Facebook enters the fantasy gaming market

Facebook is getting into fantasy sports and other types of fantasy games. The company this morning announced the launch of Facebook Fantasy Games in the U.S. and Canada on the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Some games are described as “simpler” versions of the traditional fantasy sports games already on the market, while others allow users to make predictions associated with popular TV series, like “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette.”

The first game to launch is Pick & Play Sports, in partnership with Whistle Sports, where fans get points for correctly predicting the winner of a big game, the points scored by a top player, or other events that unfold during the match. Players can also earn bonus points for building a streak of correct predictions over several days. This game is arriving today.

Image Credits: Facebook

In the months ahead, it will be followed by other games in sports, TV, and pop culture, including Fantasy Survivor, where players choose a set of Castaways from the popular CBS TV show to join their fantasy team and Fantasy “The Bachelorette,” where fans will pick a group of men from the suitors vying for the Bachelorette’s heart and get points based on their actions and events that take place during the show. Other upcoming sports-focused games include MLB Home Run Picks, where players pick the team that they think will hit the most home runs, and LaLiga Winning Streak, where fans predict the team that will win that day.

In addition to top players being featured on leaderboards, games have a social component for those who want to play with friends.

Image Credits: Facebook

Players can create their own fantasy league with friends to compete with one another or against other fans, either publicly or privately. League members can compare scores with each other and will have a place where they can share picks, reactions and comments. This league area resembles a private group on Facebook, as it offers its own compose box for posting only to members and its own dedicated feed. However, the page is designed to support groups with specific buttons to “play” or view the “leaderboard,” among others.

The addition of fantasy games could help Facebook increase the time users spent on its app at a time when the company is facing significant competition in social, namely from TikTok. According to App Annie, the average monthly time spent per user in TikTok grew faster than other top social apps in 2020, including by 70% in the U.S., surpassing Facebook.

Facebook had dabbled in the idea of becoming a second screen companion for live events in the past, but in a different way than fantasy sports and games. Instead, its R&D division tested Venue, which worked as a way for fans to comment on live events which were hosted in the app by well-known personalities.

The company has several other gaming investments, as well, including through its cloud gaming service on the desktop web and Android, its Games tab for streamers, and its VR company, Oculus.

The new league games will be available from the bookmark menu on the mobile app and in News Feed through notifications.

Web building platform Duda snaps up e-commerce cart tool Snipcart

Duda announced Wednesday that it acquired Canada-based Snipcart, a startup that enables businesses to add a shopping cart to their websites.

The acquisition is Palo Alto-based Duda’s first deal, and follows the website development platform’s $50 million Series D round in June that brings its total funding to $100 million to date. Duda co-founder and CEO Itai Sadan declined to comment on the acquisition amount.

Duda, which works with digital agencies and SaaS companies, has approximately 1 million published paying sites, and the acquisition was driven by the company seeing a boost in e-commerce websites as a result of the global pandemic, he told TechCrunch.

This was not just about a technology acquisition for Duda, but also a talented team, Sadan said. The entire Snipcart team of 12 is staying on, including CEO Francois Lanthier Nadeau; the companies will be fully integrated by 2022 and the first collaborative versions will come out.

When he met the Snipcart team, Sadan thought they were “super experienced and held the same values.”

“We share many of the same types of customers, many of which are API-first,” he added. “If our customers need more headless commerce, they can build their own front end using Snipcart. Their customers will benefit from us growing the team — we plan to double it in the next year and roll out more features at a faster pace.”

The global retail e-commerce market is estimated to grow by 50% to $6.3 trillion by 2024, according to Statista. Duda itself has experienced a year over year increase of 265% in e-commerce sites being built on its platform, which Sadan said was what made Snipcart an attractive acquisition to further accelerate and manage its growth that includes over 17,000 customers.

Together, the companies will offer new capabilities, like payment and membership tools inside of the Duda platform. Many of Duda’s customers come with inventory and don’t want to manage it on another e-commerce platform, so Snipcart will be that component for taking their inventory and making it shoppable on the web.

“Everyone is thinking about how to introduce transactions into their websites and web experiences, and that is what we were looking for in an e-commerce platform,” Sadan said.

 

Cake launches the Makka, a $3,500 electric moped for city riding

Swedish electric motorcycle manufacturer Cake has released its newest vehicle, the Makka, a super lightweight e-moped that’s built for urban convenience. The bike starts at $3,500 and is now available for pre-order in the U.S. and Europe.

The Makka is a step outside the norm for Cake, which is best-known for off-road motorbikes like its flagship high-performance Kalk and its utility machine Ösa. This third platform will be Cake’s first motorbike specifically made for city riding like short-haul commercial transportation and commuting needs. 

“These new electric mopeds further define Cake’s ambition of making two-wheeled electric vehicles accessible to everyone, while constantly pushing the envelope of performance, durability and relevancy in line with the company’s mission to inspire towards a zero-emission lifestyle,” the company said in a statement.

The Makka weighs about 132 pounds and comes standard with a rear cargo rack. Mounts and other accessories like saddlebags, a child seat or even a passenger seat can be attached to the rack.

The e-moped comes in white or gray and is street legal. In the U.S., it’s classified as a motor-driven cycle, meaning it produces 5-brake horsepower or less, and requires a car or motorcycle license. In the EU, the Makka has an L1e-b classification, which means the motor does not exceed 45 kilometers per hour (28 miles per hour), and requires a moped or car license.

Cake’s newest moped comes in two forms. The Makka Range, which is available only in Europe, has a lower maximum speed of 15 miles per hour and a range of up to 35 miles. The Makka Flex, which is available in Europe and the U.S., costs $3,800 and can hit top speeds of 28 miles per hour,. The range of this vehicle is slightly less at 30 miles.

Both bikes feature a foot board and aluminum step-through frame, which rides on top of two 14 by 3 inch motorcycle tires. The Makka range comes with a touchscreen display that shows information like battery, speedometer, odometer, ride mode (for extended range or balanced performance) and brake mode selection.

The Makka’s drivetrain has 3.6 kW of power and a battery capacity of 1.5 kWh. It takes about two hours to charge the battery up to 80%, which can be done by removing the battery or plugging the bike in. It takes three hours to charge the battery to 100%. The electronic motorcycle braking system with hand levers for both front and rear braking regenerates braking power into the battery to increase range.

Cake isn’t the only manufacturer to see the utility in repurposing off-road bikes for urban use. Ubco, a New Zealand electric utility bike brand, has recently raised $10 million to expand sales of its moped, which has a similar look and feel to the Makka, internationally to the U.S. Cake’s last funding round was a $14 million Series A in 2019.

General Catalyst, Abstract back Wanderlog’s $1.5M round for collaborative travel

Twin brothers Harry and Peter Yu grew up traveling all over, an aspect of their lives that continued even into their careers. What they didn’t enjoy was figuring out all the logistics, which has become more difficult during the pandemic: vacations that could be taken quickly now require more planning and even reservations.

“People travel differently, but the common denominator is that everyone uses some kind of document to plan and share their trip information,” Harry Yu told TechCrunch. “We saw a need for something that is better than spreadsheets and ‘copy-and paste.’ ”

So they launched Bay Area-based Wanderlog in 2019 to enable users to gather and record their travel plans. The free itinerary maker and road trip planner takes the best parts of Google Docs and Maps and enables users to import the information and map out the trip. You can even add lists of places you’d like to visit, and Wanderlog will recommend the best way to get there. Reservations can also be added, Peter Yu said.

Wanderlog demo. Image Credits: Wanderlog

The company announced Wednesday it raised $1.5 million in seed funding from General Catalyst and Abstract Ventures.

“Wanderlog has built a product that has a unique understanding of how users plan trips and share their experiences — it’s no surprise that people love using it,” General Catalyst’s Niko Bonatsos said via email. “General Catalyst is proud to invest in Wanderlog as they change the way we travel together, and we’re excited by the growth Peter, Harry and the entire Wanderlog team have achieved.”

The company, which was part of Y Combinator’s 2019 cohort, plans to use the new funding to expand its web and mobile app features, including offering restaurant recommendations, based on Google and Yelp reviews, for those who don’t want to do a bunch of searching and reading reviews.

The founders declined to share growth metrics, but said the platform is already facilitating thousands of trips per week. Customers are already sharing with the founders that the app is good for communication among a large group, where everyone can see what the plans are and discuss them, Harry Yu said. In addition, they just launched a subscription service and are seeing good early metrics.

Wanderlog is among a number of travel startups attracting venture capital dollars as travel restrictions have begun to ease amid the pandemic. For example, just over the past month companies like Thatch raised $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper brought in $175 million, Wheel the World grabbed $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner and Elude raised $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry.

 

PayEm comes out of stealth with $27M and its answer to the expense report

Itamar Jobani was a software developer working for a medical company and “hated that time of the month” when he had to use the company’s chosen reimbursement tool.

“It was full of friction and as part of the company’s wellness team, I felt an urge to take care of the employee experience and find a better tool,” Jobani told TechCrunch. “I looked for something, but didn’t find it, so I tried to build it myself.”

What resulted was PayEm, an Israeli company he founded with Omer Rimoch in 2019 to be a spend and procurement platform for high-growth and multinational organizations. Today, it announced $27 million in funding that includes $7 million in seed funding, led by Pitango First and NFX, with participation by LocalGlobe and Fresh Fund, as well as $20 million in Series A funding led by Glilot+.

The company’s technology automates the reimbursement, procurement, accounts payable and credit card workflows to manage all of the requests and invoices, while also creating bills and sending payments to over 200 territories in 130 currencies.

It gives company finance teams a real-time look at what items employees are asking for funds to buy, and what is actually being spent. For example, teams can submit a request and go through an approval flow that can be customized with purchasing codes tied to a description of the transaction. At the same time, all transactions are continuously reconciled versus having to spend hours at the end of the month going through paperwork.

“Organizations are running in a more democratized way with teams buying things on behalf of the organization,” Jobani said. “We built a platform to cater to those needs, so it’s like a disbursement platform instead of a finance team always being in charge.”

The global B2B payments market is valued at $120 trillion annually and is expected to reach $200 trillion by 2028, according to payment industry newsletter Nilson Report. PayEm is among many B2B payments startups attracting venture capital — for example, last month, Nium announced a $200 million in Series D funding at a $1 billion valuation. Paystand raised $50 million in Series C funding to make B2B payments cashless, while Dwolla raised $21 million for its API that allows companies to build and facilitate fast payments.

Meanwhile, PayEm itself saw accelerated growth in the second quarter of 2021, including increasing its transaction volume by four times over the previous quarter and generating millions of dollars in revenue. It now boasts a list of hundreds of customers like Fiverr, JFrog and Next Insurance. It also launched new features like the ability to create corporate cards.

The company, which also has an office in New York, has 40 employees currently, and the new funds will enable the company to triple its headcount, focusing on hiring in the United States, and to bring additional features and payment capabilities to market.

“Each person can have a budget and a time frame for making the purchase, while accounting still feels in control,” Jobani added. “Everyone now has the full context and the right budget line item.”

LastPad is a reusable menstrual pad that does away with disposable towels

Direct to consumer online sales have helped a number of female-focused startups get products to market in recent years — often pitching better designed and generally more thoughtful feminine hygiene products than mainstream staples.

The lack of innovation in the mainstream market for feminine hygiene has certainly created a gap for startups to address. Examples in recent years include companies like Thinx (absorbent panties for menstruation) and Flex (a disc-shaped tampon alternative for wearing during sex). Or Daye — which makes CBD tampons for simultaneously treating period cramps.

Even so, there still hasn’t been a critical mass of product innovation in the category — to the point where alternatives can trickle down (no pun intended) and influence the trajectory of the mainstream market. The core products on shelves are, all too often, depressingly familiar — disposable pads and tampons — even if they may (sometimes) now be made of organic cotton or have some other mild design tweaks.

The most notable change to the available product mix is probably period pants — which have recently started to appear on mainstream shop shelves and seem to be selling well in markets like the UK, as the Guardian reported recently.

In the average drug store, the other non-disposable alternative you’ll most likely see is the menstrual cup. Which is not at all new — but has finally got traction beyond its original (very) niche community of users, which is another signal that consumers are more open to trying different solutions to deal with their monthly bleeding vs the same old throwaway wadding.

While free bleeding — an old movement which has also seen a bit of wider pick up in recent years — can also be seen, at least in part, as a protest against the poor quality of mainstream products for periods.

All of which makes this forthcoming product launch rather interesting: Meet LastPad, a reusable (rather than disposable) sanitary towel.

Image credits: LastPad

The first thing you’ll likely notice is that the pad is black in color — which certainly rings the changes vs the usual white stick-on fodder. The company behind LastPad says it worked with an unnamed “luxury lingerie manufacture” on look and feel — and, well, judging by the product shots alone it shows.

The bigger behind-the-scenes change is that it’s been designed for sustained, repeat usage. So each LastPad comes with its own fabric pouch (in a range of colors) for folding up and storing after use (and until you get a chance to pop it in the wash). The pad can also stay in its pouch for washing so there’s no need for additional handling until you’re getting it out of the washing machine to dry.

LastPad is the brainchild of Danish designer and entrepreneur Isabel Aagaard whose company, LastObject, has — for the past three years — been taking aim at the wastefulness of single use hygiene and beauty products, designing reusable alternatives for what are unlovely but practical items — like Q-Tips and tissues*.

In total, LastObject has sold around 1.5M products so far — across its existing range of beauty, hygiene and travel-focused items. But LastPad marks its first push into a really female-focused product category.

A reusable (washable) sanitary pad is clearly a big step up on the design challenge front vs making reusable (silicone) Q-Tips or (cotton) tissues or makeup rounds — because of the complexity involved with designing a wearable, intimate hygiene product that can handle the variable and often messy nature of periods, and keep doing so, use after use.

It needs to be both comfortable and reliable — as so many disposable pads actually aren’t.

So it’s not too surprising that, per Aagaard, the company has been working on designing and prototyping LastPad for two years. Now they’re finally ready to bring it to market — launching the LastPad on Kickstarter today — with a goal of shipping to early backers next February.

“We’re seeing amazing conversions [for the LastPad pre-campaign],” she says, discussing how much demand they’re expecting. “This is our sixth [crowdfunder] campaign — and it’s looking really good. So I think the demand is bigger than I actually imagined. Because this is also the first product that is only women. And we were very much in doubt that we should put it on Kickstarter because it’s a very male-dominated platform but it’s looking really positive.”

“We already started working on this two years ago so it’s really been a process. And also because we wanted it to be really innovative. Because right now you can see on the market there’ll be pads that are more like home sewn or do it yourself — and we wanted to really make an exclusive, very, very innovative version of that — that has a lot of the benefits that the single use version has.”

Image credits: LastPad

Each LastPad is made up of three layers: A woven top to help keep the pad feeling dry against the skin by quickly funnelling menstrual fluids down into — layer two — a central absorbent section (made of bamboo) — which sits above a TPU base to ensure no risk of leaks.

“The first layer is a woven material that is really, really fine — it has a little bit of silver in it so that the odours will disappear. It’s also woven with small funnels so that the blood disappears very quickly into the middle layer — because it’s so important that you’re not like wet. Because that’s awful. So it dries quite quickly when you’re wearing it,” explains Aagaard. “And then the middle layer is 100% bamboo — it’s absorbent like crazy; 40% more absorbent than, for example, cotton. And it also has anti-bacterial properties. And then the bottom layer is a TPU [Thermoplastic Polyurethane] — which is just a leak proof cover; it’s comfortable, it’s not like a plastic bag but it does make sure that you cannot bleed through it.”

While disposable sanitary towels rely on an adhesive layer to enable the consumer fix the pad to their panties, LastPad has to do that a bit differently too given it’ll be going through the wash. So the pads have wings — which wrap around the gusset of the panties and fix together underneath with a (soft) velcro fastening.

That’s not all: There’s a (sticky) silicone strip running around the back side of the pad which helps prevent it from moving around — and, per Aagaard, will happily survive repeat washing (in fact if it’s not used for a time, she says dust may temporarily reduce the stickiness — but says that immediately resolves just by wetting it again).

“Where I felt that we really made a huge difference is that on the back side of the pad — it has wings [with] a velcro [fastener] that’s completely soft and you don’t feel it; even if you’re biking — that was like the big test — and then it has a silicone strip in the back and at the bottom, like a sticky silicone… so it doesn’t move around in your pants.”

Practically speaking, it won’t be possible for a LastPad user to use just one LastPad to see them through their period — given the need to wash and dry them between uses. So a pack of several reusable pads will be necessary to entirely replace disposable pads and ensure there’s always a clean towel available to swap out the used pad.

But LastObject’s idea is, much like you own several pairs of socks and briefs, you’ll have a set of LastPads to see you through until after laundry day.

The product comes in three different sizes and thicknesses to cater to different flow levels, too. So the consumer may end up owning a range of reusable LastPads — from a panty liner option to a day flow and heavier duty night pads.

Image credits: LastPad

“It wasn’t as simple as I thought it was going to be — but that’s also because you have to understand the viscoses of blood, for example, compared to water,” Aagaard tells TechCrunch. “And also a flow — it’s not just blood. There’s a lot of other stuff that come out. So it’s taking all of these things into consideration.”

“We’ve been testing it for so long,” she goes on. “That was our main thing with this product. A lot of the other [LastObject products] were very much about printing it, looking at it. Using it of course — but it took us long before we had it in actually a silicone form. Because that is also expensive. Whereas [LastPad] we could sew quite quickly just here at the office and [test it]… So we’ve just been testing it constantly — how’s the feeling? Getting it out to a lot of different women that wear different panties that have different cycles. So it’s really been about testing.”

Pricing for LastPad will be around $60 for three pads — so around $20 per pad. Which is obviously a lot more expensive than the per unit cost of disposable towels. But LastObject says it will offer packs so if a consumer buys more pads it should shrink the per pad cost a little.

Aagaard says the product has been tested to withstand at least 240 washes — which she suggests will mean it’s able to last at least a couple of years, saving likely hundreds of disposable pads from being consumed in its stead.

Although it’s maybe less likely to save consumers money — depending on which disposable pads you’d buy and how many you’d used per cycle (basic disposable pads can cost as little as ~20c each) — as LastObject recommends owning nine of its LastPads which could cost around $80 or more). But the target user is evidently someone with enough disposable income to be able to pay a premium for an eco alternative.

Given the price-point, it does also look more expensive than the menstrual cup — an existing and highly practical alternative to disposable menstrual products — which can cost around $30 (for one reusable cup; and you can get away with owning just one) and, typically, a cup will also last for years as it’s made of silicone.

However the menstrual cup won’t suit every woman — and does require access to clean water to rinse and sanitize — so having more non-disposable alternatives for periods is great.

Aagaard says she’s a fan of the menstrual cup but suggests LastPad can still be useful for its users as a back-up to catch any leaks and/or provide an added layer of reassurance.

While, with period pants, she says the issue she finds unpleasant is the feeling of wetness when wearing them.

On LastPad’s environmental credentials, the washing process required to keep reusing the pad does obviously require some resources (water, soap etc) but — as is the case with other LastObject products — the company’s claim is that it’s still substantially greener to wash and reuse its non-disposable products vs consuming and binning single use items that have to be continually produced and shipped out (generating ongoing CO2). Such products can also pollute the environment after they’ve been thrown away — and plastic waste is of course a huge global problem (including from thrown away sanitary products).

LastObject will be publishing a third party LCA (lifecycle assessment) for LastPad to back up its eco claims for the reusable product — comparing it to using disposable sanitary pads. But Aagaard is confident it will be substantially better when compared against most disposable alternatives.

“You’ll be putting a wash on anyway; [LastPads] don’t take up that much space; you’re not going to wash them just them; it is with your other laundry; and if you wash them at a cold wash I think that the LCA report will look really good,” she suggests when we ask about the eco credentials.

“We’re doing this with all our products where we’re taking them through a third party who’s testing everything and putting them up against [alternatives] and having these considerations with CO2, with water, with chemicals — with the whole pack… So we’ll be doing that more specifically; right now… the alternative of a [disposable] pad — they are so differently produced. It’s crazy. So I could say the worst [for comparative purposes] or I could say the best — and ours is about 12x better than that.”

“When we got the LCA report for the LastTissue and LastSwab they were so much better than I have imagined,” she adds.

From this year the European Union has started banning the sale of some single use plastic items (such as Q-tips and disposable cutlery) as reducing plastic waste is one of the goals for regional lawmakers. And — globally — regulators are increasingly looking for quick wins to shrink the environmental impact of the fast moving consumer goods market’s long standing love affair with plastic.

But some disposable product categories are simply more essential than others — which makes it hard for lawmakers to just ban plenty of wasteful, polluting products. So developing innovative, reusable alternatives is one way to help lighten the usage load.

“The most sustainable pad that you can ever have is actually the one that you don’t produce but that would just be free bleeding — and I think that 99% of women are not ready for that,” adds Aagaard. “So can we make some solutions on some of the things that we actually have to take care of?”

While LastObject is sticking with Kickstarter to get LastPad to market, Aagaard confirms that once they see how much early adopter demand it’s getting they plan to produce enough to also sell via some of the other outlets where they currently sell their products — such as ecommerce sites like Amazon and of course their own web shop.

So far, the US has been the main market for LastObject’s reusable wares, per Aagaard — which she attributes to mostly using Kickstarter to build a community of users. But she adds that the company is starting to see more traction in Europe as it’s increased the number of regional distributors it works with.

So what’s next for the company after LastPad? The product direction they’ll take is an active discussion, she says.

“We can keep going the beauty way, we can go more personal care but we have to also [not] go in too many directions. I personally have a lot of fun things I want to do in the bathroom still, because I feel like it’s a space where not a lot of designers have actually really been investigating some of the products that we’re using. Both in beauty but also in personal care. Like in the floss and toothbrush but also in diapers and wipes and all of that. So I think that there’s some innovation that could be really fun. But… this one took two years and I’m so happy about the result and I couldn’t have spent two months less on it. Then we wouldn’t have had the solutions that we’ve gotten to. So that feels very important.”

Image credits: LastPad

*Washable tissues are also of course not new. Indeed, Wikipedia credits the invention of pocket squares to wipe the nose to King Richard II of England who reigned in the 14th century. But the traditional (fabric) handkerchief — which was used, laundered and reused — became yet another casualty of the switch to single-use, disposable, cheap consumer goods that’s since been shown to have such high environmental costs. So perhaps reversing this damaging default will bring more ‘historical product innovation’ back into fashion as societies look to apply a modern ‘circular economy’ lens

 

TikTok adds educational resources for parents as part of its Family Pairing feature

TikTok is expanding its in-app parental controls feature, Family Pairing, with educational resources designed to help parents better support their teenage users, the company announced morning. The pairing feature, which launched to global users last year, allows parents of teens aged 13 and older to connect their accounts with the child’s so the parent can set controls related to screen time use, who the teen can direct message, and more. But the company heard from teens that they also want their voices to be heard when it comes to parents’ involvement in their digital life.

To create the new educational content, TikTok partnered with the online safety nonprofit, Internet Matters. The organization developed a set of resources in collaboration with teens that aim to offer parents tips about navigating the TikTok landscape and teenage social media usage in general.

Teens said they want parents to understand the rules they’re setting when they use features like Family Pairing and they want them to be open to having discussions about the time teens spend online. And while teens don’t mind when parents set boundaries, they also want to feel they’ve earned some level of trust from the adults in their life.

The older teens get, the more autonomy they want to have on their own device and social networks, as well. They may even tell mom or dad that they don’t want them to follow them on a given platform.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the teen is up to no good, the new resources explain to parents. The teens just want to feel like they can hang out with their friends online without being so closely monitored. This has become an important part of the online experience today, in the pandemic era, where many younger people are spending more time at home instead of socializing with friends in real-life or participating in other in-person group activities.

Image Credits: TikTok

Teens said they also want to be able to come to parents when something goes wrong, without fearing that they’ll be harshly punished or that the parent will panic about the situation. The teens know they’ll be consequences if they break the rules, but they want parents to work through other tough situations with them and devise solutions together, not just react in anger.

All this sounds like straightforward, common sense advice, but parents on TikTok often have varying degrees of comfort with their teens’ digital life and use of social networks. Some basic guidelines that explain what teens want and feel makes sense to include. That said, the parents who are technically savvy enough to enable a parental control feature like Family Pairing may already be clued into best practices.

Image Credits: TikTok

In addition, this sort of teen-focused privacy and safety content is also designed to help TikTok better establish itself as a platform working to protect its younger users — an increasingly necessary stance in light of the potential regulation which big tech has been trying to ahead of, as of late. TikTok, for instance, announced in August it would roll out more privacy protections for younger teens aimed to make the app safer. Facebook, Google and YouTube also did the same.

TikTok says parents or guardians who have currently linked their account to a teen’s account via the Family Pairing feature will receive a notification that prompts them to find out more about the teens’ suggestions and how to approach those conversations about digital literacy and online safety. Parents who sign up and enable Family Pairing for the first time, will also be guided to the resources.

Our favorite startups from YC’s Summer 21 Demo Day, Part 1

Search in ideas, greenification and the beauty of Zillow surfing

Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators.

The TechCrunch team stuck to its tradition of covering every single company live (but, you know, from home,) so you’ll find all of the Day 1 companies here. For those who want a sampling of standouts, however, we’re also bringing you a host of our favorites from today’s 1-minute pitch-off extravaganza.

As reporters, we’re constantly inundated with hundreds of pitches on a daily basis. The startups below caught our picky attention for a whole host of reasons, but that doesn’t mean other startups weren’t compelling or potential unicorns as well. Instead, consider the below to be a data point on which startups made us do a double-take, be it due to the size of the market opportunity, the ambition exhibited by the founding team or an idea that was just too clever to pass up.

