remain relevant for a longer time. And fashion brands could slowly build an evergreen collection of items that would nicely complement their fast fashion collections.

With today’s funding round, Otrium plans to expand to the U.S. The company currently works with several well-known fashion houses, such as Karl Lagerfeld, Joseph, Anine Bing, Belstaff, Reiss and ASICS.

Image Credits: Otrium

Everli, the European marketplace for online grocery shopping, bags $100M Series C

Everli, the European marketplace for online grocery shopping that started in Italy but now also operates in Poland, Czech Republic and France, has raised a $100 million in Series C funding.

The round is led by Verlinvest, with participation from new investors Luxor, DN Capital, C4 Ventures, and Convivialité Ventures. FITEC (part of Fondo Italiano d’Investimento), 360 Capital, Innogest, and DIP also followed on.

Everli, formerly called Supermercato24, says it will use the injection of capital to accelerate growth and further expand its international footprint.

Founded in 2014, Everli lets customers order from local supermarkets for delivery. The company uses gig economy-styled personal shoppers who go into the store and ‘pick’ the products ordered and then deliver them same-day, or for an added cost within an hour. The company charges a delivery fee to consumers, but also generates revenue from fees charged to partnering merchants, and, notably, through advertising.

It has become the delivery partner of some of Europe’s largest grocery brands, offering access to over 300,000 products across the 70 cities it operates in. And, like other online grocery offerings, Everli has benefited from a boost in e-commerce and a reliance on delivery services prompted by the pandemic and country lockdowns.

“Everli is focused specifically on the grocery space,” says Federico Sargenti, CEO at Everli. “Rather than small baskets, or picking up just the basic essentials, Everli is focused on delivering whatever you need right up to your full weekly shop, with same-day delivery and a one-hour delivery window of your choice.”

He says that what further differentiates Everli is its strong relationships with retailers, and the use of their existing infrastructure. “Instead of being tethered and restricted to a radius around our own expensive central warehouses, we are able to operate across a much wider geographical footprint, entering small-to-medium density areas and offering many customers their first opportunity to receive same day groceries, [all] while retaining sustainable unit economics”.

Sargenti describes Everli as more similar to Instacart than many other European delivery firms, including the new crop of dark stores or those that offer groceries as a secondary service to takeouts. “[This is] why we’re leading the grocery space in Europe and securing brands like Lidl, Kaufland, and Carrefour,” adds Sargenti.

In 2020, Everli sales almost quadrupled to $130 million. That growth is happening more and more outside Italy, with its international expansion now responsible for over 20% of orders.

“We are proud to have played a role in helping many people during these difficult times, but we are only getting started, as this industry will never be the same again,” says Sargenti in a statement. “The shift to online delivery is not reversing, and expectations on all sides are only increasing. We have built a model which we believe offers unparalleled value to consumers, through wide access to the retailers and products they love, even in less urban areas, and to retailers, who are now able to affordably compete online and reach a whole new consumer base”.

Adds Simone Sallustio, Executive Director at Verlinvest: “Everli combines its tech & data excellence with the grocery retail experience of its partners and this combination provides it with the perfect position to cement itself as the European e-grocery market leader, delivering the best experience to consumers, value to retail partners, and digital activation to brands”.

Hong Kong-based viAct raises $2M for its automated construction monitoring platform

Hong Kong-based viAct helps construction sites perform around-the-clock monitoring with an AI-based cloud platform that combines computer vision, edge devices and a mobile app. The startup announced today it has raised a $2 million seed round, co-led by SOSV and Vectr Ventures. The funding included participation from Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund, Artesian Ventures and ParticleX.

Founded in 2016, viAct currently serves more than 30 construction industry clients in Asia and Europe. Its new funding will be used on research and development, product development and expanding into Southeast Asian countries.

The platform uses computer vision to detect potential safety hazards, construction progress and the location of machinery and materials. Real-time alerts are sent to a mobile app with a simple interface, designed for engineers who are often “working in a noisy and dynamic environment that makes it hard to look at detailed dashboards,” co-founder and chief operating officer Hugo Cheuk told TechCrunch.

As companies signed up for viAct to monitor sites while complying with COVID-19 social distancing measures, the company provided training over Zoom to help teams onboard more quickly.

Cheuk said the company’s initial markets in Southeast Asia will include Indonesia and Vietnam because government planning for smart cities and new infrastructure means new construction projects there will increase over the next five to 10 years. It will also enter Singapore because developers are willing to adopt AI-based technology.

In a press statement, SOSV partner and Chinaccelerator managing director Oscar Ramos said, “COVID has accelerated digital transformation and traditional industries like construction are going through an even faster process of transformation that is critical for survival. The viAct team has not only created a product that drives value for the industry but has also been able to earn the trust of their customers and accelerate adoption.”

Indonesian savings and investment app Pluang gets $20M in pre-Series B funding

Indonesia-based fintech Pluang announced today it has raised $20 million in a pre-Series B round led by Openspace Ventures, with participation from Go Ventures and other returning investors. The company offers proprietary savings and investment products that allow users to make contributions starting from 50 cents USD.

Go Ventures, the investment arm of Gojek, also participated in Pluang’s $3 million Series A, which closed in March 2019. Pluang is available through partnerships with “super apps” like Gojek, Dana and Bukalapak, and currently claims more than one million users.

The company says it is able to maintain a low customer acquisition cost of $2 per transacting customer because it creates its own products, including investment accounts for gold, U.S equity indices and cryptocurrencies, instead of working with third-party financial service providers.

Pluang’s latest round will be used to develop proprietary financial products to cover more asset classes, including government bonds.

“Previously, these assets classes were only available to the wealthy in Indonesia,” said Pluang founder Claudia Kolonas in a statement. “However, we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to grow their savings, and our new products will reflect that.”

Pluang is among several Indonesian financial apps, including Ajaib and Bibit, that have recently raised funding. All focus on making investing accessible to more people by giving them an alternative to traditional brokerage firms that typically charge high fees.

In Indonesia, less than percent of the country’s population are retail investors, but that number is growing, especially among people aged 18 to 30. This is due to a combination of factors, including increased interest in financial planning during the pandemic and the rise of stock influencers.

In a statement, Openspace Ventures founding partner Shane Chesson said, “Pluang has demonstrated tremendous growth over the last 12 months with industry leading unit economics. We’re excited to continue supporting the team, as they sustainably accelerate their ambitions to help every Indonesian grow their savings.”

Tech companies predict the (economic) future

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. Want it in your inbox every Saturday morning? Sign up here.

Earnings season is coming to a close, with public tech companies wrapping up their Q4 and 2020 disclosures. We don’t care too much about the bigger players’ results here at TechCrunch, but smaller tech companies we knew when they were wee startups can provide startup-related data points worth digesting. So, each quarter The Exchange spends time chatting with a host of CEOs and CFOs, trying to figure what’s going on so that we can relay the information to private companies.

Sometimes it’s useful, as our chat with recent fintech IPO Upstart proved after we got to noodle with the company about rising acceptance of AI in the conservative banking industry.

This week we caught up with Yext CEO Howard Lerman and Smartsheet CEO Mark Mader. Yext builds data products for small businesses, and is betting its future on search products. Smartsheet is a software company that works in the collaboration, no-code and future-of-work spaces.

They are pretty different companies, really. But what they did share this time ’round the earnings cycle were macro notes, or details regarding their forward financial guidance and what economic conditions they anticipate. As a macro-nerd, it piqued my interest.

Yext cited a number of macroeconomic headwinds when it reported its Q4 results. And tying its future results somewhat to an uncertain macro picture, the company said that it is “basing [its] guidance on the business conditions [it sees for itself] and [its] customers currently, with the macro economy, which remains sluggish, and customers who remain cautious,” per a transcript.

Lerman told The Exchange that it was not clear when the world would open — something that matters for Yext’s location-focused products — so the company was guiding for the year as if nothing would change. Wall Street didn’t love it, but if the economy improves Yext won’t have high hurdles to jump over. This is one tack that a company can take when it talks guidance.

Smartsheet took a slightly different approach, saying in its earnings call that its “fiscal year ’22 guidance contemplates a gradual improvement in the macro environment in the second half of the year.” Mader said in an interview that his company wasn’t hiring economists, but was instead simply listening to what others were saying.

He also said that the macro climate matters more in saturated markets, which he doesn’t think that Smartsheet is in; so, its results should be more impacted by things more like “the secular shift to the cloud and digital transformation,” to quote its earnings call.

What the economy will do this year matters quite a lot for startups. An improving economy could boost interest rates, making money a bit more expensive and bonds more attractive. Valuations could see modest downward pressure in that case. And venture capital could slow fractionally. But with Yext forecasting as if it was facing a flat road and Smartsheet only expecting things to pick up pace from Q3 on, it’s likely that what we have now is mostly what we’ll get.

And things are pretty damn good for startups and late-stage liquidity at the moment. So, smooth sailing ahead for startup-land? At least as far as our current perspective can discern.

We still have a grip of notes from Splunk CEO Douglas Merritt on how to take an old-school software company and turn it into a cloud-first company, and Jamf CEO Dean Hager about packaging discrete software products. More to come from them in fits.

Various and sundry

There were rounds big and small this week. Companies like Squarespace raised $300 million, while Airtable raised $277 million. On the smaller-end of the spectrum, my favorite round of the week was a modest $2.9 million raise from Copy.ai.

But there were other rounds that TechCrunch didn’t get to that are still worth our time. So, here are a few more for you to dig into this weekend:

  • A so-called pre-Series A round for Lilli, a U.K.-based startup that uses sensors and other tech to track the well-being of folks who might need help to live on their own. Using tech to take care of folks is always good by me. The deal was worth £4.5 million, per UKTN.
  • An IPO for Tuya, a Chinese software company that raised $915 million in its American debut. Chinese IPOs on American indices were once a big deal. They are less frequent now. Surprised that I missed this one, but, hey, there’s been a lot going on.
  • And the Republic round, worth $36 million, that is banking on the recently-expanded American crowdfunding regulations. Some startups have seen success with the approach, including Juked.gg.

Upcoming attractions

Next week is Y Combinator Demo Day week, so expect a lot of early-stage coverage on the blog. Here’s a preview. From The Exchange we’re looking back into insurtech (with data from WeFox and Insurify), and talking about Austin-based software startup AlertMedia’s decision to sell itself to private-equity instead of raising more traditional capital.

And to leave you with some reading material, make sure you’ve picked through our look at the valuations of free-trading apps, the issues with dual-class shares, the recent IPO win for the New York scene and how unequal the global venture capital market really is.

Closing, this BigTechnology piece was good, as was this Not Boring essay. Hugs, and have a lovely respite,

Alex

Should there be some law against raising three times in one year?

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. Want it in your inbox every Saturday morning? Sign up here.

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

Every quarter we dig into the venture capital market’s global, national, and sector-based results to get a feel for what the temperature of the private market is at that point in time. These imperfect snapshots are useful. But sometimes, it’s better to focus on a single story to show what’s really going on.

Enter AgentSync. I covered AgentSync for the first time last August, when the API-focused insurtech player raised a $4.4 million seed round. It’s a neat company, helping others track the eligibility of individual brokers in the market. It’s a big space, and the startup was showing rapid initial traction in the form of $1.9 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR).

But then AgentSync raised again in December, sharing at the time of its $6.4 million round that the valuation cap had grown by 4x since its last round. And that it had seen 4x revenue growth since the start of the pandemic.

All that must sound pretty pedestrian; a quickly-growing software company raising two rounds? Quelle surprise.

But then AgentSync raised again this week, with another grip of datapoints. Becca Szkutak and Alex Konrad’s Midas Touch newsletter reported the sheaf of data, and The Exchange confirmed the numbers with AgentSync CEO Niji Sabharwal. They are as follows:

  • Present-day revenues of less than $10 million, but with ARR growing by 6x in 2020 after 10x expansion in 2019.
  • No customer churn to date.
  • Its $25 million Series A valued the company at $220 million, which Konrad and Szkutak describe as “exactly 10x AgentSync’s valuation from eight months ago.”

That means AgentSync was worth $22 million when it raised $4.4 million, and the December round was raised at a cap of around $80 million. Fun.

Back to our original point, the big datasets can provide useful you-are-here guidance for the sector, but it’s stories like AgentSync that I think better show what the market is really like today for hot startups. It’s bonkers fast and, even more, often backed up by material growth.

Sabharwal also told The Exchange that his company has closed another $1 million in ARR since the term sheet. So its multiples are contracting even before it shared its news. 

2021, there you have it.

Meet Conscience.vc

Also this week I got to meet Ariana Thacker, who is building a venture capital fund. Her route to her own venture shop included stops at Rhapsody Venture Partners, and some time at Predictive VC. Now she’s working on Conscience.vc, or perhaps just Conscience.

Her new fund will invest in companies worth less than $15 million, have some form of consumer-facing business model (B2B and B2B2C are both fine, she said), and something to do with science, be it a patentable technology or other sort of IP. Why the science focus? It’s Thacker’s background, thanks to her background in chemical engineering and time as a facilities engineer for a joint Exxon-Shell project. 

All that’s neat and interesting, but as we cover zero new-fund announcements on The Exchange and almost never mini-profile VCs, why break out of the pattern? Because unlike nearly everyone in her profession, Thacker was super upfront with data and metrics.

Heck, in her first email she included a list of her investments across different capital vehicles with actual information about the deals. And then she shared more material on different investments and the like. Imagine if more VCs shared more of their stuff? That would rock.

Conscience had its first close in mid-January, though more capital might land before she wraps up the fundraising process. She’s reached $4 million to $5 million in commits, with a cap of $10 million on the fund. And, she told The Exchange, she didn’t know a single LP before last summer and only secured an anchor investor last October.

Let’s see what Thacker gets done. But at a minimum I think she’ll be willing to be somewhat transparent as she invests from her first fund. That alone will command more attention from these pages than most micro-funds could ever manage.

A whole bunch of other important shit

The week was super busy, so I missed a host of things that I would have otherwise liked to have written about. Here they are in no particular order:

  • FalconX, a startup that powers crypto-trading on other platforms, raised $50 million this week. The round comes after the company raised $17 million last May. I wrote about that here. Tiger Global led the round, natch, as it has led nearly every round in the last month. 
  • The FalconX round matters as the company grew from what we presume was a modest trading and revenue base into something much larger. Per the company, in “less than a year” the company’s “trading volume” grew by 12x and its “net revenue” grew 46x. That’s a lot. 
  • Privacera also raised $50 million this week. Insight Partners led the round. The deal caught my eye as it promised a “cloud-based data governance and security solution.” That reminded me of Skyflow, a quickly-growing startup that I thought might have a similar product. Privacera CEO Balaji Ganesan politely corrected my confusion in an email saying that “Skyflow is like a vault for customer data. They replace customer data with tokens. Our focus is on data governance, so it is broader. We don’t store customer data within our solution.” Fair enough. It’s still an interesting space.
  • And then there’s Woflow, which VentureBeat actually got to before I could. I chatted with the company this week, but sadly have more notes than open word count today. So let it suffice to say that the company’s model of selling structured merchant data is super cool. And the fact that it has linked up with customers in its first vertical (restaurants) like DoorDash is impressive.
  • Its round was led by Craft Ventures, a firm that has been pretty damn active in the API-powered startup landscape in recent months. More to come on Woflow.

Various and Sundry

Closing, I learned a lot about software valuations here, got to noodle on the epic Roblox direct listing here, dug into fintech’s venture successes and weaknesses, and checked out the Global-e IPO filing. Oh, and M1 Finance raised again, while Clara and Arist raised small, but fun rounds.

Alex

Taipei-based Influenxio gets $2M from DCM Ventures for its “microinfluencer” marketing platform

Influencer marketing startup Influenxio's team, with founder and CEO Allan Ko in the center

Influenxio’s team, with founder and chief executive officer Allan Ko in the center

“Microinfluencers” are gaining clout among marketers. Though they may have as little as a thousand followers, microinfluencers tend to focus on specific content and be seen as more engaging and trustworthy by their audience, said Allan Ko, founder and chief executive officer of Influenxio. The Taipei-based startup, which connects brands with Instagram microinfluencers through its online platform, announced today that it has closed $2 million in pre-Series A funding led by DCM Ventures, and is launching a new subscription plan.

Founded in 2018, Influenxio has now raised over $3 million in total, including from seed investor SparkLabs Taipei. It currently operates in Taiwan and Japan, where it has databases of 100,000 and 250,000 Instagram creators, respectively. So far, over 6,000 brands have registered on Influenxio’s platform, and it has been used to run over 1,000 campaigns.

Influenxio plans to use its new funding for hiring and product development. Influenxio’s new subscription plan is a relatively novel model for the field, so one of the startup’s goals is to prove that it works, Ko told TechCrunch. The company also plans to build out its Japanese platform and expand into more countries.

A screenshot of Influenxio's platform

A screenshot of Influenxio’s platform

Influenxio analyzes past campaigns, performance data and client reviews to improve its algorithms. Since the entire campaign creation process–from finding influencers to paying them–is performed through Influenxio, this allows it to gather a wide range of data to refine its technology, Ko told TechCrunch.

Influencers typically make about $35 to $40 USD for each campaign they participate in, and most of the brands the company works with focus on food (like restaurants), fashion, beauty or lifestyle services.

Before launching Influenxio, Ko spent 15 years working in the digital marketing field, serving as an account manager at Yahoo! and Microsoft, and then head of Hong Kong and Taiwan for Google’s online partnerships group. He wanted to create a startup that would combine what he had learned about digital marketing and make accessible to more businesses.

Large brands have used Influenxio to quickly generate marketing campaigns for special occasions like Mother’s Day or Christmas. For example, one advertiser in Taiwan used Influenxio to hire almost 200 influencers in one week, who were asked to test and post about their products, and some of Influenxio’s highest profile clients include Shiseido, Shopee, iHerb and KKBox.

But the majority of Influenxio’s clients (about 80% to 90%) are small- to medium-sized businesses, and Ko said they usually create multiple campaigns to build brand awareness over time, working with a few influencers a month.

Influenxio’s new subscription plan, which costs less than $100 USD a month and is launching first in Taiwan before rolling out to other markets, was created for them. “The first year we launched the platform, we found small businesses want experts and advice,” said Ko. Many don’t have marketing managers, so Influenxio’s subscription plan automatically matches them with new influencers each month and provides them with analytics so they can see how well campaigns are performing.

Influenxio is among a growing number of startups that are tapping into the “microinfluencer economy,” with others including AspireIQ, Upfluence and Grin.

Ko said Influenxio’s biggest difference is its focus on small businesses, and serving as a one-stop marketplace for influencer campaigns. “The important thing for our platform is that it needs to be very easy and simple,” he added. “We spent a lot of time on the execution and details to make it smoother on the advertiser side. For the influencer side, we try to make it more convenient. For example, the way they receive money, our goal is to also make it easy.”

A first look at Coursera’s S-1 filing

After TechCrunch broke the news yesterday that Coursera was planning to file its S-1 today, the edtech company officially dropped the document Friday evening.

Coursera was last valued at $2.4 billion by the private markets, when it most recently raised a Series F round in October 2020 that was worth $130 million.

Coursera’s S-1 filing offers a glimpse into the finances of how an edtech company, accelerated by the pandemic, performed over the past year. It paints a picture of growth, albeit one that came at steep expense.

Revenue

In 2020, Coursera saw $293.5 million in revenue. That’s a roughly 59% increase from the year prior when the company recorded $184.4 million in top line. During that same period, Coursera posted a net loss of nearly $67 million, up 46% from the previous year’s $46.7 million net deficit.

Notably the company had roughly the same noncash, share-based compensation expenses in both years. Even if we allow the company to judge its profitability on an adjusted EBITDA basis, Coursera’s losses still rose from 2019 to 2020, expanding from $26.9 million to $39.8 million.

To understand the difference between net losses and adjusted losses it’s worth unpacking the EBITDA acronym. Standing for “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization,” EBITDA strips out some nonoperating costs to give investors a possible better picture of the continuing health of a business, without getting caught up in accounting nuance. Adjusted EBITDA takes the concept one step further, also removing the noncash cost of share-based compensation, and in an even more cheeky move, in this case also deducts “payroll tax expense related to stock-based activities” as well.

For our purposes, even when we grade Coursera’s profitability on a very polite curve it still winds up generating stiff losses. Indeed, the company’s adjusted EBITDA as a percentage of revenue — a way of determining profitability in contrast to revenue — barely improved from a 2019 result of -15% to -14% in 2020.

Indonesian logistics startup SiCepat raises $170 million Series B

SiCepat, an end-to-end logistics startup in Indonesia, announced today it has raised a $170 million Series B funding round. Founded in 2014 to provide last-mile deliveries for small merchants, the company has since expanded to serve large e-commerce platforms, too. Its services now also cover warehousing and fulfillment, middle-mile logistics and online distribution.

Investors in SiCepat’s Series B include Falcon House Partners; Kejora Capital; DEG (the German Development Finance Institution); Telkom Indonesia’s investment arm MDI Ventures; Indies Capital; Temasek Holdings subsidiary Pavilion Capital; Tri Hill; and Daiwa Securities. The company’s last funding announcement was a $50 million Series A in April 2019.

In a press statement, The Kim Hai, founder and chief executive officer of SiCepat’s parent company Onstar Express, said the funding will be used to “further fortify SiCepat’s position as the leading end-to-end logistics service provider in the Indonesian market and potentially to explore expansion to other markets in Southeast Asia.” SiCepat claims to be profitable already and that it was able to fulfill more than 1.4 million packages per day in 2020.

The logistics industry in Indonesia is highly fragmented, which means higher costs for businesses. At the same time, demand for deliveries is increasing thanks to the growth of e-commerce, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SiCepat is one of several Indonesian startups that have raised funding recently to make the supply chain and logistics infrastructure more efficient. For example, earlier this week, supply chain SaaS provider Advotics announced a $2.75 million round. Other notable startups in the space include Kargo, founded by a former Uber Asia executive, and Waresix.

