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YC startup Felix wants to replace antibiotics with programmable viruses

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

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

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

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

Phage killing bacteria in a petri dish

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

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

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

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

Felix researcher helping cystic fibrosis patient Ella Balasa through phage therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voodoo Games thrives by upending conventional product design

Will Robbins
Contributor

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

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

But first, some background: What is Voodoo Games?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to follow shortly…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to follow shortly…

Samasource CEO Leila Janah passes away at 37

The startup community has lost another moral leader today.

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

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

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

In its statement, the company said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indian tech startups raised a record $14.5B in 2019

Indian tech startups have never had it so good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The investors

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

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

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

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

Meet Europe’s top VCs at Disrupt Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Europe’s top VCs at Disrupt Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Europe’s top VCs at Disrupt Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playbuzz becomes Ex.co and expands its content marketing platform

Playbuzz, a startup that helps publishers to add things like polls and galleries to their articles, has rebranded itself as Ex.co.

Co-founder and CEO Tom Pachys told me the name stands for “the experience company,” and he said it reflects the company’s broader content marketing ambitions. Ex.co will continue working with news publishers, but Pachys said there’s a bigger market for what the company has built.

“We’re seeing businesses wanting to become publishers in a way, to interact with their users in a way that’s very similar to what a publisher does,” Pachys said.

Playbuzz/Ex.co is hardly the first publishing startup realize that there may be more money in content marketing, but Pachys argued that this isn’t just a sudden pivot. After all, the company is already working with clients like Visa, Red Bull and Netflix (as well as our corporate siblings at The Huffington Post).

“The previous name does not reflect the values that we stand for today — not even future values,” he said.

Tom Pachys

Tom Pachys

Pachys also suggested that existing content marketing tools are largely focused on operations and workflow — things like hiring the right freelancer — while Ex.co aims at making it easier to actually create the content.

“We’re the ones innovate within the core — not around it, but the core itself,” he said. “And rather than trying to call them competition, we want to integrate with as much players in the ecosystem as possible.”

In addition to announcing the rebrand, Ex.co is also relaunching its platform as a broader content marketing tool, with new features like content templates, real-time analytics and lead generation.

Pachys, by the way, is new to the CEO role, having served as COO until recently, while previous Playbuzz CEO Shaul Olmert has become the company’s president. Pachys said the move wasn’t “directly correlated” with the other changes, and instead allows the two of them to focus on their strengths — Pachys oversees day-to-day operations, while Olmert focuses on investor relations and strategic deals.

“I co-founded the company with Shaul, who’s a very good friend of mine, we’ve known each other 20 years,” Pachys said. “Shaul is very much involved in the company.”

Gradeup raises $7M to expand its online exam preparation platform to smaller Indian cities and towns

Gradeup, an edtech startup in India that operates an exam preparation platform for undergraduate and postgraduate level courses, has raised $7 million from Times Internet as it looks to expand its business in the country.

Times Internet, a conglomerate in India, invested $7 million in Series A and $3 million in Seed financing rounds of the four-year-old Noida-based startup, it said. Times Internet is the only external investor in Gradeup, they said.

Gradeup started as a community for students to discuss their upcoming exams, and help one another with solving questions, said Shobhit Bhatnagar, cofounder and CEO of Gradeup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

While those functionalities continue to be available on the platform, Gradeup has expanded to offer online courses from teachers to help students prepare for exams in last one year, he said. These courses, depending on their complexity and duration, cost anywhere between Rs 5,000 ($70) and Rs 35,000 ($500).

“These are live lectures that are designed to replicate the offline experience,” he said. The startup offers dozens of courses and runs multiple sessions in English and Hindi languages. As many as 200 students tune into a class simultaneously, he said.

Students can interact with the teacher through a chatroom. Each class also has a “student success rate” team assigned to it that follows up with each student to check if they had any difficulties in learning any concept and take their feedback. These extra efforts have helped Gradeup see more than 50% of its students finish their courses — an industry best, Bhatnagar said.

Each year in India, more than 30 million students appear for competitive exams. A significant number of these students enroll themselves to tuitions and other offline coaching centers.

“India has over 200 million students that spend over $90 billion on different educational services. These have primarily been served offline, where the challenge is maintaining high quality while expanding access,” said Satyan Gajwani, Vice Chairman of Times Internet.

In recent years, a number of edtech startups have emerged in the country to cater to larger audiences and make access to courses cheaper. Byju’s, backed by Naspers and valued at over $5.5 billion, offers a wide-ranging self-learning courses. Vedantu, a Bangalore-based startup that raised $42 million in late August, offers a mix of recorded and live and interactive courses.

Co-founders of Noida-based edtech startup Gradeup

But still, only a fraction of students take online courses today. One of the roadblocks in their growth has been access to mobile data, which until recent years was fairly expensive in the country. But arrival of Reliance Jio has solved that issue, said Bhatnagar. The other is acceptance from students and more importantly, their parents. Watching a course online on a smartphone or desktop is still a new concept for many parents in the country, he said. But this, too, is beginning to change.

“The first wave of online solutions were built around on-demand video content, either free or paid. Today, the next wave is online live courses like Gradeup, with teacher-student interactivity, personalisation, and adaptive learning strategies, deliver high-quality solutions that scale, which is particularly valuable in semi-urban and rural markets,” said Times Internet’s Gajwani.

“These match or better the experience quality of offline education, while being more cost-effective. This trend will keep growing in India, where online live education will grow very quickly for test prep, reskilling, and professional learning,” he added.

Gradeup has amassed over 15 million registered students who have enrolled to live lectures. The startup plans to use the fresh capital to expand its academic team to 100 faculty members (from 50 currently) and 200 subject matters and reach more users in smaller cities and towns in India.

“Students even in smaller cities and towns are paying a hefty amount of fee and are unable to get access to high-quality teachers,” Bhatnagar said. “This is exactly the void we can fill.”

Max Q: SpaceX and Boeing gear up for commercial crew mission tests

Welcome back to Max Q, our weekly look at what’s happening in space and space startup news. This week was a bit more quiet than usual coming off of the amazingly over-packed International Astronautical Congress, but there were still some big moves that promise a lot more action to come before they year’s over – particularly in the race to fly American astronauts to space on a rocket launched from American soil once again.

There’s also startup news, including how an entirely different kind of race – one to make stuff in space – could be a foundational moment that opens up entirely new areas of opportunity for entrepreneurs big and small.

1. SpaceX’s crucial parachute tests are going well

SpaceX needs to nail one key ingredient before its Crew Dragon missions can proceed apace with people on board. Actually, it has to nail quite a few, but parachutes are a crucial one, and it has been developing the parachutes that will help Crew Dragon float back safely to Earth for years not.

The third iteration is looking like the one that will be used for the first Crew Dragon missions with astronauts, and luckily, that version three system has now completed 13 successful tests in a row. That’s approaching the kind of reliability it needs to show to be used for the real thing, so this is good news for the current goal of putting astronauts on board early next year.

2. SpaceX and Boeing ready key milestone tests

SpaceX has another key test for Crew Dragon coming up as early as this week – a static fire of its capsule abort engines. This is a key test because the last one didn’t go so well. Also, Boeing will be doing their pad abort test as early as this week as well, which sets things up nicely for a busy time next year in crewed spaceflight.

3. How in-space manufacturing could prompt a space business boom

Launching stuff to space is expensive and really limits what you can do in terms of designing spacecraft and components. There’s been efforts made to reduce the costs, including SpaceX and Blue Origin pursuing reusable rocketry, but just building stuff up there instead of launching it could unlock much deeper cost savings – and new technical possibilities. (ExtraCrunch subscription required)

4. Changing the economics of satellite propulsion

Satellite propulsion has, until very recently, been almost entirely a bespoke affair, which translates to expensive and generally not accessible to startup companies who actually have to worry about stuff like burn rates. But Morpheus Space has a new “Lego-like” system for offering affordable, compact and scalable propulsion that can serve pretty much any satellite needs.

5. Dev kits for small satellites

Small satellite business is booming, and Kepler wants to make sure that developers are able to figure out what they can do with smallsats, so it’s offering a developer kit for its toaster-sized IoT communications satellites. Cooler than the Apple TV dev boxes that were on offer once upon a time.

6. Northrop Grumman launches ISS resupply mission

The ISS is getting a shipment of supplies and scientific material courtesy of a resupply cargo capsule launched by Northrop Grumman on Saturday. One thing on board is twelve containers of read wine, courtesy of startup Space Cargo Unlimited. I’ll have more info about that on Monday, so stay tuned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadspin writers quit after being ordered to stick to sports

Writers Laura Wagner, Kelsey McKinney, Tom Ley, Lauren Theisen, Patrick Redford, Albert Burneko and Chris Thompson all tweeted today that they have resigned from Deadspin, the sports-focused site owned by G/O Media.

A quick refresher: G/O Media was formerly known as Gizmodo Media Group, and before that as Gawker Media. It took on its current name and current leadership earlier this year when Univision sold the unit to private equity firm Great Hill Partners, who appointed former Forbes.com CEO Jim Spanfeller as its new chief executive.

Since then, the relationship between G/O Media leadership and the editorial staff has been rocky, as you would have learned by reading Deadspin itself, particularly an in-depth story by Wagner in August about how employees were unhappy with “a lack of communication regarding company goals, seeming disregard for promoting diversity within the top ranks of the company, and by repeated and egregious interference with editorial procedures.”

Just now I resigned my position at Deadspin today along with many of my colleagues. I have been here only five months but they have been some of the best of my career and I will miss it deeply.

— kelsey mckinney (@mckinneykelsey) October 30, 2019

A few weeks later, Deadspin’s editor in chief Megan Greenwell resigned, saying that G/O Media’s new editorial director Paul Maidment was directing the staff to stick to sports coverage — a decision that she argued wasn’t dictated by traffic, since “posts on The Concourse, Deadspin’s vertical dedicated to politics and culture and other topics that are not sports, outperform posts on the main site by slightly more than two to one.”

Apparently Maidment repeated that edict in a memo earlier this week, which was leaked to The Daily Beast, and in which he said, “Deadspin will write only about sports and that which is relevant to sports in some way.”

The Deadspin homepage was subsequently filled with non-sports content, and editor Barry Petchesky tweeted that he had been “fired from Deadspin for not sticking to sports.”

I quit today too https://t.co/W7meIcW0Cx

— Laura Wagner (@laurawags) October 30, 2019

At the same time, Deadspin also posted a story criticizing auto-playing ads on the site, declaring, “We, the writers, editors, and video producers of Deadspin, are as upset with the current state of our site’s user experience as you are.” The post is no longer live, but the criticism reportedly prompted advertiser Farmers Insurance to pull the campaign.

This all appears to have prompted a mass exodus from Deadspin today. The Gizmodo Media Group union also issued this statement:

Today, a number of our colleagues at Deadspin resigned from their positions. From the outset, CEO Jim Spanfeller has worked to undermine a successful site by curtailing its most well-read coverage because it makes him personally uncomfortable. This is not what journalism looks like and it is not what editorial independence looks like.

“Stick to sports” is and always has been a thinly veiled euphemism for “don’t speak truth to power.” In addition to being bad business, Spanfeller’s actions are morally reprehensible. The GMG Union stands with our current and former Deadspin colleagues and condemns Jim Spanfeller in the strongest possible terms.

We’ve reached out to G/O Media for comment and will update if we hear back.

As Juul announces mass layoffs, a new lawsuit alleges it shipped a million contaminated pods

A lawsuit filed a by former Juul executive alleges that the company knew a batch of contaminated e-liquid had been used in about one million pods shipped to retailers earlier this year, but did not inform customers. The lawsuit, first reported by BuzzFeed, was brought by Siddharth Breja, former senior vice president of global finance at Juul from May 2018 to March 2019, who alleges he was fired after complaining about the contaminated pods.

News of the lawsuit comes the same day as Juul’s announcement it will lay off about 500 people, or 10% to 15% of its workforce, and the departure of four executives, including chief financial officer Tim Danaher. Juul is currently under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration, which claims the startup made misleading statements about its product and targeting of teens.

In the lawsuit, Breja claims that during a meeting on March 12, he learned a contaminated batch of mint e-liquid was used to make 250,000 refill kits, or a total of one million pods, that had already been shipped to retailers.

Breja alleges that when he complained about Juul’s refusal to issue a product recall or health and safety notice, Danaher said doing so would cost the company billions of dollars in lost sales, hurting its then-$38 billion valuation. About a week later, Breja says the company fired him, telling him that it was because he had misrepresented himself as former chief financial officer at Uber. In the lawsuit, Breja says the claim was “preposterous,” and that he had accurately represented his former position as a chief financial officer of a division at Uber.