Genei

Genei is, dare I say, a refreshing mashup between robots and writers. The startup has a simple goal: Automatically summarize background reading so content creators can grab the top facts, attribute and move onto the next graf. Writing is innately an art, so I find Genei’s positioning as a tool for writers instead of a replacement out to take their jobs as smart. Better yet, it’s launching by targeting some of the hardest workers in our industry: freelance writers. These folks often have to balance consistent pitches, diverse assignments and tight deadlines for their livelihood, so I’d presume a sidekick can’t hurt. Down the road, I could totally see this startup playing the same role as a Grammarly: a helpful extension of workflows that optimizes the way people who write for a living, write. — Natasha

Sanas aims to convert one accent to another in real time for smoother customer service calls

In the customer service industry, your accent dictates many aspects of your job. It shouldn’t be the case that there’s a “better” or “worse” accent, but in today’s global economy (though who knows about tomorrow’s) it’s valuable to sound American or British. While many undergo accent neutralization training, Sanas is a startup with another approach (and a $5.5M seed round): using speech recognition and synthesis to change the speaker’s accent in near real time.

The company has trained a machine learning algorithm to quickly and locally (that is, without using the cloud) recognize a person’s speech on one end and, on the other, output the same words with an accent chosen from a list or automatically detected from the other person’s speech.

Screenshot of the Sanas desktop application.

Image Credits: Sanas.ai

It slots right into the OS’s sound stack so it works out of the box with pretty much any audio or video calling tool. Right now the company is operating a pilot program with thousands of people in locations from the USA and UK to the Philippines, India, Latin America, and others. Accents supported will include American, Spanish, British, Indian, Filipino and Australian by the end of the year.

To tell the truth, the idea of Sanas kind of bothered me at first. It felt like a concession to bigoted people who consider their accent superior and think others below them. Tech will fix it… by accommodating the bigots. Great!

But while I still have a little bit of that feeling, I can see there’s more to it than this. Fundamentally speaking, it is easier to understand someone when they speak in an accent similar to your own. But customer service and tech support is a huge industry and one primarily performed by people outside the countries where the customers are. This basic disconnect can be remedied in a way that puts the onus of responsibility on the entry-level worker, or one that puts it on technology. Either way the difficulty of making oneself understood remains and must be addressed — an automated system just lets it be done more easily and allows more people to do their job.

It’s not magic — as you can tell in this clip, the character and cadence of the person’s voice is only partly retained and the result is considerably more artificial sounding:

But the technology is improving and like any speech engine, the more it’s used, the better it gets. And for someone not used to the original speaker’s accent, the American-accented version may very well be more easily understood. For the person in the support role, this likely means better outcomes for their calls — everyone wins. Sanas told me that the pilots are just starting so there are no numbers available from this deployment yet, but testing has suggested a considerable reduction of error rates and increase in call efficiency.

It’s good enough at any rate to attract a $5.5M seed round, with participation from Human Capital, General Catalyst, Quiet Capital, and DN Capital.

“Sanas is striving to make communication easy and free from friction, so people can speak confidently and understand each other, wherever they are and whoever they are trying to communicate with,” CEO Maxim Serebryakov said in the press release announcing the funding. It’s hard to disagree with that mission.

While the cultural and ethical questions of accents and power differentials are unlikely to ever go away, Sanas is trying something new that may be a powerful tool for the many people who must communicate professionally and find their speech patterns are an obstacle to that. It’s an approach worth exploring and discussing even if in a perfect world we would simply understand one another better.

Daily Crunch: Databricks reaches $38B billion valuation with $1.6B Series H

To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PDT, subscribe here.

Hello and welcome to Daily Crunch for August 31, 2021. Today the TechCrunch machine was busy covering the first day of Y Combinator’s Demo Day event, so expect to see all sorts of coverage on the site after this hits your inbox. We’ll bring you a recap in tomorrow’s edition, though we do have a first taste down below.

In Disrupt news, TechCrunch is bringing an AI investor and a science-fiction author together and will have lots on deck for startups currently raising external capital. — Alex

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Databricks is now worth $38B: Data and AI unicorn Databricks confirmed its previously reported financing event today, raising $1.6 billion at a $38 billion valuation. TechCrunch spoke with the company’s CEO about what the money’s for, and we dug a bit more deeply into its revenue results. The late-stage market has been busy, but this Databricks round is big even by today’s venture standards.
  • More African startups than ever in YC batch: As we write, Demo Day is ongoing, so most of our first-day coverage will be finished too late to include. But we got a look at the African startups in the summer batch, and there are more than ever. Given how active the African startup market is proving this year, we’re not surprised.
  • Apna could be India’s next unicorn: Focusing on upskilling Indian consumers, Apna could become a unicorn if a Tiger Global-led round comes to fruition. TechCrunch reports that the round could be worth $100 million at a valuation of more than $1 billion. Edtech in India remains one of the key startup narratives in recent years.

Startups/VC

Because this is the last day of August, we presume that the summer lull in funding events has come and gone. Not that we really noticed a downtick in volume, frankly, but all the same, expect things to get even crazier in the coming weeks. Here’s a sampling of the rounds that we covered today:

  • $200M more to roll-up Amazon merchants: Beyond Indian edtech companies, another trend that has raised nigh-infinite funds this year is startups raising capital to buy up smaller e-commerce merchants, often with a focus on those selling on Amazon. Heroes is the latest to raise capital for the concept, with the U.K.-based startup adding a few hundred million to its accounts in a single go.
  • Whoop, the Peloton of Apple Watches, raises $200M: If you are a fitness-wearable user, you may be familiar with Whoop. The company’s athlete-focused wristband has helped Whoop raise more than $400 million, now valuing the company at $3.6 billion. That’s many duckets for a fitness wearable. But as Whoop has a software fee bundled into its hardware — hence our Peloton analogy — it is not simply another hardware company.
  • Synthetic coffee is coming: Maricel Saenz, the founder and CEO of Compound Foods, wants to create and sell coffee sans beans. Why? Well, climate change is making growing coffee beans harder, and the process is hard on the environment to boot. So why not just synthesize your morning java? I am willing to try this out, with the caveat that coffee is delicious so it’s going to take a little convincing for me to change my routines.
  • Borzo wants to bring on-demand to more markets: Delivery service Dostavista is rebranding to Borzo, bringing its multicountry business under a single brand. The startup, per TechCrunch, was founded in 2012 and has a customer base of 2 million.
  • Former TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Alley company Quip raises $100M: Quip is best known as a toothbrush company, but it hit profitability last year, expanded its product line and landed nine figures in new capital. The company today offers a host of oral cleaning products as well as invisible teeth aligners.
  • To close out our startup coverage today, Peak has raised $75 million to help non-tech companies build AI apps. The Manchester, England-based Peak wants to help companies that lack in-house AI talent apply the software technique to their own businesses. SoftBank Vision Fund 2 led the latest investment, which the company intends to use to scale its staff and hit up new markets.

6 tips for establishing your startup’s global supply chain

The barrier to entry for launching hardware startups has fallen; if you can pull off a successful crowdfunding campaign, you’re likely savvy enough to find a factory overseas that can build your widgets to spec.

But global supply chains are fragile: No one expected an off-course container ship to block the Suez Canal for six days. Due to the pandemic, importers are paying almost $18,000 for shipping containers from China today that cost $3,300 a year ago.

After spending a career spinning up supply chains on three continents, Liteboxer CEO Jeff Morin authored a guide for Extra Crunch for hardware founders.

“If you’re clear-eyed about the challenges and apply some rigor and forethought to the process, the end result can be hard to match,” Morin says.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

  • TikTok wants to help match influencers and brands: That’s the takeaway from our story today that TikTok’s “new Creator Marketplace API lets influencer marketing companies tap into first-party data.” Given how much we’ve read about astroturfing influencers, the concept makes sense. And TikTok wants its leading creators to make lots of money on its platform so they stick around. Expect to see more of this from other platforms in time.
  • Windows 11 launches October 5: As a Windows fan (and a macOS fan, for the record), I am somewhat hyped to try out the latest Windows build, though I worry if my CPU is sufficiently new. Regardless, the new code drops in early October, so the wait is nearly over.
  • Now you can troll your friends on Spotify with your musical tastes: Love music? Have friends that love music? And do you enjoy different music than your friends? Good news! Now you can create blended playlists with your team, so that you wind up with a playlist that pleases precisely no one.

TechCrunch Experts: Growth Marketing

Illustration montage based on education and knowledge in blue

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

TechCrunch Disrupt is in less than a month, and we’re excited to share that we’re giving away one free ticket through the Experts survey. Check out the schedule for Disrupt, and read on to learn about the giveaway details:

  • Have you already submitted a recommendation? That’s great — we’re counting all previous survey submissions as an entry for the Disrupt ticket.
  • We’ll also enter the next 100 survey submissions into the giveaway.
  • Do you want to submit 10 recommendations to increase your chance at winning? We love the enthusiasm, but we ask that you only submit one recommendation for each marketer that you’ve worked with.
  • Don’t know what to say in your recommendation? Start with what traits they had, what they did to help your company, how their work affected your business and go from there!
  • We manually go through all entries, so please don’t copy and paste the same response multiple times.
  • Have a question about the giveaway? Send us an email at ec_editors@techcrunch.com.

Here are all the companies from Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day, Part 1

Today Y Combinator kicked off the Demo Day cycle for its Summer 2021 cohort. The collection of early-stage startups on day one-of-two alone numbered in the hundreds, meaning that we had to assemble a team here at TechCrunch just to cover it all.

But before we get into notes on each company that presented, a few notes on the cohort itself. Per Y Combinator leadership, the 377 (!) startups in this cohort have founders from 47 different countries, and 37% of the founders in this cohort were from underrepresented groups (which YC’s Michael Seibel says the accelerator defines as Black, Latinx or female.)

The international breakdown of the batch parallels that of this past winter. Nearly 50% of YC startups are based outside of the United States, with India, U.K. and Mexico making up the largest part of that percentage.

What follows is a list of the 180+ companies in the order that they pitched, and our notes on each pitch. TechCrunch will follow up this post with a list of our favorites. So, enjoy the below and happy hunting to all the founders and investors!

(Oh, and if you’re somehow hungry for more, don’t worry: another equally huge batch is scheduled to present tomorrow.)

Day One Companies:

 

Endla: Software meant to increase production and reduce costs associated with oil/gas wells. The company says it can save about $40,000 per well per year. 

 

Phykos: Autonomously grows seaweed to capture carbon, selling offsets to companies to uphold their climate commitments. Built by GoogleX mechanical and software engineers.

 

MadEats: MadEats is an online ghost kitchen food delivery service in the Philippines. It has built several major local restaurant concepts and is building affordable, high-margin brands to serve direct to consumers.

 

Financial Choice: Financial Choice wants to boost the yields that consumers can earn from their checking accounts. In today’s market, cash earns incredibly low yields at rest. So, Financial Choice wants to invest checking account funds, while preserving access for users for when they need their money. The startup claims to have reached $4.4 million AUM thus far. We’re curious about the tax implications of the model, but the concept of earning more yield from liquid holdings is attractive.

 

Atlas: This startup is building software to let restaurants in Southeast Asia move more operations online, aiming to help restaurants create a closer bond with consumers that food delivery platforms have pulled away.

 

Apollo: A debit card that rewards users with stocks. Making purchases with the card earns the user a fractional share of a stock, plus “a chance to win” full shares.

 

Strive Education: With 3.7 million students in Asia, Strive Education uses 1:1 live classes to teach high school math through coding games. The company has $20,000 monthly recurring revenue and is growing 30% monthly.  

PlusIdentity: A password manager for startups, focused first on a Slack app that hits the high points of enterprise-level options (Okta) and consumer apps (LastPass). Only one month old, they already have 10 startups signed up and aim to be the next identity management platform for the startup world.

 

HitPay: HitPay brings together two startup trends that have captured investor interest in recent quarters, namely no-code tooling and payments. The company wants to help SMBs in the South East Asian market accept payments from what it describes as a market that is fragmented. So far the company has reached $5.4 million in total payment volume (TPV) per month, a figure that yields $35,000 in monthly revenue.

 

AOA Dx Inc.: AOA is building blood tests that help detect ovarian cancer early when survival rates are much higher. The founding team has two successful exits in the health startup space behind them and their product has already shown early success in a 600-person patient study.

 

Cococart: An online store builder that claims to have a setup process 10x faster than Shopify. The team says they’re currently working with over 2,000 active merchants.

 

Metaphor: What’s the metaphor for taking on Google? Metaphor is a language-model-based search engine. With this technology, users can search by ideas; think queries like “one of the most promising startups in the health tech space is” or “a smart essay about love is” instead of relying solely on keywords. 

 

Tinai: Ninety percent of small businesses in Vietnam still keep at least some of their financial records using pen and paper. Tinai aims to help modernize this with a digital bookkeeping service — and after only six weeks they have 1,200 active merchants and are handling USD$1.8 million worth of transactions.

Turion Space: Space trash removal! It’s a well-known issue that the orbit around Earth is littered with crap of all sorts, junk that is circling the planet at high speeds. Turion Space wants to build spacecraft that can get that shit out of orbit, and it also wants to service satellites and mine asteroids. You have to start somewhere, we suppose. Space companies are hard to judge at this stage, but we can say that the TAM Turion is pursuing is, well, as big as the planet.

 

Cero: The team at Cero is building software to help hospitals automate communications with patients over WhatsApp. The team has banked $95,000 in monthly revenue helping their customers communicate with more than 600,000 patients.

 

Aqua: Investment platform to allow individuals to invest in private equity funds without requiring them to have a ridiculously high net worth.

 

Warpfy: Built by the founders of Wayfair Asia, Warpfy is on a mission to acquire and grow e-commerce stores into global brands. It will help brands bring distribution multichannel, breaking out of a tradition of Amazon roll-ups as a key way to grow. 

 

Momo Medical: With a growing elderly population worldwide, nurses in hospitals and long-term care facilities are stretched thin. Momo Medical has made an IoT-equipped bed sensor that tells nurses who is sleeping, who is rising, and who may be having trouble, all in one interface. The increase in productivity could help offset the worldwide nursing shortage. They’re already signing contracts and have $250,000 ARR.

Milky Way AI: No, Milky Way AI is not building computer intelligence to scan the stars. Instead, it’s building computer intelligence to scan the shelves. Perhaps Milky Way refers to the candy bar, instead of the interstellar body. The startup has built a mobile app that allows CPG companies to scan shelves and check what goods are in stock. Per the startup, it has four brands working with it today wirth $11,000 in monthly revenue. And two new contracts that could push its revenues into the seven figures.

 

Slip: Slip is building a marketplace for top developers to create and monetize courses helping young coders hone their skills. The team is looking to get their product into the corporate learning space and get major tech companies providing their courses to employees.

 

MindFi: A corporate wellness/mental health platform for companies in Asia, offering employees “microclasses,” guided exercises and assessments meant to help with mental well-being.

 

Opkit: Founded by early members of Brex’s engineering team, Opkit helps surgery centers optimize how they buy medical devices. The tech plugs into health electronic systems and then provides dashboards that illustrate which surgeries are the most expensive for the center. Then, the purchasing software gives recommendations on what customers should buy to limit costs. 

 

Deskimo: With employees fluidly moving from home to office to shared workspaces, hybrid work is a global trend. Deskimo aims to embrace that flexibility by aggregating managed office space into a single app and renting it out by the minute. They’re launching in southeast Asia first but hope to become a global hybrid work platform.

Lumify: We’re all familiar with the concept of super apps for consumers. First popularized in Asia, they may bring together ride-hailing, food delivery, e-commerce and chat. But what about a super app for nurses? Lumify thinks the idea has legs. Its app can help nurses find whatever they need, from scrubs to shifts it claims. The company has generated $275,000 in revenue so far this year from a userbase of 15,000 nurses. The concept makes sense. Nurses are busy, in demand and earn good wages; why not sell to them?

 

Crew: Crew is building a recruiting-centric CRM designed to make it easier to reach out to candidates. The company’s software is designed to help recruiters tackle proactive outreach with tooling designed for each part of the hiring process, keeping things streamlined and personalized. 

 

Akute Health: Akute makes a medical records management system for the ever-increasing number of digital health companies, so each one doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Founder Sharud Agarwal says Akute has 40 customers accounting for a total of 20,000 patients. 

 

Writesonic: AI-powered copywriting tool for marketing material. Launched in February, Writesonic hit $36,000 in monthly ARR through 100% organic user acquisition. 

 

REPROSENT: Cancer patients’ daily symptoms could be crucial to understanding their needs and the effectiveness of treatment, but it can be hard to collect them regularly. Reprosent is an app for patient self-reported data that has seen over 80% daily use, providing a steady stream of helpful data for caregivers. They’re already signing up major care centers.

 

Pinglend: This is an interesting company. Pinglend wants to let people pledge items and, in return, offer credit based on those assets. Per the company, its model will allow it to loan money to users at around 20% of the rate that pawn shops or payday lenders charge. The company has yet to launch, but as it is playing in a space rife with consumer abuse, it will have questions over its head as it proves out its model. The company wants to “graduate” its users to unsecured credit cards in time.

 

AppX: AppX has built a platform that helps social media creators build their own apps that play to their strengths and monetize their audiences better than personal websites do. The company started with educational creators and is looking to expand with gaming and fitness creators.

Caire Health: AI meant to help “diagnose brain bleeds in seconds.” Co-founder Anmol Warman says he expects FDA approval within six months, and the company is currently running trials with multiple hospitals.

 

Membo: A premium way to grocery shop. Membo is a next-day grocery delivery service in Europe that optimizes for freshness and quality, instead of 15-minute speed. The startup does $30,000 monthly GMV and makes money through a per-order commission fee. 

 

Soraban: Accounting firms aren’t the most futuristic office environments, and Soraban aims to modernize them with a back-office platform that brings them into the 21st century.

 

Abatable: Robo-advising is old hat by this point, technology that has become table stakes for consumer investing services that focus on long-term holding. But Abatable wants to bring robo-advising into the carbon-removal game, creating portfolios that “focus on carbon removal.” Given the rising focus on more socially and environmentally conscious investing around the world, it’s a neat idea.

 

Varos: Varos helps companies understand how their performance stacks up against the competition by creating anonymized databases of customer data. The startup is tackling the $21 billion planning software market with a specific focus on marketing, product and finance teams.

 

Friz: A bank specifically tailored for freelancers (focusing on South Asia and Southeast Asia), making it easier to get loans for those without fixed monthly paychecks. 

 

Zensors Inc: Google analytics for the physical world. The startup is a software-only AI solution that connects to security cameras dispersed around airports, transit hubs and stores — helping companies offer actionable advice to better the customer experience. Its software footprint currently impacts over 1 million people a week.   

 

Kodda: Getting insurance in LatAm is a dated process, and Kodda aims to bring a Lemonade-like experience to the millions of people there. Users can sign up in 90 seconds and make claims in minutes; so far the company has 250 paying customers and it says not one has left.

 

Cache: Gopuff is a big deal these days, having raised roughly eighty zillion dollars. But the Cache team thinks that there is still room in the on-demand market for convenience goods. The startup operates so-called “dark” stores to give goods to on-demand drivers. Dark stores in general are a hot commodity these days, thanks to rising delivery needs.

 

Akudo: A neobanking startup in India geared toward providing teenagers with credit cards, hoping to help young people in the country manage their money in a smart way. The company combines a credit card, savings account and rewards with tools to help increase financial literacy.

Image Credits: SenpAI.GG

SenpAI.GG: AI-powered video game coach. They’re building a tool that uses overlays and a voice assistant to help you figure out the best move to make, or the best character to pick. Olcay Yilmazçoban says they currently have over 450,000+ monthly active users and are seeing 20% growth month over month. See our previous coverage of SenpAI here.

 

Iona Mind: Iona Mind is a mental health app that wants to teach people how to overcome anxiety and depression. The company’s content is derived from evidence-based protocols and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The platform is sold directly to employers that are growing their benefit programs and searching for ways to boost engagement.

 

Storylane: Selling a digital product or service is a lot easier when the customer can try it for themselves. Storylane lets marketing teams deploy personalized product demos to prospective customers, which they have found increases conversions considerably.

 

Ivy Homes: Opendoor is worth more than $10 billion as a public company today, so it is not a huge surprise to see a startup working on bringing the model to other countries. Ivy is taking the concept to India, where it claims the real estate market is obscured by a lack of information. The company has secured a $500,000 credit line and has bought its first property. So, it’s early days for Ivy, but given the scale of the market they are taking on, that’s no sin.

 

Liv Labs Inc.: The startup is building fitness programs that help women deal with incontinence, building exercise programs that help women strengthen their pelvic floor muscles and decrease risks of pee leaks, an issue the startup says 27 million American women struggle with.

 

Sitenna: Helps wireless carriers speed up the process of finding new sites to put up towers — a particularly well-timed idea, as 5G requires considerably more towers to work well. The company says it can shorten the process of finding a location from 24 months to 6 months. Read our past coverage of Sitenna here.

 

Ferveret: Ferveret, inspired by nuclear plants, has created a liquid-cooling technology for data centers. The startup helps reduce costs and carbon footprint while improving server performance. So far, Ferveret has landed two paid pilot contracts with Enel and Crusoe Energy. 

 

Coulomb AI: Electric vehicles run on batteries, and batteries degrade with use — but exactly how much? When should companies replace theirs? What’s the cost of preventative maintenance? Couloumb AI aims to provide battery analytics for any and all EV companies (focusing first on fleets in India and government applications) and hopes to become the standard analytics platform worldwide.

 

Arengu: If the startup market can support a host of companies just working to improve checkout flows, there may be room for tech upstarts just focused on sign-up flows, right? That is the bet at Aregenu, which is building signup flow for other companies. Its pitch noted that a host of major companies devote whole teams to this work, something it points out that smaller firms can’t afford. If the fundraising history of checkout companies is any indicator, we expect Arengu to raise a mountain of money by Thursday.

 

Yemaachi Biotechnology: The biotech startup is aiming to diversify the cancer diagnostics and therapeutics testing pipeline by collecting and sequencing samples across Africa, an effort to help Africa’s genetically diverse population get more accurate treatment. The founding team has decades of experience in the health research field.

 

q&ai: Analyzes company sales calls to provide insights for the sales team to help them tune messaging.

GamerPay: An escrow-style system for selling digital items and skins in games (starting with CS:GO) to hopefully reduce the rampant scams. 

 

BluumBio: Companies are under pressure to reduce their environmental impact, and BluumBio allows them to do this simply by seeding bioengineered plants and bacteria at sites polluted by microplastics, heavy metals or petroleum byproducts. These engineered organisms have regulatory approval and are heading to their first field trial this fall, and the company already has lucrative partnerships lined up.

 

Goodkind: I hate being called on the phone, so I am not exactly sure if promising me that in the future more companies will video call me than ring me up is a great idea, but Goodkind thinks its vision of the future is going to be big business. Powering video messaging for “B2C teams,” the company has racked up $375,000 in ARR, a figure it claims is growing by 28% on a month-over-month basis. That figure could rise if its pipeline comes through by a factor of more than two.


Matidor: Matidor is a project management platform combining geospatial data with team collaboration software. The startup has $80,000 in ARR and is chasing the $4 billion natural resources market.

 

Promakhos Therapeutics: Promakhos is a therapeutics platform focused on curing inflammatory diseases using bacteria. The company’s first drug is focused on reversing symptoms in Crohn’s disease patients. They’re also looking to help patients suffering from multiple sclerosis and Type I diabetes.

 

Whaly:  A no-code platform for modeling your business data, automatically imported from tools like Hubspot, Google Ads, Google Analytics, etc.

 

Vital: An API for collecting at-home health data. Using at-home lab tests and fitness wearables like Oura or Fitbit, Vital aggregates data without requiring one to step foot into a doctor’s office. The developer-designed API is currently in closed beta. 

 

Moving Parts: Rebuilding your UI to accommodate new features or migrate to a new code base can be costly and time consuming. Moving Parts is a component library from former Apple and SoundCloud designers full of “Apple-quality” UI bits and pieces that companies can drop in and customize to cover common needs like sign-up and log-in processes.

 

Monet: The concept of getting workers access to their earnings ahead of traditional paydays is heading to Latin America thanks to Monet, which claims its service will work with any worker in the region who has both a bank account and a salary. No employer buy-in required. That’s frankly pretty cool. Monet claims to have 6,000 users waiting to use its service. That should be enough early demand to prove its model. Let’s see how it scales.

 

Enerjazz: A battery-swapping network for the 2 million electric vehicles in India. The company is hoping to build out a sizable network that’s well positioned to cater toward the electrifications of India’s 8 million rickshaws and 187 million scooters.

Ivella: A bank for couples, beginning with a debit card that automatically splits expenses between two users. 

 

Malloc: A mobile app that prevents other mobile apps from recording and sharing data without the user’s approval. It notifies users when a mobile app uses their camera or microphone and offers a monitoring console to understand how long those features are being used. Malloc’s spyware tracker has 80,000 active users and over 100,000 users to date.   

 

Flowbo Inc.: Flowbo wants to help creators access funding, fast. Instead of forcing creators to rely on payment from traditional brand deals or sponsors, they can upload proof of those income streams to get a loan upfront. Then, creators are invited to pay money back over time through a percentage fee based on total monthly revenue. 

 

Synth: Synth is building software to help knowledge workers better recall the information that they consume, be it in video format or text. The founder said that current software products like Roam just don’t cut it. We’ll need to play with this to truly understand it, but the concept is neat.

 

Humane Genomics: The startup is building a development platform for making artificial viruses focused on cancer therapeutics. The team has helped design hundreds of ​​unique oncolytic viruses and was previously working on a COVID-19 vaccine candidate that it recently discontinued efforts on.