SiCepat focuses in particular on e-commerce and social commerce, or people who sell goods through their social media networks. In statement, Kejora Capital managing partner Sebastian Togelang, said the Indonesian e-commerce market is expected to grow at five-year compounded annual growth rate of 21%, reaching $82 billion by 2025.

“We believe SiCepat is ideally positioned to serve customers from e-commerce giants to uprising social commerce players which contribute an estimated 25% to the total digital commerce economy,” he added.

Indonesian supply chain startup Advotics raises $2.75M led by East Ventures

The rapid growth of e-commerce in Indonesia, especially during the pandemic, is placing increasing demands on its supply chain infrastructure. But the country’s logistics industry is highly fragmented, with companies usually relying on multiple providers for one shipment, and many warehouses are still concentrated around major cities. Advotics wants to help with software to make the whole supply chain easier to track, and recently closed a $2.75 million funding round led by East Ventures.

Founded in 2016 by Boris Sanjaya, Hendi Chandi and Jeffry Tani, Advotics currently counts more than 70 clients, ranging from individual resellers to large corporations like Exxonmobil, Danone, Reckitt Benckiser, Sampoerna, Kalbe and Mulia Group.

According to research institution Statistics Indonesia, there are about 5 million small and medium-sized manufacturers in Indonesia. They use a supply chain with 15 million small to mid-sized distributors and about 288,000 large distribution companies. This fragmentation means higher expenses, with Report Linker estimating that logistics costs range between 25% to 30% of Indonesia’s gross domestic product.

To help make logistics more efficient for its clients, Advotics offers SaaS solutions to monitor almost their entire supply and logistics chain, from warehouse inventory to generating delivery routes for drivers. It includes a product digitalization feature that uses QR codes to track products and prevent counterfeiting. The company’s new funding will be used to launch a online-to-offline system for SMEs and grow its sales team.

Advotics is among several tech startups that are taking different approaches to tackle Indonesia’s logistics infrastructure. For example, Shipper wants to give sellers access to “Amazon-level logistics,” while Logisly is focused on digitizing truck shipments. Waresix recently acquired Trukita to connect businesses to shippers and truck shipment platform Kargo’s backers include Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.

Humaans raises $5M seed to make it easier for companies to on-board and manage staff

Humaans, a London-based HR startup, has raised $5 million in seed funding to accelerate the development of its employee on-boarding and management platform. Backing the round is Y Combinator, Mattias Ljungman’s Moonfire, Frontline Ventures and former head of Stripe Issuing, Lachy Groom.

A number of other investors, made up of seasoned entrepreneurs and startup operators, also participated. They include LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner (via Next Play Ventures), Stripe COO Claire Johnson, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Intercom co-founder Des Traynor, former Workday CTO David Clarke, former Benchmark GP Scott Belsky, Notion COO Akshay Kothari, Qubit co-founder Emre Baran, Evervault CEO Shane Curren and Stripe head of security Gerardo Di Giacomo.

Founded by former Qubit employees Giovanni Luperti and Karolis Narkevicius, Humaans came into existence formerly in April 2020 after the pair quit the product agency they had founded together. With a soft launch the previous year while bootstrapping, and with validation from early users, Luperti and Narkevicius decided they had found enough product-market fit to focus on the startup full-time.

“We bootstrapped Humaans by reinvesting capital from the previous businesses we co-founded,” explains CEO Luperti. “After gaining initial commercial traction, we decided to raise capital and brought a number of investors and operators onboard, and joined Y Combinator”.

Pitching itself as a central hub for employee on-boarding and management — or a single source of truth for staffing — Humaans aims to play nicely by integrating with other existing SaaS used across the “HR stack”. This is because scaling companies are increasingly rejecting all-encompassing HR software and using the best modern SaaS offerings for various different functions.

“Companies are frustrated with poorly integrated HR stacks, making processes slow while exposing them to compliance risks,” says Luperti. “This is why the adoption of point solutions is increasing dramatically. Companies are adopting what’s best based on their needs and stage of growth to address their people needs”.

For example, a company may choose an applicant tracking system, a performance management system, contract management software and an employee engagement platform, and so on. “This makes the ‘all-in-one’ model antiquated, creating the opportunity for a solution like Humaans to emerge. We’re building a layer of infrastructure for all employee data”.

This is seeing Humaans attempt to bring together the full HR stack and automate processes like on-boarding, off-boarding and compensation management with fast workflows that can be set up not dissimilar to an IFTTT or Zapier-style type of interaction model.

Image Credits: Humaans

“If you ask around, most employees dislike their HR software,” says Luperti. “HR tools have historically been clunky, slow and not good at providing a good user experience. Existing players focused more on sales and acquisition than retention through product. But HR buyers today are more sophisticated than ever and have an appetite for best in class. We’re building the Slack of HR… an employee management platform that’s both delightful and very powerful”.

To that end, Humaans says it grew 3x in the past few months and is popular amongst distributed companies, such as Pleo, ChartMogul, Bombinate, HeySummit and Pento.

Adds the Humaans CEO: “There are two segments of existing players: those targeting SMEs, and those working with corporations. Serving the companies in the middle is the opportunity we’re going after”.

Coupang may raise up to $3.6 billion in its IPO, at a potential valuation of $51 billion

According to an amended S-1 filing, South Korean e-commerce leader Coupang expects to price its initial public offering between $27 to $30 per share, potentially raising up to $3.6 billion. After the IPO, Coupang will have a total of 1.7 billion shares outstanding, including Class A and Class B. This means the means the pricing would give Coupang a potential market capitalization between $46 billion to $51 billion, a huge increase over the $9 billion valuation it reached after its last funding round in 2018, led by SoftBank Vision Fund.

Coupang and some of its existing shareholders will offer a total of 120 million shares during the IPO.

If Coupang’s IPO is successful, it would be a huge win for SoftBank Vision Fund, which will own 36.8% of its Class A shares after the listing.

Founded in 2010 by Bom Kim, Coupang is known for its ultra-speedy deliveries and is now the largest e-commerce company in South Korea, according to Euromonitor. According to the filing, Kim will hold 76.7% of voting power after the listing, while SoftBank Vision Fund will hold about 8.6%. Other investors that currently own 5% or more of Coupang’s shares include Greenoaks Capital Partners, Maverick Holdings, Rose Park Advisors, BlackRock and Ridd Investments.

Coupang filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last month, under the symbol CPNG. Based on Bloomberg data, Coupang’s listing will be the fourth-biggest by an Asian company on a U.S. exchange, and the largest since Alibaba’s $25 billion IPO in 2014.

How investors are valuing the pandemic

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. Want it in your inbox every Saturday morning? Sign up here.

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

Kicking off with a tiny bit of housekeeping: Equity is now doing more stuff. And TechCrunch has its Justice and Early-Stage events coming up. I am interviewing the CRO of Zoom for the latter. And The Exchange itself has some long-overdue stuff coming next week, including $50M and $100M ARR updates (Druva, etc.), a peek at consumption based pricing vs. traditional SaaS models (featuring Fastly, Appian, BigCommerce CEOs, etc.), and more. Woo! 

This week both DoorDash and Airbnb reported earnings for the first time as public companies, marking their real graduation into the ranks of the exited unicorns. We’re keeping our usual eye on the earnings cycle, quietly, but today we have some learnings for the startup world.

Some basics will help us get started. DoorDash beat growth expectations in Q4, reporting revenue of $970 million versus an expected $938 million. The gap between the two likely comes partially from how new the DoorDash stock is, and the pandemic making it difficult to forecast. Despite the outsized growth, DoorDash shares initially fell sharply after the report, though they largely recovered on Friday.

Why the initial dip? I reckon the company’s net loss was larger than investors hoped — though a large GAAP deficit is standard for first quarters post-debut. That concern might have been tempered by the company’s earnings call, which included a note from the company’s CFO that it is “seeing acceleration in January relative to our order growth in December as well as in Q4.” That’s encouraging. On the flip side, the company’s CFO did say “starting from Q2 onwards, we’re going to see a reversion toward pre-COVID behavior within the customer base.”

Takeaway: Big companies are anticipating a return to pre-COVID behavior, just not quite yet. Firms that benefited from COVID-19 are being heavily scrutinized. And they expect tailwinds to fade as the year progresses.

And then there’s Airbnb, which is up around 16% today. Why? It beat revenue expectations, while also losing lots of money. Airbnb’s net loss in Q4 2020 was more than 10x DoorDash’s own. So why did Airbnb get a bump while DoorDash got dinged? Its large revenue beat ($859 million, instead of an expected $748 million), and potential for future growth; investors are expecting that Airbnb’s current besting of expectations will lead to even more growth down the road.

Takeaway: Provided that you have a good story to tell regarding future growth, investors are still willing to accept sharp losses; the growth trade is alive, then, even as companies that may have already received a boost endure increased scrutiny.

For startups, valuation pressure or lift could come down to which side of the pandemic they are on; are they on the tail end of their tailwind (remote-work focused SaaS, perhaps?), or on the ascent (restaurant tech, maybe?). Something to chew on before you raise.

Market Notes

It was one blistering week for funding rounds. Crunchbase News, my former journalistic home, has a great piece out on just how many massive rounds we’re seeing so far this year. But even one or two steps down in scale, funding activity was super busy.

A few rounds that I could not get to this week that caught my eye included a $90 million round for Terminus (ABM-focused GTM juicer, I suppose), Anchorage’s $80 million Series C (cryptostorage for big money), and Foxtrot Market’s $42 million Series B (rapid delivery of yuppie and zoomer essentials).

Sitting here now, finally writing a tidbit about each, I am reminded at the sheer breadth of the tech market. Termius helps other companies sell, Anchorage wants to keep your ETH safe, while Foxtrot wants to help you replenish your breakfast rosé stock before you have to endure a dry morning. What a mix. And each must be generating venture-acceptable growth, as they have not merely raised more capital but raised rather large rounds for their purported maturity (measured by their listed Series stage, though the moniker can be more canard than guide.)

I jokingly call this little section of the newsletter Market Notes, a jest as how can you possibly note the whole market that we care about? These companies and their recent capital infusions underscore the point.

Various and Sundry

Finally, two notes from earnings calls. The first from Root, which is a head scratcher, and the second from Booking Holdings’ results.

I chatted with Alex Timm, Root Insurance’s CEO this week moments after it dropped numbers. As such I didn’t have much context in the way of investor response to its results. My read was that Root was super capitalized, and has pretty big expansion plans. Timm was upbeat about his company’s improving economics (on a loss ratio and loss-adjusted expenses basis, for the insurtech fans out there), and growth during the pandemic.

But then today its shares are off 16%. Parsing the analyst call, there’s movement in Root’s economic profile (regarding premium-ceding variance over the coming quarters) that make it hard to fully grok its full-year growth from where I sit. But it appears that Root’s business is still molting to a degree that is almost refreshing; the company could have gone public in 2022 with some of its current evolution behind it, but instead it raised a zillion dollars last year and is public now.

Sticking our neck out a bit, despite fellow neo-insurnace player Lemonade’s continued, and impressive valuation run, MetroMile’s stock is also softening, while Root’s has lost more than half its value from its IPO date. If the current repricing of some neo-insurance players continues, we could see some private investment into the space slow. (Fewer things like this?) It’s a possible trend we’ll have eyes on this year.

Next, Booking Holdings, the company that owns Priceline and other travel properties. Given that Booking might have notes regarding the future of business travel — which we care about for clues regarding what could come for remote work and office culture, things that impact everything from startup hub locations to software sales — The Exchange snagged a call slot and dialed the company up.

Booking Holdings’ CEO Glenn Fogel didn’t have a comment as to how his company is trading at all-time highs despite suffering from sharp year-over-year revenue declines. He did note that the pandemic has shaken up expectations for conversations, which could limit short-term business travel in the future for meetings that may now be conducted on video calls. He was bullish on future conference travel (good news for TechCrunch, I suppose), and future travel more generally.

So concerning the jetting perspective, we don’t know anything yet. Booking Holdings is not saying much, perhaps because it just doesn’t know when things will turn around. Fair enough. Perhaps after another three months of vaccine rollout will give us a better window into what a partial return to an old normal could look like.

And to cap off, you can read Apex Holdings’ SPAC presentation here, and Markforged’s here. Also I wrote about the buy-now-pay-later space here, riffed on the Digital Ocean IPO with Ron Miller here, and doodled on Toast’s valuation and the Olo debut here.

Hugs, and have a lovely weekend!

Alex

 

What the NFT? VC David Pakman dumbs down the intensifying digital collectibles frenzy

Non-fungible tokens have been around for two years, but these NFTs, one-of-one digital items on the Ethereum and other blockchains, are suddenly becoming a more popular way to collect visual art primarily, whether it’s an animated cat or an NBA clip or virtual furniture.

“Suddenly” is hardly an overstatement. According to the outlet Cointelegraph, during the second half of last year, $9 million worth of NFT goods sold to buyers; during one 24-hour window earlier this week, $60 million worth of digital goods were sold.

What’s going on? A thorough New York Times piece on the trend earlier this week likely fueled new interest, along with a separate piece in Esquire about the artist Beeple, a Wisconsin dad whose digital drawings, which he has created every single day for the last 13 years, began selling like hotcakes in December. If you need further evidence of a tipping point (and it is ample right now), consider that the work of Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, was just made available through Christie’s. It’s the venerable auction house’s first sale of exclusively digital work.

To better understand the market and why it’s blowing up in real time, we talked this week with David Pakman, a former internet entrepreneur who joined the venture firm Venrock a dozen years ago and began tracking Bitcoin soon after, even mining the cryptocurrency at his Bay Area home beginning in 2015. (“People would come over and see racks of computers, and it was like, ‘It’s sort of hard to explain.’”)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that he also became convinced early on of the promise of NFTs, persuading Venrock to lead the $15 million Series A round for a young startup, Dapper Labs, when its primary offering was CryptoKitties, limited-edition digital cats that can be bought and bred with cryptocurrency.

While the concept baffled some at the time, Pakman has long seen the day when Dapper’s offerings will be far more extensive, and indeed, a recent Dapper deal with the NBA to sell collectible highlight clips has already attracted so much interest that Dapper is reportedly right now raising $250 million in new funding at a post-money valuation of $2 billion. While Pakman declined to confirm or correct that figure, he did answer our other questions in a chat that’s been edited here for length and clarity.

TC: David, dumb things down for us. Why is the world so gung-ho about NFTs right now?

DP: One of the biggest problems with crypto — the reason it scares so many people — is it uses all these really esoteric terms to explain very basic concepts, so let’s just keep it really simple. About 40% of humans collect things — baseball cards, shoes, artwork, wine. And there’s a whole bunch of psychological reasons why. Some people have a need to complete a set. Some people do it for investment reasons. Some people want an heirloom to pass down. But we could only collect things in the real world because digital collectibles were too easy to copy.

Then the blockchain came around and [it allowed us to] make digital collectibles immutable, with a record of who owns what that you can’t really copy. You can screenshot it, but you don’t really own the digital collectible, and you won’t be able to do anything with that screenshot. You won’t be able to to sell it or trade it. The proof is in the blockchain. So I was a believer that crypto-based collectibles could be really big and actually could be the thing that takes crypto mainstream and gets the normals into participating in crypto — and that’s exactly what’s happening now.

TC: You mentioned a lot of reasons that people collect items, but one you didn’t mention is status. Assuming that’s one’s motivation, how do you show off what you’ve amassed online? 

DP: You’re right that one of the other reasons why we collect is to show it off status, but I would actually argue it’s much easier to show off our collections in the digital world. If I’m a car collector, the only way you’re going to see my cars is to come over to the garage. Only a certain number of people can do that. But online, we can display our digital collections. NBA Top Shop, for example, makes it very easy for you to show off your moments. Everyone has a page and there’s an app that’s coming and you can just show it off to anyone in your app, and you can post it to your social networks. And it’s actually really easy to show off how big or exciting your collection is.

TC: It was back in October that Dapper rolled out these video moments, which you buy almost like a Pokemon set in that you’re buying a pack and know you’ll get something “good” but don’t know what. But while almost half it sales have come in through the last week. Why?

DP: There’s only about maybe 30,000 or 40,000 people playing right now. It’s growing 50% or 100% a day. But the growth has been completely organic. The game is actually still in beta, so we haven’t been doing any marketing other than posting some stuff on Twitter. There hasn’t been attempt to market this and get a lot of players [talking about it] because we’re still working the bugs out, and there are a lot of bugs still to be worked out.

But a couple NBA players have seen this and gotten excited about their own moments [on social media]. And there’s maybe a little bit of machismo going on where, ‘Hey, I want my moment to trade for a higher price.’ But I also think it’s the normals who are playing this. All you need to play is a credit card, and something like 65% of the people playing have never owned or traded in crypto before. So I think the thesis that crypto collectibles could be the thing that brings mainstream users into crypto is playing out before our eyes.

TC: How does Dapper get paid?

DP: We get 5% of secondary sales and 100% minus the cost of the transaction on primary sales. Of course, we have a relationship with the NBA, which collects some of that, too. But that’s the basic economics of how the system works.

TC: Does the NBA have a minimum that it has to be paid every year, and then above and beyond that it receives a cut of the action?

DP: I don’t think the company has gone public with the exact economic terms of their relationships with the NBA and the Players Association. But obviously the NBA is the IP owner, and the teams and the players have economic participation in this, which is good, because they’re the ones that are creating the intellectual property here.

But a lot of the appreciation of these moments — if you get one in a pack and you sell it for a higher price — 95% of that appreciation goes to the owner. So it’s very similar to baseball cards, but now IP owners can participate through the life of the product in the downstream economic activity of their intellectual property, which I think is super appealing whether you’re the NBA or someone like Disney, who’s been in the IP licensing business for decades.

And it’s not just major IP where this NFT space is happening. It’s individual creators, musicians, digital artists who could create a piece of digital art, make only five copies of it, and auction it off. They too can collect a little bit each time their works sell in the future.

TC: Regarding NBA Top Shot specifically, prices range massively in terms of what people are paying for the same limited-edition clip. Why?

DP: There are two reasons. One is that like scarce items, lower numbers are worth more than higher numbers, so if there’s a very particular LeBron moment, and they made 500 [copies] of them, and I own number one, and you own number 399, the marketplace is ascribing a higher value to the lower numbers, which is very typical of limited-edition collector pieces. It’s sort of a funny concept. But it is a very human concept.

The other thing is that over time there has been more and more demand to get into this game, so people are willing to pay higher and higher prices. That’s why there’s been a lot of price appreciation for these moments over time.

TC: You mentioned that some of the esoteric language around crypto scares people, but so does the fact that 20% of the world’s bitcoin is permanently inaccessible to its owners, including because of forgotten passwords. Is that a risk with these digital items, which you are essentially storing in a digital locker or wallet?

DP: It’s a complex topic,  but I will say that Dapper has tried to build this in a way where that won’t happen, where there’s effectively some type of password recovery process for people who are storing their moments in Dapper’s wallet.

You will be able to take your moments away from Dapper’s account and put it into other accounts, where you may be on your own in terms of password recovery.

TC: Why is it a complex topic?

DP: There are people who believe that even though centralized account storage is convenient for users, it’s somehow can be distrustful — that the company could de-platform you or turn your account off. And in the crypto world, there’s almost a religious ferocity about making sure that no one can de-platform you, that the things that you buy — your cryptocurrencies or your NFTs. Long term, Dapper supports that. You’ll be able to take your moments anywhere you want. But today, our customers don’t have to worry about that I-lost-my-password-and-I’ll-never-get-my-moments-again problem.

Katana raises $11M Series A to be the SaaS powering ‘manufacturing entrepreneurs’

Katana, an Estonian startup that has built manufacturing-specific enterprise resource planning (ERP) software for SMBs, has raised $11 million in Series A funding.

Leading the round is European venture capital firm Atomico, with participation from angel investors Ott Kaukver (Checkout.com CTO), Sten Tamkivi (CPO Topia, formerly Skype), Sergei Anikin (CTO, Pipedrive) and Kairi Pauskar (former TransferWise HR Architect). Previous backer 42Cap also followed on, bringing the total investment raised by the company to date to $16 million.

Founded in 2017 by Kristjan Vilosius (CEO), Priit Kaasik (engineering lead) and Hannes Kert (CCO), Katana positions itself as the “entrepreneur manufacturer’s secret weapon” with a plug-and-play ERP for small to medium-sized manufacturers. The idea is to wean companies off existing antiquated tools such as spreadsheets and legacy software to manage inventory and production. The startup is also playing into macro trends, such as the advent of online marketplaces and D2C e-commerce, that are resulting in an explosion of independent makers, spanning cosmetics to home décor, electronics to apparel, and food and beverages.

“We are seeing a global renaissance of small manufacturing driven by the rise of e-commerce tools and consumer demand for bespoke products produced locally,” says Vilosius. “Just walk around any big city from London to San Francisco, and you’ll see workshops all around you. Someone’s making organic cosmetics here; over there, someone is making electric bikes. These companies are run by passionate entrepreneurs selling through traditional channels, but also selling through direct-to-consumer channels, e-commerce stores and marketplaces, etc. This is a massive boom of makers wanting to create products and sell them globally, and it is not a trend that will disappear tomorrow”.

The problem, however, is that small and medium-sized manufacturers don’t have the right software to support workflows necessary to sell through multiple channels — and this is where Katana comes in. The plug-and-play software claims a superior UX designed specifically to power boutique manufacturing, including functionality supporting the workflows of modern manufacturers, i.e. inventory control and optimization, and purchasing materials, managing bill-of-materials, tracking costs and more. It also offers an API and integrations with popular e-commerce sales channels and accounting tools such as Shopify, Amazon, WooCommerce, QuickBooks, Xero and others.