In the lawsuit, Breja also claims that Juul wanted to sell pods that were almost a year old and when he asked the company to include an expiration or best by date, or a date of manufacture on the packaging, he was told by former CEO Kevin Burns that “half our customers are drunk and vaping like mo-fos, who the fuck is going to notice the quality of our pods?”

TechCrunch has contacted Juul and the law firm representing Breja for comment. In a statement to BuzzFeed, Breja’s attorney Harmeet Dhillon said “Mr. Breja became aware of very concerning actions at the company, and he performed his duty to shareholders and to the board by reporting these issues internally. In exchange for doing that, he was inappropriatey terminated. This is very concerning, particularly since some of the issues he raised concerned matters of public safety.”

Burns was replaced in September by K.C. Crosthwaite, a former executive at Juul’s largest shareholder Altria . A replacement for Danaher has not been announced yet.

Looking for a job selling weed? EpicHint pitches training for cannabis dispensary ‘budtenders’

Adriana Herrera first came up with the idea for EpicHint, a training and staffing service for cannabis dispensaries, while she was surfing off the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Decompressing after the dissolution of her last startup venture — her second attempt at running her own business — Herrera realized quickly that surfing and #vanlife wasn’t her ultimate calling.

The serial entrepreneur had previously founded FashioningChange, a recommendation engine for sustainable shopping, back in 2011. The company was gaining traction and had some initial support, but it ran into the buzzsaw of Amazon’s product development group, which Herrera claims copied their platform to build a competing product.

Undeterred, Herrera took some of the tools that FashioningChange had developed and morphed them into a business focused on online marketing to shoppers at the point of sale — helping sites like Cooking.com pitch products to people based on what their browsing history revealed about their intent.

By 2017, that business had also run into problems, and Herrera had to shut down the company. She sold her stuff and had headed down to Oaxaca, but kept thinking about the emergent cannabis industry that was taking off back in the U.S.

Herrera had a friend who’d been diagnosed with colon cancer and was taking medicinal marijuana to address side effects from the operation that removed his colon.

“When recovering from the removal of his colon, he’d run out of his homegrown medicine and go to dispensaries where he . got the worst service,” Herrera wrote in an email. “He would ask for something pain, nausea, and sleep, and was always recommended the most expensive product or a product that was being promoted. He never got what he needed and had to self advocate for the right product while barely being able to stand.”

Herrera buckled down and did research throughout the course of 2018. She hit up pharmacies first as a customer, asking different “budtenders” for information about the product they were selling. Their answers were… underwhelming, according to Herrera. The next step was to talk to dispensary managers and research the weed industry.

By her own calculations, cannabis companies (including dispensaries and growers) will add roughly 300,000 jobs — most of them starting out at near-minimum-wage salaries of $16 per-hour. Meanwhile current training programs cost between $250 and $7,000.

That disconnect led Herrera to hit on her current business model — selling an annual subscription software for brands and dispensaries that would offer a training program for would-be job applicants. The training would give dispensaries a leg up for experienced hires, increasing sales and ideally reducing turnover that costs the industry as much as $438 million.

“The data is showing an average of a 30% turnover rate in 21 months,” says Herrera. “Looking at turnover and a lot of that comes down to bad hiring.”

The company is on its first eight customers, but counts one undisclosed, large, multi-state dispensary along with a few mom and pop shops.

Herrera also says that the service can reduce bias in hiring. Because dispensaries only hire candidates after they’ve completed the program, any unconscious bias won’t creep into the hiring process, she says.

Applicants interested in a dispensary can enroll in the dispensary “university” and once they complete the curriculum go through a standardized form to apply for the job.

Our  recommendation to run and get the best results is to pre-train, pre-screen and have the graduates unlock the ability to apply.”

Here are the five Startup Battlefield finalists at Disrupt SF 2019

Over the past two days, 20 startups have taken the stage at Disrupt SF, laying out their visions, demonstrating their technology and answering questions from our expert judges.

The startups came from all across the world, and they’re tackling industries ranging from cholera detection to orbital refueling.

Now we’ve taken the judges’ feedback and chosen five finalists — who will be presenting tomorrow, October 4, for a new group of judges. The ultimate winner will take home $100,000, equity-free, as well as receive temporary ownership of the Disrupt Cup.

You can watch the finals at Disrupt SF or on the TechCrunch website at 1:15pm Pacific. And without further ado, here are the finalists:

OmniViz

OmniVis aims to make detection of cholera and other pathogens as quick, simple, and cheap as a pregnancy test. Its smartphone-powered detection platform could save thousands of lives.

You can read more about OmniVis here.

Orbit Fab

Orbit Fab has created space-based robotic refueling technology. You might remember the company from a milestone accomplishment it achieved earlier this year: Becoming the first startup to supply water to the International Space Station.

You can read more about Orbit Fab here.

Render

Render has created a managed cloud platform. At the Startup Battlefield, it announced the ability to spin up object storage in the cloud, while greatly simplifying the tasks associated with adding storage.

You can read more about Render here.

StrattyX

StrattyX is a trading interface that lets you set up sophisticated “if-this-then-that” rules and execute orders on the stock market. The company aims to open up automated trading software to anyone, from non-professional traders who have some savings to professional day traders.

You can read more about StrattyX here.

Traptic

Things like wheat and corn are routinely harvested by machines, but strawberries (and other fruits) present a unique challenge. Traptic uses 3D vision and robotic arms to harvest ripe strawberries.

You can read more about Traptic here.

MyMilk Labs launches Mylee, a small sensor that analyzes breast milk at home

Many expectant mothers are told that breastfeeding will come naturally, but it is often a fraught and confusing experience, especially during the first few weeks after birth. Parents often worry about if their babies are getting enough nutrition or if they are producing enough milk. MyMilk Labs wants to give nursing mothers more information with Mylee, a sensor that scans a few drops of breast milk to get information about its composition and connects to a mobile app. The Israel-based company presented today at Disrupt Battlefield as one of two wild card competitors picked from Startup Alley.

The Mylee launched at Disrupt with a pre-order price of $249 (its regular retail price is $349). Based in Israel, MyMilk Labs was founded in 2014 by Ravid Schecter and Sharon Haramati, who met while working on PhDs in neuroimmunology and neurobiology, respectively, at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Mylee deviceDuring the company’s stage presentation, Schecter said the device is meant to give mothers and lactation consultants objective information about breast milk.

Breast milk changes in the first days and weeks after birth, progressing from colostrum to mature milk. Mylee scans the electrochemical properties of milk and then correlates that to data points based on MyMilk Labs’ research to calculate where the sample is on the continuum, then tells mothers if their milk is “delayed” or “advanced,” relative to the time that has passed since they gave birth.

The device’s first version is currently in a beta pilot with lactation consultants who have used them to scan milk samples from 500 mothers.

MyMilk Labs already has consumer breast milk testing kits that enable mothers to provide a small sample at home that is then sent to MyMilk Labs’ laboratories for analysis. One is a nutritional panel that gives information about the milk’s levels of vitamins B6, B12 and A, calories and fat percentage, along with dietary recommendations for the mother. Another panel focuses on what is causing breast pain, a frequent complaint for nursing mothers. It tests for bacterial or fungal infections and gives antibiotic suggestions depending on what strains are detected.

Though some doctors believe testing kits are unnecessary for the majority of nursing mothers, there is demand for more knowledge about breastfeeding, as demonstrated by the line-up of breast milk testing kits from MyMilk Labs and competitors like Lactation Labs, Everly Well and Happy Vitals. Haramati said on stage that MyMilk Labs plans to eventually transfer some of the tests’ capabilities to the Mylee.


One day left to get featured at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin’s Startup Battlefield

Founders. The clock is ticking. Applications for Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin 2019 are closing in just about 24 hours.

On December 11-12, TechCrunch will feature the top early-stage startups from around the world in the most renowned on-stage pitch competition in the world – Startup Battlefield. Companies are battling for $50,000 in equity-free prize money, the infamous Disrupt Cup and the attention of press and investors from around the world.

You’ll join the leave of highly successful Startup Battlefield Alumni, including N26, JukeDeck, Dropbox, GetAround, Mint.com, and more. All together, the 857 companies that have launched with Startup Battlefield have raised over $8.9 billion in funding, with 113 successful exits (IPOs and acquisitions).

It’s simply. Startups from any part of the world and any industry can apply. Companies must be early stage, pre-major publicity and have a minimally viable product to demo live on stage. TechCrunch editors review the applications and select the top 3-5% of companies that apply – more competitive than college!

After being selected, founders will go through a mini-accelerator with the Startup Battlefield team, where we will train you on your pitch, go-to-market strategy, on stage talent and set you up for the biggest, most public launch on the largest tech stage in the world. Teams pitch for 6 minutes including a live demo, followed by a 6 min Q&A with our esteemed judges – VCs, angels and heads of major companies.

If you make it to the final round, you simply pitch on stage again with the same pitch in front of a brand new set of judges. These judges debate and decide the final winner of the competition and the startup that gets to bring home $50,000 and the Disrupt Cup.

Participating in Startup Battlefield gets you a whole suite of perks. We’re talking free exhibition space in Startup Alley for both days of Disrupt, invitations to private events, backstage access, CrunchMatch — our free business-matching platform — free subscriptions to Extra Crunch and a ticket to all future TechCrunch events. That’s some major value right there.

There’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Stop procrastinating apply to Startup Battlefield today. We want to see you in Berlin!

Honestbee owes almost $1 million in unpaid salary to employees, according to affidavit filed by its CEO

Honestbee, the Singapore-based grocery delivery startup that has been struggling with financial issues, owes 217 employees a total of almost USD $1 million in unpaid salary. The Strait Times reported that the figure was revealed in an affidavit filed in court on Sept. 20 by Honestbee CEO Ong Lay Ann as part of the startup’s debt moratorium application.

The Ministry of Manpower told the Strait Times that 44 employees have filed claims with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, with some of the employees settling mediation by agreeing to a payment schedule with Honestbee that will be monitored by the alliance.

In an emailed statement to TechCrunch, an Honestbee spokesperson said, “There is a communicated salary delay for Honestbee’s ex-employees and employees currently serving notice. While there are regular injections of working capital, the amount remains insufficient for all headcount. As a result, the company has made the difficult decision to prioritize existing staff in Singapore. The company has the full intention in meeting its obligations to staff and will be, if not already in active discussions with staff in relation to a feasible payment schedule.”

TechCrunch reported in April that Honestbee was running out of money and trying to find a buyer. The company, which used to operate in eight markets across Asia, has stopped operating in Hong Kong and Indonesia, temporarily halted services in Japan and the Philippines and suspended its food delivery service in Thailand.

The affidavit filed by Ong says Honestbee currently has 190 employees, down from 523 full-time employees and 77 part-time workers in January.

Ong also said that Honestbee chairman Brian Koo resigned from the board on on Sept. 12.

According to the affidavit, Koo and associates including investment vehicles he set up, are owed about $258 million, or about 90% of Honestbee’s debt. Koo, a founding managing partner of venture capital firm Formation Group, was one of Honestbee’s earliest investors and served as interim CEO from May to July after former chief executive Joel Sng stepped down.

Facebook has acquired Servicefriend, which builds ‘hybrid’ chatbots, for Calibra customer service

As Facebook prepares to launch its new cryptocurrency Libra in 2020, it’s putting the pieces in place to help it run. In one of the latest developments, it has acquired Servicefriend, a startup that built bots — chat clients for messaging apps based on artificial intelligence — to help customer service teams, TechCrunch has confirmed.

The news was first reported in Israel, where Servicefriend is based, after one of its investors, Roberto Singler, alerted local publication The Marker about the deal. We reached out to Ido Arad, one of the co-founders of the company, who referred our questions to a team at Facebook. Facebook then confirmed the acquisition with an Apple-like non-specific statement:

“We acquire smaller tech companies from time to time. We don’t always discuss our plans,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Several people, including Arad, his co-founder Shahar Ben Ami, and at least one other indicate that they now work at Facebook within the Calibra digital wallet group on their LinkedIn profiles. Their jobs at the social network started this month, meaning this acquisition closed in recent weeks. (Several others indicate that they are still at Servicefriend, meaning they too may have likely made the move as well.)

Although Facebook isn’t specifying what they will be working on, the most obvious area will be in building a bot — or more likely, a network of bots — for the customer service layer for the Calibra digital wallet that Facebook is developing.

Facebook’s plan is to build a range of financial services for people to use Calibra to pay out and receive Libra — for example, to send money to contacts, pay bills, top up their phones, buy things and more.

It remains to be seen just how much people will trust Facebook as a provider of all these. So that is where having “human” and accessible customer service experience will be essential.