 

Mailmodo: A no-code platform for easily building forms and widgets to embed within emails.

 

SafeBeat Rx: SafeBeat Rx wants to replace hospitalization for new arrhythmia patients through its take-home kit that combines EKG software with FDA-cleared hardware. While the concept of software replacing a hospital stay may seem like a moonshot, the startup recently completed a 103 patient pilot to test out its hypothesis. It estimates that the take-home kit will be on the market within one year. 

 

Karbon Card: It’s Brex for India. With $110,000 already coming in monthly and 1,100 companies already signed up, this is about as sure a thing as you’re going to find in this list. Expect a trillion dollar valuation by the end of the week.

 

Digistain: One of several startups in this cohort taking on the cancer market, Digistain wants to use infrared scanning to better understand which breast cancer patients are truly a fit for chemotherapy. Its view is that more folks than needed get chemotherapy, which is not only expensive but can actually kill you. I am not an expert on regulatory approval, but using tech to avoid taking poison juice to the jugular sounds pretty great.

 

Odwen: Odwen is building a massive warehouse network in India, aiming to leverage underutilized space at existing warehouses with a tech-enabled platform that helps users with storage needs find their own solution across a wide network. 

 

Rinse: Pitched as “One Medical for dental,” Rinse is looking to make it easier to book same-day dental cleanings and exams — because more checkups = less drilling.

 

Swipe: A billing and payments solution for Indian small and medium-sized businesses. The over 1,000 businesses that use Swipe today are able to create easy invoices, WhatsApp-friendly payment links and more. Swipe has hit over $1 million in monthly transaction volume. As my colleague Alex Wilhelm put it, Swipe is Stripe, with a W.  

Nasdisc: The market for vinyl records has exploded over the last couple decades as these collectibles have reentered the vogue. Nasdisc thinks it’s time for a modern, dedicated vinyl marketplace like those that exist for sneakers and other hot C2C goods. They’re live now and doing $1,000/week in sales, so maybe it’s time to pull out those old records and make a buck or two.

 

PropReturns: Working against a similar problem set as Ivy Homes, PropReturns wants to bring more data to the Indian real estate market, which it also views as somewhat poor today. But instead of buying homes, PropReturns wants to facilitate transactions. It has facilitated some $3.9 million in property value. That generated $74,000 in revenue. Let the Make India’s Property Market Better Startup War begin!

 

DiveHealth: Dive helps migraine sufferers find the right treatment among the dozens of migraine drugs on the market today. Users take a genetic test, fill out a questionnaire and receive a custom treatment plan. Twenty million Americans currently suffer from migraines, so it’s a huge opportunity.

 

Zinite: This team wants to help companies build better performing chips within the same product real estate with what it says is “only high-performance transistor which can be built along the z-axis.”

 

Kiwi Biosciences: Built by an IBS patient and former IBS digital health founder, Kiwi has created an enzyme that helps customers digest food better by breaking down common dietary triggers. It charges $50 a month for the patent-pending enzymes — and as of last pull, Kiwi has $23,000 in monthly recurring revenue. 

 

Algen Biotechnologies: Born out of CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna’s lab, Algen aims to treat cancers with no known effective drugs by applying machine learning to RNA messaging and finding ways to change it. They’ve already found one oral inhibitor for one such cancer and aim to enter clinical trials within 18 months — and of course Big Pharma is already sniffing around.

Kalam Labs: Kalam Labs wants to use games to help kids from 6 to 14 years old learn STEM. Targeting the Indian middle class, the company has racked up 1,500 paying customers and has reached $15,000 in MRR. The company won’t expand north to China, however, as that country is cracking down on paid edtech services. And cutting back on gaming hours for minors. Whatever. The edtech market in India is hot, and this could fit into it neatly.

 

Pillar: Pillar is building a health coaching platform to help Americans live healthier lifestyles and minimize costs associated with lifestyle-based diseases. The startup is aiming to build a solution that easily plugs into corporate health platforms, allowing clients to easily access health coaches.

 

SalaryBook: Pitched as “Gusto for India,” SalaryBook helps SMBs in India handle payroll, employee attendance and expenses. The company says it has 80,000 employers on the platform already.

 

Coinfeeds: Former Robinhood and Uber machine learning specialists are building a Bloomberg for crypto. The startup tracks and aggregates news, as well as social sentiment, for crypto enthusiasts. Users can customize their news feed to get specific information about their portfolio coins and also track broader trends such as upcoming tokens and legal developments. 

 

Gobillion: Gobillion is taking the highly successful Pinduoduo model of group purchasing and applying it to India’s daily grocery buyers. Customers can band together and save 25%-40% by purchasing in bulk — and the team, vets of India’s e-commerce world, know how to get the retail giants on board.

 

Commery: An interesting flip on the commercial real estate marketplace. Commery lets tenants submit an ask for real estate, which brokers work to match. Brokers pay the startup. So far it has snagged 25 listings. The timing of this company is interesting thanks to a shift in the world away from IRL work, but as Commery also works with industrial spaces it could still have a market to sell into.

 

Neodocs: Neodocs is building a platform for instant lab tests that users in India can complete with their smartphone. The company has created a test helping track parameters with insights on liver health, kidney health, digestion, hydration and more. 

 

Mentum: An API for fintech companies in Latin America to offer investment services. Currently available in 13 Latin American countries. 

 

Nino Foods: With over $165,000 in monthly revenue, Nino Foods is building a cloud kitchens service for premium brands in India. Brands using Nino include Francesco’s Pizzeria and Nino Burgers. The startup is already profitable in three Mumbai locations. 

 

Banner: Commercial real estate managers are handling billion-dollar projects in Excel, where a transposed digit or errant click can lead to a multimillion-dollar error. Why not have an OS for commercial real estate that makes it safer and more convenient? Oh, that’s what Banner is? Great!

 

Pideaky: A Square for Latin America. The startup helps neighborhood corner stores digitize payments, billing and internet operations, ultimately increasing revenue for these customers. It has $42,000 in monthly recurring revenue and is growing 30% monthly. 

 

Talus Bio: Talus Bio is a drug discovery biotech startup focused on studying gene regulatory proteins in their natural cell environments. The company hopes this new platform will help further grasp the role of these proteins in various diseases and facilitate therapeutics that tackle them.

 

Freterium: A collaborative platform for managing shipments and transports, aiming to replace the complicated spreadsheets the industry uses today. 

 

Nabla Bio: The startup co-develops antibody drugs “that are more likely to get approved” with pharmaceutical companies. The company has partnered with three top-tier companies resulting in $800,000 in revenue. 

 

Clear: Skin care is super important to a whole lot of people, and they happen to also spend quite a bit on it. Clear is a debit card just for cosmetics and skin care, giving cash back on numerous brands. But it also grants access to a social media community of skin care enthusiasts who can share their routines … full of useful data for cosmetics companies, too!

Playhouse: Playing on the trend of browsing Zillow “for fun,” Playhouse is a mobile app for quickly perusing video listings of homes for sale. Co-founder Alex Perelman says the company’s most engaged users are watching 50+ videos on their first day alone.

 

Genuity: Genuity is building a SaaS platform that helps enterprises manage their IT and source business software. It’s a space with plenty of entrenched players, but Genuity is hoping to win over customers with an inexpensive offering that helps IT professionals get done what they need to.

 

InstaKin: Helps immigrants in the U.S. manage projects and tasks back in their home countries, connecting them with verified vendors from afar and handling payments securely.

 

Odiggo: The services platform helps Middle East/North Africa (MENA) consumers get car services within minutes. Some cities demand car owners have brand new tires or even limit dustiness of the vehicles, so Odiggo is in the business of completing those requests. In July, the company had $500,000 in GMV and $44,000 in revenue. 

 

Covie: If you have an app or service that needs to check or track a customer’s insurance coverage to work, Covie wants to make it easy to do that right in the app. Most rental and car insurance policies are supported and they’re signing up providers and aggregators to simplify this process for everyone.

 

ShipBlu: Promising “Amazon level logistics” for companies in MENA, ShipBlu does 24-hour delivery with live tracking. Co-founder Ali Nasser says that 47 merchants have signed on so far.

 

Dime: Dime is building an NFT marketplace that’s more accessible to users looking to buy digital collectibles with USD not crypto. Crypto wallets are notoriously complicated, and Dime is hoping that they can combine the benefits of the blockchain with easier user onboarding.

 

Nomod: Helps international merchants process payments on their phone, minus the need for Square-style hardware. 

 

Verano Health: Flagged as the nonprofit of the batch, Verano Health wants to help Medicaid patients access telehealth services. The startup uses SMS and digital coaching to help diabetic, underserved patients navigate their condition. Verano Health is raising $2 million in donations and, per the founder, expects to be profitable by 2023. 

 

Pluggy: Pluggy is Plaid for Brazil: a simple way for developers to access users’ financial data, like bank accounts and investments, within an app or service. They’re totally focused on Brazil and already cover 90% of the banks there. With thousands of users already signed up they seem to be well on their way.

 

Algofi: A lending market built on the Algorand blockchain. Algofi’s Owen Colegrove says they hit over 2,000 users a week after launching.

 

Scispot.io: Scispot is building a project management platform for bio companies leveraging automation to help track projects, samples and inventory while collaborating with team members.

Muse: A no-code editor for building immersive 3D websites, charging $12 per site per month. Co-founder Benjamin Ha says users have built 300+ websites so far.

 

FloatPays: Payday lending can be one way to bring financial inclusion and access to underserved communities, and FloatPays wants to make it on-demand. The startup is building a wage access service built for African businesses and has landed 34 customers so far. It has also engaged with financial institutions, landing distribution partnerships with two African banks. 

 

Zeit Medical: Zeit has created a wearable headband that warns users and caregivers of early signs of stroke while sleeping, preventing damage to the brain from progressing too far before treatment. I wrote them up here!

 

Kurios: Online courses for professionals in Latin America. Co-founder Carlos Lau says the company is currently seeing $60,000 revenue and 25% growth per month, with 90% of users completing their courses.

 

Buoyant Aero: Buoyant is using electric blimps to move air freight over medium-range distances, which the startup says is 4x more efficient than using small aircraft. The company has built four airships and is aiming to tackle the $6 billion rural U.S. middle-mile freight market. We wrote about them here!

 

Infiuss Health: Many clinical trials lack African participants, resulting in side effects/shortcomings that go undiscovered for far too long. Infiuss is a platform meant to allow U.S. and EU pharma companies to more efficiently run clinical trials in Africa.

 

KaiPod Learning: The Boston-based startup wants to be the go-to place for online learners and learning pod families to get in-person interactions into their curriculum. KaiPod learning grows through launching centers, reminiscent of Kumon and WeWork, that welcome children to swing by during the school day — either for a refresh in existing curriculum, or for some social activities with peers. Read more about Kaipod here.

 

SolarMente: SolarMente is a marketplace for solar rooftops focusing on Europe. They’re bringing in $120,000/month already for installations and financing, at about $10,000 per home. Spain is their first market because electricity costs are high — so SolarMente takes over the whole process, soup to nuts, and hopes to do so for millions more.

 

idemeum: Helps small/medium-sized businesses manage employee access to their ever-growing collection of SaaS apps, aiming to replace manual password-sharing with biometrics. 

 

Revolve Surgical: Revolve is building surgical robots for operating rooms, aiming to create a device that’s much smaller (and cheaper!) than the incumbent solution. 

 

Hotswap: Helps you onboard companies when they’re looking to switch from another vendor, breaking vendor lock-in and automating the import of complex data from one platform to another.

A woman sits in a chemotherapy clinic in a chair with Luminate's headset on.

Image Credits: Luminate / Wild Island Pictures

Luminate Medical: Hair loss from chemotherapy is one of the medical world’s most recognizable side effects, and Luminate may have a solution: a compression therapy helmet that prevents the drug cocktail from reaching and damaging the hair follicles. It’s on its way to clinical trials and FDA approval — you can read more about the company’s tech here.

 

Filta: Face filters are hugely popular on Snapchat and other apps, and Filta aims to monetize them with an NFT market for limited edition filters that creators can sell to their fans. Look for them on the app store in November.

 

Coinrule: Helps individual/retail investors automate their crypto trading. The team says it’s currently seeing $80,000 monthly recurring revenue, with an average of 30% MoM growth over the last 12 months.

 

Customily: A design tool for helping online stores sell more personalized products. Companies can use Customily to design, sell and print customizable products, letting users take control with their embeddable tool.

 

Union54: An API to help companies (think banks, fintechs and large retailers) issue debit cards in Africa. 

 

HeyCharge: Patent-pending technology for customer-friendly indoor EV charging. HeyCharge wants to bring low-cost EV charging to offices and apartment buildings. Two unique bits of the startup’s tech: It claims to work offline and underground, a rarity for the industry. 

 

Clarity: Clarity is a workspace for teams that focuses on simplicity without losing too much in capability. With document collaboration, project management and task tracking built in, it’s meant to reduce your tab load, organize and centralize.

 

QOA: Cocoa-free chocolate developed through precision fermentation, with the goal of making chocolate “10x more sustainable and 20% cheaper.”

 

Careerist: Edtech meets SaaS in Careerist’s job placement learning platform. The startup trains job seekers through live and self-paced training taught by third-party tutors. The adaptive learning software is meant to help candidates prep for tech interviews. Once a candidate is well equipped, Careerists uses automation to help them apply for jobs. The startup doesn’t require tuition until candidates are placed. 

 

Abstra: A Figma-inspired no-code app builder meant for designers. Bruno Vieira Costa says the product, currently in beta, is seeing $2,000 in monthly recurring revenue with seven customers.

 

2Cents: 2Cents is building an Ethereum protocol for communities, basically bringing web3 dynamics to users wanting to create a Reddit-like community, turning active members into “owners” of the community.

 

Lago: Growth teams need to segment and sync customer data across lots of channels, like marketing, sales and more, but the existing tools for this are expensive, require engineering work and are generally enterprise-oriented. Lago does it no-code style so smaller teams can onboard quickly and simply with no extra hires or second mortgages.

 

Matrubials Inc.: Another startup in the health tech space, Matrubials is creating milk-derived therapeutics to target bacterial infections. It’s starting with a product that targets recurrent bacterial vaginosis with an antimicrobial peptide that attacks the bad bacteria, but not the healthy biome it is attacking. The company plans to target other infections in the future.

 

Encuadrado: Encuadrado is a payments and booking provider that helps entrepreneurs in the service industry in Latin America manage customer onboarding and logistics while minimizing unnecessary administrative work. 

 

Reframe: An app that aims to use psych concepts to help users drink less and provides them with a private/anonymous support community. Co-founder Vedant Pradeep says 80% of their users see a “significant reduction” in alcohol consumption within two months. 

 

Hypercore: Helps lenders automate workflows and access real-time analytics through software. The team estimates that more than 90% of private lenders use Excel or antiquated systems to manage processes, so Hypercore would be a welcome, albeit late, addition amid the broader landscape of digitization. The startup has $3,500 in monthly recurring revenue and launched officially during the accelerator. 

 

Safer Management: Safer Management helps public schools track attendance, an important metric for funding — and, of course, education. It’s a modern system of QR codes and facial recognition that reliably tracks who’s in class. They’re already in 75 schools and two colleges and pulling in $621,000 yearly.

 

Fluke: Google Fi is a MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator here in the United States. Fluke is building something similar, but for Brazil. The company says that Brazilian mobile carriers offer poor service, which they want to take on. The startup also won our heart for talking about its CAC and LTV results, both of which it claims are better than its in-market competition.

 

Pipekit: Pipekit is looking to help enterprise customers scale their data pipelines quickly, with a control panel for Argo workflows, allowing for speedy implementation. 

Zen: Webcam-based posture correction software that alerts the user when they’re slouching. Meant to be offered as a perk to employees to reduce a company’s workers’ comp costs.

 

Meticulous: A tool to catch bugs in web applications. The startup reduces the need for manual/integration testing, freeing up developer time to work on more complicated issues. The startup has two pilots and one secured deal for its software. 

 

Fingo Africa: Fingo Africa has a simple proposition: a pan-African neobank backed by the biggest traditional bank on the continent. It plans to cut fees from 10% of payments to 1% and make money anyway with volume. Sounds like it’s going to work to me.

 

SliceQ: Sure, some startups are building delivery robots and ordering systems that include new tech. But SliceQ wants to take a very old tech and refurbish it for the modern world. The service lets restaurants take orders over the phone using automation technology. The startup claims that its service helps its customers boost sales by 10%, and it helped process $200,000 in GMV last month. 

 

Carbonfact: The sustainability startup is creating a carbon footprint database for consumer products, helping certify companies that have low-carbon-output product offerings and providing a tool for comparing a company’s sustainability efforts to industry averages. In the past 10 weeks, the company has onboarded 20 brands to the platform.

 

Cloudthread: Analytics meant to help engineers build for the cloud more cost-efficiently, and incorporate cost into engineering decision-making.

 

Pabio: This startup wants to make furnishing your apartment a light lift, metaphorically speaking. For a monthly subscription, Pabio creates a 3D scan of your apartment, has it professionally furnished by an interior designer, and then offers rent-to-own furniture that matches your aesthetic. The service is currently available in Switzerland but is soon expanding to other countries. 

 

Plai: Plai is an ad tool for microbusinesses that lets people like Etsy sellers and YouTubers launch targeted ads from their phones in seconds. It’s a simple, low-risk way to get your brand out there, and with more people than ever working for themselves, that’s an attractive proposition.

 

ContraForce: ContraForce wants to bring security alerts and other related incidents into a single place. The company claims five customers and $75,000 in current ARR. Security breaches plague businesses of all sizes, with ContraForce pitching itself as more of a product for the SMB market. 

 

Inspector Cloud: Inspector Cloud is building computer vision software that helps consumer brands track how their products are being displayed at physical retailers. The analytics software help brands audit their network and analyze the effectiveness of stores selling their products.

Image Credits: Deed

Deed: A modern, super pretty take on the backend powering your employee’s charity/donation/volunteering system. Handles donation matching, volunteer hours, etc. Already working with companies like Airbnb, Stripe, Doordash and Adidas. We wrote about Deed here.

 

Genei: Too long, didn’t read? Good, meet Genei. This startup has created a way for content writers to get cliff notes on background reading to boost productivity, and speed up the time it takes to comprehend a complicated topic. Automatic summarization may be the use case that robots and writing can actually pull off, versus the controversial world of article generation. It’s starting by selling to freelance writers and has $9,000 in monthly recurring revenue. 

 

Orderli: It’s Square, but for Europe! Easy to explain, probably super hard to build. Orderli works as a point-of-sale system and is already in 57 bars and pubs and pulling in over $600,000 in receipts.

 

Portão 3: The market for products to make corporate travel and expenses is never-ending, as most existing products are awful. Portão 3 (Gate 3) wants to make better travel and expense software for the Latin American market. The company is notable in that expense management and travel management are sometimes distinct products. Brex is not Travelocity, for example. But by bringing both together the company could offer a more cohesive solution than other products.

 

Pactima: Pactima is building an e-signature platform that reaches the use cases that DocuSign can’t, letting users tap real-time video-signing when a witness is required as well as in-person digital signing.

 

Shopscribe: Subscriptions for local shops! Think coffee shops pre-selling a weekly coffee at a discount, or nail salons selling regular manicures. Shopscribe takes a 10% cut of each subscription.

 

Preki: A way to help LatAm businesses create cheap, easy-to-use websites. In July, Preki hit $4,000 in GMV, and its Shopify-competitive software currently services 208 merchants. 

 

Aleph Solutions: A tool for offline businesses to bring their services online. Aleph Solutions is building an online marketplace for resellers, which it monetizes through a SaaS and transaction fee whenever a sale occurs. It revealed 18% month-over-month growth, with $115,000 monthly recurring revenue. 

 

Datlo: Datlo is building a data analysis service for Latin American companies. It wants to help customers’ sales and marketing teams import large datasets, sort them and visualize the results. So far it has landed two large Brazilian banks as customers and reached $20,000 MRR. Our question is how the product is tuned for the Latin American market as opposed to the larger world. Regardless, it sounds cool.

 

TrackChain: TrackChain is an online freight marketplace for Latin America that’s looking to streamline logistics for shippers and carriers moving freight through the region. The company currently has 600 carrier companies onboard.

 

Chari: Next-day item procurement for small retailers in North Africa. The company says it’s seeing a monthly GMV of $1.4 million after launching 18 months ago.

 

Palenca: Palenca lets employers in LatAm share and check employment records, do background checks and identity verification, then offer financial services based on that data. You know they’re going to be a success because, as the founder noted, they’re literally the only option for this! Hopefully this kind of accountability benefits the workers as well as the employers.

 

Flow Club: A virtual coworking space modeled on group fitness classes and social clubs intended to motivate people to work in sprints. Join for a few hours when you need that push to stop procrastinating — and who doesn’t every once in a while in this day and age?

 

Onfolk: The success of Gusto in the United States in terms of both securing capital and customers is drawing startups into creating similar companies targeted for their home markets. Onfolk is building a Gusto-like service for Europe. Given the number of companies in the larger EU, it won’t lack for TAM. And since it intends to monetize through B2B SaaS, investors shouldn’t struggle to understand how it intends to scale.

 

Pide Directo: The startup is building a white-labeled solution for local businesses in Latin America to sell and deliver to their customers, teaming an online storefront, marketing service and delivery network.

 

Codex: Deeper collaboration for programmers, built especially for remote/async teams. Lets you, for example, highlight code in your editor, determine who wrote it and request information without switching screens.

Tablevibe: Customer loyalty is an important objective for restaurants, so Tablevibe wants to find ways to better track and engage folks while they’re chowing down. The startup helps capture feedback through QR-code-based surveys, exchanging loyalty incentives for insights. So far, the early-stage startup has landed 100 paying customers, tracked 25,000 experiences and positioned itself ahead of the industry’s digitization beyond Toast. 

 

Lernit: Lernit is a corporate learning platform aimed at the LatAm market. Companies can train their employees and track their performance gains, simply and with plenty of built-in features.

 

Café: The remote work boom is now so entrenched that startups are being built to make remote work better. Cafe is one of them. The company wants to help remote and hybrid workers figure out where to work from each day. Apparently the answer is not, well, in your home office. The company has $8,000 in MRR and sees a future where offices are optional and not mandatory.

 

Búho Contable: The startup is building a TurboTax for Mexico, building out a tech-enabled tax filing and accounting firm geared toward helping small businesses in the country navigate the process.

 

Payflow: A mobile app that allows employees in Spain and Latin America to “get paid whenever they want,” rather than waiting for their paycheck to come in monthly bursts. Free for employees, it’s sold to companies as a perk. The company says there are currently 40,000 employees on the platform.

 

Argus: An compliance tool for employees with investment restrictions. Personal trading can be complicated for employees at banks, law firms and crypto exchanges due to potential conflicts of interests and various other restrictions. Eventually, Argus wants to become an investment adviser for these employees — right now, it’s just starting by helping them not screw up. 

 

Cabal: Cabal is a private workspace for founders, investors and advisers to update one another and organize things like equity distributions. Sure, you could do it in Slack or something, but this one is built with the startup and stakeholder crew in mind. Plus it’s cool to be able to say “join our Cabal.”

 

Hedgehog: Back to the robo-adviser theme, Hedgehog is an SEC-approved service that helps consumers buy crypto products. It claims to offer trades at the best possible price, and $70 million in AUM. Personalized crypto advice is a neat idea, given that mostly what we’re told on Twitter is either “hodl” or “go fuck yourself.” If Hedgehog can scale its AUM, Coinbase might swoop in with its checkbook.

 

Examedi: Examedi is a home healthcare marketplace for Latin America helping consumers match with healthcare providers and take at-home medical exams on their own schedule. The company grew 160% in August.

 

Potion: AI to help R&D teams (starting with beauty companies) formulate their products, replacing processes that generally require lengthy trial-and-error with simulation. 

 

Trii: Launched six months ago, Trii is a U.S. and local stock investment platform for retail investors in LatAm. Across its 30,000 users, the startup has processed more than $60,000 in transactions and has $10 million in assets under management. Trii looks to circumvent local brokers, who have high fees and required minimums, with $2 per trade fee and no required minimum.  

 

Synder: E-commerce companies need to do accounting too, but as we’ve seen suggested by other companies, it’s not particularly easy or simple. Synder aims to automate as much as possible, looping in all the major sales platforms and doing the bean-counting magic every company needs to do to make sure they’re actually making money. With 3,900 customers already, it seems plenty of folks were waiting for something like this.

 

OneSchema: CSV imports can be a bit of a mess, and cleaning up data is a huge pain in the backside. OneSchema wants to hammer on both issues at the same time with a spreadsheet UI that can correct CSV data, in theory allowing customers to upload data with fewer errors. Excel holds up much of the modern world, and lots of folks stuck making Microsoft’s spreadsheet tool work for their needs could use some help. Let’s see if OneSchema can help.

Onebrief: Talk about purpose built. Onebrief is a tool built to help military headquarters with their joint planning needs, while keeping things presentation-ready in order to boot out PowerPoint. The company says it recently signed a $350,000 deal with a four-star military HQ.

 

CostCertified: CostCertified is building a marketplace for players in the residential construction world, allowing suppliers, contractors and consumers to connect inside a single platform, ensuring that estimates stay accurate and minimizing surprises.

 

Legion Health: Helps psychiatrists and therapists sell their time to telehealth companies by the hour. 

 

Ahazou: A SaaS-platform for local businesses in LatAm bring businesses online through services such as payment processing, digital marketing and reviews. It is the latest startup aimed at helping local shops, from nail salons to painters, prepare for a post-COVID landscape. Over 16,000 companies pay for Ahazou’s software, resulting in $1.2 million in annual recurring revenue. Still, it’s just a drop in the bucket for what the team estimates will be a $4 billion market of local business in LatAm. 