“We have built the world’s most self on-board-able manufacturing ERP, and that’s a very important differentiation between us and competitors,” explains Vilosius. “Implementation is so simple that more than half of Katana’s users self-onboard. It takes less than a week on average to get Katana up and running, compared to months for competitors”.

As an example of how a company might use Katana, imagine a boutique manufacturer using Shopify as their main sales channel. Once configured, Katana pulls in orders from Shopify and knows whether or not the product is available so it can be shipped immediately. If it’s unavailable, Katana displays if the necessary raw materials needed to manufacture are in stock and by when the product could be finished. “We handle the entire process from getting the raw materials in the warehouse to planning manufacturing activities, executing and shipping when the product is done,” says Vilosius.

Katana software screen shot

Image Credits: Katana

Cue statement from Atomico partner Ben Blume, who joins the Katana board: “Atomico has always believed in the strength of Estonian-built engineering and product, and as we got to know the team at Katana, we saw a familiar pattern: a relentlessly product-focussed team with the incredible ability to build and think from their customer’s point of view, and an unwavering belief that a new generation of manufacturers with big ideas shouldn’t have to settle for less than world-class technology to support them.”

There is infinite money for stock-trading startups

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

Earlier this week TechCrunch broke the news that Public, a consumer stock trading service, was in the process of raising more money. Business Insider quickly filled in details surrounding the round, that it could be around $200 million at a valuation of $1.2 billion. Tiger could lead.

Public wants to be the anti-Robinhood. With a focus on social, and a recent move away from generating payment for order flow (PFOF) revenues that have driven Robinhood’s business model, and attracted criticism, Public has laid its bets. And investors, in the wake of its rival’s troubles, are ready to make it a unicorn.

Of course, the Public round comes on the heels of Robinhood’s epic $3.4 billion raise, a deal that was shocking for both its scale and speed. The trading service’s investors came in force to ensure it had the capital it needed to continue supporting consumer trades. Thanks to Robinhood’s strong Q4 2020 results, and implied growth in Q1 2021, the boosted investment made sense.

As does the Public money, provided that 1) The company is seeing lots of user growth, and 2) That it figures out its forever business model in time. We cannot comment on the second, but we can say a bit about the first point.

Thanks not to Public, really, but M1 Finance, a Midwest-based consumer fintech that has a stock-buying function amongst its other services (more on it here). It told TechCrunch that it saw a quadrupling of signups in January as compared to December. And in the last two weeks, it saw six times as many signups as the preceding two weeks.

Given that M1 doesn’t allow for trading — something that its team repeatedly stressed in notes to TechCrunch — we can’t draw a perfect line between M1 and Public and Robinhood, but we can infer that there is huge consumer interest in investing of late. Which helps explain why Public, which is hunting up a way to generate long-term incomes, can raise another round just months after it closed a different investment.

Our notes last year on how savings and investing were the new thing last year are accidentally becoming even more true than we expected.

Market Notes

As the week came to a close, Coupang filed to go public. You can read our first look here, but it’s going to be big news. Also on the IPO beat, Matterport is going out via a SPAC, I chatted with Metromile CEO Dan Preston about his insurtech public offering this week that also came via a SPAC, and so on.

Oscar Health filed, and it doesn’t look super strong. So its impending valuation is going to test public traders. That’s not a problem that Bumble had when it priced above-range this week and then skyrocketed after it started to trade. Natasha and I (she’s on Equity, as well) have some notes from Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd that we’ll get to you early next week. (Also I chatted about the IPO with the BBC a few times, which was neat, the first of which you can check out here if you’d like.)

Roblox’s impending public debut was also back in the news this week. The company was a bit bigger than it thought last year (cool), but may delay its direct listing to March (not cool).

Near to the IPO beat, Carta started to allow its own shares to trade recently, on the back of news that its revenues have scaled to around $150 million. Not bad Carta, but how about a real IPO instead of staying private? The company’s valuation more than doubled during the secondary transitions.

And then there were so very many cool venture capital rounds that I couldn’t get to this week. This Koa Health round, for example. And whatever this Slync.io news is. (If you want some earlier-stage stuff, check out recent rounds from Treinta, Level, Ramp and Monte Carlo.

And to close, a small callout to Ontic, which provides “protective intelligence software” and said that its revenue grew 177% last year. I appreciate the sharing of the numbers, so wanted to highlight the figure.

Various and Sundry

Wrapping this week, I have a final bit for you to chew on from Mark Mader, the CEO of Smartsheet, a public company — former startup, it’s worth noting — that plays in the no-code, automation and collaboration markets. That’s a rough summary. Anyhoo, I asked Mader about no-code trends in 2021, as I have my eyes on the space. Here’s what he wrote for us:

If you thought the sudden shift to remote work sped up corporate America’s shift to digital, you haven’t seen anything yet. Digital transformation is going to accelerate even more rapidly in 2021. Last year, the workforce was exposed to many different types of technology all at once. For example, a company may have deployed Zoom or DocuSign for the first time. But much of this shift involved taking analog processes like meetings or document signing and approval and bringing them online. Things like this are merely a first step. 2021 is the year the companies will begin to connect large-scale digital events to infrastructure that can make them automated and repeatable. It’s the difference between one person signing a document and hundreds of people signing hundreds of documents, with different rules for each one. And that’s just one example. Another use case could involve linking HR software to project management software for automated, real-time resource allocation that allows a company to get more out of both platforms, as well as its people. The businesses that can automate and simplify complex workflows like these will see dramatically improved efficiency and return on their technology investments, putting them on the path to true transformation and improved profitability.

We shall see!

Alex

 

Does SoftBank have 20 more DoorDashes?

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

Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace were all here to chat through the week’s biggest tech happenings. This week felt oddly comforting from a tech news perspective: Facebook is copying something, early-stage startup data is flawed enough to talk about and sweet DoorDash is buying robots for undisclosed sums.

So, here’s a rundown of the tech news we got into (as always, jokes aren’t previewed so you’ll have to listen to the actual show to get our critique and Award Winning Analysis*):

In good news, long-time Equity producer Chris Gates is back starting next week, which means we’ll have our biggest crew ever helping get the show put together. And, in other good news, there’s going to be more Equity than ever for you to hear. Coming soon.

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

*OK, so not award-winning yet. But soon enough, because manifestation works.

Bot MD, an AI-based chatbot for doctors, raises $5 million for expansion into more Asian markets

Time is critical for healthcare providers, especially in the middle of the pandemic. Singapore-based Bot MD helps save time with an AI-based chatbot that lets doctors look up important information from their smartphones, instead of needing to call a hospital operator or access its intranet. The startup announced today it has raised a $5 million Series A led by Monk’s Hill Venture.

Other backers include SeaX, XA Network and SG Innovate, and angel investors Yoh-Chie Lu, Jean-Luc Butel and Steve Blank. Bot MD was also part of Y Combinator’s summer 2018 batch.

The funding will be used to expand in the Asia-Pacific region, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, and to add new features in response to demand from hospitals and healthcare organizations during COVID-19. Bot MD’s AI assistant currently supports English, with plans to release Bahasa Indonesian and Spanish later this year. It is currently used by about 13,000 doctors at organizations including Changi General Hospital, National University Health System, National University Cancer Institute of Singapore, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Singapore General Hospital, Parkway Radiology and the National Kidney Transplant Institute.

Co-founder and chief executive officer Dorothea Koh told TechCrunch that Bot MD integrates hospital information usually stored in multiple systems and makes it easier to access.A smartphone with Bot MDs medical AI assistant for doctors displayed on it

Image Credits: Bot MDWithout Bot MD, doctors may need to dial a hospital operator to find which staffers are on call and get their contact information. If they want drug information, that means another call to the pharmacy. If they need to see updated guidelines and clinical protocols, that often entails finding a computer that is connected to the hospital’s intranet.

“A lot of what Bot MD does is to integrate the content that they need into a single interface that is searchable 24/7,” said Koh.

For example, during COVID-19, Bot MD introduced a new feature that takes healthcare providers to a form pre-filled with their information when they type “record temperature” into the chatbot. Many were accessing their organization’s intranet twice a day to log their temperature and Koh said being able to use the form through Bot MD has significantly improved compliance.

The time it takes to onboard Bot MD varies depending on the information systems and amount of content it needs to integrate, but Koh said its proprietary natural language processing chat engine makes training its AI relatively quick. For example, Changi General Hospital, a recent client, was onboarded in less than 10 days.

Bot MD plans to add new clinical apps to its platform, including ones for electronic medical records (EMR), billing and scheduling integrations, clinical alerts and chronic disease monitoring.

English learning app ELSA lands $15 million Series B for international growth and its B2B platform

Speaking is one of the hardest parts of learning a new language, especially if you don’t have someone to practice with regularly. ELSA is an app that helps by using speech recognition technology to correct pronunciation. Based in San Francisco and Ho Chi Minh City, ELSA announced today it has raised a $15 million Series B, led by VI (Vietnam Investments) Group and SIG. Other participants included returning investors Google’s AI-focused fund Gradient Ventures, SOSV and Monk’s Hill Ventures, along with Endeavor Catalyst and Globant Ventures.

The capital will be used to expand ELSA’s operations in Latin America and build a scalable B2B platform, allowing companies and educational organizations to offers the app’s coaching services to employees or students. Founded in 2015, ELSA, which stands for English Language Speech Assistant, now claims more than 13 million users. Its last round of funding was a $7 million Series A announced in 2019.

In addition to Latin America, ELSA will also focus on expanding in Vietnam, India and Japan, where it saw high demand last year. The company recently formed a partnership with IDP and British Council, which owns the widely-used IELTS English language test and now recommends ELSA to for test preparation. ELSA is also working with language schools in Vietnam like IMAP and Speak Up, online learning platform YOLA and corporate clients including Kimberly Clark, Intel and ATAD.

ELSA co-founder and chief executive officer Vu Van told TechCrunch that many users want to improve their English speaking proficiency for job opportunities and to increase their earning potential. In Vietnam, India and Brazil, people with higher English speaking proficiency can earn about two to three times more than their colleagues, she said.

“This motivation drives a lot of demand for our English learner community in Vietnam, India and Brazil, especially during COVID-19 when we’ve seen enormous interest from the LatAm region as well,” Van added.

Smartphone with English pronunciation app ELSA open on it

ELSA’s English pronunciation feedback

In Vietnam, where Van is from, English learners spend a lot of their disposable income on online or offline English training. “However, the majority of English learners still struggle to improve their speaking skill because other people don’t understand them or they’re afraid to speak it,” she said. ELSA was designed to give them an accessible resource to help improve their pronunciation and confidence when speaking English.

Other apps focused on English pronunciation include FluentU and Say It. Van said one of ELSA’s main advantages is its proprietary voice recognition AI tech.

“What’s unique about our AI is that we’ve collected the largest amount of accented English voice data from millions of users that we have used to train our AI model over the last few years, which gives us a higher accuracy in recognizing and understanding non-native English speakers around the world,” she said. “The other existing voice recognition technologies available, by comparison, might understand native speakers well but have a hard time understanding non-native accented English learner communities.”

Instead of providing feedback about individual words, ELSA’s app also corrects individual sounds and gives users detailed information on how to improve their pronunciation, including “very advanced prosodic speaking features like intonation, rhythm and fluency to help them speak English more naturally, something that our competitors don’t offer,” Van added.

JustKitchen is using cloud kitchens to create the next generation of restaurant franchising

JustKitchen operates cloud kitchens, but the company goes beyond providing cooking facilities for delivery meals. Instead, it sees food as a content play, with recipes and branding instead of music or shows as the content, and wants to create the next iteration of food franchises. JustKitchen currently operates its “hub and spoke” model in Taiwan, with plans to expand four other Asian markets, including Hong Kong and Singapore, and the United States this year.

Launched last year, JustKitchen currently offers 14 brands in Taiwan, including Smith & Wollensky and TGI Fridays. Ingredients are first prepped in a “hub” kitchen, before being sent to smaller “spokes” for final assembly and pickup by delivery partners, including Uber Eats and FoodPanda. To reduce operational costs, spokes are spread throughout cities for quicker deliveries and the brands each prepares is based on what is ordered most frequently in the area.

In addition to licensing deals, JustKitchen also develops its own brands and performs research and development for its partners. To enable that, chief operating officer Kenneth Wu told TechCrunch that JustKitchen is moving to a more decentralized model, which means its hub kitchens will be used primarily for R&D, and production at some of its spoke kitchens will be outsourced to other food vendors and manufacturers. The company’s long-term plan is to license spoke operation to franchisees, while providing order management software and content (i.e. recipes, packaging and branding) to maintain consistent quality.

Demand for meal and grocery deliveries increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, this means food deliveries made up about 13% of the restaurant market in 2020, compared to the 9% forecast before the pandemic, according to research firm Statista, and may rise to 21% by 2025.

But on-demand food delivery businesses are notoriously expensive to operate, with low margins despite markups and fees. By centralizing food preparation and pickup, cloud kitchens (also called ghost kitchens or dark kitchens) are supposed to increase profitability while ensuring standardized quality. Not surprisingly, companies in the space have received significant attention, including former Uber chief executive officer Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens, Kitchen United and REEF, which recently raised $1 billion led by SoftBank.

Wu, whose food delivery startup Milk and Eggs was acquired by GrubHub in 2019, said one of the main ways JustKitchen differentiates is by focusing on operations and content in addition to kitchen infrastructure. Before partnering with restaurants and other brands, JustKitchen meets with them to design a menu specifically for takeout and delivery. Once a menu is launched, it is produced by JustKitchen instead of the brands, who are paid royalties. For restaurants that operate only one brick-and-mortar location, this gives them an opportunity to expand into multiple neighborhoods and cities (or countries, when JustKitchen begins its international expansion) simultaneously, a new take on the franchising model for the on-demand delivery era.

One of JustKitchen's delivery meals, with roast chicken and vegetables

One of JustKitchen’s delivery meals

Each spoke kitchen puts the final touches on meal before handing them to delivery partners. Spoke kitchens are smaller than hubs, closer to customers, and the goal is to have a high revenue to square footage ratio.

“The thesis in general is how do you get economies of scale or a large volume at the hub, or the central kitchen where you’re making it, and then send it out deep into the community from the spokes, where they can do a short last-mile delivery,” said Wu.

JustKitchen says it can cut industry standard delivery times by half, and that its restaurant partners have seen 40% month on month growth. It also makes it easier for delivery providers like Uber Eats to stack orders, which means having a driver pick up three or four orders at a time for separate addresses. This reduces costs, but is usually only possible at high-volume restaurants, like fast food chain locations. Since JustKitchen offers several brands in one spoke, this gives delivery platforms more opportunities to stack orders from different brands.

In addition to partnerships, JustKitchen also develops its own food brands, using data analytics from several sources to predict demand. The first source is its own platform, since customers can order directly from Just Kitchen. It also gets high-level data from delivery partners that lets them see food preferences and cart sizes in different regions, and uses general demographic data from governments and third-party providers with information about population density, age groups, average income and spending. This allows it to plan what brands to launch in different locations and during different times of the day, since JustKitchen offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.

JustKitchen is incorporated in Canada, but launched in Taiwan first because of its population density and food delivery’s popularity. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, food delivery penetration in the U.S. and Europe was below 20%, but in Taiwan, it was already around 30% to 40%, Wu said. The new demand for food delivery in the U.S. “is part of the new norm and we believe that is not going away,” he added. JustKitchen is preparing to launch in Seattle and several Californian cities, where it already has partners and kitchen infrastructure.

“Our goal is to focus on software and content, and give franchisees operations so they have a turnkey franchise to launch immediately,” said Wu. “We have the content and they can pick whatever they want. They have software to integrate, recipes and we do the food manufacturing and sourcing to control quality, and ultimately they will operate the single location.”

This startup says its AI can better spot a healthy embryo — and improve IVF success

With every year, AI is beginning to bring more standardized levels of diagnostic accuracy in medicine. This is true of skin cancer detection, for example, and lung cancers.

Now, a startup in Israel called Embryonics says its AI can improve the odds of successfully implanting a healthy embryo during in vitro fertilization. What the company has been developing, in essence, is an algorithm to predict embryo implantation probability, one they have trained through IVF time-lapsed imaging of developing embryos.

It’s just getting started, to be clear. So far, in a pilot involving 11 women ranging in age from 20 to 40, six of those individuals are enjoying successful pregnancies, and the other five are awaiting results, says Embryonics.

Still, Embryonics is interesting for its potential to shake up a big market that’s been stuck for decades and continues to grow only because of external trends, like millennial women who are putting off having children owing to economic concerns.

Consider that the global in-vitro fertilization market is expected to grow from roughly $18.3 billion to nearly double that number in the next five years by some estimates. Yet the tens of thousands of women who undergo IVF each year have long faced costs of anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 per cycle (at least in the U.S.), along with long-shot odds that grow worse with age.

Indeed, it’s the prospect of reducing the number of IVF rounds and their attendant expenses that drives Embryonics, which was founded three years ago by CEO Yael Gold-Zamir, an M.D. who studied general surgery at Hebrew University, yet became a researcher in an IVF laboratory owing to an abiding interest in the science behind fertility.

As it happens, she would be introduced to two individuals with complementary interests and expertise. One of them was David Silver, who had studied bioinformatics at the prestigious Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and who, before joining Embryonics last year, spent three years as a machine learning engineer at Apple and three years before that as an algorithm engineer at Intel.

The second individual to whom Gold-Zamir was introduced was Alex Bronstein, a serial founder who spent years as a principal engineer with Intel and who is today the head of the Center for Intelligent Systems at Technion as well as involved with several efforts involving deep learning AI, including at Embryonics and at Sibylla AI, a nascent outfit focused on algorithmic trading in capital markets.

It’s a small outfit, but the three, along with 13 other full-time employees to join them, appear to be making progress.

Fueled in part by $4 million in seed funding led by the Shuctermann Family Investment Office (led by the former president of Soros Capital, Sender Cohen) and the Israeli Innovation Authority, Embryonics says it’s about to receive regulatory approval in Europe that will enable it to sell its software — which the team says can recognize patterns and interpret image in small cell clusters with greater accuracy than a human —  to fertility clinics across the continent.

Using a database with millions of (anonymized) patient records from different centers around the world that representing all races and geographies and ages, says Gold-Zamir, the company is already eyeing next steps, too.

Most notably, beyond analyzing which of several embryos is most likely to thrive, Embryonics wants to work with fertility clinics on improving what’s called hormonal stimulation, so that their patients produce as many mature eggs as possible.

As Bronstein explains it, every woman who goes through IVF or fertility preservation goes through an hormonal stimulation process — which involves getting injected with hormones from 8 to 14 days — to induce their ovaries to produce numerous eggs. But right now, there are just three general protocols and  a “lot of trial and error in trying to establish the right one,” he says.

Though deep learning, Embryonics thinks it can begin to understand not just which hormones each individual should be taking but the different times they should be taken.

In addition to embryo selection, Embryonics has developed a non-invasive genetic test based on analysis of visual information, together with clinical data, that in some cases can detect major chromosomal aberrations like down syndrome, says Gold-Zamir.

And there’s more in the works if all goes as planned. “Embryonics’s goal is to provide a holistic solution, covering all aspects of the process,” says Gold-Zamir, who volunteers that she is raising four children of her own, along with running the company.

It’s too soon to say whether the nascent outfit will succeed, naturally. But it certainly seems to be at the forefront of a technology that is fast changing after more than 40 years wherein many IVF clinics worldwide have simply assessed embryo health by looking at days-old embryos on a petri dish under a microscope to assess their cell multiplication and shape.

In the spring of 2019, for instance, investigators from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City published own their conclusion  that AI can evaluate embryo morphology more accurately than the human eye after using 12,000 photos of human embryos taken precisely 110 hours after fertilization to train an algorithm to discriminate between poor and good embryo quality.

The investigators said that each embryo was first assigned a grade by embryologists that considered various aspects of the embryo’s appearance. The investigators then performed a statistical analysis to correlate the embryo grade with the probability of a successful pregnancy outcome. Embryos were considered good quality if the chances were greater than 58 percent and poor quality if the chances were below 35%.

After training and validation, the algorithm was able to classify the quality of a new set of images with 97% accuracy.

Photo Credit: Tammy Bar-Shay

Startups at CES showed how tech can help elderly people and their caregivers

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a harsh spotlight on the challenges many elderly people face. Older adults are among the highest-risk groups for developing cases that need hospitalization and nursing homes were especially vulnerable to outbreaks. While dealing with COVID-19, the elderly have also faced many other problems, including the difficulty of accessing medical care for chronic conditions during lockdowns and isolation.

Many of these issues won’t go away after the pandemic. According to the United Nations, the global population of people 65 and over is growing faster than any other age group. At the same time, there is a critical shortage of caregivers, especially for elderly people who want to continue living at home instead of moving into nursing homes.

Tech can help in many ways: by helping caregivers (and reducing burnout), allowing seniors to perform health monitoring at home and creating tools to combat isolation. During CES, there were several “age-tech” presentations. One of the most notable was AARP Innovation Lab, the non-profit’s startup accelerator program. It presented nine companies at the virtual show.

Zibrio's smart scale for assessing postural stability, or balance

Zibrio’s smart scale for assessing postural stability, or balance

One common theme among AARP’s group was tech that helps elderly people “age in place,” or stay in their homes or communities instead of moving into a nursing home. For example, Wheel Pad designs accessible home and work spaces that can be installed into existing structures and sites. Mighty Health is an app that pairs users with health coaches, certified trainers and personalized nutrition plans, while Zibrio, a scale that assesses users’ balance to predict if they are at risk for a fall, can also be incorporated into at-home routines.