“We are here for you,” Calibra notes on its welcome page, where it promises 24-7 support in WhatsApp and Messenger for its users.

Screenshot 2019 09 21 at 23.25.18

Servicefriend has worked on Facebook’s platform in the past: specifically it built “hybrid” bots for Messenger for companies to use to complement teams of humans, to better scale their services on messaging platforms. In one Messenger bot that Servicefriend built for Globe Telecom in the Philippines, it noted that the hybrid bot was able to bring the “agent hours” down to under 20 hours for each 1,000 customer interactions.

Bots have been a relatively problematic area for Facebook. The company launched a personal assistant called M in 2015, and then bots that let users talk to businesses in 2016 on Messenger, with quite some fanfare, although the reality was that nothing really worked as well as promised, and in some cases worked significantly worse than whatever services they aimed to replace.

While AI-based assistants such as Alexa have become synonymous with how a computer can carry on a conversation and provide information to humans, the consensus around bots these days is that the most workable way forward is to build services that complement, rather than completely replace, teams.

For Facebook, getting its customer service on Calibra right can help it build and expand its credibility (note: another area where Servicefriend has build services is in using customer service as a marketing channel). Getting it wrong could mean issues not just with customers, but with partners and possibly regulators.

Shipper, a platform for e-commerce logistics in Indonesia, raises $5 million

Indonesia has one of the fastest-growing e-commerce markets in the world, but the logistics industry there is still very fragmented, creating headaches for both vendors and customers. Shipper is a startup with the ambitious goal of giving online sellers access to “Amazon-level logistics.” The company has raised $5 million in seed funding from Lightspeed Ventures, Floodgate Ventures, Insignia Ventures Partners and Y Combinator (Shipper is part of the accelerator’s winter 2019 batch), which will be used for hiring and customer acquisition.

Shipper was launched in 2017 by co-founders Phil Opamuratawongse and Budi Handoko, and is now used by more than 25,000 online sellers. Indonesia’s e-commerce market is growing rapidly, but online sellers still face many logistical hurdles.

The country is large (Indonesia has more than 17,500 islands, of which 600 are inhabited) and unlike the United States, where Amazon dominates, e-commerce sellers often use multiple platforms, like Tokopedia, Shopee, Bukalapak and Lazada. Smaller vendors also sell through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social media. Once an order has been placed, the challenge of making sure it gets to customers starts. There are more than 2,500 logistics providers in Indonesia, many of whom only cover a small area.

“It is really hard for any one provider to do nationwide themselves, so the big ones usually use local partners to fulfill locations where they don’t have infrastructure,” says Opamuratawongse.

The startup’s mission is to create a platform that makes the process of fulfilling and tracking orders much more efficient. In addition to a package pick-up service and fulfillment centers, Shipper also has a technology stack to help logistics providers manage shipments. It is used to predict the best shipping routes and consolidate packages headed in the same direction and also provides a multi-carrier API that allows sellers to manage orders, print shipping labels and get tracking information from multiple providers on their phones.

When it launched three years ago, Shipper began by focusing on the last-mile for smaller vendors, who Opamuratawongse says typically keep inventory in their homes and fulfill about five to 10 orders per day. Since many give customers a choice of several logistics providers, that meant they needed to visit multiple drop-off locations every morning.

Shipper offers pick-up service performed by couriers (who Opamuratawongse says are people like stay-at-home parents who want flexible, part-time work) who collect packages from several vendors in the same neighborhood and distribute them to different logistics providers, serving as micro-fulfillment hubs. Shipper signs up about 10 to 30 new couriers each week, keeping them at least 2.5 kilometers apart so they don’t compete against each other.

The company began setting up fulfillment centers to keep up with vendors whose businesses were growing and were turning to third-party warehouse services. Shipper has established 10 fulfillment centers so far across Indonesia, including Jakarta, with plans to open a new one about every two weeks until it covers all of Indonesia.

Opamuratawongse says he expects the logistics industry in Indonesia to remain fragmented for the next decade at least, and perhaps longer because of Indonesia’s size and geography. Shipper will focus on expanding in Indonesia first, with the goal of having 1,000 microhubs within the next year and 15 to 20 fulfillment centers. Then the company plans to tackle other Southeast Asian countries with rapidly-growing e-commerce markets, including Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

How to get people to open your emails

Julian Shapiro
Contributor

Julian Shapiro is the founder of BellCurve.com, a growth marketing agency that trains you to become a marketing professional. He also writes at Julian.com.

We’ve aggregated the world’s best growth marketers into one community. Twice a month, we ask them to share their most effective growth tactics, and we compile them into this Growth Report.

This is how you’re going stay up-to-date on growth marketing tactics — with advice you can’t get elsewhere.

Our community consists of 600 startup founders paired with VP’s of growth from later-stage companies. We have 300 YC founders plus senior marketers from companies including Medium, Docker, Invision, Intuit, Pinterest, Discord, Webflow, Lambda School, Perfect Keto, Typeform, Modern Fertility, Segment, Udemy, Puma, Cameo, and Ritual .

You can participate in our community by joining Demand Curve’s marketing webinars, Slack group, or marketing training program. See past growth reports here and here.

Without further ado, onto the advice.


How can you send email campaigns that get opened by 100% of your mailing list?

Based on insights from Nick Selman, Fletcher Richman of Halp, and Wes Wagner.

  • First, a few obvious pieces of advice for avoiding low open rates:
    • Avoid spam filters by avoiding keywords commonly used in spam emails.
    • Consider using email subjects (1) that are clearly descriptive and (2) look like they were written by a friend. Then A/B your top choices.
    • Include the recipient’s name in your email body. This signals to spam filters that you do in fact know the recipient.
  • Now, for the real advice: Let’s say 60% of your audience opens your mailing, how can you get the remaining 40% to open and read it too?
    • First, wait 2 weeks to give everyone a chance to open the initial email.
    • Next, export a list of those who haven’t opened. Mailchimp lets you do this.
    • Important note: The reason many recipients don’t open your email is because it was sent to Spam, it was buried in Promotions, or it was insta-deleted because it looked like spam (but wasn’t). The goal here is to resuscitate these people. You have two options for doing so:
    • (1) Duplicate the initial email then selectively re-send it to non-openers. This time, use a new subject (try a new hook) and downgrade the email to plain text: remove images and link tracking. De-enriching the email in this way can help bypass spam filters and the Promotions tab.
    • (2) Alternatively, export your list of non-openers to a third-party email tool like Mailshake (or Mixmax).
      • First, connect Mailshake to a new Gmail account on your company domain.
      • Next, configure Mailshake to automatically dole out small batches of emails on a daily schedule. Let it churn through non-openers slowly so that Gmail doesn’t flag your account as a spammer.
      • Emails sent through Mailshake are more likely to get opened than emails sent through Mailchimp. Why? Mailshake sends emails through your Gmail account, and Gmail-to-Gmail emails have a greater chance of bypassing Spam and Promotions folders, particularly if the sender doesn’t have a history of its emails being marked as spam.

Cloudflare co-founder Michelle Zatlyn on the company’s IPO today, its unique dual class structure, and what’s next

Shares of Cloudflare rose 20% today in its first day of trading on the public market, opening trading at $18 after it priced its IPO at $15 a share yesterday and holding steady through the day.

Put another way, the performance of the nine-year-old company — which provides cloud-based network services to enterprises — was relatively undramatic as these things go. That’s a good thing, given that first-day “pops” often signal that a company has left money on the table. Indeed, Cloudflare had initially indicated that its shares would be priced between $10 and $12, before adjusting the price upward, which suggests its underwriters, led by Goldman Sachs, fairly accurately gauged demand for the offering.

Of course, it was still a very big day for Cloudlfare’s 1,069 employees and especially for Cloudflare’s founders Matthew Prince, its CEO, and Michelle Zatlyn, its COO. We talked with Zatlyn today in the hours after the duo rang the opening bell to ask about the experience, and how the IPO impacts the company going forward. Our chat has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: Thanks for making time for us on a busy day.

MZ: Of course! [TechCrunch’s] Battlefield [competition, in which Cloudflare competed in 2011] is such an integral part of our funding story. Thank you for giving us the stage to launch our company.

TC: Did you get any sleep last night?

MZ: I was so exhausted that I got a great night’s sleep. This whole process has been so incredible, so special. I didn’t know what to expect, and it’s been way better than I could have imagined. There are 150 of our teammates, early employees, family members, board members, champions and other friends here with us [in New York at the NYSE]. We also live-streamed [our debut] to our offices around the world so they could share this moment with us.

TC: How are you feeling about today? The stock is up 20%. There’s always banter afterward about whether a listing was priced right, whether any money was left on the table.

MZ: At this point, we’ve raised almost a billion dollars between today and all of the money we’ve raised from venture investors. We have a great team. We’re really happy. The markets are going to react how they react, but it’s part of our DNA to provide more value than we capture. We think that’s the way to build an enduring company.

TC: You have a liquid currency now. Do you imagine Cloudflare might become more acquisitive as a public company?

MZ: We’ve done some acquisitions on the smaller side and of course, we have a team that’s always looking at different opportunities. But we’re really engineering-driven, and we think we have many products and services left to build, so we’ll continue to invest in our products and in R&D development, as well as in our customer relationships.

TC: Retaining employees is a challenge that some newly public companies worry about. How will you address this in the coming days and months as lock-up periods expire?

MZ: I’m so proud of where we are today and of our whole team, and we’re just getting started. [Matthew and I will] show up Monday morning and get back to work and so will our employees, because they want to make the company [an even greater business].

TC: The company went public with a dual-class structure that gives not just management but all employees 10 times the voting rights of the shares sold to the public. Why was this structure important to Cloudflare, and did it give investors pause?

MZ: There are more than 1,000 people around the world who are building the product and working with customers, and we think it’s important for them to have that 10:1 structure, so it’s something we put in place a few years ago with the encouragement of some of our earlier investors.

TC: Were you modeling this after another company? Is there a precedent for it?

MZ: I don’t know of another one — there may be — but we weren’t inspired by another company. We just felt passionately about this being the right corporate structure and [I don’t think it was harder for us to tell the story of Cloudflare because of it]. Over the last two weeks, in talking with investors across the world, it wasn’t in the top 10 topics that came up, so I think we did a good job of describing it in our S-1.

TC: What was the roadshow like? What surprised you most?

MZ: Don’t get me wrong, there’s a ton of work involved from all kinds of people, in finance, our legal teams … But roadshows have a bad rap in that people think they’re grueling and that, by the end, you’ll be exhausted. That was my expectation. But it was really fun. It was a huge privilege to represent Cloudflare to all these investors who were incredibly smart and well-prepared. We traveled all over and people told us ‘You look better than most teams.’

Michelle Zatlyn

TC: Where does one go for these roadshows?

MZ: You have the usual suspects; there’s a travel roadshow circuit, with some variations based on people’s vacation schedules, but New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Baltimore is common, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Toronto. You go in person to some places and in others, people dial in. But the whole thing gave me new insight into these pools of capital after venture capital. It was really interesting.

TC: Cloudflare said in a recent amendment to its S-1 that it was in touch with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control back in May after determining that its products were used by individuals and entities that have been blacklisted by the U.S. Did this new revelation slow anything down?

MZ: There was no impact. Your group of advisors expands when you go through a public offering, and lawyers dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’ and you become a better company for it.

We deliver cybersecurity solutions that are made broadly available to businesses, entrepreneurs and nonprofits, and that’s incredible, but there are also some unsavory actors online, and we’ve always been a transparent organization [about having to grapple with this].

TC: How will Cloudflare handle requests for service by embargoed and restricted entities going forward? As a public company, does that process change in any way?

MZ: We have a really good process today. I think people think that we let anyone use Cloudflare and that’s it. But if customers are breaking the law, we remove them from our network and that’s not new and we publish transparency reports on it.

Sometimes, [you’re confronting] things that aren’t illegal but they’re gross, and the question is whose job is it to take it offline. But I work with some of the smartest minds on this and we try to be very transparent about how we figure this out. The conversation is so much better than it was a few years ago, too, with policy makers and academics and the business community engaging on this. People around the world are talking about where the lines can be drawn, but these are tricky, heady conversations.

TC: They certainly put Cloudflare in a precarious spot sometimes, as when the company banned the internet forum 8chan earlier this year after it was learned that the site was used by a gunman to post an anti-immigration rant. Can we expect that Cloudflare will continue to make decisions like this on a case-by-case basis?

MZ: Freedom of speech is such a fundamental part of this nation. Citizens should want the lawmakers to decide what the law should be, and if lawmakers could do this, it would be much better. On the other side, these are new issues that are arising so we shouldn’t rush. Lots of opinions need to be weighed and conversations are much further along than they once were, but there’s still work to be done, and Cloudflare is one [participant] in a much broader conversation.