 

Dots: If you’re a seller or service provider, the platform you sell on may very well not want to pay you in the way you want to be paid, whether that’s old-school ACH or instant transfer via Venmo or CashApp. Dots provides a single API to marketplaces that lets them pay out via any of those methods and more, simplifying the finances of everyone involved.

 

PaletteHQ: If you haven’t worked in a sales team, you might not be aware of how the commission process works. It varies company to company, and can change based on evolving corporate goals and product releases. So managing a commission setup that sales folks can understand — and therefore find motivating — is complex. Palette wants to shake up the issue with software and has reached $10,000 in MRR thus far. Twist: Sales people selling sales-focused software to sales team leaders? Surely that’s an advantageous market perch.

 

Inai: A no-code platform for handling payments globally. It hooks into your payment providers (like Stripe, Paypal), fraud tools (like Sift) and tax tools and wraps them all up in a easy to configure dashboard.

 

Artillery: Pitched as a “modern load testing” platform, Artillery hammers your product with traffic (millions of requests per second originating across 13+ different regions) so there are no surprises later.

 

Breadcrumbs.io: Analyzes customer and prospect data to help companies identify hidden revenue opportunities. The no-code scoring engine has attracted $185,000 in annual recurring revenue to help startups make sure they don’t leave any lucrative breadcrumbs behind. Non-obvious revenue may just pique investor interest, especially when it comes to serving their portfolio companies.

 

Protex AI: Protex AI is a computer vision company that identifies dangers in industrial workplaces before they become a problem. Maybe that’s workers too close to dangerous processes, or a machine starting to fail or something catastrophic — catching them even a second or two earlier might avoid disaster. Their first install caught 60% more safety violations than human monitoring, an increase that might alone justify the company’s $25,000 per site fee.

 

ContainIQ: An easy to install platform for monitoring Kubernetes events and metrics over time, with hooks like Slack support for alerting your team when things break.

 

Epsilon3, Inc.: Built by a team with hundreds of rocket launches under their belt, Epsilon3 is an “operating system” for spacecraft launches (and other complex operations) — effectively taking the ridiculously complicated but too often still paper-based procedures/workflows and making them digital.

 

Hotglue: A developer tool designed to help create native SaaS integrations with data sources in minutes, aiming to help users sidestep jumping through development and maintenance hoops.

Tribe and Arkam back Jar app to help millions in India start their savings journey

Even as hundreds of millions of people in India have a bank account, only a tiny fraction of this population invests in any financial instrument.

Fewer than 30 million people invest in mutual funds or stocks, for instance. In recent years, a handful of startups have made it easier for users — especially the millennials — to invest, but the figure has largely remained stagnant.

Now, an Indian startup believes that it has found the solution to tackle this challenge — and is already seeing good early traction.

Nishchay AG, former director of mobility startup Bounce, and Misbah Ashraf, co-founder of MarsPlay (sold to Foxy), founded Jar earlier this year.

The startup’s eponymous six-month-old Android app enables users to start their savings journey for as little as 1 Indian rupee.

Users on Jar can invest in multiple ways and get started within seconds. The app works with Paytm (PhonePe support is in the works) to set up a recurring payment. (The startup is the first to use UPI 2.0’s recurring payment support.) They can set up any amount between 1 Indian rupee to 500 for daily investments.

The Jar app can also glean users’ text messages and save a tiny amount based on each monetary transaction they do. So, for instance, if a user has spent 31 rupees in a transaction, the Jar app rounds that up to the nearest tenth figure (40, in this case) and saves nine rupees. Users can also manually open the app and spend any amount they wish to invest.

Once users have saved some money in Jar, the app then invests that into digital gold.

The startup is using gold investment because people in the South Asian market already have an immense trust in this asset class.

India has a unique fascination for gold. From rural farmers to urban working class, nearly everyone stashes the yellow metal and flaunts jewelry at weddings.

Indian households are estimated to have a stash of over 25,000 tons of the precious metal whose value today is about half of the country’s nominal GDP. Such is the demand for gold in India that the South Asian nation is also one of the world’s largest importers of this precious metal.

Jar’s Android app (Image Credits: Jar)

“When you’re thinking about bringing the next 500 million people to institutional savings and investments, the onus is on us to educate them on the efficacies of the other instruments that are in the market,” said Nishchay.

“We want to give them the instrument they trust the most, which is gold,” he said. The startup plans to eventually offer several more investment opportunities, he said.

The founders met several years ago when they were exploring if MarsPlay and Bounce could have any synergies. They stayed in touch and, last year during one of their many conversations, realized that neither of them knew much about investments.

“That’s when the dots started to connect,” said Ashraf, drawing stories from his childhood. “I come from a small town in Bihar called Bihar Sharif. During my childhood days, I saw my family deeply troubled with debt because of poor financial decisions and no savings,” he said.

“We both understand what a typical middle class family goes through. Someone who comes from this background never had any means in the past but their aspirations are never-ending. So when you start earning, you immediately start to spend it all,” said Nishchay.

“The market needs products that will help them get started,” he said.

That idea, which is similar to Acorn and Stash’s play in the U.S. market, is beginning to make inroads. The app has already amassed about half a million downloads, the founders said. Investors have taken notice, too.

On Wednesday, Jar announced it has raised $4.5 million from a clutch of high-profile investors, including Arkam Ventures, Tribe Capital, WEH Ventures, and angels including Kunal Shah (founder of CRED), Shaan Puri (formerly with Twitch), Ali Moiz (founder of Stonks), Howard Lindzon (founder of Social Leverage), Vivekananda Hallekere (co-founder of Bounce), Alvin Tse (of Xiaomi) and Kunal Khattar (managing partner at AdvantEdge).

“Over 400 million Indians are about to embrace digital financial services for the first time in their lives. Jar has built an app that is poised to help them — with several intuitive ways including gamification — start their investment journey. We love the speed at which the team has been executing and how fast they are growing each week,” said Arjun Sethi, co-founder of Tribe Capital, in a statement.

Transactions and AUM on the Jar app are surging 350% each month, said Nishchay. The startup plans to broaden its product offerings in the coming days, he said.

Compound Foods brews up $4.5M to make coffee without beans

Maricel Saenz, founder and CEO of Compound Foods, is among the over 80% of Americans who love a cup of coffee daily. And she also loves the environment.

However, when the Costa Rican-born entrepreneur, now living in the Bay Area, saw how climate change was affecting coffee growers around the world — coffee is the fifth-most polluting crop in the value chain — she wanted to create a coffee product that tasted good, but was also sustainable.

“Temperatures are rising and combined with erratic rains are leading to lower crop yield,” Saenz told TechCrunch. “The same crop can’t grow in the same place anymore, or it will be a lower quality product. Farmers in Costa Rica are having to sell their land or go higher up the mountain. Experts predict that 50% of farmland will be unsuitable in the next couple of decades.”

Founded in 2020, Compound Foods uses synthetic biology to create coffee without coffee beans by extracting molecules. Saenz said the company spent a lot of time examining what makes coffee, well coffee, and then trying to correlate flavors and aromas in certain ways.

And yes, the company can still call it “coffee” even if it doesn’t contain coffee beans because there is no official regulatory definition, she said.

They use food science to recreate a base formula using sustainable ingredients that also don’t use a lot of water — she said it takes 140 liters of water along the coffee growth chain to make one cup of coffee. The company is also working toward a goal of being able to recreate coffee inspired by flavors that you would get from different areas of the world, like Costa Rica, but also the chocolate notes from a cup of Brazilian coffee.

Compound Foods announced $4.5 million in seed funding to give it total funding of $5.3 million to date. Backers of the company include Chris Sacca’s climate fund Lowercarbon Capital, SVLC, Humboldt Fund, Collaborative Fund, Maple VC, Petri Bio and angel investors like Nick Green, CEO of Thrive Market.

Saenz intends to use the new funding to improve the formulation and scale up the brand as the company works toward a soft launch by the end of the year.

There are a few competitors in the space doing different technology, including Seattle-based Atomo, which said it makes its coffee from “other fruits and plants that had seeds similar to coffee beans.”

Compound Foods is hiring coffee lovers to help build out its technology and to expand its marketing, product and business teams.

Saenz is clear that the company is not competing with coffee.

“We love coffee and know the farmers, and we are providing an alternative solution,” she added. “We want to recreate it, and even drink it on Mars one day, and we want to bring the coffee farmers and the industry with us on the journey.”

 

Yandex buys out Uber’s stake in Yandex Self-Driving Group, Eats, Lavka and Delivery for $1B

Russian internet and ride-hail giant Yandex has acquired Uber’s stake in its Self-Driving Group (SDG), as well as Uber’s indirect interest in Yandex.Eats, Yandex.Lavka and Yandex.Delivery. The total cost of the deal came to $1 billion, giving the Russian company 100% ownership over all four businesses.

Yandex SDG is an autonomous technology spinout from MLU B.V., the ride-hailing and food delivery joint venture Yandex formed with Uber in 2018 by merging Yandex.Taxi and Uber’s Russian operations. At the time, Uber had a 36.6% stake in the new company. Last year, when SDG was spun out into a separate business, Uber was left with an 18.2% stake in the company, which has just been bought out by Yandex. Yandex also purchased Uber’s 33.5% collective interest in Yandex’s food delivery service, last-mile logistics service and 15-minute convenience store delivery service.

Back in 2019, Yandex and Uber were reportedly considering an IPO for their JV, which Morgan Stanley estimated to be valued at around $7.7 billion. Yandex says autonomous driving technology is “highly synergistic to the Yandex ecosystem, which includes ride-hailing, e-commerce and food-tech businesses.” It makes sense that the company would want to control all of that potential growth. Uber, which reported a Q2 loss of $509 million before EBITDA this year, might be looking to make a lucrative exit and refocus its priorities closer to home. 

“This acquisition will enable Yandex to further increase its capacity for strategic management and flexibility when it comes to self-driving technology,” a Yandex spokesperson told TechCrunch. “It will unlock further growth potential for both Yandex and Yandex SDG, creating new sources of value for shareholders.”

The acquisitions are part of a larger restructuring of the MLU B.V. and Yandex SDG joint ventures, according to Uber’s SEC filing on Monday. They will happen in two stages. Stage 1, which is expected to close by the end of Q3 this year, will give Yandex a 4.5% interest in the newly restructured MLU, which will focus on mobility businesses like ride-hailing and car-sharing. This gives Yandex a total of 71% ownership in the JV, 2.8% of which is reserved for an employee equity incentive program. Uber’s total 18.2% stake in SDG is also expected to be sold during the first stage.

Stage 2, which is expected to close by the end of this year, includes the demerger of Yandex.Eats, Yandex.Lavka and Yandex.Delivery from MLU and subsequent acquisition of Uber’s interest in these businesses.

Yandex will also receive a two-year American call option to acquire the rest of Uber’s interest in MLU at a more or less fixed price of $1.8 billion, depending on agreed increases over the option period. This number will increase to $2 billion if exercised in 2023. The Russian company will also continue to use the Uber brand exclusively in Russia and other countries until August 2030.

Yandex will also get an extension of the current license for the exclusive right to use the Uber brand in Russia and certain other countries until August 2030, assuming the exercise of the option. Yandex’s stock was up 5.16% on Tuesday at market close.

Cheeterz Club wants to make reading glasses hip

Can reading glasses actually be cool? A new eyewear company called Cheeterz Club thinks so. The startup is working to change the perception of reading glasses from being just cheap, disposable items you pick up from a rotating display rack at your local drug store to being something you’d actually be proud to wear. To do so, the company is designing its glasses with quality lenses and frames in range of styles, while still keeping the pricing affordable.

The startup — whose name is a reference to the slang term for glasses, “cheaters,” — was founded by Jennifer Farrelly, whose background includes work in advertising and sales at companies like Uber and Virool.

She said the idea to make a better set of readers came to her because she found herself frustrated by the current options on the market.

“It all started a few years ago. My friends were posting on social media these really depressing comments and posts like: ‘I’m old and turning into my parents, this is awful.’ And I [thought to myself] why does it have to be like that? I feel just as young today as I did ten years ago,” Farrelly explains. “Why are my friends and I feeling forced to feel old because of something that happens overnight?,” she says, of what felt like the sudden onset of middle age and the hardships it brings.

What’s worse, Farrelly says, is that when you finally make your way to the drugstore to pick out some reading glasses, all you’ll find are bad, plastic pairs that both look and feel cheap.

“That’s even more demoralizing,” she adds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So Farrelly teamed up with a former Warby Parker and Pair Eyewear Head of Product, Lee Zaro, to design a new line of more fashion-forward eyewear.

Zaro, who’s based in the L.A. area, immediately saw the opportunity.

“Drugstore reading glasses are typically poor in quality, and can feel like they are designed with our parents in mind, leaving a huge unmet need for sophisticated eyewear options,” he said. “When Jennifer approached me to help design her first line of eyewear, I knew it was a brilliant idea.”

To differentiate itself from lower-end readers, Cheeterz Club glasses are made with 100% acetate and feature spring hinges and stainless steel. The lenses, meanwhile, offer more clarity than is often found in reading glasses.

Image Credits: Cheeterz Club

Typically, ophthalmic plastic lens materials have an Abbe value — a measure of the degree at which light is dispersed or separated — between 30 and 58. The higher number offers better optical performance. Crown glass can have an Abbe value as high as 59, but polycarbonate readers (like those from Warby Parker, Farrelly notes) would have an Abbe value of 30. Cheeterz Club lenses, which are CR-39 lenses, are at at 58. This is a difference you can tell when trying the glasses on alongside your drugstore readers.

Cheeterz’ lenses also offer 100% UVA/UVB protection, and are oil and water repellent. They can optionally be bought in one of eight fashion tints, from pink to blue, or in two sun shades. Consumers can also opt to add Blue Light coating to help with screen-induced eye fatigue or they can choose Progressive lenses, which combine distance vision with a reading lens.

Tints are an extra $10, Blue Light protection is $25, and Progressive lenses are $40.99 — lower than market rates.

At launch, Cheeterz Club offers 14 different styles ranging from traditional to the more modern, starting at $28.99.

Farrelly says finding the right price was key, because unlike regular glasses, consumers often buy multiple pairs of readers to leave around the house or car, pack in purses and bags, and so on.

“If I break something that costs me a couple $100, I’d be really upset about it,” she says. “But at a drugstore price of under $30, I can have them in all sorts of colors and different tints.”

For Farrelly, making the startup a success goes beyond brining higher-quality reading glasses to market. It’s also about serving a demographic that often gets overlooked.

“Founders in their forties do not get representation, and it’s unfortunate. And there are also people in their forties and fifties that have disposable income and are looking for cute things. They’re spending so much money on facial creams and Botox,” she says, “but then you’re forced to put this really ugly pair of glasses on your face that make you feel bad about yourself.”

While Cheeterz Club today is selling direct to the consumer, the company is talking to eye doctors, boutiques and others who may eventually resell for them, as more of a B2B model. It’s also testing selling on Amazon with one pair of Blue Light glasses.

Cheeterz Club plans to start discussing fundraising with seed investors later this fall.

Extra Crunch roundup: Toast and Freshworks S-1s, pre-pitch tips, flexible funding lessons

The digital transformation currently sweeping society has likely reached your favorite local restaurant.

Since 2013, Boston-based Toast has offered bars and eateries a software platform that lets them manage orders, payments and deliveries.

Over the last year, its customers have processed more than $38 billion in gross payment volume, so Alex Wilhelm analyzed the company’s S-1 for The Exchange with great interest.

“Toast was last valued at just under $5 billion when it last raised, per Crunchbase data,” he writes. “And folks are saying that it could be worth $20 billion in its debut. Does that square with the numbers?”


Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members.
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.


Airbnb, DoorDash and Coinbase each debuted at past Y Combinator Demo Days; as of this writing, they employ a combined 10,000 people.

Today and tomorrow, TechCrunch reporters will cover the proceedings at YC’s Summer 20201 Demo Day. In addition to writing up founder pitches, they’ll also rank their favorites.

Even remotely, I can feel a palpable sense of excitement radiating from our team — anything can happen at YC Demo Day, so sign up for Extra Crunch to follow the action.

Thanks very much for reading; I hope you have an excellent week.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

How Amazon EC2 grew from a notion into a foundational element of cloud computing

Image Credits: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

In August 2006, AWS activated its EC2 cloud-based virtual computer, a milestone in the cloud infrastructure giant’s development.

“You really can’t overstate what Amazon was able to accomplish,” writes enterprise reporter Ron Miller.

In the 15 years since, EC2 has enabled clients of any size to test and run their own applications on AWS’ virtual machines.

To learn more about a fundamental technological shift that “would help fuel a whole generation of startups,” Ron interviewed EC2 VP Dave Brown, who built and led the Amazon EC2 Frontend team.

3 ways to become a better manager in the work-from-home era

Image of a manager talking to his team via a video conference.

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

Most managers agree that OKRs foster transparency and accountability, but running a team effectively has different challenges when workers are attending all-hands meetings from their kitchen tables.

Instead of just discussing key metrics before board meetings or performance reviews, make them part of the day-to-day culture, recommends Jeremy Epstein, Gtmhub’s CMO.

“Strengthen your team by creating authentic workplace transparency using numbers as a universal language and providing meaning behind your team’s work.”

The pre-pitch: 7 ways to build relationships with VCs

A person attracts people to his side with a magnet.

Image Credits: Getty Images under an Andrii Yalanskyi (opens in a new window) license

Many founders must overcome a few emotional hurdles before they’re comfortable pitching a potential investor face-to-face.

To alleviate that pressure, Unicorn Capital founder Evan Fisher recommends that entrepreneurs use pre-pitch meetings to build and strengthen relationships before asking for a check:

“This is the ‘we actually aren’t looking for money; we just want to be friends for now’ pitch that gets you on an investor’s radar so that when it’s time to raise your next round, they’ll be far more likely to answer the phone because they actually know who you are.”

Pre-pitches are good for more than curing the jitters: These conversations help founders get a better sense of how VCs think and sometimes lead to serendipitous outcomes.

“Investors are opportunists by necessity,” says Fisher, “so if they like the cut of your business’s jib, you never know — the FOMO might start kicking hard.”

Lessons from COVID: Flexible funding is a must for alternative lenders

Flexible Multi Colored Coil Crossing Hexagon Frame on White Background.

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

FischerJordan’s Deeba Goyal and Archita Bhandari break down the pandemic’s impact on alternative lenders, specifically what they had to do to survive the crisis, taking a look at smaller lenders including Credibly, Kabbage, Kapitus and BlueVine.

“Only those who were able to find a way through the complexities of their existing capital sources were able to maintain their performance, and the rest were left to perish or find new funding avenues,” they write.

Inside Freshworks’ IPO filing

Customer engagement software company Freshworks’ S-1 filing depicts a company that’s experiencing accelerating revenue growth, “a great sign for the health of its business,” reports Alex Wilhelm in this morning’s The Exchange.

“Most companies see their growth rates decline as they scale, as larger denominators make growth in percentage terms more difficult.”

Studying the company’s SEC filing, he found that “Freshworks isn’t a company where we need to cut it lots of slack, as we might with an adjusted EBITDA number. It is going public ready for Big Kid metrics.”

6 tips for establishing your startup’s global supply chain

Startups are hard work, but the complexities of global supply chains can make running hardware companies especially difficult. Instead of existing within a codebase behind a screen, the key components of your hardware product can be scattered around the world, subject to the volatility of the global economy.

I’ve spent most of my career establishing global supply chains, setting up manufacturing lines for 3D printers, electric bicycles and home fitness equipment on the ground in Mexico, Hungary, Taiwan and China. I’ve learned the hard way that Murphy’s law is a constant companion in the hardware business.

But after more than a decade of work on three different continents, there are a few lessons I’ve learned that will help you avoid unnecessary mistakes.

Expect cost fluctuations, especially in currency and shipping

Shipping physical products is quite different from “shipping” code — you have to pay a considerable amount of money to transport products around the world. Of course, shipping costs become a line item like any other as they get baked into the overall business plan. The issue is that those costs can change monthly — sometimes drastically.

At this time last year, a shipping container from China cost $3,300. Today, it’s almost $18,000 — a more than fivefold increase in 12 months. It’s safe to assume that most 2020 business plans did not account for such a cost increase for a key line item.

Shipping a buggy hardware product can be exponentially costlier than shipping buggy software. Recalls, angry customers, return shipping and other issues can become existential problems.

Similar issues also arise with currency exchange rates. Contract manufacturers often allow you to maintain cost agreements for any fluctuations below 5%, but the dollar has dropped much more than 5% against the yuan compared to a year ago, and hardware companies have been forced to renegotiate their manufacturing contracts.

As exchange rates become less favorable and shipping costs increase, you have two options: Operate with lower margins, or pass along the cost to the end customer. Neither choice is ideal, but both are better than going bankrupt.

The takeaway is that when you set up your business, you need to prepare for these possibilities. That means operating with enough margin to handle increased costs, or with the confidence that your end customer will be able to handle a higher price.

Overorder critical parts

Over the past year, many businesses have lost billions of dollars in market value because they didn’t order enough semiconductors. As the owner of a hardware company, you will encounter similar risks.

The supply for certain components, like computer chips, can be limited, and shortages can arise quickly if demand increases or supply chains get disrupted. It’s your job to analyze potential choke points in your supply chain and create redundancies around them.

Tiger Global in talks to make Apna India’s fastest unicorn

Apna, a 21-month-old startup that is helping millions of blue and gray-collar workers in India upskill themselves, find communities and land jobs, is inching closer to becoming the fastest tech firm in the world’s second largest internet market to become a unicorn.

Tiger Global is in advanced stages of talks to lead a $100 million round in Apna, according to four sources familiar with the matter. The proposed terms value the startup at over $1 billion, the sources said.

The round hasn’t closed yet so terms of the deal may change, some of the sources cautioned.

If the round materializes, Apna will become the youngest Indian startup to attain the much coveted unicorn status. The startup, which launched its app in December 2019, was valued at $570 million in its Series B financing round in June this year. It will also be the third financing round Apna would have secured in a span of less than seven months.

Tiger Global, an existing investor in Apna, didn’t respond to a request for comment earlier this month. Apna founder and chief executive Nirmit Parikh, an Apple alum, declined to comment on Tuesday.

Indian cities are home to hundreds of millions of low-skilled workers who hail from villages in search of work. Many of them have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic that has slowed several economic activities in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Apna, whose name is inspired from a 2019 Bollywood song, is building a scalable networking infrastructure so that these workers can connect to the right employers and secure jobs. On its eponymous Android app, users also upskill themselves, review their interview skills, and become eligible for more jobs.

As of June this year, Apna had amassed over 10 million users and was facilitating more than 15 million job interviews each month. All jobs listed on the Apna platform are verified by the startup and free of cost for the candidates.

The startup has also partnered with some of India’s leading public and private organizations and is providing support to the Ministry of Minority Affairs of India, National Skill Development Corporation and UNICEF YuWaah to provide better skilling and job opportunities to candidates.

The investment talks further illustrate Tiger Global’s growing interest in India. The New York-headquartered firm has made several high-profile investments in India this year including in BharatPe, Gupshup, DealShare, Classplus, Urban Company, Coinswitch Kuber, and Groww.

More than two dozen Indian startups have become a unicorn this year, up from 11 last year, as several high-profile investors including Tiger Global, SoftBank, and Falcon Edge have increased the pace of their investments in the world’s second most populous nation.

Apna also counts Insight Partners, Lightspeed, and Sequoia Capital among its existing investors.

UK-based Heroes raises $200M to buy up more Amazon merchants for its roll-up play

Heroes, one of the new wave of startups aiming to build big e-commerce businesses by buying up smaller third-party merchants on Amazon’s Marketplace, has raised another big round of funding to double down on that strategy. The London startup has picked up $200 million, money that it will mainly be using to snap up more merchants. Existing brands in its portfolio cover categories like baby, pets, sports, personal health and home and garden categories — some of them, like PremiumCare dog chews, the Onco baby car mirror, gardening tool brand Davaon and wooden foot massager roller Theraflow, category best-sellers — and the plan is to continue building up all of these verticals.

Crayhill Capital Management, a fund based out of New York, is providing the funding, and Riccardo Bruni — who co-founded the company with twin brother Alessio and third brother Giancarlo — said that the bulk of it will be going towards making acquisitions, and is therefore coming in the form of debt.

Raising debt rather than equity at this point is pretty standard for companies like Heroes. Heroes itself is pretty young: it launched less than a year ago, in November 2020, with $65 million in funding, a round comprised of both equity and debt. Other investors in the startup include 360 Capital, Fuel Ventures and Upper 90.

Heroes is playing in what is rapidly becoming a very crowded field. Not only are there are tens of thousands of businesses leveraging Amazon’s extensive fulfillment network to sell goods on the e-commerce giant’s Marketplace; but some days it seems we are also rapidly approaching a state of nearly as many startups launching to consolidate these third-party sellers.

Many a roll-up play follows a similar playbook, which goes like this: Amazon provides the Marketplace to sell goods to consumers, and the infrastructure to fulfill those orders, by way of Fulfillment By Amazon and its Prime service. Meanwhile, the roll-up business — in this case Heroes — buys up a number of the stronger companies leveraging FBA and the Marketplace. Then, by consolidating them into a single tech platform that they have built, Heroes creates better economies of scale around better and more efficient supply chains, sharper machine learning and marketing and data analytics technology, and new growth strategies. 