Other startups from AARP Innovation Lab focus on helping caregivers, too. For example, FallCall Solutions’ creates Apple Watch apps that send alerts if a fall is detected and help family members check on users. Another app, called Ianacare, helps family members coordinate caregiving tasks and ask for support. End-of-life planning is one of the most emotionally difficult processes for families, and Cake, an “end-of-life platform” helps by providing tools for estate and health care planning, as well as resources to help relatives cope with caregiving issues and grief.

Other startups center on medical care. For people with chronic conditions, Folia Health helps monitor the progress of treatments. On the clinical side, Embleema’s software allows clinical investigators to share data and design studies, making pharmaceutical research more efficient.

Other noteworthy age-tech startups at CES included Nobi, a smart lamp that automatically turns on when users stand up and sends alerts to family members if they fall. Nobi can also be used in residences and nursing homes.

Caregiver Smart Solution's app for caregivers to coordinate tasks

Caregiver Smart Solution’s app for caregivers to coordinate tasks

Caregiver Smart Solutions is a multi-faceted platform that makes it easier for seniors to stay at home with a machine learning-based app for early detection of potential health issues, fall sensors, monitors and emergency buttons. For people with incontinence, DFree, a wearable device, can reduce stress by monitoring how full their bladder is with an ultrasound sensor and keeping track of their average time between bathroom visits. It’s available for both consumers and health care facilities.

A diagram of companion robot Cutii's features

A diagram of companion robot Cutii’s features

For elderly people living in nursing homes, Rendever is a virtual reality platform that wants to help reduce isolation. It can be used with reminiscence therapy, which guides individuals with dementia through experiences that remind them of their pasts, and to allow virtual travel to landmarks. Cutii, a companion robot, also seeks to reduce loneliness. While companion robots have been a mainstay of CES for years, Cutii sets itself apart with entertainment like music, games and live events. It also has video call and night patrol features.

After a record year for Israeli startups, 16 investors tell us what’s next

Israel’s startup ecosystem raised record amounts of funding and produced 19 IPOs in 2020, despite the pandemic. Now tech companies across industries are poised for an even better year, according to more than a dozen investors we talked to in the country.

Mainstay sectors like cybersecurity continue to matter, they said, but are maturing (more about that here). Some people are more excited by emerging areas like artificial intelligence, which has been a focus of the country’s military for years, and like cybersecurity is now producing many fresh teams of founders. Other investors felt that a broader range of industries, like fintech and biotech, would eventually produce the biggest companies in the country.

Overall, local investors cited the country’s focus on global markets from day one, general support from the Israeli government and deep relationships with Silicon Valley and other global tech centers as additional factors that are powering it forward today.

Here are the investors in their own words, for any TechCrunch reader who is interested in hiring, investing or founding a company in the country. Oh, and one more thing. We just launched Extra Crunch in Israel. Subscribe to access all of our investor surveys, company profiles and other inside tech coverage for startups everywhere. Save 25% off a one- or two-year Extra Crunch membership by entering this discount code: THANKYOUISRAEL

The investors:


Boaz Dinte, Qumra Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
At Qumra, we get excited about companies that disrupt traditional industries while doing good and improving quality of life. Our portfolio includes some great examples such as Fiverr that has disrupted the labor market by unlocking the global talent pool, or Talkspace, which is providing access to therapy to all.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Our latest investment is At-bay, the insurance company for the digital age. At-bay offers an end-to-end solution with comprehensive risk assessment, a tailored cyber insurance policy, and active, risk-management service.

Traditional insurers don’t have the know-how to properly and continually assess risk and approach digital risk the same way they approach physical products, through a statistical model that tries to predict the future based on past events. This a great example of company that is disrupting a traditional market.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
As a growth fund, we are sector agnostic and diversify our investments across multiple industries. Would be happy to add proptech and agritech startups to our portfolio.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We stay clear of nonregulated industries and do not invest in cryptocurrency-related companies, gambling, etc.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We are focused on Israeli and Israeli-related companies. As growth companies they may have moved to NY or CA with their headquarters and maintained their R&D in Israel.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
A great amount of talent is cultivated in the military, which has spawned innovative cyber, AI and machine-learning companies. Also, significant experience and know-how have been accumulated here in big data analytics. SaaS models and cloud technologies have eliminated some of the barriers for Israeli companies and enable companies to quickly set up and set up a proof of concept.

A few highlights in our portfolio include AppsFlyer, JoyTunes, Riskified, Talkspace and Guardicore.

Data-driven AppsFlyer, spearheaded by Oren Kaniel, is an exciting mobile-attribution company that is rapidly growing ($200 million+ ARR in 2020) yet maintains a unique DNA. JoyTunes, led by Yuval Kaminka has developed a music-learning platform that has skyrocketed in 2020. The platform has been widely adopted doing so much good for so many people in a short amount of time. Guardicore is disrupting the traditional firewall market by providing fine-grained segmentation for greater attack resistance. Led by CEO Pavel Gurevich the company is seeing excellent traction. Riskified makes e-ommerce easier and safer and enables a thriving e-commerce environment. Founder duo Eido Gal and Assaf Feldman are a powerhouse of vision and execution capabilities. Talkspace has not only created the leading online therapy business, but is actually improving the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of Americans, which are gaining access to therapy for the first time. Founding husband and wife Oren and Roni Frank are the ultimate power couple — creating an incredible business while creating some real impact.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Tech investors must make sure that Israel is part of their portfolio. Same as VC funds are deeply acquainted with Silicon Valley, tech investors cannot ignore this hub of innovation that has produced global market leading companies and serial entrepreneurs

What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Products and services that require anything requiring on-site visits and integration as well as a long sales cycle involving face-to-face meetings and customer education are negatively impacted during this time. The upside is that companies that will develop a remote and simplified approach can reap gains from this time. Such an example is Augury from our portfolio that has developed an end-to-end solution to provide manufacturers with early, actionable and comprehensive insights into machine health and performance. This has proved to be of crucial value in the supply chain during the pandemic.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?
Earlier in the month we have closed our third fund, Qumra III, at $260 million. This was done in a short time in a period when traveling and face-to-face meetings were impossible. Commitments to this fund, which is larger than its predecessor, included increased investments form existing LPs as well as new LPs from new geographies. This is a vote of confidence in the Israeli growth market in general and in Qumra in particular and has been a great achievement and source of hope going forward.

Rafi Carmeli, Viola Growth

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Platforms that are transforming how people and businesses operate, go about their business or leverage their core assets, using superior products, data and AI.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Zoomin Software.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Transformation of the CFO and treasury suite of tools.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
A+ team, superior product demonstrated with business/market traction and a sizable market opportunity.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?

Any area that needs to compete both with incumbents and also a set of already successful “new age” companies that made the first step of meaningful disruption.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 50%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?

Plenty of interesting opportunities but like many places, competitive around the best of the best.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Definitely see changes in evolution of young startups given the behavioral changes caused by COVID.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Any area that is exposed to mass physical engagement (pockets in travel, food, sports, etc.) are at risk. Remote engagement and productivity have potential to disrupt more industries, such as corporate events/virtual events.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Founders are generally resilient and based on their view on the company’s position post-COVID (winner/at risk) and the capital resources available, should decide on appropriate level of caution/aggressiveness.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes in many areas. In general software has proven to be a winner and specifically SaaS as a business model has proven its resilience.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The speed and decisiveness at which humanity acted to adjust to the effects and aftermath of the pandemic, and importantly to proactively get us all out of the health and economic crisis as quickly as possible (e.g., the speed of creating vaccines).

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
If something won’t matter in five years, don’t waste more than five minutes worrying about it now — easier said than done!

Yonatan Mandelbaum, TLV Partners

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Fintech (specifically embedded finance or financial SaaS), synthetic bio. This is in addition to traditional focus areas that we remain bullish on — cloud infrastructure, ML infra and cyber.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Unit.co, meshpayments.com.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
There simply isn’t enough innovation in fintech from the Israeli ecosystem. Our locale has managed to produce three of the most prolific insurtech companies (Next, Lemonade and Hippo), has a strong history of successful fintech companies (Payoneer, Forter, Riskified) and even has a few very promising earlier-stage ventures (Unit, Melio). That said, only about 10% of our overall deal flow are fintech companies. Areas such as vertical banking, embedded finance, compliance as a service and consumer finance consistently get overlooked by young Israeli founders.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
The cliche VC answer: strong team, big market. This remains constant during all times.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
(1) Cybersecurity — with one caveat. Israel will always be at the forefront of cyber innovation, and thus there will always be an opportunity for fledgling cyber companies in Israel. That said, it is 100% oversaturated, and there are too many examples of strong technical founders creating “yet another” SaaS security startup. (2) Remote work collaboration — clearly an issue that needs solving, but we have unsurprisingly seen an absurd amount of companies in the space. They are largely reactionary companies, and the companies that will prove to be the winners in this market have already been in the market for quite some time (Zoom, Alack, Miro, etc.).

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 50%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Fintech and bio are very well-positioned to thrive in Israel. In 10 years I wouldn’t be surprised if Israel is more well-known for those two sectors than it is for its cyber companies. Some companies to keep an eye on: Next Insurance, Unit, Mesh Payments, Aidoc, Deepcure, Immunai.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
I’m not saying anything new, but Israel is known as the startup nation for a reason. There is an incredible, thriving entrepreneurship culture that breeds fascinating companies weekly. Interestingly, valuation trends seem to trail the U.S. by about 12-18 months. So for later-stage VCs around the globe, Israel can represent an interesting opportunity to do deals of the same quality that they are doing in their locale, but for a more reasonable price.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Not particularly. Israel a small country, and even if there may be a residential exodus from Tel Aviv, there won’t be a commercial one.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel and proptech are more exposed due to COVID-19.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
COVID hasn’t impacted our investment strategy much. We have remained steady in our search for interesting early-stage software opportunities and our commitment to invest substantial amounts even at the seed round. The biggest worries of the portfolio founders surround slower enterprise sales cycles due to WFH and smaller budgets from potential customers. Our early advice to founders was to ensure runway for 18 months in order to weather the storm. Recently however, after witnessing the incredibly founder-friendly fundraising landscape, our advice has been to put the pedal to the metal, reach certain benchmarks and raise capital.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
No, there still hasn’t been enough time. That said, I will say that the initial enthusiasm of WFH has faded. The vast majority of our companies are clamoring to be back in the office.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
My grandparents both recently passed away from COVID-19. Despite the tragic loss that it was for my family, there was one moment that truly gave me hope. I had the opportunity to visit my grandmother in the COVID ward at a local hospital before she passed (in full protective gear of course). Before entering the ward, while the nurses were going over the protocols with me and four other individuals who were there to visit their sick family members, I was surprised to realize that the five of us in the room were an eclectic bunch. Jewish, Muslim, religious and not, young and old. In that moment, we all gave each other strength, wished each other well and it gave me hope that we can truly become a unified country in the near future. The next exponential growth that occurs in the Israeli ecosystem will be when there is an influx of minorities (Arabs, ultra-Orthodox) into the workforce.

Natalie Refuah, Viola Growth

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
DevOps, martech, digital health.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
RapidAPI.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Exciting team, hypergrowth, disruptiveness.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Cyber, automotive.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Close to 100%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
DevOps, cyber, enterprise software.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Very positively.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
There will be changes, that’s for sure.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?

E-commerce tech-related companies will thrive.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
We lowered our check size per company. My advice — if you are “with COVID trend” push hard, if you are “against COVID trend” — preserve cash.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
More time with my kids, but in general I miss hugging people when i meet them, and I prefer meeting people face to face.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Let the vaccine go!

Daniel Cohen, Viola Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Games, vertical AI and AI agencies, digital health.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Hyperguest, creating direct connectivity between hotels and OTAs. It’s the perfect next-gen travel infrastructure for the world post-pandemic.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
The biggest trend in the post-COVID world will be the new work environment. We would love to see more startups that will create corporate solutions that are focused on the future of work. That can be at the workplace or at the home.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Unique, innovative go-to-market. Leveraging technology to reach consumers in a more innovative way. It’s basically innovation in growth hacking, not only in great products.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Cybersecurity — the market is real and important, but there are too many startups with small niche solutions.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 50%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
The most exciting trends locally are everything AI with focus on B2B apps. Same goes with digital health and consumer-focused health applications.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Israel is the #1 region globally in unicorn production, probably the hottest startup region right now.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
No.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?

The biggest change has been on company culture, which is hard to maintain in a distributed work-from-home environment. Companies need to be innovative and creative in maintaining/building culture, which was so much easier pre-COVID.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic? What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.

The announcements around the vaccines make it clear that the end of the pandemic is near. I think 2021 will be amazing.

Ben Wiener, Jumpspeed Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Jumpspeed invests exclusively in pre-seed and seed-stage startups from the Jerusalem startup ecosystem.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
MDGo.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Not really, we are sector agnostic/bottom-up rather than thesis driven.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
10x better, paradigm-shift solution to a large, near-term, acute business problem, produced and led by a complementary founding team (hacker+hustler+designer).

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Cybersecurity, crypto, telehealth.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
EXCLUSIVELY, see above.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Jerusalem is well-positioned in certain clusters such as computer vision, general enterprise SaaS, AI/ML and healthtech.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Our city’s startup ecosystem is underexploited and generates a few fantastic under-the-radar opportunities per year.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Yes.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Little direct impact on strategy because by definition I am investing in things that will go to market and ripen over years.

Founders’ biggest worries are employee well-being, after that access to overseas customers and markets.

Advice to founders: Stay calm and healthy, play the long game, take care of yourself, your family and your employees, don’t panic or cut staff reactively.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes but not that I can attribute directly to the pandemic.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
No specific moment, just the general resilience and ability to adapt to the radically changing new realities that our portfolio founders have exhibited.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
“Entrepreneurship in advanced technology, is not merely a matter of decision-making; it is a matter of imposing cognitive order on situations that are repeatedly ill-defined.” — W. Brian Arthur, “The Nature of Technology”

No situation has been this ill-defined in the past century. Keep calm and carry on 🙂

Inbal Perlman, TAU Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
At TAU, we are interested in a variety of sectors and evaluate each potential investment independently. In regards to trends, we look at trends with a grain of salt understanding that trends might come and go. When we see a particular trend, we try to understand if there is a need behind the trend and see beyond the initial hype. We want to assure that a startup is meeting a real need in the market. We are particularly interested in technologies that do not require too much time and capital to get to market.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
We invested in a company called Xtend, which is creating human-machine telepresence allowing us to “step into” a machine, anywhere in the world, breaking the limits of physical reality. In particular, it develops solutions that allow people to interact with drones and other unmanned machine technologies. The company’s technology enables humans to extend themselves into the action by allowing them to virtually sit inside the drone for various tactical missions. What is exciting about Xtend is how the technology can be implemented in a variety of ways from defense and homeland security to reimagining entertainment, gaming and cinematography.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
We like to see startups that are disrupting traditional industries by solving basic challenges and needs with innovative means. There are some industries that haven’t changed in many years. And if you create a technology that can be simply integrated into existing markets, it has the potential to gain significant traction and drastically change an industry. So we would love to see more startups going “back to the basics” asking questions about commonly felt pain points and innovating to solve those pains.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
We want to get the feeling from the entrepreneur that they are professional, ready for the entrepreneurial journey, have the right mindset and skill set and will conquer the world. We understand that with early-stage startups, the product or service will likely change and therefore pay significant attention to the entrepreneurs themselves as an early indicator of future success.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Technology trends that often come and go can create an oversaturated market for startups. For example, previously there was hype around drones. Now, only the strongest companies in the drone industry have stuck around. Today, there are many startups responding to needs exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic such as remote learning and remote work. It is important to filter out whether these are solutions that will be around for a while and survive a post-COVID world or are temporary.

We are more cautious about particular industries. In edtech, those who have successfully done exits, have done so at low amounts ($200 million-$300 million). For us, we are seeking larger exits. Blockchain is a difficult sector because it lacks a clear regulatory environment, subsequently raising many questions. Similarly, the cannabis industry also does not have a fixed regulatory environment across countries. Any small regulation change can highly impact the company. These are the sectors and areas that we are more cautious around.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We invest in startups that are exclusively Israeli startups but are targeted for a global market. At TAU Ventures, we have 1,000 sq. meter coworking office space where majority of our portfolio companies and accelerator program companies sit on a daily basis. On a daily basis we are engaging with our startups through kitchen chats and hallway encounters. Through our coworking space, we are directly investing in our local ecosystem both supporting entrepreneurs and identifying rising entrepreneurs.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
In Israel, many Israeli entrepreneurs bring a high level of technical capabilities that they learn in the army such as in cyber and AI. After acquiring this knowledge and ability, they are well-prepared and able to transfer it to the commercial area. This is why we see many successful startups coming out of Israel particularly in these fields.
For example, founders of our portfolio company, SWIMM all come from leading elite tech training units in the army (Aram, Talpiot) and before founding SWIMM, established ITC (Israel Tech Challenge, a nonprofit high-tech academy that offers in-demand tech training programs in English in Tel Aviv, inspired by the IDF’s 8200 unit).
Furthermore, Tel Aviv University (TAU), our affiliated university, is a leading research institute and academic leader in AI, engineering and other sciences and is producing entrepreneurs with high levels of knowledge. 50% of entrepreneurs in Israel have studied at TAU. And TAU ranked eighth worldwide as a top university producing VC-backed entrepreneurs, and the first outside of the US. So we are very excited by the added advantage we have in being affiliated closely with the university and the talent which it is producing.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
The significant advantage of Israel is its small size. Because there is little to no local market, startups automatically think globally in their marketing and growth strategies. To best understand Israel and Israelis, it’s important to understand the influence of the military and the reality of thriving in a complex political environment in the Middle East. Military service is compulsory for all Israelis at the age of 18. The army plays an important role in the socialization, education, skills development, social network and fabric of Israeli society. Many personal and professional networks are the result of army service. As Israelis, we live in an environment where we need to constantly be innovative and one step ahead to survive. This innovative mindset has been instilled in our state of mind and cultural DNA.
We are proud that In Israel we have academics at the highest level in the world across a variety of fields. Multinationals from all over the world have local R&D centers or innovation hubs in Israel to source from the local talent pool. This presence of multinationals creates mutual exposure for both startups and corporates alike.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
At TAU Ventures, the majority of our portfolio and accelerator companies sit next to us at our 1,000 sq. meter coworking space. At our offices, we love seeing our founders and their employees on a regular basis. This is how we have successfully created a strong familial culture at our VC. Throughout COVID, companies have continued to come in person to the office. This has reinforced to us that there is no exchange for face-to-face engagement. As early-stage investors, we understand that at this stage it is all about the people. At the end of the day, people want to be around people and you can not replace the experience of sharing a cup of coffee and shaking someone’s hand.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?
COVID affected companies in different ways. For some, it boosted business and for others it led them to shift their strategy and approach. Our companies who had clients in the travel industry or airports were obviously affected. In this situation, the company looked at their technology and reconsidered where and how their technology could be relevant to other consumers and industries. This particular company saw an opportunity to shift to logistics and supply chain clients. COVID is presenting opportunities for companies to reevaluate their target market and discover new applications of their technology for different purposes.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
As a result of COVID, we have come to understand that things simply are taking more time, such as processes of raising funds or achieving the next milestone. We are patient and empathetic to the experiences of our startups.

The startups’ most significant worry is that they will not succeed to raise enough funds before reaching their next milestone. And more so, if they are unable to prove their achievement milestones in time, then they might be forced to close business. As a result, our startups are raising more funds during this time to assure a longer runway. Our startups are also keenly aware of how periods of crisis might call on them to pivot and adapt to the current circumstances. Startups are making decisions around adjusting budgets, determining whether customers are still relevant, anticipating whether the circumstances are temporary or will renormalize and ultimately whether there is a completely new path to pivot to.
In light of the circumstances, we are advising our portfolio startups to raise more funds in next rounds to have runway for at least 1.5 years and not to be afraid of making drastic changes (i.e., pivots, changing budget, raising more funds).

As a fund, we are assuring our entrepreneurs that if they choose to change paths, it is okay. Working from a coworking space alongside many of our founders enables us to stay updated on the startups, foster a strong internal ecosystem and network, and provide ongoing psychological safety for our entrepreneurs, which is ever so needed during these unprecedented times for startups.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Two of our portfolio companies have experienced impressive growth and are thriving in 2020.
1. Gaviti is a SaaS company that specializes in receivable collections acceleration. Its system maps out the collection process to spot inefficiencies and optimize clients’ procedures. Specifically during COVID, many companies had increased economic pain points related to generating cash flow on a timely, efficient basis. Gaviti’s solution helps companies manage their collection payments. As a result of of the economic crisis this year, Gaviti saw fast growth in clients and have thrived during 2020.
2. Medorion understands that health companies and hospitals want us to get regular health checkouts. Using AI and behavioral science, Medorion is driving people to take action for their own health by increasing engagement and communication between insurance companies and patients. During COVID, they are combating the coronavirus pandemic by applying their technology to create highly personalized engagement and communication plans targeted at those individuals who are at highest risk of COVID-19.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
In recent months, it is inspiring to see our entrepreneurs continue fighting despite the uncertain economic and global circumstances. Many of our companies are continuing to recruit and hire. Our founders are resilient and are finding creative means to succeed. It is also a blessing to have a large coworking space hosting the offices of 10 startups and to see employees continue to come in to the office day in and day out working with their teams.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
TAU Ventures is a venture capital fund, affiliated with Tel Aviv University, for investing in early-stage, cutting-edge technologies based in Israel. TAU Ventures is the first and only university-affiliated VC in Israel.

The fund has a unique, triangle model creating ecosystem connections between industry, academy and entrepreneurs. We connect to available resources at Tel Aviv University, foster strong partnerships in the high-tech industry and support entrepreneurs as they work side by side in the coworking office space of the VC located on the university campus.