Another high-flying, heavily funded AR headset startup is shutting down

While Apple and Microsoft strain to sell augmented reality as the next major computing platform, many of the startups aiming to beat them to the punch are crashing and burning.

Daqri, which built enterprise-grade AR headsets, has shuttered its HQ, laid off many of its employees and is selling off assets ahead of a shutdown, former employees and sources close to the company tell TechCrunch.

In an email obtained by TechCrunch, the nearly 10-year-old company told its customers that it was pursuing an asset sale and was shutting down its cloud and smart-glasses hardware platforms by the end of September.

“I think the large majority of people who worked [at Daqri] are sad to see it closing down,” a former employee told TechCrunch. “[I] wish the end result was different.”

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The company’s 18,000+ square foot Los Angeles headquarters (above) is currently listed as “available” by real estate firm Newmark Knight Frank. The company’s Sunnyvale offices appear to have been shuttered sometime prior to 2019.

Daqri’s shutdown is only the latest among heavily funded augmented reality startups seeking to court enterprise customers.

Earlier this year, Osterhout Design Group unloaded its AR glasses patents after acquisition talks with Magic Leap, Facebook and others stalled. Meta, an AR headset startup that raised $73 million from VCs including Tencent, also sold its assets earlier this year after the company ran out of cash.

Daqri faced substantial challenges from competing headset makers, including Magic Leap and Microsoft, who were backed by more expansive war chests and institutional partnerships. While the headset company struggled to compete for enterprise customers, Daqri benefitted from investor excitement surrounding the broader space. That is, until the investment climate for AR startups cooled.

Daqri was, at one point, speaking with a large private-equity firm about financing ahead of a potential IPO, but as the technical realities facing other AR companies came to light, the firm backed out and the deal crumbled, we are told.

As of mid-2017, a Wall Street Journal report detailed that Daqri had raised $275 million in funding. You won’t find many details on the sources of that funding, other than references to Tarsadia Investments, a private-equity firm in Los Angeles that took part in the company’s sole disclosed funding round. We’re told Tarsadia had taken controlling ownership of the firm after subsequent investments.

In early 2016, Daqri acquired Two Trees Photonics, a small UK startup that was building holographic display technologies for automotive customers. The UK division soon comprised a substantial portion of the entire company’s revenues, sources tell us. By early 2018, the division was spun out from Daqri as a separate company called Envisics, leaving the Daqri team to focus wholly on bringing augmented reality to enterprise customers.

The remaining head-worn AR division failed to gain momentum after prolonged setbacks in adoption of its AR smart glasses, including difficulties in training workers to use the futuristic hardware, a source told TechCrunch.

All the while, the company’s leadership put on a brave face as the startup sputtered. In an interview this year with Cornell Enterprise Magazine, Daqri CEO Roy Ashok told the publication that the startup was forecasting shipments of “tens of thousands” of pairs of its AR glasses in 2020.

Daqri, its founder and several executives did not respond to requests for comment.

Gig worker bill AB-5 passes in California

Assembly Bill 5, the gig worker bill opposed by the likes of Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, has passed in the California State Senate. This comes shortly after California Governor Gavin Newsom officially put his support behind AB 5 in an op-ed.

The bill needed 21 votes to pass in the State Senate. It passed in a 29 to 11 vote this evening.

The next step is for Governor Newsom to sign the bill into law, which he is expected to do. If he signs the bill, it will go into effect at the beginning of 2020.

“AB 5 is only the beginning,” Gig Workers Rising member and driver Edan Alva said in a statement. “I talk daily to other drivers who want a change but they are scared. They don’t want to lose their only source of income. But just because someone really needs to work does not mean that their rights as a worker should be stepped all over. That is why a union is critical. It simply won’t work without it.”

The bill, first introduced in December 2018, aims to codfiy the ruling established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that case, the court applied the ABC test and decided Dynamex wrongfully classified its workers as independent contractors based on the presumption that “a worker who performs services for a hirer is an employee for purposes of claims for wages and benefits…”

Those who work as 1099 contractors can set their own schedules, and decide when, where and how much they want to work. For employers, bringing on 1099 contractors means they can avoid paying payroll taxes, overtime pay, benefits and workers’ compensation.

According to the ABC test, in order for a hiring entity to legally classify a worker as an independent contractor, it must prove the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity, performs work outside the scope of the entity’s business and is regularly engaged in an “independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.”

In short, AB-5, which has already passed in the California State Assembly, would ensure gig economy workers are entitled to minimum wage, workers’ compensation and other benefits.

Uber and Lyft, two of the main targets of this legislation, are adamantly against it. Last month, Uber, Lyft and DoorDash amped up their efforts to do whatever they can to prevent it from happening. That’s in part due to the fact that the companies cost of operating would increase.

Uber, Lyft and DoorDash each put $30 million toward funding a 2020 ballot initiative that would enable them to keep their drivers as independent contractors.

Assuming Gov. Newsom signs the bill, it will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

AB5 has passed through the Senate! We thank @LorenaAD80 for championing this in the legislature and celebrate with drivers from across the state who have spent years organizing. Up next: a real union for drivers!

— Gig Workers Rising (@GigWorkersRise) September 11, 2019

Good Capital launches to close the funding gap for early-stage Indian startups

Rohan Malhotra and Arjun Malhotra left their jobs in London and Silicon Valley to explore opportunities in India in late 2013. A year later, the brothers launched Investopad to connect with local startup founders and product managers and built a community to exchange insight. Somewhere in the journey, they wrote early checks to social-commerce startup Meesho, which now counts Facebook as an investor, Autonomic, which got acquired by Ford, and HyperTrack, among others. Now the duo is ready to be full-time VCs.

On Monday, they announced Good Capital, a VC fund that would invest in early-stage startups. Through Good Capital’s maiden fund of $25 million, the brothers plan to invest in about half a dozen startups in a year and provide between $100,000 to $2 million in their Seed and Series A financing rounds, they told TechCrunch in an interview last week.

“Through Investopad, we helped startup founders raise money, provided guidance, and helped them find customers. We did a ton of events, and learned about the market,” said Arjun, who worked at Capricorn Investment Group and also acted in 2014 blockbuster Bollywood title “Highway.”

Investopad’s first fund portfolio stands at a gross IRR of 138.3% and nine of its 12 investments have realised returns, with every dollar invested already returned, the brothers said.

Good Capital will focus on investing in startups that are building solutions that address users who have come online in India for the first time in the last two years, they said.

“We don’t have laser-focus on a particular sector,” said Rohan, who previously worked as a sports agent in the talent management business. “Our primary focus is to help startups that are taking a bottom-up approach.”

One example of such startup is Meesho, a social-commerce startup that has amassed over 2 million users who are engaging with the platform to sell products across India.

In a statement, Vidit Aatrey, cofounder and CEO of Meesho, said, “Rohan and Arjun were our earliest investors. They have a phenomenal global network of entrepreneurs, operators and investors. They helped us early on with introductions to such people; who brought not only capital but, more importantly, valuable operational inputs which helped us learn quickly and find product-market fit faster. While we’ve grown from 2 people to over 1,000+ at Meesho, they remain close confidants!”

The VC fund has completed its first close of $12 million from Symphony International Holdings, a host of European family offices, and a number of other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Sundeep Madra, CEO of Ford X, and Yogen Dalal, Partner Emeritus at the Mayfield Fund and founder of Glooko, and Dinesh Moorjani, Managing Director of Comcast Ventures and founder of Hatch Labs and Tinder, will serve as advisors to Good Capital.

“Rohan and Arjun have a unique ability to identify trends and bring together founders and investors to go after the unique problems that India needs to have solved. They operate with a sense of urgency and innovation which is a major key at the seed-stage.” said Madra, who has invested in companies such as Uber and Zenefits.

The fund has also set up an investment committee whose members are Sanjay Kapoor, former CEO of Airtel and now a senior advisor at BCG, Rahul Khanna, formerly a managing partner at Cannan Partners and now founder of Trifecta Capital, and Kashyap Deorah, a serial entrepreneur who is currently building HyperTrack.

Good Capital has also already made two investments: SimSim, a video-based e-commerce platform that is trying to replicate the experience consumers have in offline stores, and Spatial, a cross-reality platform that allows people to collaborate through augmented reality. Garrett Camp, a founder of Uber and Expa, and Samsung Next have also invested in Spatial.

The VC fund is also interested in funding business-to-business startups, though they say these startups would ideally be building solutions for overseas markets. “There we are generally targeting makers, developers and designers, rather than solving problems for heavy-duty sales businesses.”

The arrival of Good Capital should help the Indian startup community, which today has to rely on a handful of VC funds that invest in early stage startups. “Conventionally, funds have targeted the top of the pyramid by exploring visible opportunities and replicated US companies and models,” said Moorjani in a statement.

“In contrast, Good Capital’s first principles thinking applied to India’s larger economy, which is coming online at scale with a supporting ecosystem for the first time, has been refreshing to see. The team is beyond talented.,” he added.

Even as Indian tech startups raised a record $10.5 billion in 2018, early-stage startups saw a decline in the number of deals they participated in and the amount of capital they received.

Early-stage startups participated in 304 deals in 2018 and raised $916 million in funds last year, down from $988 million they raised from 380 rounds in 2017 and $1.096 billion they raised from 430 deals the year before, research firm Venture Intelligence told TechCrunch.

As for Investopad, the brothers said they have hired a number of people who will now continue its operation.

WeChat restricts controversial video face-swapping app Zao, citing “security risks”

Zao went viral in China this weekend for its realistic face-swapping videos, but after controversy about its policies, WeChat restricted access to the app on its messaging platform.

Developed by a unit of Momo, one of China’s most popular dating apps, Zao creates videos that replace the faces of celebrities in scenes from popular movies, shows and music videos with a selfie uploaded by the user.

The app, currently available only in China, went viral as users shared their videos through WeChat and other social media platforms in China. But concerns about the potential misuse of deepfake technology coupled with a clause (now deleted) in Zao’s terms of use that gave it full ownership and copyright to content uploaded or created on it, in addition to “completely free, irrevocable, perpetual, transferrable, and re-licensable rights,” caused controversy.

In case you haven’t heard, #ZAO is a Chinese app which completely blew up since Friday. Best application of ‘Deepfake’-style AI facial replacement I’ve ever seen.

Here’s an example of me as DiCaprio (generated in under 8 secs from that one photo in the thumbnail) 🤯pic.twitter.com/1RpnJJ3wgT

— Allan Xia (@AllanXia) September 1, 2019

By going viral quickly and being very easy to use (Zao’s videos can be generated from a single selfie, though it suggests that users upload photos from several angles for better results), the app has also focused more attention on deepfake technology and how it can potentially be used to spread misinformation or harass people.

Users can still upload videos they created with Zao to WeChat, but if they try to download the app or send an invite link to another WeChat user, a message is displayed that says “this web page has been reported multiple times and contains security risks. To maintain a safe online environment, access to this page has been blocked.”23011567479434 .pic

Zao was released last Friday and quickly became the top free iOS app in China, according to App Annie. A statement posted on Sept. 1 to Zao’s Weibo account says “we completely understand everybody’s concerns about the privacy issue. We are aware of the issue and we are thinking about how to fix the problems, we need a little time.” Its terms and conditions now say user-generated content will only be used by the company to improve the app and that all deleted content will be removed from its servers.

TechCrunch has contacted Zao for comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A 3D-printed silicone heart valve from Spectroplast.

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

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

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

ethz siliconeprinting 2

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

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

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

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

Fresh out of Y Combinator, Tandem lands millions from Andreessen Horowitz

Tandem, one of the most sought after companies to graduate from Y Combinator’s summer batch, will emerge from the accelerator program with a supersized seed round and an uncharacteristically high valuation.

The months-old business, which is developing communication software for remote teams after pivoting from crypto, is raising a $7.5 million seed financing at a valuation north of $30 million, sources tell TechCrunch. Airbnb investor Andreessen Horowitz is leading the round.

Tandem and a16z declined to comment for this story. The round has yet to close, which means the deal size is subject to change. Y Combinator startups raise capital using SAFE agreements, or simple agreements for future equity, which allow investors to buy shares in a future priced round at a previously agreed-upon valuation.

We’re told several top venture capital firms were vying for a stake in Tandem. One firm even gifted the founders a tandem bike, sources tell TechCrunch, resorting to amusing measures to sway the Tandem team. But it was a16z — which has an established interest in the growing future of work sector, evidenced by its recent investment in the popular email app Superhuman — that ultimately won the coveted lead investor spot.