What is notable about Heroes, though — apart from the fact that it’s the first roll-up player to come out of the UK, and continues to be one of the bigger players in Europe — is that it doesn’t believe that the technology plays as important a role as having a solid relationship with the companies it’s targeting, key given that now the top Marketplace sellers are likely being feted by a number of companies as acquisition targets.

“The tech is very important,” said Alessio in an interview. “It helps us build robust processes that tie all the systems together across multiple brands and marketplaces. But what we have is very different from a SaaS business. We are not building an app, and tech is not the core of what we do. From the acquisitions side, we believe that human interactions ultimately win. We don’t think tech can replace a strong acquisition process.”

Image Credits: Heroes

Heroes’ three founder-brothers (two of them, Riccardo and Alessio, pictured above) have worked across a number of investment, finance and operational roles (the CVs include Merrill Lynch, EQT Ventures, Perella Weinberg Partners, Lazada, Nomura and Liberty Global) and they say there have been strong signs so far of its strategy working: of the brands that it has acquired since launching in November, they claim business (sales) has grown five-fold.

Collectively, the roll-up startups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to fuel these efforts. Other recent hopefuls that have announced funding this year include Suma Brands ($150 million); Elevate Brands ($250 million); Perch ($775 million); factory14 ($200 million); Thrasio (currently probably the biggest of them all in terms of reach and money raised and ambitions), HeydayThe Razor GroupBrandedSellerXBerlin Brands Group (X2), Benitago, Latin America’s Valoreo and Rainforest and Una Brands out of Asia. 

The picture that is emerging across many of these operations is that many of these companies, Heroes included, do not try to make their particular approaches particularly more distinctive than those of their competitors, simply because — with nearly 10 million third-party sellers today on Amazon globally — the opportunity is likely big enough for all of them, and more, not least because of current market dynamics.

“It’s no secret that we were inspired by Thrasio and others,” Riccardo said. “Combined with Covid-19, there has been a massive acceleration of e-commerce across the continent.” It was that, plus the realization that the three brothers had the right e-commerce, fundraising and investment skills between them, that made them see what was a “perfect storm” to tackle the opportunity, he continued. “So that is why we jumped into it.”

In the case of Heroes, while the majority of the funding will be used for acquisitions, it’s also planning to double headcount from its current 70 employees before the end of this year with a focus on operational experts to help run their acquired businesses. 

Extra Crunch roundup: Toast and Freshbook S-1s, pre-pitch tips, flexible funding lessons

The digital transformation currently sweeping society has likely reached your favorite local restaurant.

Since 2013, Boston-based Toast has offered bars and eateries a software platform that lets them manage orders, payments and deliveries.

Over the last year, its customers have processed more than $38 billion in gross payment volume, so Alex Wilhelm analyzed the company’s S-1 for The Exchange with great interest.

“Toast was last valued at just under $5 billion when it last raised, per Crunchbase data,” he writes. “And folks are saying that it could be worth $20 billion in its debut. Does that square with the numbers?”


Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members.
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.


Airbnb, DoorDash and Coinbase each debuted at past Y Combinator Demo Days; as of this writing, they employ a combined 10,000 people.

Today and tomorrow, TechCrunch reporters will cover the proceedings at YC’s Summer 20201 Demo Day. In addition to writing up founder pitches, they’ll also rank their favorites.

Even remotely, I can feel a palpable sense of excitement radiating from our team — anything can happen at YC Demo Day, so sign up for Extra Crunch to follow the action.

Thanks very much for reading; I hope you have an excellent week.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

How Amazon EC2 grew from a notion into a foundational element of cloud computing

Image Credits: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

In August 2006, AWS activated its EC2 cloud-based virtual computer, a milestone in the cloud infrastructure giant’s development.

“You really can’t overstate what Amazon was able to accomplish,” writes enterprise reporter Ron Miller.

In the 15 years since, EC2 has enabled clients of any size to test and run their own applications on AWS’ virtual machines.

To learn more about a fundamental technological shift that “would help fuel a whole generation of startups,” Ron interviewed EC2 VP Dave Brown, who built and led the Amazon EC2 Frontend team.

3 ways to become a better manager in the work-from-home era

Image of a manager talking to his team via a video conference.

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

Most managers agree that OKRs foster transparency and accountability, but running a team effectively has different challenges when workers are attending all-hands meetings from their kitchen tables.

Instead of just discussing key metrics before board meetings or performance reviews, make them part of the day-to-day culture, recommends Jeremy Epstein, Gtmhub’s CMO.

“Strengthen your team by creating authentic workplace transparency using numbers as a universal language and providing meaning behind your team’s work.”

The pre-pitch: 7 ways to build relationships with VCs

A person attracts people to his side with a magnet.

Image Credits: Getty Images under an Andrii Yalanskyi (opens in a new window) license

Many founders must overcome a few emotional hurdles before they’re comfortable pitching a potential investor face-to-face.

To alleviate that pressure, Unicorn Capital founder Evan Fisher recommends that entrepreneurs use pre-pitch meetings to build and strengthen relationships before asking for a check:

“This is the ‘we actually aren’t looking for money; we just want to be friends for now’ pitch that gets you on an investor’s radar so that when it’s time to raise your next round, they’ll be far more likely to answer the phone because they actually know who you are.”

Pre-pitches are good for more than curing the jitters: These conversations help founders get a better sense of how VCs think and sometimes lead to serendipitous outcomes.

“Investors are opportunists by necessity,” says Fisher, “so if they like the cut of your business’s jib, you never know — the FOMO might start kicking hard.”

Lessons from COVID: Flexible funding is a must for alternative lenders

Flexible Multi Colored Coil Crossing Hexagon Frame on White Background.

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

FischerJordan’s Deeba Goyal and Archita Bhandari break down the pandemic’s impact on alternative lenders, specifically what they had to do to survive the crisis, taking a look at smaller lenders including Credibly, Kabbage, Kapitus and BlueVine.

“Only those who were able to find a way through the complexities of their existing capital sources were able to maintain their performance, and the rest were left to perish or find new funding avenues,” they write.

Inside Freshworks’ IPO filing

Customer engagement software company Freshworks’ S-1 filing depicts a company that’s experiencing accelerating revenue growth, “a great sign for the health of its business,” reports Alex Wilhelm in this morning’s The Exchange.

“Most companies see their growth rates decline as they scale, as larger denominators make growth in percentage terms more difficult.”

Studying the company’s SEC filing, he found that “Freshworks isn’t a company where we need to cut it lots of slack, as we might with an adjusted EBITDA number. It is going public ready for Big Kid metrics.”

TikTok’s new Creator Marketplace API lets influencer marketing companies tap into first-party data

TikTok is making it easier for brands and agencies to work with the influencers using its service. The company is rolling out a new “TikTok Creator Marketplace API,” which allows marketing companies to integrate more directly with TikTok’s Creator Marketplace, the video app’s in-house influencer marketing platform.

On the Creator Marketplace website, launched in late 2019, marketers have been able to discover top TikTok personalities for their brand campaigns, then create and manage those campaigns and track their performance.

The new API, meanwhile, allows partnered marketing companies to access TikTok’s first-party data about audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos, and real-time campaign reporting (e.g. views, likes, shares, comments, engagement, etc.) for the first time.

They can then bring this data back into their own platforms, to augment the insights they’re already providing to their own customer base.

TikTok is not officially announcing the API until later in September, but it is allowing its alpha partners to discuss their early work.

One such partner is Capitv8, which tested the API with a NRF top 50 retailer on one of their first TikTok campaigns. The retailer wanted to discover a diverse and inclusive group of TikTok creators to partner with on a new collaboration and wanted help with launching its own TikTok channel. Captiv8 says the branded content received nearly 10 million views, and the campaign resulted in a “significant increase” in several key metrics, which performed about the Nielsen average. This included familiarity (+4% above average), affinity (+6%), purchase intent (+7%) and recommendation intent (+9%).

Image Credits: TikTok Creator Marketplace website

Capitv8 is now working with TikTok’s API to pull in audience demographics, to centralize influencer offers and activations, and to provide tools to boost branded content and monitor campaign performance. On that last front, the API allows the company to pull in real-time metrics from the TikTok Creator Marketplace API — which means Capitv8 is now one of only a handful of third-party companies with access to TikTok first-party data.

Another early alpha partner is Influential, who shared it’s also leveraging the API to access first-party insights on audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos, and more, to help its customer base of Fortune 1000 brands to identify the right creators for both native and paid advertising campaigns.

One partner it worked with was DoorDash, who launched multiple campaigns on TikTok with Influential’s help. It’s also planning to work with McDonald’s USA on several new campaigns that will run this year, including those focused on the chain’s new Crispy Chicken Sandwich and the return of Spicy McNuggets.

Other early alpha partners include Whalar and INCA. The latter is currently only available in the U.K. and its integration stems from the larger TikTok global partnership with WPP, announced in February. That deal provided WPP agencies with early access to new advertising products marketing API integrations, and new AR offerings, among other things.

Creator marketplaces are now common to social media platforms with large influencer communities as this has become a standard way to advertise to online consumers, particular the younger generation. Facebook today offers its Brands Collabs Manager, for both Facebook and Instagram; YouTube has BrandConnect; while Snapchat recently announced a marketplace to connect brands with Lens creators. These type of in-house platforms make it easier for marketers to work with the wider influencer community by offering trusted data on metrics that matter to brands’ own ROI, rather than relying on self-reported data from influencers or on data they have to manually collect themselves. And as campaigns run, marketers can compare how well their partnered creators are able to drive results to inform their future collaborations.

TikTok isn’t making a formal announcement about its new API at this time, telling TechCrunch the technology is still in pilot testing phases for the time being.

“Creators are the lifeblood of our platform, and we’re constantly thinking of new ways to make it easy for them to connect and collaborate with brands. We’re thrilled to be integrating with an elite group of trusted partners to help brands discover and work with diverse creators who can share their message in an authentic way,” said Melissa Yang, TikTok’s Head of Ecosystem Partnerships, in a statement provided to select marketing company partners.

 

Fundraising for your startup? We’ve got you covered at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021

Fundraising is a huge part of building a successful startup, and whether you’re looking for information about the latest trends, alternative funding or how to fine-tune your pitch to attract investors, you’ll find that and a whole lot more at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 on September 21-23.

Disrupt always taps the top experts, visionaries, founders, investors and makers to share their insights, tips and actionable advice. This year is no different, and you can choose from more than 80 presentations, events and breakout sessions over the course of three full days.

Be disruptive: Buy your pass today for less than $100 and get ready to learn from and connect with a global startup community.

Money makes the world go around (just ask Liza Minelli), and we’re highlighting just a sampling of the fundraising-focused sessions to help you on your financial journey at Disrupt.

Ready to raise? Here’s just a sample of the fundraising knowledge you can get — you’ll find the specific days and times listed in the Disrupt 2021 agenda.

How to Raise Your First Dollars

Deciding how to go about getting your initial funding is always a tricky subject, as the wrong move could adversely impact your young company. In this session we’ll hear from Index Ventures’ Nina Achadjian, Sequoia Capital’s Luciana Lixandru and Canvas Ventures’ Rebecca Lynn — experts who’ve shepherded multiple companies from the earliest to the latest fundraises.

How to Ditch Traditional Fundraising

In 2021, venture capital has never been more plentiful, but some founders still can’t break into networks or have found that traditional fundraising isn’t the best route for their business. Fortunately, alternative fundraising techniques are gathering steam as founders find paths to raise cash that diverge from the startup success stories of the past. Join Pipe’s Harry Hurst, Accel’s Arun Mathew and Clearco’s Michele Romanow to learn more about alternative fundraising options.

You’ve Raised Your Seed Round — Now What? Preparing for Your Series A

You cleared the first hurdle: initial funding is in the bank. You’re hiring more talent, seeing the beginnings of a finished product with clear evidence of traction and experiencing the coveted growth that previously felt just out of reach. Before you know it, the decision to raise for what is arguably the most competitive round is staring you in the face. Join Samsung Next’s David Lee alongside founders Kadie Okwudili (Agapé), Andy Hoang (Aviron) and Jim Bugwadia (Nirmata) as they discuss the learnings and nuances of bridging seed to Series A. Presented by Samsung Next.

Where to Cut and Where to Spend in First-Check Fundraising

Every time a founder raises financing, they usually have one goal: growth. But what does that actually mean? And how do you begin divvying up your new capital between the various goals your startup is barreling toward? In this panel, which includes Harlem Capital’s Henri Pierre-Jacques, Equal Ventures’ Richard Kerby and BBG Ventures’ Nisha Dua, you will learn about how to spend your investment the best way, balancing runway with classic startup rigor.

How Circle’s $4.5B Public Listing Will Change Startup Fundraising

Circle acquired SeedInvest in 2019, as a further step toward realizing its vision of a more open, global, connected and inclusive financial system. Circle recently announced its plans to become a $4.5 billion public company with over $1 billion of fresh capital. In this session, Circle CEO and co-founder Jeremy Allaire and Ryan Feit, CEO and co-founder of SeedInvest, will break down the evolution of the two companies and how Circle and SeedInvest plan to double down on online fundraising to make it faster and easier for entrepreneurs. Presented by by SeedInvest.

Crafting a Pitch Deck that Can’t Be Ignored

Investors may be chasing after the hottest deals, but for founders selling their startup’s vision, it’s never been more important to communicate it in the clearest way possible. Our panelists of pitch deck experts — Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Mercedes Bent, Pear VC’s Mar Hershenson and Techstars’ Saba Karim — dig into what’s essential, what’s unnecessary and what could just make all the difference in your next deck.

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 takes place September 21-23. Buy your pass today and take advantage of these fundraising sessions and expert advice — so you can find the money to make your world go around.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Compounds Foods brews up $4.5M to make coffee without beans

Maricel Saenz, founder and CEO of Compound Foods, is among the over 80% of Americans who love a cup of coffee daily. And she also loves the environment.

However, when the Costa Rican-born entrepreneur, now living in the Bay Area, saw how climate change was affecting coffee growers around the world — coffee is the fifth-most polluting crop in the value chain — she wanted to create a coffee product that tasted good, but was also sustainable.

“Temperatures are rising and combined with erratic rains are leading to lower crop yield,” Saenz told TechCrunch. “The same crop can’t grow in the same place anymore, or it will be a lower quality product. Farmers in Costa Rica are having to sell their land or go higher up the mountain. Experts predict that 50% of farmland will be unsuitable in the next couple of decades.”

Founded in 2020, Compound Foods uses synthetic biology to create coffee without coffee beans by extracting molecules. Saenz said the company spent a lot of time examining what makes coffee, well coffee, and then trying to correlate flavors and aromas in certain ways.

And yes, the company can still call it “coffee” even if it doesn’t contain coffee beans because there is no official regulatory definition, she said.

They use food science to recreate a base formula using sustainable ingredients that also don’t use a lot of water — she said it takes 140 liters of water along the coffee growth chain to make one cup of coffee. The company is also working toward a goal of being able to recreate coffee inspired by flavors that you would get from different areas of the world, like Costa Rica, but also the chocolate notes from a cup of Brazilian coffee.

Compound Foods announced $4.5 million in seed funding to give it total funding of $5.3 million to date. Backers of the company include Chris Sacca’s climate fund Lowercarbon Capital, SVLC, Humboldt Fund, Collaborative Fund, Maple VC, Petri Bio and angel investors like Nick Green, CEO of Thrive Market.

Saenz intends to use the new funding to improve the formulation and scale up the brand as the company works toward a soft launch by the end of the year.

There are a few competitors in the space doing different technology, including Seattle-based Atomo, which said it makes its coffee from “other fruits and plants that had seeds similar to coffee beans.”

Compound Foods is hiring coffee lovers to help build out its technology and to expand its marketing, product and business teams.

Saenz is clear that the company is not competing with coffee.

“We love coffee and know the farmers, and we are providing an alternative solution,” she added. “We want to recreate it, and even drink it on Mars one day, and we want to bring the coffee farmers and the industry with us on the journey.”

 

Inside Freshworks’ IPO filing

Freshworks, a customer engagement software company with roots in both California in the United States and Tamil Nadu in India, is going public. Its S-1 filing paints the picture of a company scaling rapidly, with improving profitability as it matures. However, to understand the company’s numbers, we’ll have to peel away certain costs for a clear picture.

The Exchange spoke with Freshworks CEO Girish Mathrubootham a few weeks ago about his company, a conversation that in hindsight we timed rather well. We’ll lean on notes from the call as we parse Mathrubootham’s IPO filing.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

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Quite a lot of venture capital is riding on Freshworks’ IPO going well. The company raised hundreds of millions of dollars while private, per Crunchbase data, including a $150 million Series H in late 2019 that valued the company at around $3.5 billion. Its investor list includes Accel, Tiger, Sequoia and Capital G.

This morning, let’s dig into the company’s historical growth, track Freshworks’ changing profitability profile and check to see if its revenue quality is improving over time.

Quick notes on product

Before we dive into the numbers, let’s discuss Freshworks’ historical product work.

The company started life with a single piece of software called Freshdesk. Freshdesk was born after the company’s CEO struggled with poor customer service when trying to return a broken television.

Per Mathrubootham, he felt like there were more avenues than ever for customers to reach companies, and that the business market was evolving in a way that gave customers more clout in how brands were perceived. So, Freshdesk brought together a host of customer contact methods, including social media, which at the time was a more nascent market category.

Freshworks later noticed that some of its customers were using its customer service software to offer IT support to their own employees. From that observation, the company built Freshservice, a version of its original product, but tuned for internal use. The company later built out sales tools and, more recently, a unified database for customer data. The latter allows companies using Freshworks software to have a single record for each customer across marketing and sales interactions, which it intends to extend to support communications as well.

All that’s to say that Freshworks has a product that it can sell to small companies that may need a single piece of its larger product mix, and lots more software that it can upsell to those customers. And it has a product suite it can sell to larger companies as well.

So how has the company performed in the market? Let’s find out.

Flipboard rolls out newsfeed personalization tools to save you from doomscrolling

Facebook is preparing to adjust its News Feed to de-emphasize political posts and current events, but news reader Flipboard is instead rolling out an update that puts users in control of their own feeds. The company announced this morning the launch of a new controller on the cover of its own main newsfeed, aka the “For You” feed, which now allows users to select new topics to follow and deselect those they no longer want to hear about. The feature, which Flipboard dubs “an antidote to doomscrolling,” allows users to customize their For You feed to deliver a wider selection stories related to their various interests, instead of focusing their home page on breaking news and politics.

Given today’s current events — a pandemic that’s dragging on, climate change-induced wildfires and major storms, the fall of Afghanistan, and other disasters — it’s no wonder why people want to take a break from the daily news. But for Flipboard, that trend could mean reduced use of its news-reading app, as well.

But while Flipboard notes that millions do use its app to keep up with breaking stories and politics, a majority of its user base also spends their time engaging with other topics — like travel, food, photography, fitness, and parenting.

By introducing tools that allow users to customize their own feeds, the company believes users will not only see improved mental health, but will also spend a longer time in the Flipboard app. Already, this appears to be true, based on other recent changes Flipboard has made.

The company recently introduced topic personalization features, which allowed users to zero in on more niche interests — think, not just cooking but keto cooking; not just health, but mindfulness and sleep, for example. Users who customized their preferences spent between 9 and 12 minutes per day reading stories about these topics, on average, Flipboard found.

With the launch of For You newsfeed controls, Flipboard wants to bring a similar level of customization and control to users’ own homepages.

The company said the feature also addresses the number one request from users — they’ve been asking to have more control over the content selection in their For You feed.

To use the feature, you’ll look for the new filter toggles at the top of the main page. After tapping the icon, you’ll be launched into a window where you can tap and untap a range of topics. You can also use the search bar to discover other interests that may not be listed. When you’re finished customizing, you’ll just tap “Save” to exit back to your newly customized For You feed.

Flipboard hopes its customization capabilities will help it to stand out from other news reading experiences — whether that’s browsing news inside social media feeds or even in dedicated news reading apps.

“This level of content control is unique to Flipboard; just think about how hard it is to adjust your feed on any other platform,” noted Flipboard CEO Mike McCue, when introducing the update.  “A highly personalized feed empowers people to focus on the things that matter to them, without being distracted by doomscrolling, misinformation or browsing through other people’s lives. We build a platform that lets people take control of their media consumption rather than letting it control them,” he added.

NVIDIA’s latest tech makes AI voices more expressive and realistic

The voices on Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and other AI assistants are far ahead of old-school GPS devices, but they still lack the rhythms, intonation and other qualities that make speech sound, well, human. NVIDIA has unveiled new research and tools that can capture those natural speech qualities by letting you train the AI system with your own voice, the company announced at the Interspeech 2021 conference.

To improve its AI voice synthesis, NVIDIA’s text-to-speech research team developed a model called RAD-TTS, a winning entry at an NAB broadcast convention competition to develop the most realistic avatar. The system allows an individual to train a text-to-speech model with their own voice, including the pacing, tonality, timbre and more.

Another RAD-TTS feature is voice conversion, which lets a user deliver one speaker’s words using another person’s voice. That interface gives fine, frame-level control over a synthesized voice’s pitch, duration and energy.

Using this technology, NVIDIA’s researchers created more conversational-sounding voice narration for its own I Am AI video series using synthesized rather than human voices. The aim was to get the narration to match the tone and style of the videos, something that hasn’t been done well in many AI narrated videos to date. The results are still a bit robotic, but better than any AI narration I’ve ever heard.

“With this interface, our video producer could record himself reading the video script, and then use the AI model to convert his speech into the female narrator’s voice. Using this baseline narration, the producer could then direct the AI like a voice actor — tweaking the synthesized speech to emphasize specific words, and modifying the pacing of the narration to better express the video’s tone,” NVIDIA wrote.

NVIDIA is distributing some of this research — optimized to run efficiently on NVIDIA GPUs, of course — to anyone who wants to try it via open source through the NVIDIA NeMo Python toolkit for GPU-accelerated conversational AI, available on the company’s NGC hub of containers and other software.

“Several of the models are trained with tens of thousands of hours of audio data on NVIDIA DGX systems. Developers can fine tune any model for their use cases, speeding up training using mixed-precision computing on NVIDIA Tensor Core GPUs,” the company wrote.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.

Rattle raises $2.8M from Lightspeed and Sequoia to modernize enterprise sales stack

Tech employees build amazing consumer-facing apps for the world. But for their internal communications, they are stuck using applications that don’t play well with one another.

This is a problem since most employees at a mid-sized or large-sized firm spend a fourth or third of their days on internal communication applications.

Now a San Francisco-headquartered startup is attempting to build a software that makes it much more convenient to engage with business services.

Rattle is building a real-time and collaborative “connectivity tissue” to address the siloed nature of modern record-keeping and intelligence platforms, said Sahil Aggarwal, co-founder and chief executive of the eponymous startup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“To use Salesforce, as an example, you are using it for two things: you’re writing data into Salesforce and you’re taking data out of it,” he explained. “What Rattle does is it enables you to send all the insights from Salesforce into a messaging platform and then lets you write data from within the messaging service back into Salesforce.”

Rattle’s use case extends to even more services. It can recognize phone calls and prompt individuals to log that and pursue that opportunity on Slack.

“We started with integrating Slack and Salesforce, and now with their acquisition the idea has definitely gotten validated. It’s extremely transformational for companies,” said Aggarwal, who got the idea about this startup at his previous venture when an application he built for the internal team received great feedback.

The startup, which launched its offering in March, is already seeing over 70% conversion rate among enterprises that have given it a try. Rattle has amassed over 50 customers including Terminus, Olive, Litmus, Imply and Parsely.

After implementing Rattle “[our] lead response time has gone down by 75% and key processes have sped up from days to minutes,” said Jeff Ronaldi, GTM Ops Manager at LogDNA.

The startup announced on Tuesday that it has raised a seed round of $2.8 million from Lightspeed and Sequoia Capital India. Amy Chang (EVP at Cisco & Disney board member), Ellen Levy (early investor in Outreach), Jake Seid (early investor in Brex & Carta), and Krish & Raman (the founders of unicorn SaaS firm Chargebee) also participated in the round.

“Businesses worldwide are mired in processes – from sales to marketing, HR, IT, and more. With increased digitization and remote work, processes and adherence thereof are only going to diverge over time,” said Hemant Mohapatra, Partner at Lightspeed, in a statement. “The Rattle team impressed us by their unrelenting focus on the most important piece of this puzzle: the people caught in these processes. Rarely have we seen such intense customer love so early in a company’s life and are honored to go on this journey with Rattle together!”

The startup, which charges anywhere between $20 to $30 per user per month, plans to deploy the fresh funds to expand its product offerings including adding integration with more enterprise applications.

Bose’s QuietComfort 45 arrive September 23 for $330

Following a spate of leaks, Bose this morning announced the latest addition to its well-loved over ear headphones. The QuietComfort 45 (which replace the 35 II) sport improved nose cancellation and 24 hours of battery on a charge, per Bose’s metrics. The air travel mainstays run $330 – coming in $20 cheaper than the QC 35’s initial asking price.

The new headphones look similar to the last few generations, mostly receiving some tweaks to make them a bit more comfortable, lighter and more compact. The headphones have two primary modes: Quiet and Aware. The former uses improved noise canceling tech to respond to ambient noise (as opposed to Bose’s older one-size-fits-all ANC). Aware, meanwhile lets sound in with a transparency mode.

Where some have switched entirely to touch panels, Bose maintains physical buttons, with four on the left ear cup for volume, power and pairing and one on the right to switch between noise canceling modes. Voice has been improved to isolate sound while using the built-in microphone for conversations.

Image Credits: Bose

The battery is rated at 24 hours of music playback, which is recharged via USB C. It takes a full two hours to go from zero to full – or you can get three hours on 15 minutes, if you’re pressed for time.