TAU Ventures also runs incubation programs in a variety of tech fields and offers a vibrant hub for entrepreneurs with concrete opportunities for design partnerships with international leading companies: AlphaC program (in partnership with NEC, Checkpoint, Innogy, Team8 and Cybereason) and The Xcelerator (an acceleration program with the Israeli Security Agency).
In 2018, IVC awarded TAU Ventures an award for one of the most active VCs in Israel. And in 2019, Geektime ranked TAU Ventures among the top five best VCs in Israel.

David (Dede) Goldschmidt, Samsung Catalyst Fund

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Digital transformation and AI.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Solarisbank (Germany).

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
AI-acceleration technologies seems to be overcrowded.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Less than 50%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
AI, cyber security. Excited about our portfolio company Innoviz (LiDAR). Excited about Avigdor Willenz, serial entrepreneur, including our portfolio company Habana Labs that was acquired for $2 billion.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Highly dynamic and competitive, very global approach of entrepreneurs, risk takers, “can-do” approach.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I don’t expect that to happen because a strong ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors and service providers would be needed, and it takes years for that to grow.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?
Industries serving brick-and-mortars are likely to get weakened by accelerated transition to online.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our advice has been to be careful with cash. There is a disconnect between the strong momentum in the tech financing vis-a-vis overall economic crisis (unemployment, governments deficits, etc.). We have yet to see the full impact of COVID-19 on tech startups and better be prepared for that.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, for pure digital plays.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Frankly, I remain concerned because of the disconnect alluded to above. Vaccine momentum brings some hope, but too early to tell.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
I am very concerned from potential crunch in early stage. While overall financing numbers are growing almost across all geographies, investments are heavily weighted toward later stage and unicorns, and much fewer new companies are being formed. This will have dramatic impact on the tech ecosystem a few years out, if it does not change in 2021.

Dror Nahumi, Norwest Venture Partners

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
We are a large fund that invests in early-to-late-stage companies across a wide range of sectors with a focus on consumer, enterprise and healthcare. My focus is primarily in Israeli companies and I’m seeing many exciting startups in security, SaaS, enterprise and cloud infrastructure, robotics and semiconductors.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
We are naturally excited about all our latest investments. I recently invested in three seed-stage companies that are in stealth mode: an open-source cloud infrastructure company, a people analytics (HR) SaaS company and a next-generation business-intelligence platform.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I believe there is a massive opportunity for startups to develop new solutions to fuel the digitization of next-generation enterprises. We’re seeing innovation and activity in this sector, but there’s so much more to be done, especially in light of challenges and vulnerabilities that COVID-19 has exposed. The hottest areas will be in human resources, production, security, infrastructure, sales and remote work.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
We look for a great team, strong intellectual property and compelling execution. The new product idea can be a replacement (i.e., replace existing products that are aging, low performance) or a new category. Gong.io is a great example of a new category we invested in early on. We created the new “revenue intelligence” category that offers businesses automated, unfiltered and real-time insights on customer interactions and deals. This helps businesses understand what’s actually being said to transform the way they go to market.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Security is currently oversaturated. There are too many companies doing similar things, which can make it difficult for newcomers to break through. Additionally, most emerging security startups are all claiming to use machine learning and AI to combat the next level of breaches. These are important areas to focus on, but it’s getting harder for these companies to differentiate themselves. That aside, we have made several great investments in security over the years and will continue to invest in great teams.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Our team in Israel is 100% focused on our local market.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Numerous industries in the Israeli market are poised to thrive and are doing so currently. Examples include startups in the security, SaaS, enterprise and the cloud infrastructure space, and even consumer services. We are especially excited to continue to witness the growth and success of Gong, VAST Data, WekaIO, Cynet, Wiliot, ActiveFence, Ermetic and SundaySky while building new companies who are still in the stealth stage.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
At Norwest and especially among our Israel portfolio companies, we’ve been able to let our companies mature. We’ve given them the time and support they need to reach maturity. This is a very different approach than what we are seeing in other environments.

Today, growth comes before M&A and companies get valuations much quicker. In past years, it was hard to raise money but it’s not so difficult now. In Israel, inside sales and marketing analytics allow companies to sell more effectively now than in the last decade. This gives entrepreneurs flexibility, room to expand into other markets and the ability to hire top talent globally versus just within their own region.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Israel is so small that you are never really too far outside a major city. We expect our startup hub to stay intact even if individuals and businesses choose to move slightly outside of the main CBD.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
The travel industry has been massively impacted in every market globally since the COVID-19 outbreak. That said, that means there is a huge opportunity to fill gaps based on business and consumer needs as we approach a post-pandemic normal.

I would say that solutions with huge potential are those centered on hybrid workforces as enterprises rethink the future of work. These have the potential to significantly benefit from the pandemic in the short and long term.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
COVID-19 has not impacted our investment strategy. However, in recent conversations with our portfolio companies, it’s clear that brands can emerge stronger than ever with an adaptable strategy, adjusted expectations, strong marketing and B2C communications, and compassionate leadership.

Over the past several months, we’ve advised companies in our portfolio to focus on building their business while prioritizing the safety of their workforce, which could mean further extending work-from-home policies or making remote work a standard option in their hiring practices. Companies’ ability to innovate and adapt while building their business around the new normal will be better positioned to succeed in a post-COVID landscape.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
While it’s not one particular moment, there were many times this past year where our portfolio companies faced major challenges due to the pandemic and were still able to continue to expand their businesses. Every sales quarter that shows growth and success gives me hope.

Sharin Fisher, Fort Ross Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
I’m mostly excited about AI/ML technologies, cybersecurity companies and the global opportunity in B2B SaaS companies in general; companies that help to optimize business processes and boost efficiency (e.g., one of our portfolio companies, Kryon, is operating in the robotic process automation space, evaluating business processes, and recommending which ones to automate in order to free up underutilized human talent). We are seeing many successful Israeli SaaS companies across the board, from marketing and collaboration tools, business intelligence products, to payment systems.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
My latest investment was in a B2B SaaS company that disrupts a huge market. I’m mostly excited about the team, which contains senior executives and second-time entrepreneurs with domain expertise.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?

We are looking for companies that have a big market, a compelling story and a clear path to building a large business. When we invest, companies already have traction, a diverse customer base, established and repeatable sales process and metrics. So, when we dive deeper into the company’s metrics we would like to see they support the company’s assumptions and ability to scale up properly.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
WFH enablement tools (from security to communication tools).

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We are a global VC with a distributed team, focused on investing in midstage companies based in the U.S. and Israel, that can become global leaders. I’m leading our investments in the Israeli companies, globally.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Israel is well-positioned to build and grow large companies that can become segment leaders. We are seeing many leading companies across multiple sectors such as mobility (Moovit, Mobileye), cybersecurity (Armis, Cybereason, SentinelOne), fintech (Lemonade, Payoneer, eToro), information technology (Jfrog, Snyk), etc.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
The Israeli ecosystem has matured significantly over the last decade, mainly due to repeat entrepreneurs who bring knowledge and relevant experience to the table. They aspire to build meaningful companies. On top of that, there’s more available late-stage capital, allowing companies to stay private longer and become mega-acquisitions/IPO.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
The COVID-19 crisis has impacted Israeli founders in terms of how and from where they work. As many Israeli startups aim to tap into the U.S. market, they usually relocate pretty early on, mainly to build relationships with potential customers. Since the pandemic has created a situation where you have to sell your product/service remotely, physical location has become less relevant. In the short term, I believe we’ll see more Israeli founders working out of Israel, especially when taking into account the advantages (e.g., lower cost of living compared to other places like NYC/San Francisco). In the long run, there’s a high probability that founders who can keep the same sales efficiency remotely will continue to work out of their home country.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
All of the segments we look at are thriving or haven’t changed significantly. I’m mostly interested in startups that are able to sell remotely and have an established inside sales team with a simple integration/deployment, because I believe they are in a better position to scale faster even in this climate.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our investment strategy remains the same; we are still looking to back companies that can become global leaders and aspire to disrupt huge markets. In terms of the work with our portfolio companies, our founders have already made the needed adjustments and are now more focused on capital efficiency and expanding the runway.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Most of our portfolio adapted to the crisis quite fast and have enough runway to reach their next milestone. For some of our portfolio companies, especially those that support the digital transformation, the pandemic has created business opportunities and accelerated the adoption of their technology. As a result, we deployed additional capital to help them leverage this momentum.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Although the pandemic has created uncertainty for all of us, we have still been seeing more (+14) Israeli companies reaching unicorn status/going public during the past months.

Adi Levanon Chazan, Flint Capital

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Sensi.ai.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
A bit over 50% of the portfolio are Israeli startups, the remaining 50% divide between Europe and the U.S.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Fintech has been continuing to grow and will thrive over time. I’m excited about companies like Melio, Unit, Acrocharge and Rapyd.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Very important to have local partners and try to expand the local network as much as possible, best would be to have a person on the ground dedicated to Israeli investments.

Chaim Meir Tessler, partner, OurCrowd

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Fintech, cloud services, quantum software, cyber.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Closed at time of writing this: D-ID.
Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Built from the ground up remote educational platforms.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Founders I like to work with and believe in.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Micromobility, autonomous car sensors.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
60%-70% local.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Cyber, computer vision, semiconductor, quantum computing all thrive.

The banking infrastructure companies starting to emerge look fantastic.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Great market, easy to network, mostly friendly to coinvestment.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
With the world becoming flat, innovation will definitely sprout up in new areas.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?
COVID hasn’t strongly affected our overall strategy other than a slowdown in March/April. The biggest worry is inadequate funding/runway.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Realizing that we landed in this pandemic on a moment in history that we had the tools needed to enable a large amount of the world’s population to continue working without having to be in a specific physical location.

Noam Kaiser, Intel Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Cloud adoption through digital transformation to hybrid cloud, 5G, vertical AI-based SaaS.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Cellwize — basically opening up RAN (4G and 5G) to any API, cloud environment compatibility.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Solution allowing application to run across data sources in multiple buckets across hybrid/multicloud environments.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Deep understanding of the area and the customer needs, a complementing trend, high revenue potential within five years.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
MLOps, too many, too quickly, Storage at large.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Safebreach — Red Team automation for cybersecurity teams, Verbit — vertical AI, transcription.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
It hasn’t slowed down, plenty of opportunity, you have to move fast.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I don’t see the pandemic having that effect. Hubs will remain as are.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?
Anything relying on on-prem slowed down; this can be semiconductors and retail. but it’s recovering.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Not really, we invest the same amount into the same amount of companies at same stages as before.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, deals are closing, financing is taking place as well as M&As.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Simply lively investment atmosphere, new up rounds and several M&A processes emerging.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Careful optimism, raise aggressively and cash up when possible, refresh the pipeline and get to it, corporates are back into closing deals.

Tal Slobodkin, StageOne Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Cloud computing and​ software infrastructure​/cybersecurity/DevOps/connected everything/deep compute, big data and AI/next-generation storage and data center.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
R-Go Robotics are pioneering an artificial perception technology that enables mobile robots to understand complex surroundings and operate autonomously just like humans.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
More sophisticated cyber solutions, additional MLOps technologies, AI solutions.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Deep-tech technology solving complex enterprise challenges.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We see a lot of could monitoring services/SaaS cloud startups all competing with very similar technologies.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Israel 85%; USA 15% — always looking to expand in the U.S. market as well.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
StageOne portfolio companies: Coralogix, Silverfort, Epsagon, Avanan, Neuroblade. Other companies: OwnBackup/RunAI/Verbit/Indegy — all based in Israel.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Less relevant for Israel and more for the U.S., but yes we will probably see new founders from different geographies, which is a good thing, giving new opportunities to people that before may have not considered starting a company.

What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
We do see that COVID-19 has less of an effect on the cybersecurity industry as many organizations are looking for new solutions, as the risk of cyberattacks increases due to remote working and refocusing a lot of their activity to the digital world.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our companies continue to adapt and make the necessary changes and plans for the near future. Most of the companies have continued the work-from-home policy.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Seeing our companies continue to grow and expand both in people and product. They all adapted to the situation for both the short term and long run. They have continued to raise funds and some companies have even developed additional products to assist with COVID-19-related issues.

Ayal Itzkoviz, partner, Pitango First

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Disruption in traditional markets yearning innovation, such as retail, insurtech, logistics, etc.

B2B2B: Companies no longer wish to build things they can buy. Buying key components of the product/software enables companies to focus on the innovation side. One example is Frontegg — the company provides a set of pre-built, essential SaaS product capabilities that can easily and seamlessly integrate within any new or existing SaaS application. This enables dev teams to focus on perfecting the truly differentiating and valuable features at the heart of their SaaS offering. Another viable example is Stripe and its offering in the payments market.

Cyber: 2020 taught us many lessons, one of them is that tech is just getting more exciting as digital transformation is enhanced, and the other is that the digital revolution presents cyber challenges that didn’t exist before. This results in continued opportunities for disruption in this domain.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Frontegg — a startup that transforms the way SaaS is being built, so that developers don’t need to develop nondifferentiating code and features. Frontegg provides a state of the art SaaS-as-a-service platform, perfectly integrated within the company’s stack and allowing it to do what it’s best at: building their own product. Frontegg is the first pre-built suite of universal SaaS capabilities, enabling teams to focus on core features, shorten time-to-market and drive user adoption. Frontegg’s mission is to accelerate the delivery of enterprise-grade SaaS applications while providing the safest, most secure and optimal user experience.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
First: more open-source projects. They do exist, but usually operate under the radar and come out of stealth mode when they’re already mature and beyond the phase of seed and stage on which Pitango First is focused.

Quantum computing, in our view, has reached a point of no return. We’ll be happy to see entrepreneurs, scientists and business people in Israel jumping on the opportunity wagon already now, and build companies now, before the quantum market begins what will surely be an exponential growth.

Lastly are startups with a double bottom line, i.e., startups that while solving a pain point in the market they’re in and have a potential to become category leader, also address an impact category. Pitango is the first VC to integrate ESG practices into its mainstream activities. As part of this strategy, and as a first step, we are focusing on our vast portfolio of companies and work closely with them to embed

ESG into their core practices through a “migration” process.

Pitango aims to move the needle in the venture capital space through the “AND” philosophy: profit AND purpose, capital AND impact. Pitango is introducing a new paradigm of how venture capital does impact and integrates the “AND” philosophy by turning to a new opportunity set: the impact migrants. i.e., those startups that, although might not have been created under the SDG narrative, have the potential and a desire to embrace and track their impact. They will define their impact mission, integrate SDG targets within their business performance and track impact in alignment with financial targets, all without losing sight of their primary mission to deliver superior financial returns.

Furthermore, Pitango applies this AND philosophy beyond its existing portfolio and onto future deal flow review. We call it the “mainstreaming” of impact investing.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
The Israeli market has evolved tremendously in recent years. While the IPO market used to be out of reach for Israeli-born companies, this is no longer the case. We are looking for the visionaries, the dent blowers, the unconventional types who are eager to solve the biggest of challenges and are aiming at building an IPO-able business rather than an M&A one.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Pitango First is focused on Israeli/Israeli-related startups. From time to time we identify an investment opportunity in areas we have defined as strategic, in which the Israeli market isn’t mature enough and for which we believe we can add significant value and then invest in non-Israeli companies.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Israel is a super strong innovation hub. One of the major evolution trends of recent years is that the traditional glass ceiling that Israeli startups used to tackle has been shattered. Global players realize that now they can get the same upside like SV-based companies, in much more reasonable terms, and sometimes, less competition.
Somewhat counterintuitively, we see the investment climate in these times of COVID-19 being extremely vibrant and competitive. Strong teams are raising significant rounds at record high valuations, which add up to the current belief that COVID-19 didn’t slow, but accelerated the digital transformation.

What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
For many seed early-stage startups that have secured funding, COVID-19 didn’t set setbacks in their plans, as they are further from the market from more mature companies. However, such companies, when backed by strong investors, while they may experience decrease in their revenues, are using this period to gain strength by acquiring companies within their ecosystem and position themselves better toward the out-of-pandemic curve that will eventually be here in a few short quarters.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The pattern of investing for the long run during the pandemic. Looking far into the horizon, as veterans of previous crises we were able to share our experience and insights and help them better deal with the crisis. Also, this question can’t be answered without mentioning the COVID-19 vaccines, which set a magnificent example to the extent humanity can benefit when tech, medical companies and governments join hands and engage in a group effort.

Ittai Harel, Pitango HealthTech

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
The consumerization of healthcare.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
HomeThrive — a tech-enabled healthcare services company tackling the aging-in-home challenge and helping families help their loved ones age happily.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
An all-star team building a category-defining or category-leading company with demonstrable clinical AND financial outcomes.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Narrow wearables that do not integrate into a clinical or life workflow.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Pitango HealthTech is focused on Israeli/Israeli-related startups. From time to time we identify an investment opportunity in areas we have defined as strategic, in which the Israeli market isn’t mature enough and for which we believe we can add significant value, and then invest in non-Israeli companies.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Israel has many thriving healthcare sectors — from RPM and computer vision in digital health to cardiovascular in med devices to drug research in biotech and pharma. We are excited about our portfolio company Variantyx (a provider of whole genome sequencing and analytics unique platform solution) and Alike (a patient-facing platform to allow individuals to access and analyze their medical data and to connect to others similar to them). We are also excited to be part of this ecosystem and to lead thought leadership in it.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
The healthcare innovation ecosystem in Israel is thriving. There are incredible entrepreneurs and opportunities with global potential and reach that global investors should be aware of.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
To some extent we are witness more disbursement in Israel, but there is nonetheless a strong draw to co-locating in hubs and we expect to see Tel-Aviv and the central area in Israel to continue dominating in terms of attractiveness to strong teams.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?

Hospitals have seen a drastic decline in elective procedures and an overall disruption to their operations and budgets. Startups that are able to introduce new technologies to make this shift efficient and painless stand to win from the current trend.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
For the healthcare industry, COVID-19 has brought challenges — but also opportunities. We believe overall that our companies (and the industry overall) stand to gain from the shift as stakeholders are quicker to adopt changes that before took much longer. We advise our — and all — portfolio companies to prepare for the days after COVID and think through what changes in their specific segment will be long-lasting and are “here to stay.”

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
When the first individual in the U.K. — a 90-year-old woman — received the vaccine. A turning point hopefully for the entire world.

Extra Crunch roundup: Antitrust jitters, SPAC odyssey, white-hot IPOs, more

Some time ago, I gave up on the idea of finding a thread that connects each story in the weekly Extra Crunch roundup; there are no unified theories of technology news.

The stories that left the deepest impression were related to two news pegs that dominated the week — Visa and Plaid calling off their $5.3 billion acquisition agreement, and sizzling-hot IPOs for Affirm and Poshmark.

Watching Plaid and Visa sing “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” in harmony after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block their deal wasn’t shocking. But I was surprised to find myself editing an interview Alex Wilhelm conducted with Plaid CEO Zach Perret the next day in which the executive said growing the company on its own is “once again” the correct strategy.


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In an analysis for Extra Crunch, Managing Editor Danny Crichton suggested that federal regulators’ new interest in antitrust enforcement will affect valuations going forward. For example, Procter & Gamble and women’s beauty D2C brand Billie also called off their planned merger last week after the Federal Trade Commission raised objections in December.

Given the FTC’s moves last year to prevent Billie and Harry’s from being acquired, “it seems clear that U.S. antitrust authorities want broad competition for consumers in household goods,” Danny concluded, and I suspect that applies to Plaid as well.

In December, C3.ai, Doordash and Airbnb burst into the public markets to much acclaim. This week, used clothing marketplace Poshmark saw a 140% pop in its first day of trading and consumer-financing company Affirm “priced its IPO above its raised range at $49 per share,” reported Alex.

In a post titled “A theory about the current IPO market”, he identified eight key ingredients for brewing a debut with a big first-day pop, which includes “exist in a climate of near-zero interest rates” and “keep companies private longer.” Truly, words to live by!

Come back next week for more coverage of the public markets in The Exchange, an interview with Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg where he shares his plans for taking the company public, a comprehensive post that will unpack the regulatory hurdles facing D2C consumer brands, and much more.

If you live in the U.S., enjoy your MLK Day holiday weekend, and wherever you are: Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

I’m taking the credit/blame for this headline https://t.co/2KYLsTxeHq

— Walter Thompson (@YourProtagonist) January 12, 2021

 

Rapid growth in 2020 reveals OKR software market’s untapped potential

After spending much of the week covering 2021’s frothy IPO market, Alex Wilhelm devoted this morning’s column to studying the OKR-focused software sector.

Measuring objectives and key results are core to every enterprise, perhaps more so these days since knowledge workers began working remotely in greater numbers last year.

A sign of the times: This week, enterprise orchestration SaaS platform Gtmhub announced that it raised a $30 million Series B.

To get a sense of how large the TAM is for OKR, Alex reached out to several companies and asked them to share new and historical growth metrics:

  • Gthmhub
  • Perdoo
  • WorkBoard
  • Ally.io
  • Koan
  • WeekDone

“Some OKR-focused startups didn’t get back to us, and some leaders wanted to share the best stuff off the record, which we grant at times for candor amongst startup executives,” he wrote.

5 consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies

For our latest investor survey, Matt Burns interviewed five VCs who actively fund consumer electronics startups:

  • Hans Tung, managing partner, GGV Capital
  • Dayna Grayson, co-founder and general partner, Construct Capital
  • Cyril Ebersweiler, general partner, SOSV
  • Bilal Zuberi, partner, Lux Capital
  • Rob Coneybeer, managing director, Shasta Ventures

“Consumer hardware has always been a tough market to crack, but the COVID-19 crisis made it even harder,” says Matt, noting that the pandemic fueled wide interest in fitness startups like Mirror, Peloton and Tonal.

Bonus: Many VCs listed the founders, investors and companies that are taking the lead in consumer hardware innovation.