Tandem provides a virtual office for remote teams, complete with video-chatting and messaging capabilities, as well as integrations with top enterprise tools including Notion, GitHub and Trello. The service launched one month ago and has signed contracts with Airbnb, Dropbox and others. The company claims to be growing 50% week-over-week.

“Every company is a remote company,” Tandem chief executive officer Rajiv Ayyangar said during his pitch to investors on day two of Y Combinator Demo Days this week. “You have salespeople in the field, [companies with] multiple offices, people working from home. Tandem isn’t just building the future of remote work, it’s building the future of work.”

Ayyangar was previously a data scientist at Yahoo before joining Yakit, a startup seeking to simplify ecommerce delivery, as the director of product. Co-founders Bernat Fortet Unanue and Tim Su are also Yahoo alums.

We’re told Tandem’s fundraise was nearly complete before it pitched to investors Tuesday afternoon. Startups that participate in YC are often flooded with offers from VCs throughout the three-month program. Firms are hungry for the batch’s Airbnb, Dropbox or Stripe — graduates of the program — and will pay premiums on startup equity for their chance to invest in a future ‘unicorn.’

As a result, the median seed deal for U.S. startups in 2018 was roughly $2 million — a record high — with typical pre-money valuations hovering north of $10 million. Tandem’s seed financing represents both a trend of swelling seed deals and valuations, as well as a tendency for VCs to dole out more cash to fresh-from-YC companies amid heightened competition amongst their peers.

The previous YC batch, which wrapped up in March, included ZeroDown, Overview.AI and Catch, a trio of companies that pocketed venture capital ahead of demo day. ZeroDown, a financing solution for real estate purchases in the Bay Area, raised upwards of $10 million at a $75 million valuation before demo day, sources told TechCrunch at the time (months after demo day, Zero Down announced a whopping $30 million financing). ZeroDown was an outlier, of course, as the company’s founders had previously co-founded the billion-dollar HR software company Zenefits.

As for the summer batch, we’re told Actiondesk, Taskade and Tandem are amongst the startups to garner the most hype from investors. Some even forwent the demo day pitch altogether. BraveCare, which is creating urgent care clinics intended just for kids, raised $4.1 million ahead of demo day, we’re told. The company opted not to pitch to additional investors this week.

You can read about all the company’s that pitched during demo day one here and demo day two here.

All 84 startups from Y Combinator’s S19 Demo Day 1

It’s that time of year, Silicon Valley’s investor technocrati and advice-giving Twitter celebrities descended upon Pier 48 in San Francisco to judge the latest summer batch of Y Combinator startups. TechCrunch was there, as well, and we were tapping away feverishly as co-founders pitched to woo investors.

There are 197 companies in total in the summer YC batch, we heard from 84 of them today — in addition to a few off-the-record pitches which we agreed to hold off publicizing as they remain in stealth. We’ll hear from another chunk of them tomorrow, so check back tomorrow for even more startup blurbs.

Demo Day used to be the debut for many of these companies, but as Y Combinator’s prestige has grown so has the likelihood that the batch’s best will be closing rounds at outsized valuations before the first pitches have been made.

We’ll undoubtedly be reporting on some of these rounds moving forward, but for now here are the 84 companies whose founders pitched onstage today at Y Combinator Demo Days – Day 1.


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  • Mighty: Mixpanel’s founder is at Y Combinator with his new startup, Mighty, a $20 per month cloud computer streaming service that’s just for Google Chrome (at the moment). Why pay for a free piece of software? The startup says that by streaming the experience from a beefed-up PC your most-used app will be considerably faster and only use 5% of your CPU. It’s a premium product with a tight niche, but the company has ambitions to support other software types as it builds out the tech.
  • Hype and Vice: This startup combines the latest trends with college brands to make fashion-focused college apparel for women. Working with 11 universities to date, the founders say the company has grown 4x YoY, with margins of 84%; meanwhile, they have 50 additional college licenses in the pipeline.
  • Lumineye: Lumineye wants to help first responders identify people through walls. In domestic violence disputes, hostage rescue or human trafficking situations, first responders often need help determining where humans are behind closed doors or other barriers. Lumineye’s team of four built a portable 3D-printed radar device that uses signal analysis software to differentiate moving and breathing humans from other objects through barriers like drywall, concrete, rubble and brick. For Lumineye, four pilot programs represent $90K in ARR. They’ve also just signed a $50K pilot with the U.S. Air Force. They’re also signed on to start testing with the FBI this fall.
  • Flo Recruit: This is an applicant-tracking platform for in-person recruiting events. The startup helps companies scale their college recruiting efforts, saving time and money. The company says they have $8,500 in monthly recruiting revenue, counting Y Combinator itself as one of its customers.
  • Gaiascope: Electricity trading is a $15 billion annual market, but it’s hard. Electricity is consumed instantly, which means the supply must always match the demand. That, however, leads to extreme price volatility. Traditional quant models don’t work, so this is where Gaiascope’s algorithms come in. Through its quant fund, Gaiascope enables electricity trading at more predictable prices. 
  • Revel: Many of the venture-backed communities online seem to be geared toward 20-something dudes, but Revel is aiming to create an online-to-offline community group for women over the age of 50. The site is a $15 per month membership that gives you access to the community-hosted groups. Revel went live in the Bay Area last month.

demoday node

  • Node: Node wants to use an Ikea-like assembly process to build sustainable backyard cottages — a market the founders say is worth $100 billion and growing quickly. In the past year 25 cities have passed legislation to allow these buildings. Node ships a flat pack of materials that it says only take a few days to assemble into a turnkey backyard cottage or sustainable vacation home. They’ve sold 11 homes in the past two weeks, and the founders are optimistic that they could reach 50% margins with their tech. Early target markets include Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. 
  • Prolific: A marketplace for finding survey participants on demand. Submit your survey, tell them a bit about your target audience, and they’ll find survey participants accordingly. They saw $185K net revenue in July, with 2.5x yearly growth through word of mouth.
  • Juno College of Technology: JCT is creating the technical university of the future. The startup operates a coding bootcamp, expected to do $3 million in revenue by the end of 2019. Similar to Lamda School, they offer income-share agreements, but “the similarities stops there,” explained the founder. Juno says it places 87% of founders who complete their nine-week long program. 
  • LAIKA: In Latin America, it’s hard to buy pet supplies in person due to a reliance on bus transportation. LAIKA, an online pet supplies service for Latin America, aims to make it easier. The startup has $200,000 in monthly revenues and is growing 30% month over month. 
  • ScholarMeThe startup is building what it calls the “Common App for college financing,” a single form that helps students pay for college. The company prevents prospective students from filling out endless forms to find scholarships, FAFSAs, income-share agreements and loans. 
  • Sable: Getting set up with a bank is a slow process for people new to the U.S. It can take months for foreign-born people to get set up with a credit card and a checking account. Sable launched a mobile bank for international people in the U.S. that wants to expedite that process. The team has collectively worked on distributed teams that launched 14 banking products in the past. The company is currently managing credit cards and live checking accounts. With Sable, users can get set up with a credit card and checking account online in five minutes. In five days of launch, the company has 135 customers and is managing $200,000. Sable is targeting 4.5 million creditworthy internationals, and what it says is a $3.3 billion market in the U.S. alone. The team wants to eventually launch a suite of banking products like mortgages and student loans while they’re at the beginning of their financial independence in the U.S. 

demoday metacode

  • Metacode: “Better code search,” currently for Swift, TypeScript and Javascript. Whereas many code environments only do plaintext search, Metacode sorts results by relevance, displays code in the context of code around it and allows you to filter results by keyword. The company says more than 700 engineers from companies like Pinterest and VueJS are currently using it. The cost is $25 per month per engineer.
  • Fad Mania: This is an app that provides users with an endless stream of games with ambitions of being the next major social network. One of the first games was called Trump Punch, which got more than 100,000 organic users. The team realized most games don’t retain users and decided to create Fad Mania, which develops social-first games. Fad Mania has 1,000 weekly users.
  • Breadfast: This startup delivers fresh bread, milk and eggs to customers in Egypt. Because Breadfast makes its own bread and works with farmers, its business has 35% gross margins with $180,000 in monthly revenue. For customers, Breadfast costs $18 per month per household.
  • Ever Loved: If you thought people using GoFundMe’s to pay for their surgeries were dark, Ever Loved is helping people pay for funeral expenses with a dedicated platform. The crowdfunding site can help families and friends amass cash and the startup will let people pay for services directly from the site, letting them take a slice on both sides of the transaction.
  • Localyze: Localyze provides international employee relocation as a service. Employee relocation is an expensive cost for businesses, yet every year, two million people are moving to the U.S. and Europe for work. Localyze wants to streamline that process with a software that automates some tasks related to immigration, moving and housing processes 50% faster. The platform also connects international employees to services like banking, insurance and transportation. Localyze is currently working with 27 B2B customers and says it produced $16,000 in revenue last month.
  • Safely Deposit: This startup provides on-demand safe deposit boxes specifically for physical papers like estate documents and wills. You mail your documents in via FedEx, they store the physical copy in a safe deposit box while providing you access to digital copies. The cost is $120 per year.

demoday elpha

  • Elpha: (IMAGE) This is a networking and communication platform for women in tech to talk candidly online. Elpha today counts 15,000 members and 6,000 members visiting the site each work. They have 23 paying companies who pay $12,000 per year for access to the platform. Elpha strives to be the first professional network built for and by women.
  • Basis: This is a construction startup that automates workflows and manages bids from subcontractors. To date, Basis has four signed contracts within three weeks of operating. The big vision is to become a full-fledged platform for the construction industry.
  • Hatchways: Learning to code online has kind of been a trope for people that are tired of their careers and are ready to do something new. The issue is that even if they get their skills to a great position that’s really only part of the equation. Hatchways is building a platform to help people who have learned to code online find internships and team projects. The startup is aiming to collect fees on both sides, from candidates looking to find opportunities and companies looking for new talent. They’re starting with software engineers but are also looking to help people get into finance, as well.
  • Puzzl: Puzzl is a campaign tracking platform for brands; it focuses on the in-person parts of campaigns. The platform lets businesses manage their ambassador programs and track metrics without being physically present at targeted locations. Puzzl’s software lets companies track impressions, engagement and conversions for the in-person parts of marketing campaigns. They managed a campaign for Juli Learning code school, another YC company. They’ve made $11,000 in revenue with 33% margins since launching 20 campaigns. Puzzl is currently enabling brands to manage 100 brand ambassadors in what it says is an $8 billion market.

demoday marble

  • Marble Technologies: This startup provides cashier-free checkout kiosks for restaurants, running on iPads. Marble’s founders say their solution increases customer spending by 16%. They have three national restaurant chain contracts in the works, and have processed $3 million in sales to date. They charge $12,000 per location, per year. 
  • Apero Health: Led by a pair of serial entrepreneurs, including the former chief technology officer of Doctor on Demand, Apero Health provides automated claim submission, integrated online patient building and modern APIs to doctor’s offices. 

demoday shortstory

  • Short Story: You could think of Short Story as a Stitch Fix for petite women. Petite women can have a hard time finding clothes that fit them. First, petite women complete a style quiz to notify the company of their preferences. Then, Short Story sends them their first monthly box of clothes. Short Story says the petite women’s clothing market is worth $35 billion. To date, Short Story has seen 74% monthly revenue growth.
  • EncepHeal Therapeutics: Non-addictive prescription substitutes have been a very popular solution for people addicted to drugs like tobacco and opioids. EncepHeal Therapeutics is creating medications to help the 2.5 million cocaine and methamphetamine addicts have a similar option. The company’s medication has shown promising early testing on lab rats.
  • PopSQL: PopSQL provides collaborative SQL query editing. You can store SQL queries you run regularly, grouping them into folders that can be kept private or shared amongst your team. Version history tracks changes so it can be reverted if/when something breaks. It currently has more than 100 paying companies, and is making $13K per month. It plans to build a marketplace for apps that run on top of your company’s database.
  • Kuarti: Kuarti is building the OYO of Latin America. The founder equates the current hotel booking process in Latin America to what it looked like decades ago in the U.S. Kuarti identified a trend of increasing demand to travel within Mexico’s growing middle class. However, there are currently no standardized hotel options in the country. Kuarti wants to provide another hotel booking option for standardized hotel chains that can be reserved online. The company wants to partner with independent hotels, to make small renovations and offer rooms for $35 per night. They’ve partnered with four hotels, have 20 rooms in their inventory and say that users have already booked 275 nights collectively. The founder identifies this as a $2.5 billion market in Mexico alone, and an $11 billion market across all of Latin America, where it hopes to expand. Kuarti is a Mexican company that is part of the business accelerator with which Airbnb started.
  • UpEquity: The startup lets future homeowners put down all-cash offers in what they claim is a $20 billion market opportunity. The founders, Harvard Business School dropouts, have a history in the private equity industry. The startup claims to have more than $30,000 in revenue for the month of August. The tech-enabled mortgage solution says it provides customers better bargaining power than traditional solutions, at competitive rates.
  • Blair: Blair finances college education through income-share agreements. Through ISAs, which require students to pay back Blair a percentage of their future income, Blair finances everything from tuition to cost of living. Since launching a few weeks ago, Blair has already put $250,000 toward the education of 20 students. Blair will deploy its second fund this week.
  • Intersect Labs: Intersect Labs is building CoreML for enterprise, letting its customers easily build machine learning models to help make sense of their historical data and deliver insights without having to hire data scientists. The monthly subscription is aiming to deliver a product that doesn’t require much technical knowledge. “If you can use a spreadsheet, you can use Intersect Labs.”
  • Traces: As privacy-conscious consumers speak up against the proliferation of facial recognition tech, there’s still a clear need for a product that enables smart camera tracking for customers. Traces is building computer vision tracking tech that relies on cues other than facial structure like clothing and size to help customers integrate less invasive tracking tech. It was built by former Ring engineers.