The headphone category has evolved dramatically since Bose release the first generation QuietComfort way back in 2000, It finally went fully wireless in 2016 with the QC 35. More recently, the category has gotten even more crowded courtesy of some excellent entries from the likes of Sony and Apple, but Bose remains the most iconic name in over ear headphones, particular for frequent travels.

The QC 45 maintain the company’s approach to keeping things simple. They go up for sale September 23 – perhaps we’ll all be traveling on planes again by then.

Offchain Labs raises $120 million to hide Ethereum’s shortcomings with its Arbitrum product

As the broader crypto world enjoys a late summer surge in enthusiasm, more and more blockchain developers who have taken the plunge are bumping into the blaring scaling issues faced by decentralized apps on the Ethereum blockchain. The popular network has seen its popularity explode in the past year but its transaction volume has stayed frustratingly stable as the network continues to operate near its limits, leading to slower transaction speeds and hefty fees on the crowded chain.

Ethereum’s core developers have been planning out significant upgrades to the blockchain to rectify these issues, but even in the crypto world’s early stages, transitioning the network is a daunting, lengthy task. That’s why developers are looking to so-called Layer 2 rollup scaling solutions, which sit on top of the Ethereum network and handle transactions separately in a cheaper, faster way, while still recording the transactions to the Ethereum blockchain, albeit in batches.

The Layer 2 landscape is early, but crucial to the continued scalability of Ethereum. As a result, there’s been quite a bit of passionate chatter among blockchain developers regarding the early players in the space. Offchain Labs has been developing one particularly hyped rollup network called Arbitrum One, which has built up notable support and momentum since it beta-launched to developers in May, with about 350 teams signing up for access, the company says.

They’ve attracted some high-profile partnerships including Uniswap and Chainlink who have promised early support for the solution. The company has also quickly piqued investor interest. The startup tells TechCrunch it raised a $20 million Series A in April of this year, quickly followed up by a $100 million Series B led by Lightspeed Venture Partners which closed this month and valued the company at $1.2 billion. Other new investors include Polychain Capital, Ribbit Capital, Redpoint Ventures, Pantera Capital, Alameda Research and Mark Cuban.

Offchain Labs co-founders Felton, Goldfeder and Kalodner

It’s been a fairly lengthy ride for the Arbitrum technology to public access. The tech was first developed at Princeton — you can find a YouTube video where the tech is first discussed in earnest back in early 2015.  Longtime Professor Ed Felton and his co-founders CEO Steven Goldfeder and CTO Harry Kalodner detailed a deeper underlying vision in a 2018 research paper before licensing the tech from Princeton and building out the company. Felton previously served as the deputy U.S. chief technology officer in the Obama White House, and — alongside Goldfeder — authored a top textbook on cryptocurrencies.

After a lengthy period under wraps and a few months of limited access, the startup is ready to launch the Arbitrum One mainnet publicly, they tell TechCrunch.

This team’s scaling solution has few direct competitors — a16z-backed Optimism is its most notable rival — but Arbitrum’s biggest advantage is likely the smooth compatibility it boasts with decentralized applications designed to run on Ethereum, compared with competitors that may require more heavy-lifting on the developer’s part to be full compatibility with their rollup solution. That selling point could be a big one as Arbitrum looks to court support across the Ethereum network and crypto exchanges for its product, though most Ethereum developers are well aware of what’s at stake broadly.

“There’s just so much more demand than there is supply on Ethereum,” Goldfeder tells TechCrunch. “Rollups give you the security derived from Ethereum but a much better experience in terms of costs.”

Spotify officially launches Blend, allowing friends to match their musical tastes and make playlists together

Spotify today is officially rolling out its shared playlist feature called Blend to global users, with a few changes. Earlier this summer, Spotify had first launched the new shared playlist experience into beta testing. The feature, which allows two people to combine their favorite songs into one shared playlist, uses the same music mixing technology that powers other multi-person playlists like Spotify’s Family Mix and Duo Mix. However, Blend allows any Spotify user, including both free users and paid subscribers, to merge their musical tastes, too.

The feature has been further developed since its beta release, Spotify says.

Now, users who create a Blend (aka their shared playlist) will get something called a “taste match score” that shows them how similar or different their listening preferences are, when compared with their friends. After the Blend is created for the first time, this taste match score is demonstrated as a percentage and will be accompanied by text that tells users which song brings them together.

Blends will also feature new cover art to help users find their playlists more easily.

Premium subscribers will get an extra perk, as well. On their version of a Blend, listeners will be able to see which of the user’s preferences contributed to each song on the playlist.

Spotify says during tests of Blend, Olivia Rodrigo took the top spot for the most-streamed artist on Blend playlists, followed by others like Doja Cat, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, and Lil Nas X.

The feature isn’t only meant to be serve a fun addition to Spotify. It’s also a user acquisition strategy. Since free users are able to create or join a Blend, the feature can serve as a way to entice someone to join Spotify for the first time — even if they currently don’t pay for music, or if they subscribe to a rival service. But once they’re in Spotify’s app, they may decide to stay, the thinking goes.

Blend was announced in June alongside a new in-app experience called Only You, which focuses on your favorite music and how you listen — sort of like a mid-year version of Spotify’s popular annual retrospective, Spotify Wrapped. Like Only You, Blend includes support for social sharing. Users will be able to share Blend’s “data stories” across their social channels. This is the screen that pops up immediately after a Blend is created, but can also be accessed from any time within the Blend playlist itself.

Spotify’s bigger message with features like this, which are released at a fairly steady cadence, is about conveying to users and competitors alike that’s it’s further ahead when it comes to personalization technology. Even though rivals now dupe Spotify’s ideas for playlists, the company tends to have something new to release shortly after, whether that’s Only You, or a playlist aimed at commuters, those for the gym, or a collection of new mixes based on artists, genres and decades.

You can access Blend from the Made for You hub on Spotify’s mobile app. To get started, you’ll click “Create Blend” then “invite” to select a friend to join your Blend. When the friend accepts, Spotify will create the cover art, tracklists and display your taste match score. You can then click “Share this Story” to post your data story to your social networks.

Blend will begin rolling out to all users worldwide, starting today. Large-scale rollouts can take time, so you don’t see it immediately, just check back later.

Sales experience platform Walnut raises $15M to improve product demonstrations

Walnut raised $15 million in Series A funding, led by Eight Roads Ventures, to continue developing its sales experience platform.

Founders Yoav Vilner and Danni Friedland started the company in July 2020. Vilner told TechCrunch the company is building a category called technology marketing in Israel. While the founder of another company that did marketing for hundreds of companies, he realized that company sales people often ran into problems when it was time to demonstrate their product — the product would break, or they would have to ask another department to open something or add a feature, none of which happened instantaneously, Vilner added.

He and Friedland’s answer to the problem is a no-code platform for teams to create customized product demonstrations quickly, be able to integrate them into their sales and marketing processes and then generate insights from the demos.

Walnut engagement example. Image Credits: Walnut

“We let the sales and marketing teams replicate the SaaS product in our cloud environment, which is disconnected from the back end,” Vilner explained. “They can create a storyline to fit their customer and the demonstration, and then following the demo, sales leaders can get insight on what was good or bad. It encourages the sharing of knowledge and what story worked best for which kind of company.”

The company’s latest round gives it $21 million raised to date, and follows a $6 million seed round that included NFX, A Capital, Liquid2 Ventures and Graph Ventures, Vilner said.

Walnut serves over 60 business-to-business clients, including Adobe, NetApp, Varonis and People AI. In addition to Tel Aviv, the company has offices in New York and London.

Vilner intends to use the new funding to grow the team across the U.S, Europe and Israel and continue developing its technology and platform, including tools to embed demos into a website for product-led growth. He also expects to double the team of 25 over the next year.

Eyal Rabinovich, an investor at Eight Roads Ventures, said his brother is a Walnut customer, and the company fits with one of the firm’s theses around broad vertically integrated brands in SaaS and deep technology.

Rabinovich was tracking the sales enablement space for a while and said many companies claim to provide something unique, but it is usually workflow and processes. In Walnut’s case, it is solving something at the core of sales.

“They make everything measurable, and the ‘holy grail’ is conversion, and even just 1% conversion could mean millions of dollars,” he added. “Every company we spoke to wanted to use this product. Customers were telling us they closed the sales cycle within two weeks.”

 

Windows 11 launches October 5

Microsoft offered a broad “Holiday 2021” release date when it announced Windows 11, back in June. Of course, it didn’t specify precisely which holiday. Perhaps the company was aiming for World Teachers’ Day, a belated Sukkot or an extremely early Halloween. After strongly implying a late-October release a few months back (which some pointing to the 20th), the company this morning announced that the operating system is set to arrive October 5.

The date is, undoubtedly, on the early side of Microsoft’s release window. The first major release since 2015 will be available as a free upgrade to users with an eligible PC running Windows 10. October 5 will also see the availability of the first systems shipping with Windows 11 preloaded.

windows 11 desktop

Image Credits: Microsoft

Frederic wrote up the first preview build when it became available through the Windows Insider Dev Channel. He noted at the time, “This is definitely more than just another bi-annual Windows 10 update with a few minor UI changes.”

Indeed, the company fittingly offers an 11 point blog post highlighting the major changes that will arrive in the October update. The first – and most immediately apparent – is one that has been around since that earliest preview build. The operating system’s design has been refreshed for a cleaner feel throughout.

That includes new Snap Layouts, Groups and Desktops designed to offer a more organized approach to multitasking. A number of the company’s online services have been more deeply integrated into the OS. Microsoft 365 is built into the Start menu, offering up access to recently viewed files, for more cross-platform integration. Teams, meanwhile, has been added to the taskbar (Microsoft really wants you to use Teams, folks). You’ll find Widgets there, as well, with quick access to information like news, weather, sports and stocks.

There are a range of accessibility updates. In a lengthy post from July, Microsoft highlights those updates, noting, “Accessible technology is a fundamental building block that can unlock opportunities in every part of society. A more accessible Windows experience has the power to help tackle the “disability divide” — to contribute to more education and employment opportunities for people with disabilities across the world.

The Microsoft Store get a design upgrade, as well, and the company has promised more access for independent developers to create new tools for the operating system. The new version of Windows continues to offer a focus on desktop gaming, with features like e DirectX12 Ultimate, DirectStorage and Auto HDR.

Windows 11 widgets

Image Credits: Microsoft

There’s been some confusion around what, precisely, all of this means for unsupported machines of late – as well, as, frankly, which machines qualify as supported. It was reported earlier this week that those systems that don’t fall within Microsoft’s parameters won’t get Windows Update when the new operating system is installed manually. That’s obviously a massive bummer, given that the utility deliveries security patches and other updates.

“The free upgrade to Windows 11 starts on October 5 and will be phased and measured with a focus on quality,” the company writes in this morning’s post. “Following the tremendous learnings from Windows 10, we want to make sure we’re providing you with the best possible experience. That means new eligible devices will be offered the upgrade first. The upgrade will then roll out over time to in-market devices based on intelligence models that consider hardware eligibility, reliability metrics, age of device and other factors that impact the upgrade experience.”

The company says it expects all qualified machines will be offered the upgrade by some point in mid-2022. For those systems that aren’t upgraded, Microsoft says it will continue supporting Windows 10 through October 14, 2025.

South Korea passes ‘Anti-Google law’ bill to curb Google, Apple in-app payment commission

After a number of delays, South Korea’s National Assembly today voted to approve the passage of its “Anti-Google law.” Nicknamed after the search giant but more wide-ranging, the law will prevent Google and Apple from forcing developers to use their in-app billing systems when building apps for their two market-dominating app stores .

This is the first time globally that a government has intervened to prevent Google and Apple from imposing their own payment rails on in-app purchases.

Google and Apple have been increasingly under scrutiny over the restrictive aspects of their respective systems in other market, and so now many will be looking to see if the move in South Korea becomes a tipping point, where the two might be subjected to similar measures in other countries. Most imminently, Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is also considering regulations for digital payments system of Apple, Google and WeChat, according to media reports.

South Korea’s preliminary committee voted on Wednesday, 25 August to proceed with the revised Telecommunication Business Act, seeking to restrict Google and Apple from charging app developer’s commission on in-app purchases.

Since August 2020, lawmakers in South Korea have proposed bills to prohibit the global tech companies from wielding their dominance in the app payment market.

Google in March 2021 reduced its commission to 15% from an original 30% for all in-app purchases to appease app developers. But four months later, it announced that it will push back its new in-app billing system to March 2022.

Meanwhile, Apple in August proposed a settlement in a lawsuit filed against it by software developers in the US that notes Apple will allow app developers to direct their payment options outside of their iOS app or the App Store, although it didn’t go as far as allowing developers to include alternative methods of payment within app themselves.

Apple said in its statement, “the proposed Telecommunications Business Act will put users who purchase digital goods from other sources at risk of fraud, undermine their privacy protections, make it difficult to manage their purchases, and features like ‘Ask to Buy’ and Parental Controls will become less effective.”

Google could not be reached.

US giants top tech industry’s $100M+ a year lobbying blitz in EU

The scale of the tech industry’s spending to influence the European Union’s tech policy agenda has been laid out in a report published today by Corporate Europe Observatory and Lobbycontrol — which found hundreds of companies, groups and business associations shelling out a total of €97 million (~$115M) annually lobbying EU institutions.

The level of spending makes tech the biggest lobby sector in the region — ahead of pharma, fossil fuels, finance, and chemicals — per the report by the two lobbying transparency campaign groups.

The EU has a raft of digital legislation in train, including the Digital Markets Act, which is set to apply ex ante controls to the biggest ‘gatekeeper’ platforms to promote fair competition in the digital market by outlawing a range of abusive practices; and the Digital Services Act, which will increase requirements on a swathe of digital businesses — again with greater requirements for larger platforms — to try to bring online rules in line with offline requirements in areas like illegal content and products.

Tackling online disinformation and threats to democratic processes — such as by updating the EU’s rules for political ads running online and tighter regulation of online ad targeting more generally is also being eyed by Brussels-based lawmakers.

The bloc is also in the process of agreeing a risk-based framework for applications of artificial intelligence.

Data reuse is another big EU regulatory focus.

At the same time, enforcement of the EU’s existing data protection framework (GDPR) — which is widely perceived to have been (mostly) weakly applied against tech giants — is another area where tech giants may be keen to influence regional policy, given that uniformly vigorous enforcement could threaten the surveillance-based business models of online ad giants like Google and Facebook.

Instead, multiple GDPR complaints against the pair are still sitting undecided on the desk of Ireland’s Data Protection Commission.

A small number of tech giants dominant EU lobbying, according to the report, which found ten companies are responsible for almost a third of the total spend — namely: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Huawei, Amazon, IBM, Intel, Qualcomm and Vodafone — who collectively spend more than €32M a year to try to influence EU tech policy.

Google topped the lobbying list of Big Tech big spenders in the EU — spending €5.8M annually trying to influence EU institutions, per the report; followed by Facebook (€5.5M); Microsoft (€5.3M); Apple (€3.5M); and Huawei (€3M).


Unsurprisingly, US-based tech companies dominate industry lobbying in the EU — with the report finding a fifth of the companies lobbying the bloc on digital policy are US-based — although it suggests the true proportion is “likely even higher”.

While China (or Hong Kong) based companies were only found to comprise less than one per cent of the total, suggesting Chinese tech firms are so far not invested in EU lobbying at anywhere near the level of their US counterparts.

“The lobbying surrounding proposals for a Digital Services pack, the EU’s attempt at reining in Big Tech, provides the perfect example of how the firms’ immense budget provides them with privileged access: Commission high-level officials held 271 meetings, 75 percent of them with industry lobbyists. Google and Facebook led the pack,” write the pair of transparency campaign groups.

The report also shines a light on how the tech industry routinely relies upon astroturfing to push favored policies — with tech companies not only lobbying individually but also being collectively organised into a network of business and trade associations that the report dubs “important lobby actors” too.

Per the report, business associations lobbying on behalf of Big Tech alone have a lobbying budget that “far surpasses that of the bottom 75 per cent of the companies in the digital industry”.

Such a structure can allow the wealthiest tech giants to push preferred policy positions under a guise of wider industry support — by also shelling out to fund such associations which then gives them an outsized influence over their lobbying output.

“Big Tech’s lobbying also relies on its funding of a wide network of third parties, including think tanks, SME and startup associations and law and economic consultancies to push through its messages. These links are often not disclosed, obfuscating potential biases and conflicts of interest,” the pair note, going on to highlight 14 think tanks and NGOs they found to have “close ties” to Big Tech firms.

“The ethics and practice of these policy organisations varies but some seem to have played a particularly active role in discussions surrounding the Digital Services pack, hosting exclusive or skewed debates on behalf of their funders or publishing scaremongering reports,” they continue.

“There’s an opacity problem here: Big Tech firms have fared poorly in declaring their funding of think tanks – mostly only disclosing these links after being pressured. And even still this disclosure is not complete. To this, Big Tech adds its funding of SME and startup associations; and the fact that law and economic experts hired by Big Tech also participate in policy discussions, often without disclosing their clients or corporate links.”

The 14 think tanks and NGOs the report links to Big Tech backers are: CERRE; CDI, EPC, CEPS, CER, Bruegel, Lisbon Council, CDT, TPN, Friends of Europe, ECIPE, European Youth Forum, German Marshall Fund and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies.

The biggest spending tech giants were contacted for comment on the report. We’ll update this article with any response.

We have also reached out to the European Commission for comment.

The full report — entitled The Lobby Network: Big Tech’s Web of Influence in the EU — can be found here.

Power Global eyes India’s auto rickshaw industry with swappable battery and retrofit kit

In India, a country that is more densely populated and has lower rates of car ownership, auto rickshaws and other two- or three-wheeled vehicles play a central role. While many auto rickshaws on Indian roads are already electric, they tend to rely on lead-acid batteries that need to be replaced every six to 11 months.

Power Global, a two-year-old startup, wants to disrupt the auto rickshaw market by offering a retrofit kit for diesel-powered vehicles and swappable battery pack to transition the more common lead-acid batteries to lithium-ion.

Power Global was founded by Porter Harris, who had previously engineered the batteries for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. He also worked as the chief battery engineer at EV startup Faraday Future. Thus far, he estimates Power Global has been around 95% self-funded – thanks in part to the sale of his SpaceX stock.

“I’ve been looking at the Indian market now for about five years,” he told TechCrunch in a recent interview. The opportunity is certainly ripe, with some market research firms estimating that the electric rickshaw market in India will grow to $1.3 billion by 2025. It’s also dire: last year, 15 out of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world were in India, according to air quality technology company IQAir, and much of those emissions are due to transportation.

By offering two separate products for diesel-powered or electric rickshaws – the retrofit kit, which Harris said will fit over 90% of current models, and the “eZee” swappable battery – Power Global is aiming to capture almost the entire auto-rickshaw market.

Harris says the company already has around 48 dealers ready to sell their products, thanks largely to Power Global co-founder Pankaj Dubey’s extensive history working with Indian dealerships over his career with Hero Motors, Yamaha, and Polaris. And that’s a real benefit, because much of Power Global’s plan is dependent upon an extensive dealer network that can get people signed up to the swappable battery subscription model and help drivers buy and install the retrofit kits.

The main source of revenue will come from getting drivers on the energy-as-a-service monthly subscription model via Power Global’s “eZee” swappable batteries.

“It’s a totally different business model,” Harris said. “We can’t translate petrol or gas solutions and try and make that work for electric, it’s really a whole new thing. Our viewpoint is: a lot of kiosks, a small amount of [battery] modules per location.”

The company wants to launch on the outskirts of New Delhi, National Capital Region to start, with the eventual goal of planning a kiosk every three kilometers or so. Drivers will also have the option to take the battery home and charge it using a Power Global home charger.

On the user side, the company’s also developing an app that will allow drivers to see stats like how many kilometers they’ve traveled that day, their remaining battery life and where they can find the nearest battery swapping kiosk.

Power Global expects its batteries to last four and a half to five years. The company plans to use the batteries for stationary energy storage application once they’re taken out of the eZee ecosystem. Harris said there are plans to eventually tie those batteries in with small solar panels to provide energy to rural areas. Once the battery has been completely depleted of all its useful life, Harris said it’ll be sent to a recycler.

The company aims to release its eZee swappable battery product in the first quarter of next year, followed by the retrofit kits. It has opened a battery production plant in Greater Noida, India, which it anticipates will produce about a gigawatt-hour – which is about 10,000 Model S packs –this time next year. That’ll make it one of the largest domestic manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries in the country. By the end of 2022, Power Global aims to have at least 10,000 vehicles on the eZee swappable system.

While Power Global is in discussion with some U.S.-based companies interested in the eZee product, Harris said the focus is ultimately further east. “Do we really need another solution for the top 10% of the world? No, we don’t. Let’s focus on the other 90% of the world and actually make a difference.”

Gatik expands autonomous box truck operations to Texas with $85 million in new funds

In the two years since Gatik AI came out of stealth, the autonomous vehicle startup has launched pilots with Walmart and Canadian retail giant Loblaw in its bid to prove that self-driving technology combined with box trucks is the secret economic sauce for hauling goods short distances.

Now, the company is expanding into Texas — its fourth market — with a fresh bundle of capital. Gatik said Tuesday it has raised $85 million in a Series B round led by new investor Koch Disruptive Technologies, the venture arm of Koch Industries. Existing investors Innovation Endeavours, Wittington Ventures, FM Capital, Dynamo Ventures, Trucks VC, Intact Ventures and others also participated. Gatik has raised $114.5 million to date.

“We are very much in expansion mode in growth mode and felt that Koch Industries would add the most value,” Gatik CEO and co-founder Gautam Narang said in a recent interview, adding that he views the company as a strategic investor.

Gatik has been shuttling goods as part of pilot programs for Walmart in Arkansas and Louisiana and in Ontario, Canada for Loblaw Companies Limited. Gatik also struck a manufacturing partnership with Isuzu in 2020 with an aim to mass produce medium duty autonomous trucks by early 2023.

Unlike other autonomous delivery companies, Gatik isn’t targeting consumers. Instead, the startup is using its autonomous trucks to shuttle groceries and other goods from large distribution centers to retail locations. For instance, Gatik uses about five box trucks to carry goods for Loblaw. On one route in Arkansas, Gatik has removed the human safety driver, which means some of the autonomous box trucks used to carry goods are now “driverless.” The goal is to remove safety operators from all of its box trucks.

Gatik said it has opened an autonomous trucking facility in the AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone, a 26,000-acre industrial, mixed-use, and residential planned development in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that has become a hub of transportation and logistics. The company is already carrying freight for several customers, which it declined to name. Narang did say that the trucks deployed in Texas are based on the Isuzu platforms.

The company plans to have presence in multiple cities within Texas, Narang said.

Its move to Texas follows other autonomous vehicle technology companies such as Aurora, Kodiak Robotics, TuSimple and Waymo that have set up shop in the state. The decision to expand into Texas was driven by its status an international shipping hub, the regulatory environment that supports autonomous vehicle testing and deployment on public roads and favorable weather. Narang added that the abundance and variety of potential customers will also allow it to have a multi-tenant operation. This means it can use the same truck throughout the day for multiple customers.

The new funding will be used add more vehicles to its fleet of Class 3-6 multi-temperature autonomous box trucks and hire more employees, particularly in Texas. Today, Gatik’s roughly 70 employees are spread between its headquarters in Palo Alto, engineering center in Toronto and operations in Arkansas and Louisiana.

Narang said they plan to double the number of employees to around 150 people in the next six to nine months.

Apple’s rumored iPhone satellite support may be for emergency calls and messages

The rumored satellite features for future iPhones are reserved for emergency uses only, according to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman. A few days ago, a report by well-known analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said the next iPhones will come with support for Low Earth Orbit satellite calls and messages. Gurman’s sources said, however, that Apple isn’t turning its devices into actual satellite phones, at least for now. Instead, the tech giant is reportedly developing at least two emergency-related features relying on satellite networks.

The first feature is called Emergency Message via Satellite and will be added as a third protocol, alongside iMessage and SMS, to the Messages app. It’s apparently codenamed Stewie inside the company and will allow users to text emergency services even when there’s no signal, which sounds especially useful during emergencies in remote locations, such as mountains and forests.

The tool will also give users a way to text their emergency contacts simply by typing Emergency SOS in the recipient line. Messages will be restricted to a shorter length, but the senders’ contacts will get a notification for them even if their phone is set to Do Not Disturb. Satellite messages will appear as gray bubbles instead of blue or green so they can be easily identified. Eventually, the feature could handle phone calls, as well.

Apple is also reportedly working on a second satellite feature that will allow users to report crisis situations like plane crashes and fires. This system will give users a way to report the incident at length and will ask them specifics, such as if anybody needs search-and-rescue services or if anybody in the vicinity is armed. It can also automatically send authorities the reporter’s location and their details from the Health app, such as their medical history, age, medications and information like height and weight. The feature can also a notify the reporter’s emergency contacts for them.

While both features sound useful, their availability is restricted by satellite location and reach. They might not work for some regions, and in some cases, users may have to walk outdoors in a certain direction where their iPhone can connect to a satellite. Also, Gurman’s sources said it’s unlikely that the features will be ready before the year ends, which means the next iPhones expected be announced sometime in September won’t be able to send messages via satellite yet.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.

Max Q: Astra’s launch goes sideways

Max Q is a weekly newsletter from TechCrunch all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Mondays in your inbox.

We had a few launches this week, including SpaceX’s first one after one of its longer recent pauses in activity. Astra hoped to have its first commercial payload mission go well, but instead it had one of the more visually interesting takeoff mishaps in private spaceflight.