A theory about the current IPO market

Digital generated image of abstract multi colored curve chart on white background.

Image Credits: Getty Images/Andriy Onufriyenko

If you’re looking for insight into “why everything feels so damn silly this year” in the public markets, a post Alex wrote Thursday afternoon might offer some perspective.

As someone who pays close attention to late-stage venture markets, he’s identified eight factors that are pushing debuts for unicorns like Affirm and Poshmark into the stratosphere.

TL;DR? “Lots of demand, little supply, boom goes the price.”

Poshmark prices IPO above range as public markets continue to YOLO startups

Clothing resale marketplace Poshmark closed up more than 140% on its first trading day yesterday.

In Thursday’s edition of The Exchange, Alex noted that Poshmark boosted its valuation by selling 6.6 million shares at its IPO price, scooping up $277.2 million in the process.

Poshmark’s surge in trading is good news for its employees and stockholders, but it reflects poorly on “the venture-focused money people who we suppose know what they are talking about when it comes to equity in private companies,” he says.

Will startup valuations change given rising antitrust concerns?

GettyImages 926051128

Image Credits: monsitj/Getty Images

This week, Visa announced it would drop its planned acquisition of Plaid after the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit to block it last fall.

Last week, Procter & Gamble called off its purchase of Billie, a women’s beauty products startup — in December, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sued to block that deal, too.

Once upon a time, the U.S. government took an arm’s-length approach to enforcing antitrust laws, but the tide has turned, says Managing Editor Danny Crichton.

Going forward, “antitrust won’t kill acquisitions in general, but it could prevent the buyers with the highest reserve prices from entering the fray.”

Dear Sophie: What’s the new minimum salary required for H-1B visa applicants?

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

I’m a grad student currently working on F-1 STEM OPT. The company I work for has indicated it will sponsor me for an H-1B visa this year.

I hear the random H-1B lottery will be replaced with a new system that selects H-1B candidates based on their salaries.

How will this new process work?

— Positive in Palo Alto

Venture capitalists react to Visa-Plaid deal meltdown

A homemade chocolate cookie with a bite and crumbs on a white background

Image Credits: Ana Maria Serrano/Getty Images

After news broke that Visa’s $5.3 billion purchase of API startup Plaid fell apart, Alex Wilhelm and Ron Miller interviewed several investors to get their reactions:

  • Anshu Sharma, co-founder and CEO, SkyflowAPI
  • Amy Cheetham, principal, Costanoa Ventures
  • Sheel Mohnot, co-founder, Better Tomorrow Ventures
  • Lucas Timberlake, partner, Fintech Ventures
  • Nico Berardi, founder and general partner, ANIMO Ventures
  • Allen Miller, VC, Oak HC/FT
  • Sri Muppidi, VC, Sierra Ventures
  • Christian Lassonde, VC, Impression Ventures

Plaid CEO touts new ‘clarity’ after failed Visa acquisition

Zach Perret, chief executive officer and co-founder of Plaid Technologies Inc., speaks during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The summit brings together the leading minds in the tech industry for two-days of keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image Credits: George Frey/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Alex Wilhelm interviewed Plaid CEO Zach Perret after the Visa acquisition was called off to learn more about his mindset and the company’s short-term plans.

Perret, who noted that the last few years have been a “roller coaster,” said the Visa deal was the right decision at the time, but going it alone is “once again” Plaid’s best way forward.

2021: A SPAC odyssey

In Tuesday’s edition of The Exchange, Alex Wilhelm took a closer look at blank-check offerings for digital asset marketplace Bakkt and personal finance platform SoFi.

To create a detailed analysis of the investor presentations for both offerings, he tried to answer two questions:

  1. Are special purpose acquisition companies a path to public markets for “potentially promising companies that lacked obvious, near-term growth stories?”
  2. Given the number of unicorns and the limited number of companies that can IPO at any given time, “maybe SPACS would help close the liquidity gap?”

Flexible VC: A new model for startups targeting profitability

12 ‘flexible VCs’ who operate where equity meets revenue share

Spotlit Multi Colored Coil Toy in the Dark.

Image Credits: MirageC/Getty Images

Growth-stage startups in search of funding have a new option: “flexible VC” investors.

An amalgam of revenue-based investment and traditional VC, investors who fall into this category let entrepreneurs “access immediate risk capital while preserving exit, growth trajectory and ownership optionality.”

In a comprehensive explainer, fund managers David Teten and Jamie Finney present different investment structures so founders can get a clear sense of how flexible VC compares to other venture capital models. In a follow-up post, they share a list of a dozen active investors who offer funding via these nontraditional routes.

These 5 VCs have high hopes for cannabis in 2021

Marijuana leaf on a yellow background.

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

For some consumers, “cannabis has always been essential,” writes Matt Burns, but once local governments allowed dispensaries to remain open during the pandemic, it signaled a shift in the regulatory environment and investors took notice.

Matt asked five VCs about where they think the industry is heading in 2021 and what advice they’re offering their portfolio companies:

Yo-Kai Express introduces Takumi, a smart home cooking appliance

Yo-Kai Express is known for autonomous restaurant technology for venues like office campuses, malls and hotels. As people continue staying home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company is introducing a smart home cooking appliance with multiple functions. Called Takumi, it includes a coffee maker, high induction cooktop and a steamer for sanitizing utensils and baby bottles. Takumi is connected by RFID to an app with preprogrammed recipes, which also sends alert when its water container is running low.

The company is currently presenting Takumi at CES’ Taiwan Tech Arena.

Yo-Kai Express' smart home cooking appliance Takumi

Yo-Kai Express’ smart home cooking appliance Takumi

If you live in the Bay Area, you might have seen Yo-Kai Express’s Octo-Chef, a vending machine that serves hot noodle dishes (ramen, udon and pho), in venues like the San Francisco International Airport, the Metreon mall in San Francisco and corporate campuses. But the company is adapting as people stay home. In April, it launched a home meal kit delivery service that is now available in all states.

Created for people who want a home-cooked meal but are short on time (and space), the Takumi’s pre-programmed recipes have cooking times of just two to eight minutes. Yo-Kai Express is known for noodle dishes, but the Takumi’s menu will also include rice bowls, dim sum, dumplings and pasta.

Oxbotica raises $47M to deploy its autonomous vehicle software in industrial applications

While the world continues to await the arrival of safe, reliable and cost-effective self-driving cars, one of the pioneers in the world of autonomous vehicle software has raised some substantial funding to double down on what it sees as a more immediate opportunity: providing technology to industrial companies to build off-road applications.

Oxbotica, the Oxford, England startup that builds what it calls “universal autonomy” — flexible technology that it says can power the navigation, perception, user interfaces, fleet management and other features needed to run self-driving vehicles in multiple environments, regardless of the hardware being used — has picked up $47 million in a Series B round of funding from an interesting mix of strategic and financial investors.

Led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, the round also includes BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners.

Oxbotica said it plans to use the capital to fuel a raft of upcoming deployments — several that will be coming online this year, according to its CEO — for clients in areas like mining, port logistics and more, with its lead investor bp an indication of the size of its customers and the kinds of projects that are in its sights.

The question, CEO Ozgur Tohumcu said in an interview, is “Where is the autonomy needed today? If you go to mines or ports, you can see vehicles in use already,” he said. “We see a huge transformation happening in the industrial domain.”

The funding and focus on industry are interesting turns for Oxbotica. The startup has been around since about 2014, originally as a spinout from Oxford University co-founded by academics Paul Newman and Ingmar Posner — Newman remains at the startup as its CTO, while Posner remains an AI professor at Oxford.

Oxbotica has been associated with a number of high-profile projects — early on, it provided sensor technology for Nasa’s Mars Rover, for example.

Over time, it has streamlined what it does to two main platforms that it calls Selenium and Caesium, covering respectively navigation, mapping, perception, machine learning, data export and related technology; and fleet management.

Newman says that what makes Oxbotica stand out from other autonomous software providers is that its systems are lighter and easier to use.

“Where we are good is in edge compute,” he said. “Our radar-based maps are 10 megabytes to cover a kilometer rather than hundreds of megabytes… Our business plan is to build a horizontal software platform like Microsoft’s.” That may underplay the efficiency of what it’s building, however: Oxbotica also has worked out how to efficiently transfer the enormous data loads associated with autonomous systems, and is working with companies like Cisco to bring these online.

In recent years Oxbotica has been synonymous with some of the more notable on-road self-driving schemes in the U.K. But, as you would expect with autonomous car projects, not everything has panned out as expected.

A self-driving pilot Oxbotica kicked off with London-based car service Addison Lee in 2018 projected that it would have its first cars on the road by 2021. That project was quietly shut down, however, when Addison Lee was sold on by Carlyle last year and the company abandoned costly moonshots. Another effort, the publicly backed Project Endeavour to build autonomous car systems across towns in England, appears to still be in progress.

The turn to industrial customers, Newman said, is coming alongside those more ambitious, larger-scale applications. “Industrial autonomy for off-road refineries, ports and airports happens on the way to on-road autonomy,” he said, with the focus firmly remaining on providing software that can be used with different hardware. “We’ve always had this vision of ‘no atoms, just software,’ ” he said. “There is nothing special about the road. Our point is to be agnostic, to make sure it works on any hardware platform.”

It may claim to have always been interested in hardware- and application-agnostic autonomy, but these days it’s being joined by others that have tried the other route and have decided to follow the Oxbotica strategy instead. They include FiveAI, another hyped autonomous startup out of the U.K. that originally wanted to build its own fleet of self-driving vehicles but instead last year pivoted to providing its software technology on a B2B basis for other hardware makers.

Oxbotica has now raised about $80 million to date, and it’s not disclosing its valuation but is optimistic that the coming year — with deployments and other new partnerships — will bear out that it’s doing just fine in the current market.

“bp ventures are delighted to invest in Oxbotica – we believe its software could accelerate the market for autonomous vehicles,” said Erin Hallock, bp ventures managing partner, in a statement. “Helping to accelerate the global revolution in mobility is at the heart of bp’s strategy to become an integrated energy company focused on delivering solutions for customers.”

On-demand logistics company Lalamove gets $515 million Series E

Lalamove will extend its network to cover more small Chinese cities after raising $515 million in Series E funding, the on-demand logistics company announced on its site. The round was led by Sequoia Capital China, with participation from Hillhouse Capital and Shunwei Capital. All three are returning investors.

According to Crunchbase data, this brings Lalamove’s total raised so far to about $976.5 million. The company’s last funding announcement was in February 2019, when it hit unicorn status with a Series D of $300 million.

Bloomberg reported last week that Lalamove was seeking at least $500 million in new funding at $8 billion valuation, or four times what it raised at least year.

Founded in 2013 for on-demand deliveries within the same city, Lalamove has since grown its business to include freight services, enterprise logistics, moving and vehicle rental. In addition to 352 cities in mainland China, Lalamove also operates in Hong Kong (where it launched), Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand. The company entered the United States for the first time in October, and currently claims about 480,000 monthly active drivers and 7.2 million monthly active users.

Part of its Series D had been earmarked to expand into India, but Lalamove was among 43 apps that were banned by the government, citing cybersecurity concerns.

In its announcement, Lalamove CEO Shing Chow said its Series E will be used to enter more fourth- and fifth-tier Chinese cities, adding “we believe the mobile internet’s transformation of China’s logistics industry is far from over.”

Other companies that have recently raised significant funding rounds for their logistics operations in China include Manbang and YTO.

Lalamove’s (known in Chinese as Huolala) Series E announcement said the company experienced a 93% drop in shipment volume at the beginning of the year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but has experienced a strong rebound, with order volume up 82% year-over-year even before Double 11.

This VC introduced Palantir’s first business hire to its earliest engineer, then his business took off

You might not know yet of XYZ Venture Capital, a four-year-old, San Francisco-based seed-stage venture firm, but many veterans of Palantir are surely aware of it. XYZ says it has already backed 22 startups whose founders came out of the data analysis company, including most notably, Anduril, Lucky Palmer’s defense tech startup. In fact, the founder of XYZ, Ross Fubini, says his firm wrote Anduril its first check.

It all dates back to a key introduction. Fubini is a Carnegie Mellon grad who cofounded an enterprise company, CubeTree, that a dozen years later, sold to SuccessFactors, which was itself acquired by SAP the next year, in 2011.

Then, like a lot of founders, he started writing checks.

First, Fubini linked up with Mitch Kapor, another software mogul turned investor and a friend of Fubini who bought him into his venture firm and taught him the ropes. During his one year spent with the outfit, Fubini says, he wrote seed checks into the digital care company Omada Health, the optimization platform Optimizely (acquired this fall), and LendUp, the payday loan company that was split into two businesses back in 2018.

From Kapor Capital, it was onto Canaan Partners as a venture partner and, just three years later, to Village Global, the early-stage venture firm that was founded in 2017 with the backing of prominent founders like Bill Gates and Reid Hoffman. (Fubini helped cofound the outfit with a handful of others.) At the same time, Fubini began raising his own pool of capital under the brand XYZ Ventures, eventually launching a $70 million fund.

Now he’s turning the enterprise into a bigger organization.

For starters, this year, XYZ closed its second fund with $80 million in capital commitments from what Fubini says is predominately institutional investors, and it has been investing actively. Fubini says the firm has already written checks to 30 different startups that range in size from $500,000 to $4 million in exchange for 12% to 20% ownership.

He also brought aboard a partner: Chauncey Kerr Hamilton, who spent more than five years as a partner operations manager with First Round and was looking for a new challenge when a mutual friend introduced her to Fubini. “I kept hearing about Ross from founders and other investors and we met for coffee, then we kept meeting week after week,” she says of their earlier conversations.

Hamilton says she realized over time that “we’re kindred spirits.” But she has also pushed Fubini to be more public for the sake of XYZ’s portfolio companies.

As a former projects editor at Wired before leaping into venture capital, she half-kiddingly refers to the “mystique” of XYZ Ventures, but she also wondered if it might be easier for founders to discuss their lead investor if they could point to more than Fubini’s LinkedIn page.

Certainly, it makes sense as XYZ widens its aperture beyond Palantir, which was itself long known for keeping a low profile and where Fubini’s relationship began when he introduced Palantir’s first business hire to its first engineer. The first, a personal friend, is today Palantir’s chief operating officer, Shyam Sankar; the second, Akash (“Aki”) Jain, a former colleague of Fubini, is now the company’s president.

“It’s the highest value thing I’ve done,” Fubini says of bringing the two together, which led to an early and lasting advisor role at the company, where he helped develop senior talent and work through challenges (and received advisor shares in return).

Indeed, he has since become a first call for some who spin out of the company. In addition to Anduril —  cofounded by former Palantir execs Matt Grimm, Trae Stephens, and Brian Schimpf — XYZ has more recently backed the the San Diego-based financial planning platform Mosaic (cofounder Bijan Moallemi, a former finance exec at Palantir).

It also wrote the first check for Saltbox, an Atlanta-based startup that’s building co-working units for founders needing warehouse space. Saltbox’s founder, Tyler Scriven, previously spent more than seven years as a chief of staff at Palantir.

Fubini and Hamilton stress that while a meaningful portion of XYZ’s capital has flowed into the “Palantir diaspora,” the company has other areas of interest, too, mostly enterprise related.

XYZ is very focused, for example, on fintech, betting on Bond Technologies, a company that helps brands and banks integrate their offerings. It has insure-tech investments, like the brokerage Newfront Insurance. And it is focused on security and counts among its portfolio companies, a now highly valued outfit that poorly handled a sexual harassment situation but seems to have survived it.

XYZ even made a direct-to-consumer bet recently, though Fubini and Hamilton aren’t talking about it just yet.

Mostly, they say, they’re focused on “trends we believe are exploding,” says Hamilton. Think video, she says. Think fintech infrastructure, she adds. “For fintech that’s building a new bank, we think three companies will replace the crappy software” that supports them, says Fubini.

As for how they wins deals against VCs when it comes to founders to whom they aren’t already connected in some way, Fubini says it’s not so complicated. Being “bizarrely honest” has proved helpful, he says. But also, he says, “If you’re good, and you work goddamn hard, you start seeing more stuff.”

Reddit acquires Dubsmash

Reddit announced that it has acquired short video platform Dubsmash. The deal’s terms were undisclosed. Dubsmash will retain its own platform and brand, and Reddit will integrate its video creation tools. Its co-founders, Suchit Dash, Jonas Drüppel and Tim Specht, will join Reddit.

According to Crunchbase data, the app has raised $20.2 million from investors including Lowercase Capital, Index Ventures, Eniac Ventures, Heartcore Capital and Sunstone Life.

Dubsmash is now one of TikTok’s biggest rivals, but struggled for several years after a brief stint of popularity in 2015 during its first incarnation as a lip-sync video app. In 2017 it began transforming itself into a social platform and moved its headquarters from Berlin to Brooklyn. By the beginning of this year, Dubsmash’s share of the United States’ short-form video market was second only to TikTok when counted by app installs, and it reportedly held acquisition talks with Facebook and Snap.

Credit for much of Dubsmash’s success goes to Black and Latinx users. While many of TikTok’s highest-profile stars are white, Dubsmash is known for its large communities of Black and Latinx content creators. The polarization between the two apps began to gain more attention earlier this year, when the New York Times published a piece about how dance moves by Black Dubsmash stars are frequently appropriated without credit by TikTok influencers, which means their creators miss out on opportunities like larger followings, brand deals and industry connections.

Reddit has its own issues with racism, and has been criticized for not doing enough to stop hate speech or giving moderators of subreddits targeted by racist trolls enough support.

Last year, founder and former chief executive officer Alexis Ohanian called for his position on Reddit’s board to be filled with a Black candidate when he stepped down, which current CEO Steve Huffman said the company would honor as part of a larger effort to address hate speech on the platform announced during anti-racism demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. Ohanian’s position was filled by Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel.

In its announcement today, Reddit linked its acquisition of Dubsmash to its inclusion efforts, acknowledging that the app’s “communities are driven by young, diverse creators—about 25 percent of all Black teens in the U.S. are on Dubsmash, and females represent 70 percent of users.”

It also said the integration of Dubsmash’s video creation tools will enable Reddit’s users to “express themselves in original and authentic ways that are endemic to our communities.”

Since launching native videos in 2017, Reddit said usage has increased sharply, growing 2X in 2020 alone. Much of Reddit’s content is still text-based, however, with video, gifs and images often shared from other sources, so Dubsmash’s integration can help Reddit build out its own video platform.

Seoul-based payment tech startup CHAI gets $60 million from Hanhwa, SoftBank Ventures Asia

Demand for contactless payments and e-commerce has grown in South Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is good news for payment service operators, but the market is very fragmented, so adding payment options is a time-consuming process for many merchants. CHAI wants to fix this with an API that enables companies to accept over 20 payment systems. The Seoul-based startup announced today it has raised a $60 million Series B.

The round was led by Hanhwa Investment & Securities, with participation from SoftBank Ventures Asia (the early-stage venture capital arm of SoftBank Group), SK Networks, Aarden Partners and other strategic partners. It brings CHAI’s total funding to $75 million, including a $15 million Series A in February.

Last month, the Bank of Korea, South Korea’s central bank, released a report showing that contactless payments increased 17% year-over-year since the start of COVID-19.

CHAI serves e-commerce companies with an API called I’mport, that allows them to accept payments from over 20 options, including debit and credit cards through local payment gateways, digital wallets, wire transfers, carrier billings and PayPal. It is now used by 2,200 merchants, including Nike Korea and Philip Morris Korea.

CHAI chief executive officer Daniel Shin told TechCrunch that businesses would usually have to integrate each kind of online payment type separately, so I’mport saves its clients a lot of time.

The company also offers its own digital wallet and debit card called the CHAI Card, which launched in June 2019 and now has 2.5 million users, a small number compared with South Korea’s leading digital wallets, which include Samsung Pay, Naver Pay, Kakao Pay and Toss.

“CHAI is a late comer to Korea’s digital payments market, but we saw a unique opportunity to offer value,” said Shin. The CHAI Card offers merchants a lower transaction fee than other cards and users typically check its app about 20 times to see new cashback offers and other rewards based on how often they pay with their cards or digital wallet.

“We’ve digitized the plastic card experience, and this is the first step towards creating a robust online rewards platform,” Shin added.

In press statement, Hanhwa Investment & Securities director SeungYoung Oh director said, “I’mport has reduced what once took e-commerce businesses weeks to complete into a simple copy-and-paste task, radically reducing costs. It is a first-of-its-kind business model in Korea, and I have no doubt that CHAI will continue to grow this service into an essential infrastructure of the global fintech landscape.”

Lemonade launches its renters insurance in France

Lemonade is launching its renters insurance in France. This is the company’s third European launch after the Netherlands and Germany. Originally from the U.S., Lemonade is now a public company with a current market capitalization close to $4 billion.

Lemonade will compete directly with a local competitor called Luko. Both companies share a lot of similarities. But Luko has already attracted 100,000 customers and just raised $60 million.

https://techcrunch.com/2020/12/06/luko-raises-60-million-for-its-home-insurance-products/

Lemonade has optimized its insurance product in different ways. First, it’s supposed to be easier to sign up with Lemonade compared with a legacy insurance company. Second, the company wants to bring back trust by taking a flat fee for its operations.

Premiums are then pooled together and used to pay back claims. If there’s money left at the end of the year, customers can choose to donate to nonprofits. Lemonade is also a certified B-Corp.

But it’s worth noting that other insurance companies try to position themselves as socially responsible, such as MAIF. Insurtech companies aren’t reinventing the wheel on this front.

Third, Lemonade tries to pay you back as quickly as possible after you file a claim.

Chances are you don’t think that much about renters insurance. But it’s a lucrative industry. For instance, home insurance is a legal requirement in France. Due to tenant turnover, there are many opportunities to jump in and convince customers to switch to Lemonade when people move to a new place.