demoday Epic Aerospace

  • Epic Aerospace: Epic is manufacturing inexpensive space tugs to deliver satellites into geostationary orbit. The 21-year-old founder has been building rockets since he was 16, and is now managing a team of seven aerospace engineers with Epic Aerospace. The founder describes propulsion as one of the biggest problems for satellite companies, in that it can take up to two years to qualify new satellite systems and can cost up to $30 million. The problem they’re solving is moving satellites from low Earth orbit directly into geostationary orbit. Epic’s tug is half the cost of the competition and is reusable. They’re currently working with Satellogic, and chasing what the founder says is a $3.1 billion geostationary insertion market. 
  • Soteris: Soteris is a startup building machine learning software for insurance pricing. Within six months of their pilot, they already have two insurers under contract, giving them $500K in guaranteed annual revenue. 
  • Gold Fig Labs: The startup is building a tool for version control on settings pages. The founders come from Firebase, where they were both early employees. The company has signed up 60 companies in the last five weeks, including “multi-billion-dollar tech companies.”
  • Mela: Mela, which refers to itself as the Pinduoduo for India, is an e-commerce platform that enables customers to participate in group shopping and buying via WhatsApp and Facebook. The number of orders on Mela are increasing by 59% per day. 

demoday Million Marker

  • Million Marker: The world is full of nasty chemicals that can mess up your body. Million Marker is building testing kits to help people measure their exposure to certain chemicals. The startup is starting with a urine testing kit that analyzes for BPA and Phthalates, plastics chemicals that can disrupt hormones and lead to fertility issues. 
  • Well Principled: This is an AI-driven management consultant that says it wants to “replace MBAs with software.” Companies spend $200 billion on management consultants every year. Well Principled wants to replace that expensive and cumbersome system with its tech that has culled growth and revenue learnings from academic research and turned it into enterprise software. The company wants to eliminate the need for outside consultants by integrating its software into the daily operations of businesses as they launch new products. Well Principled is advised and invested in by early Palantir leaders, and claims $840,000 ARR from its first Fortune 200 customer. 
  • Dashblock: Dashbloack creates APIs from any web page using machine learning. Drop in a URL, select the data you want from a page, and it will figure out how to automatically extract it and provide it via API. It has have more than 1,500 users since launching two weeks ago.
  • Valiu: This startup provides remittances, or international money transfers, focused on the Latin American market. The company is beginning with a focus on Venezuela, where there are limited options for transferring money globally. The company estimates a $15 million market and is currently growing 35% month over month.
  • Vorticity: Vorticity builds custom chips to make computers 10,000x faster for fluid dynamics modeling. Vorticity’s chips and processes can be applied to industries like aerospace, life sciences and nuclear energy. Boom Supersonics, which spends millions of dollars every year on fluid dynamics work, is Vorticity’s first customer. 
  • PredictLeads: PredictLeads is aiming to help data-driven investors identify companies that are picking up traction. The startup says its data can tell you when the startups that you passed on are starting to gain traction, informing you when they’ve launched new products or are starting to advertise new partnerships.
  • GreenTiger: Billing itself as the Robinhood for India, this startup is allowing users to trade U.S. stocks from India for ₹0 commission. As it is now, Indians don’t have Social Security numbers, preventing them to trade U.S. stocks. GreenTiger provides commission-free trades on NASDAQ and NYSE, and allows users to start trading in two minutes. GreenTiger provides transactional shares, allowing Indian traders to start trading with as little as ₹100. These ex-Microsoft founders describe the opportunity as worth $7.2 billion. 
  • Compound: Compound provides wealth management for startup employees, helping them figure out what their stock options actually mean, forecast their value over time and optimize against things like potential taxes. Launched two weeks ago, they currently have 200 startup employees as customers.
  • Prenda: A startup that provides in-home “microschools” for K through 8th graders. Prenda provides everything a teacher needs to run a microschool, from glue sticks to curriculum. The startup claims microschools are the future of education.

demoday Curri

  • Curri: An Uber for construction supplies, Curri delivers construction-related materials, parts and tools on-demand. From refrigerators to small pipe fittings, Curri’s network of drivers can deliver it to your warehouse, job site or anywhere else you may need it for an average delivery of fee of $77. For three months in a row, Curri has grown 112% month over month. 
  • Nomad RidesNomad rides wants to compete with the big rideshare companies, but they also want to kill them. The commission-free rideshare program changes up the business equation by having drivers pay a monthly subscription to Nomad while collecting all of the ride profits. They are targeting college campuses first. In a two-month illegal trial period, the company facilitated 5,700 rides at Indiana University before the startup had to shut down, but they say they’re legal now and ready to try new markets.
  • EARTH AI: This full stack AI-powered mining exploration company built a technology to predict the location of un-mined rare metals. EARTH AI’s mission is to improve the efficiency of mineral exploration to provide enough metals and minerals for current and future generations. The company predicts where metals may exist, actually mines the ore and then sells it. The team credits themselves with discovering the world’s first AI-predicted mineral deposit, and says it has also secured the rights to $18 billion worth of ore.
  • Binks: Binks provides tailor-made clothing for women in India. The company says that the traditional method requires four-plus visits to a tailor; Binks, meanwhile, uses photos and computer vision to calculate fit and make clothing within three days.
  • Lang API: A language translation platform that helps businesses translate the language on their website or app into any language in minutes, Lang says they are building the “AWS for translations” in what is a $20 billion market.
  • Rent the Backyard: Imagine building and then renting out a studio apartment in your own backyard. Well, that’s what Rent the Backyard is all about. Rent the Backyard handles everything from the construction of the studio to selecting the tenant to occupy it. In exchange, the startup takes a 50% cut of the rent. So far, Rent the Backyard has 10 signed letters of intent from homeowners, with more than 1,200 people on its waitlist.

demoday LEGACY

  • Legacy: Legacy is a male fertility startup building a mail-in sperm testing product that helps people test their reproductive health without leaving their home. The company sells a kit that users can use and send back to them, at which point Legacy is able to analyze the sperm and let users know whether everything is in good working order.
  • Lezzoo: Lezzoo wants to build the “super-app of the Middle East,” starting with an on-demand delivery service in Iraq. The company currently delivers food, beverages, groceries and pharmaceuticals to users in Iraq. The founder says they are seeing positive unit economics, including a net profit of 63 cents per delivery. The market is huge — 40 million people live in Iraq, but there is no digital infrastructure in place to serve the needs of an increasingly mobile population. The founder claims there’s a demand for mobile services like Lezzoo, citing that current users are placing two orders per month. Due to the lack of digital infrastructure in the country, Lezzoo is tasked with solving the problems of payments and mapping in addition to scaling its delivery network.
  • Kern Systems: This startup wants to store information in DNA. “Google stores about 10,000 petabytes of data. You could store that in just the DNA in your thumb,” says company co-founder Henry Lee. The company says their first DNA storage synthesizer should be finished in nine months.

demoday courier

  • Courier: After adding one line of code with Courier, developers can, first, send messages through every communication channel to users. Courier then measures users’ response rates on each channel (Slack, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger etc.) and determines where notifications should be directed.  
  • Lokal: Lokal provides local news, information and classifieds for India. Since launching the app 10 months ago, Lokal has grown to 260,000 daily active users and is growing at 27% month over month. “The existing apps only focus on national and state level news,” the founder said. Otherwise, in order to get local news, they need to read a physical newspaper. 
  • taxProper: The company says that 60% of homeowners overpay on property taxes, so taxProper is building software that quickly allows customers to easily appeal their property taxes, helping them enter data about their home and determine if they are overpaying. The startup is charging $79 per appeal.
  • InEvent: This is CRM for corporate events. It’s hard for businesses to create personalized, automated event experiences. This platform lets corporate event planners integrate registration, vendor and travel and expense management. InEvent is seeing $1.15 million ARR in Brazil, and broke into the U.S. corporate event market in May — which it describes as a $7.5 billion opportunity. They’re seeing $13,000 MRR in the U.S.

demoday quirk

  • Quirk: Quirk is a “thought diary” that helps to stop panic attacks by using the concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy. You identify negative thoughts you’re having, and then examine those thoughts to determine which parts are negatively impacting you. It costs $5.99 per month; the company says one month after launch, they have 1,000 paying customers.
  • Zippi: Zippi provides loans specifically designed for gig workers in Brazil, a booming population underserved by traditional banks. The gig workers repay their loans with a percent of their income each week. Zippi is live and fully compliant. To date, they’ve done $160,000 in loans and plan to build and end-to-end neo bank for gig workers in Latin America. 
  • Simmer: Simmer provides reviews for individual dishes, not just for restaurants. Simmer tells you the best reviewed dishes across all delivery apps and services to help you better decide which food to order on-demand. In a one-month pilot there were 1,300 weekly active users on Simmer. This fall, Simmer will launch in three cities. 
  • Actiondesk: Updating spreadsheets is about as unsexy as enterprise workflows get, but Actiondesk is focusing wholly on revamping the data tables with “superpowers.” The company’s solution allows customers to dynamically connect data sources and their spreadsheets so that edits made in the spreadsheet will be replicated in the data source. Users are also able to schedule actions related to the data in their sheets.
  • GradJoy: GradJoy is a fintech platform that wants to help recent grads better-strategize their student loan payments. The company bills itself as “a student loan co-pilot,” and a “robo-advisor for student debt,” offering services meant to help users save money. GradJoy connects loans and financial information to create personalized repayment plans for new borrowers. They’ve completed eight refinances in two weeks, and have amassed more than 1,000 customers within a few weeks of being operative. GradJoy doesn’t want to stop at student debt, but scale out to provide services for other types of debt repayment in the future. 
  • Taskade: This is a collaboration tool for remote teams. You can create lists, outlines and mindmaps, then collaborate and chat about them in real-time. It currently has more than 700 active teams, and over 10,000 active users.
  • Alana: Alana helps large businesses headquartered in Latin America hire and retain blue-collar workers. Their hope is to become the LinkedIn of the blue-collar industry with a better matching process for potential employees and by automating much of the process. The company claims to have experienced very fast growth, working with companies like Hilton, Starbucks and Rappi. They charge a monthly subscription per store or $400 in MRR per location.

demoday Obie

  • Obie: This is a free analytics platform for commercial real estate owners to manage their assets. From there, Obie uses that data to sell insurance to those commercial real estate owners. In the last year, Obie has done $1.4 million in gross premiums.
  • Together SoftwareTogether is building souped-up employee mentorship software that helps new employees get connected with veterans inside their company. The onboarding buddy program handles pairing of employees and can help the duos schedule meetings and work their way through development plans.
  • Holy Grail: Holy Grail says it has built a cheaper and faster way to manufacture batteries. The company is using AI to find the next generation of batteries at what it claims is 1,000x faster and hundreds of million dollars cheaper than traditional R&D processes. Holy Grail’s software designs batteries and predicts their performance — then manufactures them using a robot it built. Traditional R&D relies on trial and error and spreadsheets, and this company thinks it can harness AI to “do something good for the world while also making money.” 
  • Tranqui Finanzas: This startup provides consumer debt consolidation for Latin America, where 45 million employees have existing high interest loans. Payments are made through salary deductions. After launching seven weeks ago, they’re making $6K monthly net revenue.
  • Sorting Robotics: It began its life building a robot sorting Magic: The Gathering cards. Now it’s pivoting to sorting weed. They buy cannabis trim for $120 per lb; their robot separates the sticks/leaves from the flower, which can be resold for upwards of $180 per lb. Four weeks after rolling out their first robot, it’s making roughly $1,000 per day.
  • Pengram: Augmented reality is making itself useful through Pengram’s indoor navigation system. Pengram enables anyone to create indoor pathways using any iOS device and then easily share those pathways with others. Already, Pengram has a $10,000 pilot with building maintenance company Johnson Controls, which uses the tool to quickly located sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and other systems they need to find and ensure are properly up to date and working.