Astra’s launch drifts and then nearly recovers

Image Credits: Astra

Astra’s launch from Kodiak, Alaska was its first attempt since it nearly reached orbit with a successful test last year. The engines all lit as planned, but almost as quickly, one of those went out and the result was a rocket that nearly toppled over, before floating horizontally for a while, while the remaining engines redistributed power to ultimately start the vehicle climbing skyward.

It’s perhaps more impressive that the Astra rocket didn’t crash and burn right away, even if this was ultimately a failure. The rocket eventually climbed to an altitude of around 160,000 feet before Astra’s flight engineers issued an abort command and the vehicle returned safely to Earth after the engines cut off.

This was a disappointment because the mission was meant to be Astra’s first commercial flight, since it was carrying a simulated test payload on behalf of client the U.S. Space Force. But it also was still technically a test, and the company says it gathered a lot of valuable data from the roughly 2.5 minutes that the rocket was flying before the abort command was given.

While the newly public Astra’s share price took a hit on the news, I think the more instructive bit for the company’s long-term fortunes will be how long it takes to recover from this mishap and try again, and also what the result will be of that follow-up mission.

SpaceX breaks in its new landing barge

Image Credits: SpaceX

SpaceX’s return to flight was another of the Commercial Resupply Services flights it performs for NASA to the International Space Station, and this one went smoothly as usual. The cargo included a new robotic arm for use on the station, as well as interesting experiments including live ants.

The launch also saw SpaceX use its new ‘A Shortfall of Gravitas’ autonomous drone ocean landing ship for the first time. This is the third drone ship that SpaceX has in its fleet, and everything went smoothly with the landing for a successful recovery of the first stage booster used for the flight.

Blue Origin launches suborbital, non-crewed flight

Image Credits: Blue Origin

Blue Origin has launched its 17th New Shepard reusable rocket mission, though this one wasn’t as impressive as its last effort: No Jeff Bezos on board. Unlike that first human spaceflight, there weren’t any passengers in the capsule this go around, but there were a healthy collection of experiments.

One of those was a NASA experimental landing system component that’s going to be used eventually for the agency’s lunar landing vehicle. The interesting subtext here is that Blue Origin is actually suing the agency over its award process for the human lander contract, which selected SpaceX (and only SpaceX) as a lunar lander vehicle provider earlier this year.

Rocket Lab goes public

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab is now a public company, trading under the name RKLB on the NASDAQ after a SPAC merger. This is one of the largest private space companies yet to go public via any means, and our own Aria Alamalhodaei spoke to Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck to get the low-down on the company and what it means to be a member of the public markets.

Meanwhile, ispace is creating a larger lunar lander that can make it through lunar nights. Its existing small lander design isn’t intended to last long in the dark, since its power reserves would deplete quickly and also the super low temperatures are not kind to most electronics.

Join us at TC Sessions: Space in December

Last year we held our first dedicated space event, and it went so well that we decided to host it again in 2021. This year, it’s happening December 14 and 15, and it’s once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join — and you can, too.

Hum Capital thinks the future of funding is a return to old school Wall Street

Hum Capital CEO Blair Silverberg thinks that the future of fundraising requires a return to old school Wall Street – sans the fraud.

Back in the day, he explained, people would go to Wall Street and request funding for different projects, such as a rail line from New Jersey to St. Louis or a new store. A banker would chat through all the financing options, analyze different tradeoffs, and eventually help business owners pick the best capital option for their goals.

“It was very, ‘let’s think about the problem we’re trying to solve, and then let’s make the financing fit,’” Silverberg said. “Today, we do the opposite.” Even with ample capital in the market, startup check-writing is still a game dictated by warm intros, cold pitches, and oftentimes, sheer luck that the founder bugged the right person in the right way at the right time.

Silverberg said the current climate forces founders and investors to do a “crazy adversarial dance” when it comes to partnerships, which feels “backwards.” He wants his startup, Hum Capital, to bring optionality back into the mix.

“The dream scenario is that any company in the world uses Hum to articulate what they’re trying to do with their mission, and then gets all the relevant forms of financing just sitting right there waiting for them to pick the one that makes the most sense,” he said. No term-sheets for term-sheets sake, but instead, Hum Capital can be a clear way to visualize and compare different financing options for a company’s goal.

The nod to nostalgia has helped the startup land fresh capitalization for the future. Hum Capital announced today that it has raised $9 million in a Series A round led by Steve Jurvetson’s Future Ventures. Jurveston was an early investor in SpaceX, Tesla and Memphis Meats, which Silverberg thinks symbolizes that “[Hum Capital is] an equally world changing company.”

At this stage, Hum Capital’s product is easy to explain: it uses artificial intelligence and data to connect businesses to the some available funders on the platform. The startup connects with a capital-hungry startup, ingests financial data from over 100 SaaS systems including Quickbooks, Netsuite and Google Analytics, and then translates them to the some 250 institutional investors on its platform.

It’s a navigation engine for startups that aren’t sure whether they should go for venture debt, traditional VC, revenue-share financing options, or others. The average deal size is $6.4 million, but Hum can help founders access checks up to $50 million for their businesses.

Image Credits: Hum

Hum is free for startups and investors to use for data-sharing purposes and eventual connections. The startup makes money by charging a 2% marketplace fee on capital raised whenever a deal is closed through its platform.

Founders could theoretically use Hum to meet investors and then close the deal offline to avoid the 2% fee. Silverberg said that most users to-date don’t do this because they want to be repeat customers during future fundraises.

Hum’s biggest challenge is that it isn’t human. In venture, especially at the earliest stages, most check-writing comes down to an investor believing in a person’s ambition (and maybe their pitch deck). Hum leans heavily on data as a determinant of success, and while numbers don’t lie, it could mean early ideas with big ambition are left without options.

Silverberg argued that Hum isn’t meant to replace chemistry, but can work to make sure that the business makes financial sense for an investor. Meetings still matter, but with Hum, he thinks a founder and investor can spend the 30 minute meeting talking about mission and vision, and skip other basics of the business.

Fair rebuttal aside, Hum could be limited in the sorts of startups that it funds long-term. It doesn’t need to find ways to fit into traditional VC – since most businesses aren’t venture-bacable, but it will need to find a way to make sure high-quality investors consistently use the platform for deal flow. Today, much of the investment on the platform is classified as venture debt.

Early adoption suggests some early trends. Companies from 46 states have uploaded data to its Intelligent Capital Market (ICM) platform, and nearly half of all companies on the platform come outside of California and New York.

To date, the platform has helped facilitate more than $400 million in capital transactions across 150 fee agreements. The majority of that money moved between March and now, with customers including SecurityScorecard, Evolv AI and Flaviar.

Hum Capital’s raise is announced in a time where traditional financing feels challenged: Carta just raised money off of a valuation it set for itself, Brex launched a $150 million venture debt business, and Clearco, an alternative to VC, raised money from VCs at an over a $2 billion valuation.

“[Resource allocation] as important as making the world multiplanetary, or global problems like climate change,” Silverberg said. “…We’re at the book sales stage of Amazon.”

Minnesota twins raise $3M to increase accessibility to disability care

Having a loved one with specialized care needs is incredibly challenging, but not something that people who have never had to deal with the issue would necessarily quite understand.

For anyone who has had to help care for someone with special needs, the lack of options out there to navigate finding access to care providers is almost shocking.

Twin sisters Melanie Fountaine and Melissa Danielsen know the problem firsthand, having helped take care of their brother, who had a developmental disability and severe epilepsy, for years.

“We saw the struggle for our family to find reliable care,” Danielsen told TechCrunch.

After he passed away 12 years ago at the age of 29, the siblings decided they wanted to dedicate their careers to making disability care accessible to families with complex care needs. They founded Josh’s Place, a company that provided group home accommodations and other services to adults across Minnesota, which ended up being acquired by REM Minnesota in early 2020.

The pair then came up with the concept behind Joshin, a digital care platform that aims to connect care providers to families with specialized care needs. (Both companies were named after the sisters’ brother, who was named Josh). And today, that startup is announcing it has closed on a $3 million seed round of funding co-led by Anthemis Group and The Autism Impact Fund.

Joshin started out as an app that creates a care plan that helps it match families to a “carefully vetted” trained caregiver. It has evolved to also include a corporate benefits program with Joshin partnering with companies who want to offer an inclusive care benefit to their employees.

Image Credits: Joshin

An estimated one in five families have complex health needs, ranging from children with neurodivergence to dependent adults with developmental and physical disabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the need for support, making it even more difficult to find necessary care. As such, many people (most of which are women) are finding they have to leave jobs to become full-time caregivers.

“For too long, people with special health needs and their families have been underserved and had fragmented access to disability care providers,” said CEO Danielsen.

COO Fountaine says that historically the care economy has focused on children under 12, or adults over 65 — childcare and eldercare, respectively.

“Joshin really is positioned to be the leader in that huge age gap that’s out there,” she said. “We work with people at all stages of life, and I think it’s unfortunate that until now, that’s been missing from the conversation. 

The company plans to use its new capital in part to grow its network of care providers. It also aims to expand its corporate benefits program.

“We’re continuing to scale our technology to lessen the burden of caregiving responsibilities for employees and their families,” added Danielsen.

Over the past 12 months, Joshin’s community of members and caregivers has grown 200%. With the new funding, the startup plans to expand its services to Los Angeles and Seattle. It is currently operational in its home base of Minneapolis, Minn., Chicago and New York City.  Joshin will be soft launching in 8 new markets over the next few weeks and hopes “to be national very soon,” Fountaine said.

The startup is starting with employers, and building up the data that it derives from that effort. Over the next year, it intends to partner with managed Medicaid organizations, and with both private and public insurance companies so that it “can get families access to this care, quickly,” said Danielsen.

“Our goal is to make this to make quality care free for families who need it,” she told TechCrunch.

Chris Male, co-founder of the Autism Impact Fund, said his organization backs companies that are addressing unmet needs of the autism community. Finding, retaining, and coordinating care are three of the biggest hurdles that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families face, according to Male.

“Joshin has a proven ability to provide a reliable means to source caregivers with diverse skill sets and potential to serve as a platform for streamlining access to a variety of critical yet highly fragmented services for the special needs community,” he said. “Given the current insurance payer landscape and employer emphasis on DEI, Joshin is not only generating strong impact for a large disability market, but is a monetizable opportunity as both a reimbursable service and as a benefit to employees.”

By partnering with employers, Male added, Joshin will help provide an environment of support that will allow “employees to quickly and easily access key resources and thus minimize downtime. “

Matthew Jones, managing director at Anthemis, said his firm doubled down on its investment in the startup because it saw in its founders “one of the strongest examples of founder-market fit out there.” (Anthemis also led the company’s $1.6 million funding round in July of 2020).

The progress that they have made since our last investment – coupled with the insights that they have collected – led us to believe that doubling down in this round was a no-brainer,” he told TechCrunch.

Also, the complexity that comes with building technology in the space “makes the barriers to entry very high,” Jones added.

“The team’s grit, combined with their understanding of the problems and opportunities associated with disability-related care, set Joshin apart,” he wrote via email. “No other platform comes close in terms of having such specialized leaders at the helm, so it’s no surprise that corporates are lining up to add Joshin to their roster of employee benefits.”

Motional reveals its Hyundai Ioniq 5 electric robotaxi

Motional revealed Tuesday the first images of its planned robotaxi, a Hyundai all-electric Ioniq 5 SUV that will be the centerpiece of a driverless ride-hailing service the company wants customers to be able to access starting in 2023 through the Lyft app.

The purpose-built vehicle, which will be assembled by Hyundai, is integrated with Motional’s autonomous vehicle technology, including a suite of more than 30 sensors including lidar, radar and cameras that can be seen throughout the interior and exterior. That sensing system provides 360 degrees of vision, and the ability to see up to 300 meters away, according to Motional.

The company, which was born out of a $4 billion joint venture with Aptiv and Hyundai, intentionally showcases the numerous sensors, president and CEO Karl Iagnemma said in a recent interview.

“We see so many competitors bending over backwards to try to hide this sensor suite and conceal it in these big plastic casings,” Iagnemma told TechCrunch. “And the fact is, you can’t hide the sensors. They need to be where they need to be and they’re an important part of the car and a key part of the technology. So our strategy was to celebrate the sensors, and to adapt the design language of the vehicle and carry that through the design of the integrated sensor suite.”

Motional has not announced where it will launch its first driverless robotaxi service. It’s likely that it will be in one of the cities it currently is testing and validating its technology, a list that includes Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

Motional-Hyundai robotaxi Ioniq 5

Image credit: Motional

The base of Motional’s robotaxi is the Hyundai Ioniq 5, an electric vehicle revealed in February with a consumer release date expected later this year. The consumer version will not be equipped with Motional’s autonomous vehicle technology. Unlike some AV developers, Motional didn’t chose a  shuttle design or even a larger van for its first robotaxi.

Iagnemma said that the company’s research shows the vast majority of taxi or ride-hailing trips are for two or fewer passengers. The Ioniq 5 is the right size vehicle for Motional’s use case, he added.

The Hyundai Ioniq 5 is the first vehicle based off the automaker’s dedicated battery electric vehicle platform called the Electric Global Modular Platform (E-GMP). The vehicle — both the consumer and robotaxi version — is equipped with an 800-volt electrical system. This higher voltage system is able to supply the same amount of power as the more common 400-volt with less current. The 800-volt system, which debuted in the all-electric Porsche Taycan, is lighter, more efficient and allows the vehicle to charge at a faster rate.

That fast charging rate will be an important benefit for Motional’s robotaxi service.

Motional-Hyundai IONIQ 5 Robotaxi

Image Credits: Motional

The robotaxi version of the Ioniq 5 will be assembled by Hyundai, a noteworthy detail, Iagnemma said.

“This is vehicle that will come off the assembly line looking, as you see it in the pictures,” Iagnemma said. “This is not a scenario where we’ll take a base vehicle, move it to a different line, take the components off and then reintegrate or retrofit it.

Inside the robotaxi are displays to allow riders to interact with the vehicle during their ride, such as directing the robotaxi to make an extra stop, according to the company.

The robotaxi still has a steering wheel and other features found in traditional vehicles operated by a human driver. Riders will not be permitted to sit in the driver seat.

LoftyInc Capital launches third fund at $10M for a more diverse portfolio of African startups

LoftyInc Capital, a pan-African VC firm, announced today that it is launching its third fund — LoftyInc Afropreneurs Fund 3 — at $10 million for tech startups in Africa.

The firm has reached the first close of $5.5 million. Some of the limited partners in the vehicle include those from its second fund, FBNQuest Funds, Camac, syndicates from The Green Investment Club, HNIs from multinationals like Google, Facebook, and ExxonMobil; and Andela CEO Jeremy Johnson, among others.

So far, LoftyInc has written checks to over 20 startups since it began raising money for the fund. They cut across various industries like e-commerce, fintech, healthcare, logistics, and media in different regions within and outside Africa.

In Francophone Africa, the company has invested in Afrikrea and Star News Mobile. Then in Omnibiz, RXAll, Sudo Africa, Tech Advance, Aladdin, Flex Finance, Star Kitchens Group, and EPump across West Africa.

For LoftyInc’s portfolio in North Africa, there’s Odiggo, Illa, Tagaddod, and Instadiet. Akiba Digital, Beamm, and Zazu Africa make up LoftyInc’s portfolio in South Africa, while Cashback and Dash are the startups funded in East Africa. LoftyInc also has Diasporan interests in OjaExpress and FitMatch.

LoftyInc runs three funds simultaneously. The second fund, which is its first formal VC fund, is largely focused on Nigeria. On the other hand, this third fund follows the thesis of LoftyInc’s first fund: investing in startups across different markets and sectors in Africa and the diaspora.

The fund says it wants to take big bets on markets outside the Big Four — Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Egypt.

Operating three funds

A month ago, TechCrunch covered one of Africa’s most important angel investors Olumide Soyombo. He is one of the few giants in a game that includes LoftyInc founder and general partner Idris Bello.

Bello likes to describe his 12-year venture into technology and entrepreneurship as an “Afropreneurship journey.” While in business school in the U.S, he realized that the next wave of innovation that Africa as a continent needed rested on the shoulders’ of up-and-coming founders.

With that in mind, Bello started LoftyInc Allied Partners alongside other entrepreneurs as an enterprise development company. It spun off a technology hub and venture accelerator called Wennovation Hub and also the venture arm called LoftyInc Capital.

In 2012, the firm launched the first fund — LoftyInc Afropreneurs Fund 1 — as its pre-seed stage investment vehicle. The fund act more like a syndicate or an angel group of which investors includes senior executives in key industries across Africa.

LoftyInc Capital

L-R: General partners [Marsha Wulff (sitting), Michael Oluwagbemi (standing), and Idris Bello (right)

Over 180 business angels are investing via the first fund and have collectively put more than $4 million into 40-plus startups across the continent. Some big names from Nigeria and Egypt origins include unicorn Flutterwave (pre-seed), soonicorn Andela, Trella, Chefaa, and Koniku.
Five years later, as the founding partner, Bello teamed up with a long-time advisor Marsha Wulff, an early investor in healthtech company Teladoc. They launched the second fund, LoftyInc Afropreneurs Fund 2, alongside Michael Oluwagbemi, who also acts as a general partner at the firm

From 2017 to 2020, LoftyInc wrote checks worth over $1.2 million in nine rounds to six Nigerian startups — Printivo, RelianceHMO, Epump, YouVerify, Shyft Power Solutions, and Flutterwave (at pre-Series A).

Flutterwave serves as LoftyInc’s first exit, one which Bello said returned 3x to its LPs. It was this successful exit that laid the foundation for the third fund.

“When we exited our Flutterwave stake in February, our LPs wanted us to raise and put together another fund because we made returns for them. At first, we wanted to do a $2.5 million fund but after making enquiries from LPs, it rose to $4 million. Then eventually we just decided to make it $10 million, so we could invest in more startups,” Bello said to TechCrunch.

But when you look at Bello’s status in the African tech ecosystem and what similar Africa-focused funds are raising these days, one may wonder why the investor isn’t raising more.

His answer to that:

“I always say this — my approach is very different. I’m quite organic which is evident in how we moved from a group of angels to LPs. I feel once you get up to $50m to $100m, your problem becomes good deployment, especially in Africa. And what I’m doing is to build a smaller base to a pyramid so when I’m raising a large fund, it won’t be a problem deploying the funds.”

Another point he makes has to do with the limited partners involved. Most of the firm’s LPs in this third fund hold C-suite and managerial positions in banks and other multinationals. Bello argues that if Fund 3 can make good on its promise to make fantastic returns for these individual LPs, it will be a no brainer to onboard the institutions they work with for a bigger fund.

“We want to build an ecosystem of African investors. After that, we’ll start building up the institutions to also partake in making investments.”

LoftyInc has a robust deal flow and views about 30 decks per week, according to Bello. He says the fund receives this much flow because the founders of portfolio startups are the firm’s strongest source of proprietary deals. And that’s what he thinks differentiates LoftyInc from other VC firms.

For instance, in a brief chat with TechCrunch, Andela CEO Jeremy Johnson mentioned that before anyone knew about his startup, LoftyInc already backed him. And to him, it only makes sense to do the same by sourcing deals and investing in the fund.

In addition, the firm, via its first fund, also has an extensive investor base of African origin who live in and outside the continent. Per Bello, this angel network double as venture scouts for the firm.

“We usually invest before any major investor does, hold the hand of new founders, source their initial clients within our large portfolio of over 65 African startups and our large African-based angel and LP network.

“We also provide meaningful introductions to regulators, partners, mentors, top hires and experienced board directors. Also, founders want us in their deals because they have seen us attract both early and later-stage investors to prior ventures.”

In terms of what LoftyInc looks for in companies it invests in, there’s a bias towards those who go for a large market with little or no competition, a product that users love, and execution.

As with most VC firms out there, LoftyInc claims to be sector agnostic. However, there’s some affinity towards startups playing in the IoT, fintech and healthtech space, Bello said. 

LoftyInc’s first fund, mostly catered to by angel investors, is most bullish at the pre-seed stage. This year alone, the group has done over 50 pre-seed deals. For the others, the focus is on seed to Series A deals with an average ticket size of $250,000. 

While LoftyInc’s target for Fund 3 is $10 million, Bello tells TechCrunch that the firm is hoping to achieve a final close above that figure before the end of Q4 2021.  

Dance launches its e-bike subscription service in Berlin

German startup Dance is launching its subscription service in its hometown Berlin. For a flat monthly fee of €79 (around $93 at today’s exchange rate), users will get a custom-designed electric bike as well as access to an on-demand repair and maintenance service.

Founded by the former founders of SoundCloud and Jimdo, the company managed to raise some significant funding before launching its service. BlueYard led the startup’s seed round while HV Capital (formerly known as HV Holtzbrinck Ventures) led Dance’s €15 million Series A round, which represented $17.7 million at the time.

The reason why Dance needed so much capital is that the company has designed its own e-bike internally. Called the Dance One, it features an aluminum frame and weighs around 22kg (48.5lb). It has a single speed and it relies on its electric motor to help you go from 0 to 25kmph.

And the best part is that you can remove the lithium battery and plug it at home — something that is desperately lacking in VanMoof’s e-bikes. This way, you don’t have to carry your entire bike up the stairs. People living in apartments will appreciate that feature. Users can expect to charge the battery after riding for 55km.

Image Credits: Dance

The Dance One uses a carbon belt so that it doesn’t require much maintenance. At the front of the bike, there’s an integrated smartphone mount that should be compatible with popular cases designed for this type of mounts. You can control the level of electric assistance with buttons of the handlebar. There are three different modes: high assistance, low assistance or no assistance at all.

The bike comes with a front and rear lights that you can activate with a button as well. When it comes to brakes, Dance has opted for hydraulic discs. You can optionally add a basket or saddle bags at the back of the bike.

Like other popular e-bikes from VanMoof or Cowboy, you can lock and unlock the Dance bike from a mobile app. The company has integrated GPS and Bluetooth chips in the frame of the bike. Of course, you should also use a traditional lock in addition to the smart lock.

On paper, it looks like a nice e-bike for city rides. Users will have to pay €79 per month to get access to a bike. There are no time commitment or upfront fees. If you want to subscribe just for the summer, you can do that. If you have an issue with your bike, the company will send a mechanic to fix it for you.

Dance has been trying out the service with hundreds of beta users and “thousands” of bikes are now available for new users. While the company is focusing on Berlin for now, it plans to expand to other German and European cities in the future.

Dance will compete with a handful of other services around Europe, such as Swapfiets, or Véligo in Paris. It’ll also indirectly compete with on-demand shared bikes, such as Lime and all the various city-led public-private bike-sharing services around Europe. And of course, some people will end up buying their own e-bike.

But Dance seems like a well-designed offering with a nice-looking bike and a lot of flexibility for the end user. I’m sure the startup will have no issue finding customers who are looking for a seamless end-to-end experience.

Image Credits: Dance

New Zealand-based student well-being platform Komodo raises $1.8M NZD

Adolescence is a turbulent period and its challenges are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in the best of times, teens dealing with personal and school problems might have trouble talking about them. New Zealand-based startup Komodo is a student well-being platform that wants to give students a place to communicate with staff, while providing schools with data to help them spot and address issues like depression or bullying.

Founded in 2018 by Chris Bacon, Matt Goodson and Jack Wood, the startup announced today it has raised $1.8 million NZD (about $1.26 million) in seed funding led by Folklore Ventures, with participation from Icehouse Ventures and Flying Fox Ventures. Individual investors included employee engagement platform Culture Amp co-founder Rod Hamilton; Chloe Hamman, Culture Amp’s director of people science; leaders from learning platform Education Perfect; and Kristi Grant, the director of people experience at Auror.

Some of Komodo’s clients and partners in New Zealand and Australia include Marist College Ashgrove in Queensland; St. Andrew’s College in Christchurch; the Australian Boarding Schools Association (ABSA); Independent Schools of New Zealand; and the Council of British International Schools.

Komodo was originally created to monitor the well-being of youth athletes, based on research Bacon performed while earning a Ph.D. at the University of Canterbury. A lot of its clients were schools, and that’s when the team began to expand Komodo’s scope.

“The draw for us was witnessing specific examples,” Wood told TechCrunch. “We had schools coming back to us saying ‘we’ve got a kid that’s been bullied for the past three months who hasn’t even remotely felt confident to approach a staff member and start talking about it. We’ve finally seen that come up in Komodo and they feel happy they have a confidential channel to voice that concern.’”

A photo of Komodo Wellbeing co-founders Jack Wood and Chris Bacon

Komodo co-founders Jack Wood and Chris Bacon. Image Credits: Komodo

Komodo has a web application and a mobile app, which is what most students use. The platform can be customized by schools and includes psychologist-designed surveys and questions about topics like how students feel about going to school, socialization and relationships or major transitions like starting high school or preparing for university. The amount of time students check into Komodo depends on their school. At some it’s once a week, others once every two weeks or month. Schools use the platform differently based on their environment — for example, if they’re learning remotely, they may do more frequent check-ins.

For schools, data collected from surveys can help them see trends emerge and catch potential problems earlier, like cyberbullying. Before implementing Komodo, its founders say some schools did well-being surveys a few times per year, but many of them relied on staff and teachers’ intuition — for example, if a student who is typically outgoing suddenly becomes withdrawn. Komodo gives them a more efficient way to identify and address issues, though Wood and Bacon emphasize that it’s not meant to replace person-to-person interactions.

“Ultimately our bigger vision is facilitating and getting well-being support to students as early as possible,” said Bacon. The founders have spent a lot of time talking with Culture Amp’s Hamilton “about how it’s really important that the individuals you’re providing data to can actually understand and use it on a regular basis,” he added. “The key part for us [is] to provide visibility and psychologists who can come in and support [school staff] even more.”

Komodo’s seed funding will be used to add more psychologists to its in-house team, develop the platform and expand into more schools in Australia and New Zealand before other markets, including the United States.