Let’s see how the fight between Lemonade and Luko plays out in France.

Mike Cagney is testing the boundaries of the banking system for himself — and others

Founder Mike Cagney is always pushing the envelope, and investors love him for it. Not long sexual harassment allegations prompted him to leave SoFi, the personal finance company that he cofounded in 2011, he raised $50 million for new lending startup called Figure that has since raised at least $225 million from investors and was valued a year ago at $1.2 billion.

Now, Cagney is trying to do something unprecedented with Figure, which says it uses a blockchain to more quickly facilitate home equity, mortgage refinance, and student and personal loan approvals. The company has applied for a national bank charter in the U.S., wherein it would not take FDIC-insured deposits but it could take uninsured deposits of over $250,000 from accredited investors.

Why does it matter? The approach, as American Banker explains it, would bring regulatory benefits. As it reported earlier this week, “Because Figure Bank would not hold insured deposits, it would not be subject to the FDIC’s oversight. Similarly, the absence of insured deposits would prevent oversight by the Fed under the Bank Holding Company Act. That law imposes restrictions on non-banking activities and is widely thought to be a deal-breaker for tech companies where banking would be a sidelight.”

Indeed, if approved, Figure could pave the way for a lot of fintech startups — and other retail companies that want to wheel and deal lucrative financial products without the oversight of the Federal Reserve Board or the FDIC — to nab non-traditional bank charters.

As Michelle Alt, whose year-old financial advisory firm helped Figure with its application, tells AB: “This model, if it’s approved, wouldn’t be for everyone. A lot of would-be banks want to be banks specifically to have more resilient funding sources.” But if it’s successful, she adds, “a lot of people will be interested.”

One can only guess at what the ripple effects would be, though the Bank of Amazon wouldn’t surprise anyone who follows the company.

In the meantime, the strategy would seemingly be a high-stakes, high-reward development for a smaller outfit like Figure, which could operate far more freely than banks traditionally but also without a safety net for itself or its customers. The most glaring danger would be a bank run, wherein those accredited individuals who are today willing to lend money to the platform at high interest rates began demanding their money back at the same time. (It happens.)

Either way, Cagney might find a receptive audience right now with Brian Brooks, a longtime Fannie Mae executive who served as Coinbase’s chief legal officer for two years before jumping this spring to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), an agency that ensures that national banks and federal savings associations operate in a safe and sound manner.

Brooks was made acting head of the agency in May and green-lit one of the first national charters to go to a fintech, Varo Money, this past summer. In late October, the OCC also granted SoFi preliminary, conditional approval over its own application for a national bank charter.

While Brooks isn’t commenting on speculation around Figure’s application, in July, during a Brookings Institution event, he reportedly commented about trade groups’ concerns over his efforts to grant fintechs and payments companies charters, saying: “I think the misunderstanding that some of these trade groups are operating under is that somehow this is going to trigger a lighter-touch charter with fewer obligations, and it’s going to make the playing field un-level . . . I think it’s just the opposite.”

Christopher Cole, executive vice president at the trade group Independent Community Bankers of America, doesn’t seem persuaded. Earlier this week, he expressed concern about Figure’s bank charter application to AB, saying he suspects that Brooks “wants to approve this quickly before he leaves office.”

Brooks’s days are surely numbered. Last month, he was nominated by President Donald to a full five-year term leading the federal bank regulator and is currently awaiting Senate confirmation. The move — designed to slow down the incoming Biden administration — could be undone by President-elect Joe Biden, who can fire the comptroller of the currency at will and appoint an acting replacement to serve until his nominee is confirmed by the Senate.

Still, Cole’s suggestion is that Brooks still has enough time to figure out a path forward for Figure — and if its novel charter application is approved, and it stands up to legal challenges — a lot of other companies, too.

Eat Just to sell lab-grown meat in Singapore after gaining “world first” regulatory approval

Eat Just will start offering lab-grown chicken meat in Singapore after gaining regulatory approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA). The cell-cultured chicken will eventually be produced under Eat Just’s new GOOD Meat brand through partnerships with local manufacturers and go on sale to restaurants before it is available to consumers.

While there are plenty of other companies working on lab-grown meats using various techniques, Eat Just describes the Singapore government’s review and regulatory approval as a “world first.”

No chickens were killed to obtain the cell line used to produce Eat Just’s cultured meat, global head of communications Andrew Noyes told TechCrunch. Instead, the process starts with cell isolation, where cells are sourced through methods that can include a biopsy from a live animal. After the cells are cultured, they are transferred into a bioreactor, fed with a proprietary mix of proteins, amino acids, minerals, sugars, salts and other nutrients and then harvested after they achieve enough density.

The company said it went through 20 productions runs of cell-cultured chicken in 1,200-liter bioreactors to prove the consistency of its manufacturing process. Eat Just also said no antibiotics were used and that its cultured chicken has an “extremely low and significantly cleaner microbiological content than conventional chicken.”

Noyes said the company is already working with a restaurant to add its GOOD Meat chicken to their menu, and hopes to announce a launch date soon.

In Eat Just’s announcement today, chief executive officer Josh Tetrick said, “Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system.”

The government is currently engaged in an initiative, called “30 by 30,” to produce 30% of the country’s food supply locally by 2030. Spearheaded by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the initiative was prompted because Singapore currently imports over 90% of its food, which makes it vulnerable to export bans or the logistics issues highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. As part of “30 by 30,” the SFA and Agency for Science, Technology and Research has made $144 million SGD in research funding available.

Eat Just, whose other products include a plant-based egg substitute, announced last month it is partnering with Proterra Investment Partners Asia to launch a new Asian subsidiary. The partnership includes a factory in Singapore that received support from the government’s Economic Development board.

There are several factors driving demand for cultured meat and plant-based protein in Asian markets. The first is concerns about the safety of meat from slaughterhouses that gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic also highlighted vulnerabilities in the production and supply chain that can be potentially be avoided with lab-produced meat and meat alternatives.

Singapore-based mental health app Intellect reaches one million users, closes seed funding

Theodoric Chew, co-founder and chief executive officer of mental health app Intellect

Theodoric Chew, co-founder and chief executive officer of mental health app Intellect

Intellect, a Singapore-based startup that wants to lower barriers to mental health care in Asia, says it has reached more than one million users just six months after launching. Google also announced today that the startup’s consumer app, also called Intellect, is one of its picks for best personal growth apps of 2020.

The company recently closed an undisclosed seed round led by Insignia Ventures Partners. Angel investors including e-commerce platform Carousell co-founder and chief executive officer Quek Siu Rui; former Sequoia partner Tim Lee; and startup consultancy xto10x’s Southeast Asia CEO J.J. Chai also participated.

In a statement, Insignia Ventures Partners principal Samir Chaibi said, “In Intellect, we see a fast-scaling platform addressing a pain that has become very obvious amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe that pairing clinically-backed protocols with an efficient mobile-first delivery is the key to break down the barriers to access for millions of patients globally.”

Co-founder and chief executive officer Theodoric Chew launched Intellect earlier this year because while there is a growing pool of mental wellness apps in the United States and Europe that have attracted more funding during the COVID-19 pandemic, the space is still very young in Asia. Intellect’s goal is encourage more people to incorporate mental health care into their daily routines by lowering barriers like high costs and social stigma.

Intellect offers two products. One is a consumer app with self-guided programs based on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that center on issues like anxiety, self-esteem or relationship issues.

The other is a mental health platform for employers to offer as a benefit and includes a recently launched telehealth service called Behavioural Health Coaching that connects users with mental health professionals. The service, which includes one-on-one video sessions and unlimited text messaging, is now a core part of Intellect’s services, Chew told TechCrunch.

Intellect’s enterprise product now reaches 10,000 employees, and its clients include tech companies, regional operations for multinational corporations and hospitals. Most are located in Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia and India, and range in size from 100 to more than 3,000 employees.

For many small- to mid-sized employers, Intellect is often the first mental health benefit they have offered. Larger clients may already have EAP (employee assistance programs), but Chew said those are often underutilized, with an average adoption rate of 1% to 2%. On the other hand, he said Intellect’s employee benefit program sees an average adoption rate of 30% in the first month after it is rolled out at a company.

Chew added that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted more companies to address burnout and other mental health issues.

“In terms of larger trends, we’ve seen a huge spike in companies across the region having mental health and wellbeing of their employees being prioritized on their agenda,” said Chew. “In terms of user trends, we see a significantly higher utilization in work stress and burnout, anxiety and relationship-related programs.”

Intellect’s seed round will be used to expand in Asian markets and to help fund clinical research studies it is currently conducting with universities and organizations in Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom.

What to make of Stripe’s possible $100B valuation

This is The TechCrunch Exchange, a newsletter that goes out on Saturdays, based on the column of the same name. You can sign up for the email here.

Welcome to a special Thanksgiving edition of The Exchange. Today we will be brief. But not silent, as there is much to talk about.

Up top, The Exchange noodled on the Slack-Salesforce deal here, so please catch up if you missed that while eating pie for breakfast yesterday. And, sadly, I have no idea why Palantir is seeing its value skyrocket. Normally we’d discuss it, asking ourselves what its gains could mean for the lower tiers of private SaaS companies. But as its public market movement appears to be an artificial bump in value, we’ll just wait.

Here’s what I want to talk about this fine Saturday: Bloomberg reporting that Stripe is in the market for more money, at a price that could value the company at “more than $70 billion or significantly higher, at as much as $100 billion.”

Hot damn. Stripe would become the first or second most valuable startup in the world at those prices, depending on how you count. Startup is a weird word to use for a company worth that much, but as Stripe is still clinging to the private markets like some sort of liferaft, keeps raising external funds, and is presumably more focused on growth than profitability, it retains the hallmark qualities of a tech startup, so, sure, we can call it one.

Which is odd, because Stripe is a huge concern that could be worth twelve-figures, provided that gets that $100 billion price tag. It’s hard to come up with a good reason for why it’s still private, other than the fact that it can get away with it.

Anyhoo, are those reported, possible prices bonkers? Maybe. But there is some logic to them. Recall that Square and PayPal earnings pointed to strong payments volume in recent quarters, which bodes well for Stripe’s own recent growth. Also note that 14 months ago or so, Stripe was already processing “hundreds of billions of dollars of transactions a year.”

You can do fun math at this juncture. Let’s say Stripe’s processing volume was $200 billion last September, and $400 billion today, thinking of the number as an annualized metric. Stripe charges 2.9% plus $0.30 for a transaction, so let’s call it 3% for the sake of simplicity and being conservative. That math shakes out to a run rate of $12 billion.

Now, the company’s actual numbers could be closer to $100 billion, $150 billion and $4.5 billion, right? And Stripe won’t have the same gross margins as Slack .

But you can start to see why Stripe’s new rumored prices aren’t 100% wild. You can make the multiples work if you are a believer in the company’s growth story. And helping the argument are its public comps. Square’s stock has more than tripled this year. PayPal’s value has more than doubled. Adyen’s shares have almost doubled. That’s the sort of public market pull that can really help a super-late-stage startup looking to raise new capital and secure an aggressive price.

To wrap, Stripe’s possible new valuation could make some sense. The fact that it is still a private company does not.

Market Notes

Various and Sundry

And speaking of edtech, Equity’s Natasha Mascarenhas and our intrepid producer Chris Gates put together a special ep on the education technology market. You can listen to it here. It’s good.

Hugs and let’s both go do some cardio,

Alex

N26 launches mid-tier subscription plan for €4.90 per month

Challenger bank N26 is adding a third subscription product called N26 Smart. N26 Smart is designed to be a mid-tier subscription plan with advanced banking features but without a travel insurance package.

In Europe, in addition to the free plan, N26 already provides two subscription tiers called N26 You and N26 Metal. N26 You costs €9.90 per month and comes with higher limits, such as five free ATM withdrawals instead of three and free withdrawals in foreign currencies.

With an N26 You account, you can create sub-accounts (N26 Spaces), share them with other N26 users or use them to save money. As an N26 You subscriber, you also get a travel insurance package with medical travel insurance, trip and flight insurance and more. You can also access some partner offers.

N26 Metal is the most expensive plan and costs €16.90 per month. In addition to everything in N26 You, you get car rental insurance when you’re abroad and phone insurance. As the name suggests, you also get a metal card.

The new N26 Smart subscription costs €4.90 and works well for people who don’t need travel insurance. With an N26 Smart subscription, you can create up to ten sub-accounts. You get five free ATM withdrawals per month. You can also call N26 support directly in addition to in-app support chat.

N26 is launching a new round-up feature for N26 Smart users. It lets you round each purchase up to the nearest Europe and save it in a separate sub-account. N26 Smart account also access colorful debit cards — the same colors as N26 You.

This is just a first step as N26 plans to revamp its subscription products altogether. In the near future, N26 You will become N26 International. There will be more features focused on borderless banking. N26 Metal will become N26 Unlimited.

As for the free N26 Standard account, the company wants to focus on digital cards. Some users are going to switch to the N26 Smart plan to keep some of the features that they’ve been using with a free account. That move should help the company’s bottom line.

Image Credits: N26

PingCAP, the open-source developer behind TiDB, closes $270 million Series D

PingCAP, the open-source software developer best known for NewSQL database TiDB, has raised a $270 million Series D. TiDB handles hybrid transactional and analytical processing (HTAP), and is aimed at high-growth companies, including payment and e-commerce services, that need to handle increasingly large amounts of data.

The round’s lead investors were GGV Capital, Access Technology Ventures, Anatole Investment, Jeneration Capital and 5Y Capital (formerly known as Morningside Venture Capital). It also included participation from Coatue, Bertelsmann Asia Investment Fund, FutureX Capital, Kunlun Capital, Trustbridge Partners, and returning investors Matrix Partners China and Yunqi Partners.

The funding brings PingCAP’s total raised so far to $341.6 million. Its last round, a Series C of $50 million, was announced back in September 2018.

PingCAP says TiDB has been adopted by about 1,500 companies across the world. Some examples include Square; Japanese mobile payments company PayPay; e-commerce app Shopee; video-sharing platform Dailymotion; and ticketing platfrom BookMyShow. TiDB handles online transactional processing (OLTP) and online analytical processing (OLAP) in the same database, which PingCAP says results in faster real-time analytics than other distributed databases.

In June, PingCAP launched TiDB Cloud, which it describes as fully-managed “TiDB as a Service,” on Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. The company plans to add more platforms, and part of the funding will be used to increase TiDB Cloud’s global user base.

Bonus: An extra week to save on tickets to TC Sessions: Space 2020

When you’re laser-focused on reaching beyond the stars, it’s hard to remember more earthly, mundane tasks. That’s why we’re giving you an extra week to score early-bird savings to TC Sessions: Space 2020 (December 16-17). So, to all you harried, procrastinating visionaries: take a breath, relax a bit and buy your pass before November 20 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

Join the two-day online conference to hear from and connect with the leading forces within the space industry. Learn how to secure grants for your space company, how and where the Air Force plans to spend $60 billion on R&D, what savvy space investors think and where they might place their bets. And that’s just the tip of the rocket.

Presentations range from asteroid mining, extra-planetary robotic research and the future of space exploration to human spaceflight, manufacturing in space and supply-chain issues. Here are just two stellar examples, and you’ll find many more in the event agenda. Start planning your time now.

Bridging Two Eras of Human Spaceflight: When Kathryn Lueders started working at NASA in 1992, it was the peak of the Space Shuttle era. As she begins her leadership of the Human Spaceflight Office this year, a new and exciting era is just beginning. Lueders will discuss the possibilities and challenges of the new systems and technologies that will put the first woman and the next man on the surface of the moon…and perhaps Mars.

Crafting the Kuiper Constellation: Amazon is set to create its own global constellation of LEO satellites — a very different type of gadget from what Amazon SVP of Device & Services Dave Limp is used to overseeing. He’ll tell us how Project Kuiper fits in with Amazon’s grand plans.

Looking for more ways to save? Bring the whole team with a group discount. Tickets cost $100 each — bring four team members and get the fifth one free. Discount passes for students cost $50, while current government, military and nonprofit employees pay $95. Plus, Extra Crunch subscribers get a 20% discount.

Step into a virtual spotlight and showcase your startup in our expo: An Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package ($360 gets you three tickets, digital exhibition space and the ability to generate leads). Bonus: Exhibiting startups each get five minutes to pitch live to attendees around the world.

As you reach for the stars, connect with the experts and opportunities at TC Sessions: Space 2020 to help make your galactic dreams a reality. You have an extra week. Now, breathe, relax and buy your early-bird pass before November 20 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

This fintech-focused VC firm just closed a $75 million debut fund; backers “came out of the woodwork”

It’s no secret that a massive digital transformation is happening within financial services companies and amid the growing number of non-financial outfits that are also adding financial products to their offerings.

Still, Sheel Mohnot, who was formerly a general partner at the fintech fund of 500 Startups, and Jake Gibson, co-founder of personal finance startup NerdWallet, were a little taken aback by investor interest in their fintech-focused early-stage venture firm, Better Tomorrow Ventures, or BTV.

The outfit just closed its debut fund with $75 million in capital commitments, exceeding their original $60 million target, and even one of their earliest investors, Michael Kim of Cendana Capital, expresses surprise. “Remarkably, they raised a lot of it during Covid,” says Kim.

We talked yesterday with the pair, who have already invested in 13 startups with the fund’s capital and, they say, led nine of those deals.

TC: The good news is you’re focused on fintech. The bad news is that fintech valuations are going through the roof. How do you compete?

SM: It’s true. Everybody decided that what we’ve been talking about all along is in line with their beliefs too, after exits like Plaid and Credit Karma. Everybody became a fintech investor. And you’re right that that has led to an increase in valuations. To some extent that’s good, though. It’s meant that one of our companies has already had a pretty massive markup in part because of this phenomenon.

I also think we’re finding we’re able to win deals at better prices because we’re both founders. [Mohnot sold a company, FeeFinders, to Groupon 2012]. And all we do is fintech. So we tend to understand better what founders are building than generalist investors.

JG: I do think [these things] resonate in that we’ve been able to pay prices that we think make sense and to get the ownership we want. This isn’t the 4 on 16 game that others are playing (where VCs invest $4 million at a pre-money valuation and so own 20% of the company). I think all but one or two of our investments involve repeat founders who see the value of working with partners like us.

TC: How much ownership are you targeting for that first check — 10%?

JG: Right, 10%, though we’re really shooting for 12%.

TC: And will you turn to [special purpose vehicles] to maintain your stake if certain companies begin to gain traction?

JG: Yes, I’ve done quite a bit of SPVs in the past. I’ve invested in 90 companies as an angel investor and I think we’ve probably deployed more than $40 million between the two of us over the last five years leading up to BTV, including SPVs on top of angel investments. [Editor’s note: some of those earlier deals include Chipper Cash, Albert, Clear Cover, and Hippo.]

TC: What companies are in BTV’s portfolio? 

SM: None have been announced.

TC: Not one?!

SM: Nobody announces their seed rounds anymore. When I started my company, I wanted as much coverage as possible. I thought that was great for the company. Now founders don’t feel that way, with very few wanting to announce.

TC: But there are benefits to recruiting and getting on the radar or later-stage investors. Why eschew it altogether?

JG: Competition to some extent. They don’t want people to know what they’re working on because once you see a competitive seed round, you see a lot of other startups pop up to do the same thing. I also just think there’s not as much upside anymore to announcing, so most founders, when you’re seeing their seed round, it’s because they’re about to raise their Series A. The data you’re seeing in Pitchbook is typically six months [behind].

TC: Who are your investors?

SM: We have founders of fintech unicorns. We have a couple of fintech venture funds, fintech-focused GPs from later-stage funds, a few insurance companies, and Wall Street people who help us keep track on that side of the market, as well.

JG: We’re also backed by kind of a who’s who of fund of funds that back emerging managers: Cendana, Industry Ventures, Vintage [Investment Partners], Invesco.

TC: Did you know a lot of these investors before the pandemic shut down everything?

JG: Some, but we had to sell a lot of them cold over Zoom. We held a first close last December — that capital was from Cendana and individuals. We’d started conversations with other institutions at that point but everyone said it would take a while and that institutions won’t come until you raise your second fund, so we didn’t have high hopes that we’d get a lot of them on board.

In fact, when March and April hit, we figured we’d have to raise a smaller fund. But then things re-opened, people got back to work, and we were able to close institutions we’d started conversations with. Then people came out of the woodwork, because tech got hot fast but especially fintech, with all the IPO and M&A activity.  People said, ‘We want fintech exposure now, and we want to invest in a fintech-focused fund, and you’re the only game in town.’

TC: What do you need to see to write a check?

JG: Our thesis is that everything is fintech, so we invest across the board: payments, lending, banking, real estate, insurance, b2b, consumer — anything that’s ostensibly fintech. We think a lot of companies that aren’t typically fintech today will look like fintech later, with more and more tech platforms that get into financial services. We’re investing at the pre-seed and seed stage but also meeting with founders at the idea stage, sometimes to talk them out of starting another neobank. [Laughs.]

TC: Do you? Every time I wonder how many neobanks make sense in this world, an investor tells me that if only their startup can get .00001% of the market, they’ll have a multibillion company on their hands.

JG: No. Most will never figure out how to get profitable. A lot of investors like to argue that with neobanks, you lose money on every trade but you make it up in volume. Yet very few have a path to getting to positive economics. You need huge scale to get to profitability, and that means you have to spend a ton of venture capital on marketing. More, a lot are going after audiences that are already over-served by traditional financial products.

SM: The same is true for “Plaid for X” type companies. After the announcement of Plaid’s exit — or what we all thought was Plaid’s exit — we looked at five companies, many of them hitting on the same ideas and duking it out for the same customers.

TC: Will the fact that the DOJ is suing to block Plaid’s sale to Visa, citing Visa’s monopoly power, have a chilling effect?