demoday Yummy

  • Yummy Future: Yummy Future is basically a robotic Starbucks. The company wants to take baristas out of the coffee-making process, using a box of robots to make complex espresso drinks. It’s not the only one in this space, but the startup is hoping that partnerships with existing marketplace retailers will be the key to its success.
  • Athlane: Athlane is building what it calls “the NCAA for esports,” a new esports league powered by its software. The founders believe they have what it takes to help college esports eclipse traditional sports, citing that the League of Legends finals saw 5X the viewership of the NBA finals in 2019. Athlane hopes college esports teams will compete on their platform because they’ll actually be able to pay their players. Athlane will enable teams to monetize through its AI-powered sponsorship platform, and has secured two contracts with G Fuel and DraftKings. 
  • TRM Labs: Banks are required to trace the source of their customers’ money. TRM helps banks identify and trace cryptocurrency fraud. They charge $20K per user seat. Though they couldn’t say the name, TRM says they recently signed a top-five global bank as a customer.
  • Mars Auto: The startup is developing autonomous trucks for the $50 billion Korean trucking market. The goal is to fully automate warehouse to warehouse truck operations to save the trucking market billions. The company has two LOIs with two of the largest logistic businesses in Korea.
  • Wasmer: Wasmer is an application container that works in edge computing. Powered by WebAssembly, Wasmer is building the next generation of containers that enables developers to run any code on any client.
  • Matagora: Matagora is delivering pop-up physical storefronts for online brands. The startup is partnering with local businesses to fill areas of their store with online-only gear that brands are looking to get in front of people’s eyeballs. Matagora takes a whopping 40% of each sale.

demoday Nonu

  • Nonu: Nonu calls itself the “Hims for India.” The company created a subscription hair loss prevention kit that includes medicines, vitamins and herbal shampoo. The founder says that 80% of Indian men don’t know that prescription medicine can stop hair loss in India, and therefore are getting scammed into spending over a billion dollars on fake hair loss products while continuing to lose hair. With Nonu, all you have to do is take a photo of your balding head, and you’ll receive a monthly subscription of medicine that will show up at your door. Nonu says that within this $7.2 billion market, there are 60 million hair loss patients who can afford this $120 a year subscription in India. Nonu has already amassed 500 subscribers, and plans to expand into tackling sexual wellness. 
  • Dex: Dex is a personal CRM. You sync up your contacts/calendars, and it finds the people you haven’t kept in touch with and reminds you to reach out. You can add notes about a contact — like what you last spoke about, or what’s going on in their life — to help with the conversation next time you see them.
  • Outtalent: This startup helps engineers living in emerging markets get jobs abroad. The company was launched by a pair of brothers from Kyrgyzstan, one of which landed a life-changing job at Google years ago and wants to make the entire process easier for other foreigners.
  • SannTek Labs: SannTek created a breathalyzer that detects cannabis consumption, as well as alcohol consumption. The founders say there’s currently no breathalyzer for cannabis because it’s a technically challenging task. SannTek has developed sensors that can detect whether you’ve consumed cannabis in the last three hours. Once it launches, it will charge police officers $20 per test.
  • BuildStream: The startup is a platform for companies to manage and optimize rented equipment fleets. The team is focusing specifically on the construction industry, trying to minimize idle equipment. Users start by installing off-the-shelf IoT sensors on gear to track the fleet of equipment and pinpoint areas for optimization.
  • Sling Health: Sling Health wants to build more cost-effective virtual care teams. The ex-Forward founders say they want to turn any doctors office into a One Medical model. Next-gen tools can’t scale their engineering teams. Sling’s platform automates back offices with remote medical teams and 24/7 chat support. Sling Health says it has already transformed 12 doctor’s offices and is producing over $17,000 in monthly recurring revenue. The founders say they can save doctors 67% on labor costs while also drastically improving patient experiences with a personalized care team. The tech can apparently manage scheduling, create personalized follow-ups and manage prescriptions.

demoday mofe

  • MoFE: The “Museum of Future Experiences” turns physical spaces into trippy, walk-around virtual reality experiences. They launched in New York three weeks ago, and have sold every ticket available so far to bring in $60K in revenue since launch.

 

That’s all for Day 1, we’ll be posting our favorites from today’s batch soon and we’ll be back tomorrow with the rest of the batch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only 24 hours left to apply to Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen

Holy hardware, startup founders! You have only 24 hours left to apply to the Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen on November 11-12. This hardware-only pitch competition, cousin to TechCrunch’s world-renown Startup Battlefield, is a real game-changer. Got hardware? Want to launch on a world stage? Do. Not. Delay. Apply to compete in TC Hardware Battlefield 2019 before 11:59pm on August 14th.

What’s in it for you? Excellent question. If you’re selected to compete, you’ll join a cadre of outstanding early-stage hardware startup to vie for a $25,000 prize along with global media and investor exposure. Come to Shenzhen, show the world your innovative hardware and take your startup to the next level.

We partnered with China’s TechNode, to produce this Hardware Battlefield during the larger TechCrunch Shenzhen show happening November 9-12. We’ll consider your startup if you meet these simple basic requirements.

  • Submit your application by on August 14
  • You must have a minimally viable product to demo onstage
  • Your product has received little if any, press coverage to date
  • Your product must be a hardware device or component

TechCrunch editors will closely vet qualified applications and select approximately 15 startups to compete. If you make the cut, get ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work. You’ll receive six weeks of free pitch coaching from our Battlefield editorial team. When it comes time to step onto the stage and deliver your pitch, you’ll be calm, cool and on point.

Every team gets six minutes to pitch in front of a panel of judges comprised of expert VCs, founders and technologists. They’ll hit you up with a tough Q&A and if you make the first cut, you’ll repeat the process all over again to a fresh set of judges.

Only one startup will be hailed the Hardware Battlefield champion, but the intense investor and media attention can change the lives of any or all competitors. Oh, and here’s another perk. All participants join the ranks of the Startup Battlefield elite. Our Battlefield alumni community currently numbers 857 companies that have accumulated $8.9 billion in funding and 110 exits. Just think of the potential networking opportunities.

Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen takes place on November 11-12, but the application window closes at on August 14. Join us in China’s hardware heartland and launch your startup to the world. Apply to compete right now.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Hardware Battlefield TC Shenzhen? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

UrbanClap, India’s largest home services startup, raises $75M

UrbanClap, a marketplace for freelance labor in India and the UAE, has raised $75 million in a new financing round to expand its business.

The Series E round for the four-and-a-half-year old India-based startup was led Tiger Global. Existing investors Steadview Capital, which led the startup’s Series D in December last year, and Vy Capital also participated in the current round. The startup, which has raised about $185 million to date, said some early investors sold portions of their stake as part of the new round.

Through its platform, UrbanClap matches service people such as cleaners, repair staff and beauticians with customers across 10 cities in India and Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The startup supports 20,000 “micro-franchisees” (service professionals) with around 450,000 transactions taking place each month, cofounder and CEO Abhiraj Bhal told TechCrunch.

Bhal said that UrbanClap helps offline service workers, who have traditionally relied on getting work through middleman such as some store or word of mouth networks, to find more work. And they earn more, too. UrbanClap offers a more direct model, with workers keeping 80% of the cost of their jobs. That, Bhal said, means workers can earn multiples more and manage their own working hours.

“The UrbanClap model really allows them to become service entrepreneurs. Their earnings will shoot up two or three-fold, and it isn’t uncommon to see it rise as much as 8X — it’s a life-changing experience,” he said. Average value of a service is between $17 to $22, according to the company.

In recent years, UrbanClap has also started to offer training, credit, and basic banking services to better support the service workers on its platform. On its website, UrbanClap claims to offer 73 services — including kitchen cleaning, hairdressing, and yoga training. It says it has served 3 million customers.

Bhal said that around 20-25% of applicants are accepted into the platform, that’s a decision based on in-person meetings, background and criminal checks, as well as a “skills” test. Workers are encouraged to work exclusively — though it isn’t a requirement — and they wear UrbanClap outfits and represent the brand with customers.

Ethics in the age of autonomous vehicles

Earlier this month, TechCrunch held its inaugural Mobility Sessions event, where leading mobility-focused auto companies, startups, executives and thought leaders joined us to discuss all things autonomous vehicle technology, micromobility and electric vehicles.

Extra Crunch is offering members access to full transcripts of key panels and conversations from the event, such as Megan Rose Dickey‘s chat with Voyage CEO and co-founder Oliver Cameron and Uber’s prediction team lead Clark Haynes on the ethical considerations for autonomous vehicles.

Megan, Oliver and Clark talk through how companies should be thinking about ethics when building out the self-driving ecosystem, while also diving into the technical aspects of actually building an ethical transportation product. The panelists also discuss how their respective organizations handle ethics, representation and access internally, and how their approaches have benefited their offerings.

Clark Haynes: So we as human drivers, we’re naturally what’s called foveate. Our eyes go forward and we have some mirrors that help us get some situational awareness. Self-driving cars don’t have that problem. Self-driving cars are designed with 360-degree sensors. They can see everything around them.

But the interesting problem is not everything around you is important. And so you need to be thinking through what are the things, the people, the actors in the world that you might be interacting with, and then really, really think through possible outcomes there.

I work on the prediction problem of what’s everyone doing? Certainly, you need to know that someone behind you is moving in a certain way in a certain direction. But maybe that thing that you’re not really certain what it is that’s up in front of you, that’s the thing where you need to be rolling out 10, 20 different scenarios of what might happen and make certain that you can kind of hedge your bets against all of those.

For access to the full transcription below and for the opportunity to read through additional event transcripts and recaps, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Megan Rose Dickey: Ready to talk some ethics?

Oliver Cameron: Born ready.

Clark Haynes: Absolutely.

Rose Dickey: I’m here with Oliver Cameron of Voyage, a self-driving car company that operates in communities, like retirement communities, for example. And with Clark Haynes of Uber, he’s on the prediction team for autonomous vehicles.

So some of you in the audience may remember, it was last October, MIT came out with something called the moral machine. And it essentially laid out 13 different scenarios involving self-driving cars where essentially someone had to die. It was either the old person or the young person, the black person, or the white person, three people versus one person. I’m sure you guys saw that, too.

So why is that not exactly the right way to be thinking about self-driving cars and ethics?

Haynes: This is the often-overused trolley problem of, “You can only do A or B choose one.” The big thing there is that if you’re actually faced with that as the hardest problem that you’re doing right now, you’ve already failed.

You should have been working harder to make certain you never ended up in a situation where you’re just choosing A or B. You should actually have been, a long time ago, looking at A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and like thinking through all possible outcomes as far as what your self-driving car could do, in low probability outcomes that might be happening.

Rose Dickey: Oliver, I remember actually, it was maybe a few months ago, you tweeted something about the trolley problem and how much you hate it.

Cameron: I think it’s one of those questions that doesn’t have an ideal answer today, because no one’s got self-driving cars deployed to tens of thousands of people experiencing these sorts of issues on the road. If we did an experiment, how many people here have ever faced that conundrum? Where they have to choose between a mother pushing a stroller with a child and a regular, normal person that’s just crossing the road?

Rose Dickey: We could have a quick show of hands. Has anyone been in that situation?

Elon Musk’s Neuralink looks to begin outfitting human brains with faster input and output starting next year

Neuralink, the Elon Musk-led startup that the multi-entrepreneur founded in 2017, is working on technology that’s based around ‘threads’ which it says can be implanted in human brains with much less potential impact to the surrounding brain tissue vs. what’s currently used for today’s brain-computer interfaces. “Most people don’t realize, we can solve that with a chip,” Musk said to kick off Neuralink’s event, talking about some of the brain disorders and issues the company hopes to solve.

Musk also said that long-term Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” “This is not a mandatory thing,” he added. “This is something you can choose to have if you want.”

For now, however, the aim is medical and the plan is to use a robot that Neuralink has created that operates somewhat like a “sewing machine” to implant this threads, which are incredibly thin I(like, between 4 and 6 μm, which means about one-third the diameter of the thinnest human hair), deep within a person’s brain tissue, where it will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume.