JG: We haven’t seen that. A lot of people are discounting that complaint and thinking it will get out of this in the end via SPAC. The company was doing north of $100 million in revenue, and given where these businesses trade, Plaid could go public and see an amazingly successful outcome.

It’s not just Plaid, by the way. There are now 40 SPACs that are focused on fintech alone. Just think about the outcomes that have to happen in the next two years.

Warren gets $1.4 million to help local cloud infrastructure providers compete against Amazon and other giants

Started as a side project by its founders, Warren is now helping regional cloud infrastructure service providers compete against Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Google and other tech giants. Based in Tallinn, Estonia, Warren’s self-service distributed cloud platform is gaining traction in Southeast Asia, one of the world’s fastest-growing cloud service markets, and Europe. It recently closed a $1.4 million seed round led by Passion Capital, with plans to expand in South America, where it recently launched in Brazil.

Warren’s seed funding also included participation from Lemonade Stand and angel investors like former Nokia vice president Paul Melin and Marek Kiisa, co-founder of funds Superangel and NordicNinja.

The leading global cloud providers are aggressively expanding their international businesses by growing their marketing teams and data centers around the world (for example, over the past few months, Microsoft has launched a new data center region in Austria, expanded in Brazil and announced it will build a new region in Taiwan as it competes against Amazon Web Services).

But demand for customized service and control over data still prompt many companies, especially smaller ones, to pick local cloud infrastructure providers instead, Warren co-founder and chief executive officer Tarmo Tael told TechCrunch.

“Local providers pay more attention to personal sales and support, in local language, to all clients in general, and more importantly, take the time to focus on SME clients to provide flexibility and address their custom needs,” he said. “Whereas global providers give a personal touch maybe only to a few big clients in the enterprise sectors.” Many local providers also offer lower prices and give a large amount of bandwidth for free, attracting SMEs.

He added that “the data sovereignty aspect that plays an important role in choosing their cloud platform for many of the clients.”

In 2015, Tael and co-founder Henry Vaaderpass began working on the project that eventually became Warren while running a development agency for e-commerce sites. From the beginning, the two wanted to develop a product of their own and tested several ideas out, but weren’t really excited by any of them, he said. At the same time, the agency’s e-commerce clients were running into challenges as their businesses grew.

Tael and Vaaderpass’s clients tended to pick local cloud infrastructure providers because of lower costs and more personalized support. But setting up new e-commerce projects with scalable infrastructure was costly because many local cloud infrastructure providers use different platforms.

“So we started looking for tools to use for managing our e-commerce projects better and more efficiently,” Tael said. “As we didn’t find what we were looking for, we saw this as an opportunity to build our own.”

After creating their first prototype, Tael and Vaaderpass realized that it could be used by other development teams, and decided to seek angel funding from investors, like Kiisa, who have experience working with cloud data centers or infrastructure providers.

Southeast Asia, one of the world’s fastest-growing cloud markets, is an important part of Warren’s business. Warren will continue to expand in Southeast Asia, while focusing on other developing regions with large domestic markets, like South America (starting with Brazil). Tael said the startup is also in discussion with potential partners in other markets, including Russia, Turkey and China.

Warren’s current clients include Estonian cloud provider Pilw.io and Indonesian cloud provider IdCloudHost. Tael said working with Warren means its customers spend less time dealing with technical issues related to infrastructure software, so their teams, including developers, can instead focus on supporting clients and managing other services they sell.

The company’s goal is to give local cloud infrastructure providers the ability to meet increasing demand, and eventually expand internationally, with tools to handle more installations and end users. These include features like automated maintenance and DevOps processes that streamline feature testing and handling different platforms.

Ultimately, Warren wants to connect providers in a network that end users can access through a single API and user interface. It also envisions the network as a community where Warren’s clients can share resources and, eventually, have a marketplace for their apps and services.

In terms of competition, Tael said local cloud infrastructure providers often turn to OpenStack, Virtuozzo, Stratoscale or Mirantis. The advantage these companies currently have over Warren is a wider network, but Warren is busy building out its own. The company will be able to connect several locations to one provider by the first quarter of 2021. After that, Tael said, it will “gradually connect providers to each other, upgrading our user management and billing services to handle all that complexity.”

10 Zurich-area investors on Switzerland’s 2020 startup outlook

European entrepreneurs who want to launch startups could do worse than Switzerland.

In a report analyzing Europe’s general economic health, cost of doing business, business environment and labor force quality, analysts looked for highly educated populations, strong economies, healthy business environments and relatively low costs for conducting business. Switzerland ended up ranking third out of 31 European nations, according to Nimblefins. (Germany and the UK came out first and second, respectively).

According to official estimates, the number of new Swiss startups has skyrocketed by 700% since 1996. Zurich tends to take the lion’s share, as the city’s embrace of startups has jump-started development, although Geneva and Lausanne are also hotspots.

As well as traditional software engineering startups, Switzerland’s largest city boasts a startup culture that emphasizes life sciences, mechanical engineering and robotics. Compared to other European countries, Switzerland has a low regulatory burden and a well-educated, highly qualified workforce. Google’s largest R&D center outside of the United States is in Zurich.

But it’s also one of the more expensive places to start a business, due to its high cost of living, salary expectations and relatively small labor market. Native startups will need 25,000 Swiss Francs to open an LLC and 50,000 more to incorporate. While they can withdraw those funds from the business the next day, local founders must still secure decent backing to even begin the work.

This means Switzerland has gained a reputation as a place to startup — and a place to relocate, which is something quite different. It’s one reason why the region is home to many fintech businesses born elsewhere that need proximity to a large banking ecosystem, as well as the blockchain/crypto crowd, which have found a highly amenable regulatory environment in Zug, right next door to Zurich. Zurich/Zug’s “Crypto Valley” is a global blockchain hotspot and is home to, among others, the Ethereum Foundation.

Lawyers and accountants tend to err on the conservative side, leading to a low failure rate of businesses but less “moonshot innovation,” shall we say.

But in recent years, corporate docs are being drawn up in English to facilitate communication both inside Switzerland’s various language regions and foreign capital, and investment documentation is modeled after the U.S.

Ten years ago startups were unusual. Today, pitch competitions, incubators, accelerators, VCs and angel groups proliferate.

The country’s Federal Commission for Technology and Innovation (KTI) supports CTI-Startup and CTI-Invest, providing startups with investment and support. Venture Kick was launched in 2007 with the vision to double the number of spin-offs from Swiss universities and draws from a jury of more than 150 leading startup experts in Switzerland. It grants up to CHF 130,000 per company. Fundraising platforms such as Investiere have boosted the angel community support of early funding rounds.

Swiss companies, like almost all European companies, tend to raise lower early-stage rounds than U.S. ones. A CHF 1-2 million Series A or a CHF 5 million Series B investment is common. This has meant smaller exits, and thus less development for the ecosystem.

These are the investors we interviewed:

 

Jasmin Heimann, partner, Ringier Digital Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Consumer-facing startups with first revenues.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
AirConsole — a cloud-gaming platform where you don’t need a console and can play with all your friends and family.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I really wish that the business case for social and ecological startups will finally be proven (kind of like Oatly showed with the Blackstone investment). I also think that femtech is a hyped category but funding as well as renown exits are still missing.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
I am looking for easy, scalable solutions with a great team.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I think the whole scooter/mobility space is super hyped but also super capital intensive so I think to compete in this market at this stage is hard. I also think that the whole edtech space is an important area of investment, but there are already quite a lot of players and it oftentimes requires cooperation with governments and schools, which makes it much more difficult to operate in. Lastly, I don’t get why people still start fitness startups as I feel like the market has reached its limits.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Switzerland makes — maximum — half of our investments. We are also interested in Germany and Austria as well as the Nordics.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Zurich and Lausanne are for sure the most exciting cities, just because they host great engineering universities. Berne is still lagging behind but I am hoping to see some more startups emerging from there, especially in the medtech industry.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Overall, Switzerland is a great market for a startup to be in — although small, buying power is huge! So investors should always keep this in mind when thinking about coming to Switzerland. The startup scene is pretty small and well connected, so it helps to get access through somebody already familiar with the space. Unfortunately for us, typical B2C cases are rather scarce.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I think it is hard to make any kind of predictions. But on the one hand, I could see this happening. On the other hand, I also think that the magic of cities is that there are serendipity moments where you can find your co-founder at a random networking dinner or come across an idea for a new venture while talking to a stranger. These moments will most likely be much harder to encounter now and in the next couple of months.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
I think travel is a big question mark still. The same goes for luxury goods, as people are more worried about the economic situation they are in. On the other hand, remote work has seen a surge in investments. Also sustainability will hopefully be put back on the agenda.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Not much. I think we allocated a bit more for the existing portfolio but otherwise we continue to look at and discuss the best cases. The biggest worries are the uncertainties about [what] the future might look like and the related planning. We tell them to first and foremost secure cash flow.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Totally! Some portfolio companies have really profited from the crisis, especially our subscription-based models that offer a variety of different options to spend time at home. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum after the lockdown.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
What gives me hope is to see that people find ways to still work together — the amount of online events, office hours, etc. is incredible. I see the pandemic also as a big opportunity to make changes in the way we worked and the way things were without ever questioning them.

 

Katrin Siebenbuerger Hacki, founder, Medows

VCs reload ahead of the election as unicorns power ahead

This is The TechCrunch Exchange, a newsletter that goes out on Saturdays, based on the column of the same name. You can sign up for the email here.

It was an active week in the technology world broadly, with big news from Facebook and Twitter and Apple. But past the headline-grabbing noise, there was a steady drumbeat of bullish news for unicorns, or private companies worth $1 billion or more.

A bullish week for unicorns

The Exchange spent a good chunk of the week looking into different stories from unicorns, or companies that will soon fit the bill, and it’s surprising to see how much positive financial news there was on tap even past what we got to write about.

Databricks, for example, disclosed a grip of financial data to TechCrunch ahead of regular publication, including the fact that it grew its annual run rate (not ARR) to $350 million by the end of Q3 2020, up from $200 million in Q2 2019. It’s essentially IPO ready, but is not hurrying to the public markets.

Sticking to our theme, Calm wants more money for a huge new valuation, perhaps as high as $2.2 billion which is not a surprise. That’s more good unicorn news. As was the report that “India’s Razorpay [became a] unicorn after its new $100 million funding round” that came out this week.

Razorpay is only one of a number of Indian startups that have become unicorns during COVID-19. (And here’s another digest out this week concerning a half-dozen startups that became unicorns “amidst the pandemic.”)

There was enough good unicorn news lately that we’ve lost track of it all. Things like Seismic raising $92 million, pushing its valuation up to $1.6 billion from a few weeks ago. How did that get lost in the mix?

All this matters because while the IPO market has captured much attention in the last quarter or so, the unicorn world has not sat still. Indeed, it feels that unicorn VC activity is the highest we’ve seen since 2019.

And, as we’ll see in just a moment, the grist for the unicorn mill is getting refilled as we speak. So, expect more of the same until something material breaks our current investing and exit pattern.

Market Notes

What do unicorns eat? Cash. And many, many VCs raised cash in the last seven days.

A partial list follows. It could be that investors are looking to lock in new funds before the election and whatever chaos may ensue. So, in no particular order, here’s who is newly flush:

All that capital needs to go to work, which means lots more rounds for many, many startups. The Exchange also caught up with a somewhat new firm this week: Race Capital. Helmed by Alfred Chuang, formerly or BEA who is an angel investor now in charge of his own fund, the firm has $50 million to invest.

Sticking to private investments into startups for the moment, quite a lot happened this week that we need to know more about. Like API-powered Argyle raising $20 million from Bain Capital Ventures for what FinLedger calls “unlocking and democratizing access to employment records.” TechCrunch is currently tracking the progress of API-led startups.

On the fintech side of things, M1 Finance raised $45 million for its consumer fintech platform in a Series C, while another roboadvisor, Wealthsimple, raised $87 million, becoming a unicorn at the same time. And while we’re in the fintech bucket, Stripe dropped $200 million this week for Nigerian startup Paystack. We need to pay more attention to the African startup scene. On the smaller end of fintech, Alpaca raised $10 million more to help other companies become Robinhood.

A few other notes before we change tack. Kahoot raised $215 million due to a boom in remote education, another trend that is inescapable in 2020 as part of the larger edtech boom (our own Natasha Mascarenhas has more).

Turning from the private market to the public, we have to touch on SPACs for just a moment. The Exchange got on the phone this week with Toby Russell from Shift, which is now a public company, trading after it merged with a SPAC, namely Insurance Acquisition Corp. Early trading is only going so well, but the CEO outlined for us precisely why he pursued a SPAC, which was actually interesting:

  • Shift could have gone public via an IPO, Russell said, but prioritized a SPAC-led debut because his firm wanted to optimize for a capital raise to keep the company growing.
  • How so? The private investment in public equity (PIPE) that the SPAC option came with ensured that Shift would have hundreds of millions in cash.
  • Shift also wanted to minimize what the CEO described as market risk. A SPAC deal could happen regardless of what the broader markets were up to. And as the company made the choice to debut via a SPAC in April, some caution, we reckon, may have made some sense.

So now Shift is public and newly capitalized. Let’s see what happens to its shares as it gets into the groove of reporting quarterly. (Obviously, if it flounders, it’s a bad mark for SPACs, but, conversely, successful trading could lead to a bit more momentum to SPAC-mageddon.)

A few more things and we’re done. Unicorn exits had a good week. First, Datto’s IPO continues to move forward. It set an initial price this week, which could value it above $4 billion. Also this week, Roblox announced that it has filed to go public, albeit privately. It’s worth billions as well. And finally, DoubleVerify is looking to go public for as much as $5 billion early next year.

Not all liquidity comes via the public markets, as we saw this week’s Twilio purchase of Segment, a deal that The Exchange dug into to find out if it was well-priced or not.

Various and Sundry

We’re running long naturally, so here are just a few quick things to add to your weekend mental tea-and-coffee reading!

Next week we are digging more deeply into Q3 venture capital data, a foretaste of which you can find here, regarding female founders, a topic that we returned to Friday in more depth.

Alex

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

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

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


  1. ) AccessBell

What it does: Video conferencing platform for enterprise workflows

Website: accessbell.com

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

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

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


2.) FarmRaise

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

Website: farmraise.com

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

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

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


3.) Sequel

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

Website: thesequelisbetter.com

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

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


4.) Interface Bio

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

Founders: Will Van Treuren, Hannah Wastyk

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


5.) Gryps

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

Website: gryps.io

Founders: Dareen Salama, Amir Tasbihi

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


6.) Expedock

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

Website: expedock.com

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

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


7.) Illume

What it does: A new way to share praise

Website: illumenotes.com

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

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


8.) Quansa

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

Website: quansa.io

Founders: Gonzalo Blanco, Mafalda Barros

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

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


9.) SpotlightAI

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

Website: hellospotlight.com

Founder: Austin Osborne (CEO)

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


10.) Bennu

What it does: Bennu closes the loop on management communication

Website: bennu.io

Founder: Brenda Jin (CEO)

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


11.) Playbook

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

Website: startplaybook.com

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

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


12.) June Motherhood

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

Website: junemotherhood.com

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

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


13.) Wagr

What it does: Challenge anyone to a friendly bet.

Website: wagr.us

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

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

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


14.) Federato

What it does: Intelligence for a new era of risk

Website: federato.ai

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

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

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


15.) rePurpose Global

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

Website: business.repurpose.global

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

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


16.) Ladder

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

Website: ladder.io

Founders: Akshaya Dinesh (CEO), Andrew Tan

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

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


Exporta

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

Website: exporta.io

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

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


Via

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

Website: via.work

Founders:  Maite Diez-Canedo, Itziar Diez-Canedo

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

Gogoro’s Eeyo 1s e-bike goes on sale in France, its first European market

Gogoro announced today that its Eeyo 1s is now available for sale in France, the smart electric bike’s first European market. Another model, the Eeyo 1, will launch over the next few months in France, Belgium, Monaco, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic.

In France, the Eeyo 1s can be purchased through Fnac, Darty or, in Paris, Les Cyclistes Branchés. The Eeyo 1s is priced at €4699 including VAT, while the the Eeyo 1 will be priced at €4599, also including VAT.

The weight of Eeyo bikes is one of their key selling points and Gogoro says they are about half the weight of most other e-bikes. The Eeyo 1s weighs 11.9 kg and the Eeyo 1 clocks in at 12.4 kg.  Both have carbon fiber frames and forks, but the Eeyo 1s’ seat post, handlebars and rims are also carbon fiber, while on the Eeyo 1 they are made with an alloy.

Based in Taiwan, Gogoro first introduced its Eeyo lineup in May, making them available for sale in the U.S. first. The e-bikes are the company’s second type of vehicle after its SmartScooters, electric scooters that are powered by swappable batteries. The Eeyo bike’s key technology is the SmartWheel, a self-contained hub that integrates its motor, battery, sensor and smart connectivity technology so it can be paired with a smartphone app.

In an interview for the Eeyo’s launch, Gogoro co-founder and chief executive Horace Luke said the company began planning for Eeyo’s launch in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. While sale of e-bikes were already growing steadily before COVID-19, the pandemic has accelerated sales of e-bikes as people avoid public transportation and stay closer to home. Several cities have also closed some streets to car traffic, making riders more willing to use bikes for short commutes and exercise.

Founded in 2011 and backed by investors including Temasek, Sumitomo Corporation, Panasonic, the National Development Fund of Taiwan and Generation (the sustainable tech fund led by former vice president Al Gore), Gogoro is best known for its electric scooters, but it is also working on a turnkey solution for energy-efficient vehicles to license to other companies, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions in cities around the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venture capital gets less diverse in 2020

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 here.


First, a big congrats on making it through the week. If you live in the United States, you just endured one of the wildest news weeks ever. Rapid-fire headlines and nigh-panic have been our lot since last Friday when the president announced he was COVID-19 positive. We’re all very tired. You get points for just surviving.

Second, I wanted to bring you something uplifting this weekend, as you deserve it. Sadly, that’s not what we’re going to talk about.

On Friday, The Exchange covered new data concerning the venture capital results of female founders during the third quarter. The data set was U.S.-focused, but we can presume that it is illustrative of global trends. Regardless of that nuance, the data was depressing.

In the third quarter, U.S.-based female founders and co-founders raised 136 rounds worth $434 million, per PitchBook data. That was a handful more rounds than Q2 2020, but far fewer dollars. And it was down across the board compared to Q3 2019. Even more, as we noted in the piece, the aggregate venture capital world did very well.

Here’s some PwC data making that point, and a bit more from my old employer Crunchbase. What matters is that female founders are doing worse when VCs are super active. This will only perpetuate inequalities and inequities in the startup market.

Speaking of which, here’s some more bad news. Vern Howard Jr., the co-founder and CEO of Hallo, a startup that has raised nearly $2 million, according to Crunchbase, compiled some data on Black founders’ VC performance in Q3. Here’s what he set out to do:

[W]e wanted to put hard numbers behind the promises of so many venture capitalists and create a benchmark for how we can track the investment into black founders over time. So our team pulled a list from Crunchbase of all the startups globally with a total funding amount of $500,000 — $20,000,000 and who raised a round between July 1 and October 1. There were over 1383 companies here and our team went through one by one, to see how many Black founders there were.

There were 31.

Now, you could open up the funding bands to include both smaller and larger funding events, but regardless of the data boundaries, the resulting number — just 2.2% of the total — is a disgrace.

Market Notes

Various and Sundry

  • Continuing our coverage of the savings and investing boom that fintech startups around the world have been riding this year, Freetrade, a British Robinhood if you will, told The Exchange that it crossed £1 billion in September order volume. That’s not bad!
  • Freetrade also recently launched a paid version of its service, as the payment-for-order-flow method of generating revenue that Robinhood is growing on the back of is not allowed across the pond.
  • Sticking to the fintech world, Yotta Savings is a startup that provides a savings option to its users, with the added chance of winning a big monetary prize for having stored their money with the startup. Folks have been whispering in my ear about the company for a bit, but I’ve held off writing about it until now as it was not clear to me if the model was merely a gimmick, or something that would actually attract customers.
  • Well, Yotta grew from 8,000 accounts to more than 30,000 in the past few weeks and has reached the $100 million deposit mark. So, I guess we now care.
  • Coinbase lost one in 20 employees to its new strategy of standing neutral during political times on anything that its CEO deems as unrelated to its core mission, which, as a for-profit company with tectonic financial backing, is making money.
  • On the same topic, Can from The Margins made a salient point that “no politics is a political stance.” Correct, and it is a very conservative one at that.
  • Even more, Coinbase’s CEO made noise about how his company will “work to create an environment where everyone is welcome and can do their best work, regardless of background, sexual orientation, race, gender, age, etc.” Whether he likes it or not, this is a political stance, and one that has nothing to do with the company’s stated core mission. And a political fight earned it — namely, equal access to the workplace.
  • I’ll toss in a plug for this piece on the matter from a VC that TechCrunch published, and these thoughts from a tech denizen on how to guarantee that your company lands on the wrong side of history on essentially everything.
  • Wrapping our grab-bag this week, Ping Identity bought ShoCard. Ping is now a public company, so normally its deals would land outside our wheelhouse. But we care in this case because TechCrunch has covered ShoCard (2015: “ShoCard Is A Digital Identity Card On The Blockchain”), and because the startup does crypto-related work.
  • Seeing a public company snap up a blockchain startup for real money, on purpose and out loud, doesn’t happen every day. More here if you want to read about the deal.

Wrapping, this newsletter is a lot of fun and I appreciate your reading it. It is, also, a work in progress. So feel free to hit respond to it and let me know what you want to see more of. Or hit respond and send me a cute pic of your pet. Either is fine by me.

Chat soon,

Alex