All of this sounds incredibly far-fetched, and to some extent it still is: Neuralink’s scientists told The New York Times in a briefing on Monday that the company has a “long way to go” before it can get anywhere near offering a commercial service. The main reason for breaking cover and talking more freely about what they’re working on, the paper reported, is that they’ll be better able to work out in the open and publish papers, which is definitely an easier mode of operation for something that requires as much connection with the academic and research community as this.

Neuralink1

Neuralink co-founder and president Max Hodak told the NYT that he’s optimistic Neuralink’s tech could theoretically see use somewhat soon in medical use, including potential applications enabling amputees to regain mobility via use of prosthetics and reversing vision, hearing or other sensory deficiencies. It’s hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as next year, in fact, including via possible collaboration with neurosurgeons at Stanford and other institutions.

The current incarnation of Neuralink’s tech would involve drilling actual holes into a subject’s skull in order to insert the ultra thin threads, but future iterations will shift to using lasers instead to create tiny holes that are much less invasive and essentially not felt by a patient, Hodak told the paper. Working on humans next year with something that meets this description for a relatively new company might seem improbable, but Neuralink did demonstrate its technology used on a laboratory rat this week, with performance levels that exceed today’s systems in terms of data transfer. The data from the rat was gathered via a USB-C port in its head, and it provided about 10x more what the best current sensors can offer, according to Bloomberg.

Neurlalink’s advances vs. current BCI methods also include the combined thinness and flexibility of the ‘threads’ used, but one scientist wondered about their longevity when exposed to the brain, which contains a salt mix fluid that can damage and ultimately degrade plastics over time. The plan is also that the times electrodes implanted in the brain will be able to communicate wirelessly with chips outside the brain, providing real time monitoring with unprecedented freedom of motion, without any external wires or connections.

Elon Musk is bankrolling the majority of this endeavour as well as acting as its CEO, with $100 million of the $158 million its raised so far coming from the SpaceX and Tesla CEO. It has 90 employees thus far, and still seems to be hiring aggressively based on its minimal website (which basically only contains job ads). Elon Musk also noted at the outset of today’s presentation that the main reason for the event was in fact to recruit new talent.

Swedish ‘neobank’ P.F.C. picks up €5M backing from Nordic banking giant Nordea

P.F.C. (Personal Finance Co.), a so-called “neobank” founded in Sweden, has raised €5 million in funding. Backing the young company is Nordea, the largest bank in the Nordics region.

In other words, chalk this up as another example of an incumbent bank placing financial and strategic bets on a fintech upstart, even if it doesn’t always end as the parties involved planned.

Nordea is present in 20 countries, including having a stronghold in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Also targeting the Nordics, P.F.C. is tiny in comparison. The neobank says it hopes to get to 100,000 users by the end of the year.

Described as a personal finance app and accompanying debit card, P.F.C. is regulated under a payments institution license rather than being a fully-licensed bank. It’s the same lighter touch model that Revolut and a plethora of other banking apps choose, before in some instances applying for a bank license so they can begin doing more risky regulated activities: namely lending out deposits in the form of overdrafts and loans.

PFC DASHBOARD 02P.F.C.’s features include being able to instantly top up your account/card using Swish (a mobile payment technology provided by a group of Swedish banks), the ability to set a weekly budget, and automatic transaction categorisation.

In addition, you can freeze, unfreeze, change your pin and order a new card directly within the P.F.C. app. You also have the option to receive a push notification after each purchase with your updated balance.

It’s a travel card, too: P.F.C. says there are no additional fees for purchases and ATM withdrawals abroad.

Other soon-to-launch features include the ability for friends and partners to share expenses and settle debts, and personalised savings and credit products with “transparent pricing”.

“There’s an opportunity in the market for companies that personalize financial services,” says Eli Daniel Keren, founder and CEO of P.F.C., in a statement. “We provide a personal, transparent and simple banking experience for our customers”.

Adds Ewan Macleod, Chief Digital Officer at Nordea: “We are delighted to have P.F.C. in our portfolio as it provides a personalized digital solution for customers. We see the investment as a great opportunity for us to team up and support P.F.C. in their growth”.

WeWork acquires Waltz, an app that lets users access different spaces with a single credential

WeWork announced today that it will acquire Waltz, a building access and security management startup, for an undisclosed amount. Waltz’s smartphone app and reader allows users to enter different properties with a single credential and will make it easier for WeWork’s enterprise clients, such as GE Healthcare and Microsoft, to manage their employees’ on-demand memberships to WeWork spaces.

WeWork’s announcement said “with deep expertise in mobile access and system integrations, Waltz has the most advanced and sophisticated products to provide that single credential to our members and to help us better connect them with our spaces.” Waltz was founded in 2015 by CEO Matt Kopel and has offices in New York and Montreal. After the acquisition, Waltz will be integrated into WeWork, but maintain its current customer base.

WeWork has been on an acquisition spree over the past year as it evolves from co-working spaces to a software-as-a-service provider. Companies it has bought include office management platforms Teem (for $100 million) and Managed by Q, as well as Euclid, a “spatial analytics platform” that allows companies to analyze the use of workspaces by their employees and participation at meetings and other events.

Likewise, Waltz isn’t just an alternative to keys or access cards. Its cloud-based management portal gives companies data about who enters and exits their buildings and also allows teams to set “Door Groups,” which restricts the use of some spaces to certain people. According to Waltz’s help site, it can also be used to make revenue through ads displayed in its app.

Monzo, the UK challenger bank, raises £113M Series F led by YC’s Continuity fund at a £2B post-money valuation

Monzo, the fast-growing U.K.-based challenger bank with more than two million account holders, has raised £113 million (~$144m) in additional funding.

Confirming TechCrunch’s scoop in April, the Series F round is led by Y Combinator’s “Continuity” growth fund, and gives the company a new £2 billion (~$2.5b) post-money valuation. That’s double the £1 billion valuation it garnered in October last year.

A number of other new and existing investors have also participated in the Series F. They include Latitude, General Catalyst, Stripe, Passion Capital, Thrive, Goodwater, Accel, and Orange Digital Ventures.

The investment by London-based Latitude, the growth fund from prolific seed investor LocalGlobe, is particularly noteworthy given that LocalGlobe itself didn’t previously back Monzo. The same might be said of YC’s Continuity, considering that Monzo isn’t a YC alumni (although GoCardless, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield’s previous startup, did take part in the Silicon Valley accelerator).

The take-away: a growth fund attached to an early-stage fund can be a great antidote to the anti-portfolio (the list of successful companies a VC firm either missed, were unable or chose not to invest in).

Meanwhile, Monzo’s new funding round and YC’s backing should be viewed within the context of not only fast growth and increasingly convincing product-market fit in the U.K. — the challenger bank is currently adding 200,000 new sign-ups for its current account each month — but also recently unveiled plans to tentatively launch across the pond.

We first reported that Monzo was busy assembling a U.S.-based team over five months ago, and the U.K. company made its U.S. plans official last week. This will see a U.S. Monzo app and connected Mastercard debit card available via in-person signups at events to be held soon. The rollout will initially consist of a few thousand cards, supported by a waitlist in preparation for a wider launch.

The U.S. launch is being done in partnership with a local bank, but in the longer term Monzo plans to apply for its own U.S. bank license, similar to the strategy it employed in the U.K. so as to own and operate as much of its technical, product and regulatory infrastructure as possible.

In the U.K., this has helped Monzo achieve an NPS score of 80, which Blomfield previously told me is unusually high for a bank. This is seeing 60% of U.K. signups remain long-term active, transacting at once per week. As a counterpoint, however, the percentage of Monzo users that pay a salary into their Monzo account sits at between about 27% and 30% of active users, suggesting that a significant number of Monzo customers aren’t yet using it as their main account (Monzo’s definition of salaried is anyone who deposits at least £1,000 per month by bank transfer).

Success in the U.S., therefore, isn’t a given, conceded Blomfield when I had a call with him earlier this month. Instead, he argued that the key to cracking North America will be creating a fully localised version of Monzo based on carefully listening to U.S. users and once again finding product-market fit. He says there are obvious and less obvious cultural and technical differences in the way Brits and Americans save, spend and manage their finances, and this will require significant product divergence from the U.K. version of Monzo. Today’s new £113 million injection of capital is clearly designed to provide some of the breathing space required to achieve that.

As a side note, there are encouraging signs from other London-based fintechs that have ventured across the pond. One recent example is the financial “digital assistant” chatbot Cleo, which entered the U.S. around a year ago and has been more successful than the company anticipated, seeing Cleo add 650,000 active U.S. users to date. In fact, the U.S. currently makes up more than 90% of new Cleo users, prompting one source to describe the U.K. startup as effectively a U.S. company now.

Penta, the digital SME banking upstart, appoints co-founder of solarisBank as new CEO

Hon on the heels of being acquired by company builder Finleap, German SME banking upstart Penta has appointed a new CEO.

Marko Wenthin, who previously co-founded solarisBank (the banking-as-a-service used by Penta), is now heading up the company, having replaced outgoing CEO and Penta co-founder Lav Odorović.

I understand Odorović left Penta last month after it was mutually agreed with new owner Finleap that a CEO with more experience scaling should be brought in. The Penta co-founder remains a shareholder in the SME banking fintech and is thought to be eyeing up his next venture.

Wenthin, who remains on the board of solarisBank according to LinkedIn, stepped down from the banking-as-a-service’s executive team in late 2018 citing “health reasons” and saying that he needed to focus on his recovery. It’s not known what those health issues were, although, regardless, it’s good to see that he’s well-enough to take up a new role as Penta CEO.

Asked to comment on Odorović’s departure, Penta issued the following statement:

“Lav is still part of the shareholders at Penta. His step back from the operational management team was a decision taken by mutual agreement. Lav was the right fit during the building phase of Penta, but by entering a new step of growth, the company faces bigger challenges and needs therefore to position itself differently”.

Penta says that in his new leadership role, Wenthin, who previously spent 16 years at Deutsche Bank, will lead international expansion — next stop Italy — and begin to market the fintech to larger SMEs in addition to its original focus on early-stage startups and other small digital companies. “In the future, the focus will be also on traditional medium-sized companies,” says Penta.

Adds Wenthin in a statement: “I am very much looking forward to my new role at Penta. On the one hand, digital banking for small and medium-sized companies is very important to me, as they are the driver of the economy and I have spent most of my career in this segment. On the other hand, I have known Penta and the team for a long time as successful partners of solarisBank. Penta is the best example of how a very focused banking provider can create real, digital added value for an entire customer segment in cooperation with a banking-as-a-service platform”.

Meanwhile, TechCrunch understands that Odorović’s departure and the appointment of Wenthin isn’t the only recent personnel change within Penta’s leadership team. According to LinkedIn, Aleksandar Orlic, who held the position of CTO, departed the company last month. “We are searching for a new CTO,” said a Penta spokesperson.

Alongside Wenthin, that leaves Penta’s current management team as Jessica Holzbach (Chief Customer Officer), Luka Ivicevic (Chief of Staff), Lukas Zörner (Chief Product Officer (CPO) and Matteo Concas (Chief Marketing Officer).

The Wing poaches Snap’s comms director

Women-focused co-working space The Wing has hired Rachel Racusen as vice president of communications. Racusen has been the director of communications at Snap, the developer of Snapchat, since late 2016.

Racusen’s exit represents the latest in a series of departures at the “camera company.”

Earlier this year, the company’s chief financial officer Tim Stone stepped down. Shortly after, The Wall Street Journal reported that Snap had fired its global security head Francis Racioppi after an investigation uncovered that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with an outside contractor. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel reportedly asked the company’s HR chief Jason Halbert to step down as a result of the investigation’s findings.

Racusen worked under Snap’s chief communications officer Julie Henderson, who had joined late last year from 21st Century Fox.

Racusen has a history in politics similar to several other executives at The Wing. Ahead of her Snap tenure, she served as the associate communications director under President Barack Obama . Before that, she was a vice president at MSNBC and the public affairs firm SKDKnickerbocker, where The Wing co-founder and chief executive officer Audrey Gelman worked prior to launching her business.

Four months after closing a $75 million Series C, The Wing is making two other key additions to its management team. The company has brought on Nickey Skarstad as vice president of product and Saumya Manohar as general counsel. Skarstad joins from Airbnb, where she was a product lead on the Airbnb Experiences team. Saumya Manohar spent the last three years as Casper’s vice president of legal.

Backed by Sequoia Capital, Upfront Ventures, NEA, Airbnb, WeWork and others, The Wing has raised more than $100 million to date.

“We’re thrilled to be bringing this group of seasoned and talented women to build out our executive team,” Gelman said in a statement. “The Wing is the perfect home for leaders who thrive on fast growth and want to combine their social values with their work practice.”