Square to launch a new paid subscription, Invoices Plus

Square’s popular free invoicing software is becoming the company’s next big subscription service. The company is poised to announce a paid subscription offering called Invoices Plus, which will offer sellers a set of advanced features, including some that had previously been available with the free service. The service itself had been quietly introduced to individual sellers, but has not yet been publicly announced.

Some sellers who were already using Square Invoices were recently alerted to the upcoming changes via email.

In the announcement shared with some sellers (the details of which can also be viewed here on a Square Seller Community forum), the new subscription will include a series of features that were released in the past year as part of a limited trial.

This includes multipage estimates, custom invoice templates and custom invoice fields. These will now become a part of Invoices Plus, as will two other features: the ability to automatically convert accepted estimates to invoices and the ability to build milestone-based schedules (three-plus installment invoices). Square’s announcement said it will introduce a “trial” button next to these features in the Square Invoices software to alert customers to the upcoming capabilities (see below).

Image Credits: Square website

Square’s free invoicing software will not go away, the announcement noted. Sellers will be able to send unlimited invoices for free, as well as estimates and contracts, with the free plan. Free users will also be able to use invoice tracking, reminders and reporting tools.

The free plan has historically relied on processing fees to generate revenue. At present, this is 2.9% + $0.30 per invoice paid online by check or debit card plus a 1% fee per ACH transaction, per Square’s website. (Fees are slightly lower on in-person transactions and slightly higher for “card on file” transactions.) Pricing for the new, paid subscription has not yet been publicly announced.

A Square employee had explained the reasoning behind the change on the community forum site. They noted that many of Square’s other products — like Square Online, Appointments, Square for Retail and Square for Restaurants — also offer both a free and paid tier. And although Square charges processing fees for Square Invoices, they aren’t enough to fuel its product development. With Invoices Plus, they said, the company aims to compete more directly with paid invoicing apps and products and the more advanced features those products offer.

Reached for comment, Square confirmed to TechCrunch Invoices Plus is a software subscription the company plans to announce shortly. But the company didn’t want to share more details until the news is official.

References to the new subscription have also already made their way to the Square app’s code, where they were spotted by iOS developer Steve Moser. The code indicates users who previously used some of the paid-only features will be able to still use them for the time being. But as the announcement also noted, sellers would not be able to use the paid features for free the next time they’re creating new files with Square Invoices.

Image Credits: Steve Moser

The new service arrived shortly after Square announced earnings, where it noted its seller business brought in $1.31 billion in revenue (out of the total of $4.68 billion) and $585 million of gross profit in the second quarter, driven in part by continued strong online growth. The company also announced its plan to acquire the buy now, pay later giant Afterpay in a $29 billion deal, speaking to its interest in chasing the broader payments market. The deal also offers Square a way to connect its different products by allowing Afterpay customers to pay their monthly installments through Square’s Cash App, the company said.

An integration between Square and Afterpay is something that could be seen further down the road, as well, one could imagine. That’s something Square also hinted toward in a response to another seller on its community forum site, where a rep updated an older answer to share news of the acquisition, adding Square didn’t “have integration timelines to share at the moment.”

Daily Crunch: China sets three-hour weekly time limit for under-18 gamers

To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PDT, subscribe here.

Hello and welcome to Daily Crunch for August 30, 2021. The startup world is gearing up for Y Combinator Demo Day this week, but the rest of tech isn’t taking a pause. So we have Apple news, Telegram news, antitrust news, video game news, you name it.

But we have some TechCrunch news to start: Ryan Reynolds is coming to Disrupt to talk about his company, Maximum Effort. That’s pretty hype. And we’re going to be talking about software. A lot. — Alex

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • China restricts youth gaming: To three hours per week! Which isn’t much! For a country with a large games market like China, this is big darn news. But it’s just one part of a larger regulatory push in China (including things as far afield as taking on online fan culture!) to bring its private companies more in line with the government’s plans.
  • Toast’s IPO looks tasty: TechCrunch took a longer look at Boston-based Toast’s IPO filing today. Our takeaways? That the company has posted admirable growth since its COVID lows and has a very sturdy multipart business model. The company is doing the very active Boston startup scene proud.
  • Spotify buys Joe Rogan, Apple buys classical music? The campaign to build differentiated music streaming services in an era when music is available everywhere hotted up this week with Apple buying Primephonic. The smaller company, based in Amsterdam, will be absorbed into Apple Music.

Startups/VC

Ready for a broadside of startup news? Good. We have what you need. But first, as a sign of the times, Telegram just crossed the 1 billion download mark. That’s an achievement, sure, but also goes to show that maybe consumers do care about privacy after all.

  • Casper’s unfriendly ghost fails to haunt Eight Sleep: Remember when D2C mattress company Casper went public, and it went poorly? That misstep has not stopped investors from putting new capital into Eight Sleep, which makes smart mattresses. The startup just raised $86 million in a Series C round of funding that values it at nearly a half-billion dollars.
  • Prive raises $1.7M for better e-commerce subscriptions: Two ex-Uber folks are building something new to make e-commerce subscriptions, helping both retailers sell more goods and consumers get better recommendations. Win/win.
  • At long last, a personal CRM? I don’t want to get your hopes up, as building a personal CRM has been a white whale in startupland for some time. But Clay, a startup that just raised $8 million, has put together what TechCrunch calls “a system designed to help you be more thoughtful with the people in your life.” Please let it be good. I need help.
  • Alpaca proves that embedded fintech is still hot: TechCrunch has covered Alpaca a few times in recent years, both when it raised capital and when we were delving more deeply into the world of API-delivered startups. Today the company announced a $50 million Series B, a partnership with Plaid and support for crypto trading. Alpaca’s work to provide other fintechs with embedded equities trading appears to be going well.
  • How does one become a travel influencer? I don’t know. But if you become one, Thatch wants you to be able to better monetize your recommendations. If you are currently a travel influencer, this is good news. If you were hoping that influencers would lose influence in the coming years, this is not.
  • To cap us off today, Ola Electric is looking to raise between $250 million and $500 million. That’s a huge chunk of change. The deal has yet to close, but our early reporting indicates that Ola’s electric vehicle business is about to be more than flush. “Falcon Edge Capital is in advanced talks to lead the round, which values Ola Electric between $2.75 billion to $3.5 billion,” TechCrunch reports.
  • Plus, over the weekend I wrote about why startups are going to win the battle to set the tone regarding remote work, in case you wanted to give that a read.

How Amazon EC2 grew from a notion into a foundational element of cloud computing

In August 2006, AWS activated its EC2 cloud-based virtual computer, a milestone in the cloud infrastructure giant’s development.

“You really can’t overstate what Amazon was able to accomplish,” writes enterprise reporter Ron Miller.

In the 15 years since, EC2 has enabled clients of any size to test and run their own applications on AWS’ virtual machines.

To learn more about a fundamental technological shift that “would help fuel a whole generation of startups,” Ron interviewed EC2 VP Dave Brown, who built and led the Amazon EC2 front-end team.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

  • ByteDance buys VR hardware startup: Sure, Facebook is a leader in the VR hardware game, but it’s hardly the only player. TikTok parent company ByteDance is looking to take Facebook on by buying Pico, which had raised a $37 million round earlier this year. It’s not clear how this news intersects with gaming restrictions in China, but now we should have national champions duking it out in the VR market.
  • Instagram wants to know your birthday: If you aren’t into giving Facebook products more of your data, bad news today from Instagram. It will prompt users to share their birthday and only allow so many deferrals. Why? TechCrunch reports that the change is to help “personalize your experience” on the service. Which means ads.
  • Ideanomics buys Via Motors: Ideanomics, a public mobility company, is spending $450 million in stock to buy Via Motors, an EV company. Shares of Ideanomics are up just over 5% today on the news.
  • It turns out that most Big Tech employees aren’t opposed to antitrust enforcement, even though the ideas being bandied about the halls of Congress could make life harder for the megacorps that currently constitute the top end of the technology industry.

TechCrunch Experts: Growth Marketing

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Are you all caught up on last week’s coverage of growth marketing? If not, read it here.

TechCrunch wants you to recommend growth marketers who have expertise in SEO, social, content writing and more! If you’re a growth marketer, pass this survey along to your clients; we’d like to hear about why they loved working with you.

Community

Image Credits: Diversion Books

Join Danny Crichton on Twitter Spaces tomorrow, Tuesday, August 31st at 1 p.m. PDT/4 p.m. EDT as he talks with Azeem Azhar about his upcoming book, “The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society,” which will be released on September 7, 2021.

Rugged showcases its layout-printing construction robots

Few robotics categories are poised to benefit more from the events of the past year than construction. It’s a booming field that could benefit massively from automaton, a fact that’s only been amplified as the pandemic brought many nonessential businesses to a standstill. We’ve seen a number of players in the category raise notable rounds over the past year or so, including Toggle, Dusty, Scaled and SkyMul.

Founded in 2018, Houston-based Rugged Robotics raised a $2.5 million seed round back in 2019. While the company isn’t actively raising at the moment, it has already begun to roll out its technology in early pilots, including a partnership with Massachusetts-based construction-firm Consigli.

Image Credits: Rugged Robotics

“We had a client that was pretty progressive looking,” said Consigli’s Jack Moran. “It’s a building where we were controlling the core shell of the project, as well as the fit-out, which was pretty complex — lots of odd shapes that would be a challenge for us.”

Rugged’s self-described “layout Roomba” was used to help build a 10-story building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, effectively drawing blueprints on the ground of the space that amounted to around 40,000 square feet per floor. The partnership effectively finds Rugged taking a key step from its early research and development mode to commercialize.

“The layout process is the most important task in the construction process,” Rugged founder and CEO Derrick Morse said in an interview with TechCrunch. “Marking where things are installed defines where things are built. A mistake made during layout trickles into the overall construction process and it results in rework, delays and additional expenses.”

The team is still small, with a headcount of around six full-time employees, including co-founders with backgrounds at NASA and Samsung. The team currently has three robots, with plans to expand to five. They print dot matrix ink patterns on the ground to give construction teams a real-world orientation for the buildings they’re creating.

Image Credits: Rugged Robotics

A member of the Rugged team travels to the site with the robot to supervise the robot as it executes on its plans, with the startup charging the construction company through a RaaS (robotics as a service) model.

“We have insatiable customer demand,” said Morse. “We have several multibillion-dollar contractors that are excited to do pilots and demos with us. We’ll be growing the organization and fleet in the upcoming 12 months, and we’ll likely be bringing in additional capital to enable that growth.”

New Zealand-based student wellbeing platform Komodo raises $1.8M NZD

Adolescence is a turbulent period and its challenges are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in the best of times, teens dealing with personal and school problems might have trouble talking about them. New Zealand-based startup Komodo is a student wellbeing platform that wants to give students a place to communicate with staff, while providing schools with data to help them spot and address issues like depression or bullying.

Founded in 2018 by Chris Bacon, Matt Goodson and Jack Wood, the startup announced today it has raised $1.8 million NZD (about $1.26 million) in seed funding led by Folklore Ventures, with participation from Icehouse Ventures and Flying Fox Ventures. Individual investors included employee engagement platform Culture Amp co-founder Rod Hamilton; Chloe Hamman, Culture Amp’s director of people science; leaders from learning platform Education Perfect; and Kristi Grant, the director of people experience at Auror.

Some of Komodo’s clients and partners in New Zealand and Australia include Marist College Ashgrove in Queensland; St. Andrew’s College in Christchurch; the Australian Boarding Schools Association (ABSA); Independent Schools of New Zealand; and the Council of British International Schools.

Komodo was originally created to monitor the wellbeing of youth athletes, based on research Bacon performed while earning a PhD at the University of Canterbury. A lot of its clients were schools, and that’s when the team began to expand Komodo’s scope.

“The draw for us was witnessing specific examples,” Wood told TechCrunch. “We had schools coming back to us saying ‘we’ve got a kid that’s been bullied for the past three months who hasn’t even remotely felt confident to approach a staff member and start talking about it. We’ve finally seen that come up in Komodo and they feel happy they have a confidential channel to voice that concern.’”

A photo of Komodo Wellbeing co-founders Jack Wood and Chris Bacon

Komodo co-founders Jack Wood and Chris Bacon

Komodo has a web application and a mobile app, which is what most students use. The platform can be customized by schools and includes psychologist-designed surveys and questions about topics like how students feel about going to school, socialization and relationships or major transitions like starting high school or preparing for university. The amount of time students check into Komodo depends on their school. At some it’s once a week, others once every two weeks or month. Schools use the platform differently based on their environment—for example, if they’re learning remotely, they may do more frequent check-ins.

For schools, data collected from surveys can help them see trends emerge and catch potential problems earlier, like cyberbullying. Before implementing Komodo, its founders say some schools did wellbeing surveys a few times per year, but many of them relied on staff and teachers’ intuition—for example, if a student who is typically outgoing suddenly becomes withdrawn. Komodo gives them a more efficient way to identify and address issues, though Wood and Bacon emphasize that it’s not meant to replace person-to-person interactions.

“Ultimately our bigger vision is facilitating and getting wellbeing support to students as early as possible,” said Bacon. The founders have spent a lot of time talking with Culture Amp’s Hamilton “about how it’s really important that the individuals you’re providing data to can actually understand and use it on a regular basis,” he added. “The key part for us to provide visibility and psychologists who can come in and support [school staff] even more.”

Komodo’s seed funding will be used to add more psychologists to its in-house team, develop the platform and expand into more schools in Australia and New Zealand before other markets, including the United States.

 

Lessons from COVID: Flexible funding is a must for alternative lenders

Rachael runs a bakery in New York. She set up shop in 2010 with her personal savings and contributions from family and friends, and the business has grown. But Rachael now needs additional financing to open another store. So how does she finance her expansion plans?

Because of stringent requirements, extensive application processes and long turnaround times, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) like Rachael’s bakery seldom qualify for traditional bank loans. That’s when alternative lenders — who offer short and easy applications, flexible underwriting and quick turnaround times — come to the rescue.

Alternative lending is any lending that occurs outside of a conventional financial institution. These kinds of lenders offer different types of loans such as lines of credit, microloans and equipment financing, and they use technology to process and underwrite applications quickly. However, given their flexible requirements, they usually charge higher interest rates than traditional lenders.

Securitization is another cost-effective option for raising debt. Lenders can pool the loans they have extended and segregate them into tranches based on credit risk, principal amount and time period.

But how do these lenders raise funds to bridge the financing gap for SMBs?

As with all businesses, these firms have two major sources of capital: equity and debt. Alternative lenders typically raise equity funding from venture capital, private equity firms or IPOs, and their debt capital is typically raised from sources such as traditional asset-based bank lending, corporate debt and securitizations.

According to Naren Nayak, SVP and treasurer of Credibly, equity generally constitutes 5% to 25% of capital for alternative lenders, while debt can be between 75% and 95%. “A third source of capital or funding is also available to alternative lenders — whole loan sales — whereby the loans (or merchant cash advance receivables) are sold to institutions on a forward flow basis. This is a “balance-sheet light” funding solution and an efficient way to transfer credit risk for lenders,” he said.

Let’s take a look at each of these options in detail.

Funding sources for alternative lenders.

Image Credits: FischerJordan

Equity capital

Venture capital or private equity funding is one of the major sources of financing for alternative lenders. The alternative lending industry is said to be a “gold mine” for venture capital investments. While it is difficult for such companies to receive credit from traditional banks because of their stringent requirements in the initial stages, once the founders have shown a commitment by investing their own money, VC and PE firms usually step in.

However, VC and PE firms can be expensive sources of capital — their investment dilutes the ownership and control in the company. Plus, obtaining venture capital is a long, involved and competitive process.

Alternative lenders that have achieved good growth rates and scaled their operations have another option: An IPO lets them quickly raise large amounts of money while providing a lucrative exit for early investors.

Zoom announces first startups receiving funding from $100M investment fund

For more than year now, Zoom has been on a mission to transform from an application into a platform. To that end it made three announcements last year: Zoom Apps development tools, the Zoom Apps marketplace and a $100 million development fund to invest in some of the more promising startups building tools on top of their platform. Today, at the closing bell, the company announced it has made its first round of investments.

Ross Mayfield, product lead for Zoom Apps and integrations spoke to TechCrunch about the round of investments. “We’re in the process of creating this ecosystem. We felt it important, particularly to focus on the seed stage and A stage of partnering with entrepreneurs to create great things on this platform. And I think what you see in the first batch of more than a dozen investments is representative of something that’s going to be a significant ongoing undertaking,” he explained.

He said while they aren’t announcing exact investment amounts, they are writing checks for between $250,000 and $2.5 million. While they are teaming with other investment partners, rather than leading the rounds, that doesn’t mean they aren’t working with these startups using internal resources with advice and executive backing, beyond the money.

“Every one of these investments has executive or senior sponsor within the company. So there’s another person inside that knows the lay of the land, can help them advance and spend more personal time with them,” Mayfield said.

The company is also running several Zoom chat channels for the startups receiving investments to learn from one another and the Zoom Apps team. “We have a shared chat channel between the startup and my team. We have a channel called Announcements and a channel called Help, and another one that startups created called Community,” he said.

Every week they use these channels to hold a developer office hour, business office hour which Mayfield runs, and then there’s a community hour where the startups can gather and talk amongst themselves about whatever they want.

Among the specific categories receiving funding are collaboration & productivity, community & charity, DE&I & PeopleOps, and gaming & entertainment companies. In the collaboration and productivity category, Warmly is a sales tool that provides background and information about each person participating in the meeting ahead of time, while allowing the meeting organizer to create customized Zoom backgrounds for each event.

Another is Fathom, which alleviates the need to take notes during a meeting, but it’s more than recording and transcription. “It gives you this really simple interface where you can just tag moments. And then, as a result you have this transcript of the video recording, and you can click on those tagged moments as highlights, and then share a clip of the meeting highlights to Salesforce, Slack and other tools,” Mayfield said.

Pledge enables individuals or organizations to request and collect donations inside a Zoom meeting instantly, and Canvas, a hiring and interview tool that helps companies build  diverse teams with data that helps them set and meet DE&I goals.

These and the other companies represent the first tranche of investments from this fund, and Mayfield says the company intends to continue looking for startups using the Zoom platform to build their startup or integrate with Zoom.

He says that every company starts as a feature, then becomes a product and then aspires to be a line of products. The trick is getting there. He says the goal of the investment program and the entire set of Zoom Apps tools is about helping these companies take the first step.

“The art of being an entrepreneur is working with that risk in the absence of resources and pushing at the frontier of what you know.” Zoom is trying to be a role model, a mentor and an investor on that journey.

Telegram tops 1 billion downloads

Popular instant messaging app Telegram has joined the elite club of apps that have been downloaded over 1 billion times globally, according to Sensor Tower.

The Dubai-headquartered app, which was launched in late 2013, surpassed the milestone on Friday, the mobile insight firm told TechCrunch. As is the case with the app’s chief rival, WhatsApp, India is the largest market for Telegram. The world’s second largest internet market represents approximately 22% of its lifetime installs, Sensor Tower said.

“[India is] followed by Russia and Indonesia, which represent about 10% and 8% of [all installs], respectively. The app’s installs accelerated in 2021, reaching about 214.7 million installs in the first half of 2021, up 61% year-over-year from 133 million in H1 2020,” it added.

It’s worth noting that the number of installs doesn’t equate to the app’s active userbase. Telegram had about 500 million monthly active users as of early this year, for instance. But the surge in downloads, which coincides with WhatsApp’s poor handling of relaying its privacy policies to its massive userbase, nonetheless suggests that Telegram has enjoyed some additional attention in recent quarters.

Telegram, which earlier this year raised over $1 billion, is the 15th app worldwide to have been downloaded 1 billion times or more, Sensor Tower told TechCrunch. Other apps on the list include WhatsApp, Messenger, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Spotify, and Netflix, according to Sensor Tower. (Mobile research firms don’t track the installs of most Google apps that come pre-installed on Android devices.)

Telegram didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Everything enterprise software and SaaS at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021

When you hear the word, “enterprise” and you immediately think software instead of Star Trek, you’re going to love this post — and the SaaS and Enterprise-focused knowledge waiting for you at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 on September 21-23.

We’ve packed a veritable boatload of Grade A prime programming into three full days of Disrupt. Prepare to hear and learn from an endless parade of tech icons, visionaries, movers, shakers and unicorn makers. We’re talking more than 80 scheduled offerings, folks.

Join your people: Buy your pass today and get ready to hear from the leading voices across the startup spectrum.

Where were we? Ah, yes — we’re here to help save you a bit of time by spotlighting just some of the sessions focused on enterprise software and SaaS. Plus, we’ll have a dedicated Disrupt Desk session where industry experts, like Emergence Capital’s Carlotta (Lotti) Siniscalco, and TechCrunch editors, will break it down with deep-analysis, insight and likely a laugh or two.

Check out the Disrupt agenda for exact days and times, and then plan your daily schedule in advance.

From Bootstrapped to Billions

Dozens have tried to reinvent the calendar, and dozens have failed. Tope Awotona built Calendly not as a way to reinvent the wheel, but to add a layer of simplicity to the chaos of human communication and time management. And boy did it work! The once-bootstrapped company is now worth more than $3 billion, serving individuals and enterprises alike. Hear from the founder and CEO on how he got Calendly off the ground, why he decided to finally take institutional investment and how the company has changed as it grows.

An Unstoppable Force and an Immovable Object

Slack and Salesforce are two of the biggest names in tech. The communication tool (born from one of the odder pivots in tech history) is commonplace across organizations from almost every industry. It’s an unstoppable force. The sales CRM behemoth is used all over the world by sales teams small and large. An immovable object. In December of 2020, the pair announced a $27.7 billion merger. Hear from Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield and Salesforce President and COO Bret Taylor about the future of the combined entity, why the deal made sense and what it’s like to write down that many 0’s.

Powering the Small Business Economy with Cloud Technology

Small business is a critical engine of job creation, economic growth and innovation, and a driver in our efforts to recover from a global pandemic. Fifteen years ago, a New Zealand start-up called Xero was founded with the purpose of making life better for small businesses and their advisors. Xero achieved this by shifting accounting practices to the cloud and providing an open set of APIs, which has enabled more than 1,000 application partners to build affordable tech solutions connected to the Xero platform. Xero CEO Steve Vamos will discuss how Xero is revolutionizing the way small businesses do business by using the cloud and its platform to connect real-time data with bespoke business solutions that help small business owners be more successful. Steve will speak to a number of key initiatives that will change the game for startups and entrepreneurs who want to innovate and collaborate on the Xero platform, and he will explain how Xero’s vision extends beyond just technology to galvanizing a global community of support and purpose to help small businesses everywhere. Presented by Xero.

Powering What’s Next: Insights from the Enterprise Software Market

Spurred by digital transformation and the recent shift to remote work, the enterprise software industry has gone from strength-to-strength, and competition for deals and valuations are at all-time highs. While investor appetite for enterprise software may be strong, it doesn’t mean that all tech businesses make worthy investments. In this panel, hear from Michael Fosnaugh and Monti Saroya, co-heads of Vista’s flagship investment strategy, and a selection of Vista CEOs on the hallmarks of best-in-class software companies and trends driving the industry. Presented by Vista Equity Partners.

Achieve Sustainable IT with Prometheus, Grafana and Hardware Sentry

Implementing sustainability initiatives to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in the data center is a vital challenge. Join Bertrand Martin, Sentry Software’s co-founder and CEO, as he presents Hardware Sentry Exporter for Prometheus. Measure the power consumption and temperature of more than 250 platforms with this unique pure-software solution. Report CO₂ emissions, electricity usage and costs of applications and services in Grafana. Reduce the carbon footprint of your data center with intelligent optimization of ambient temperature. Presented by Sentry Software.

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 takes place on September 21-23. Buy your pass today and learn about the latest trends and developments in SaaS and enterprise software — and so much more.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? We have just a few spots left — so contact our sponsorship sales team asap by filling out this form.

Luminate aims to make hair loss from chemotherapy a thing of the past

Hair loss resulting from chemotherapy is one of the most recognizable side effects in all of medicine, and for many is an unwanted public announcement of their condition and treatment. Luminate Medical may have a solution in a medical wearable that prevents the chemical cocktail from tainting hair follicles, preventing the worst of the loss and perhaps relegating this highly visible condition to the past.

When Luminate CEO Aaron Hannon and his co-founder Bárbara Oliveira were asking patients and doctors about areas of cancer treatment that they could perhaps innovate in, “we were just astonished at how much hair loss dominated the conversation,” said Hannon. “So from then on out we’ve just been laser focused on making that something that doesn’t exist any more.”

When a patient is undergoing chemotherapy, the cancer-inhibiting drugs course through their entire body — anywhere the blood goes. This has a variety of side effects, like weakness and nausea, and on a longer time scale hair loss occurs as the substances affect the follicles. Luminate’s solution, developed in partnership with the National University of Ireland Galway, is to prevent the blood from reaching those cells in the first place.

Image of a woman wearing the Luminate headset.

Image Credits: Luminate

The device that effects this is a sort of mechanized compression garment for the head. If that sounds a bit sinister, don’t worry — the pressure comes from air bladders and pads pressing against the scalp, not screws or plates; Hannon says that it isn’t uncomfortable and pressure is carefully monitored.

There’s also no risk of damage from lack of blood flow in those cells. “Compression therapy has been really well studied,” he said. “There are years of literature around how long you can apply these therapies without damaging the cells. There’s a certain amount of mechanical engineering involved in making it both comfortable and effective.”

The patient wears the cap during and after the whole chemo session. By restricting blood flow to the skin of the scalp only, it allows the drugs to flow unimpeded to wherever the tumor or cancer site is while saving the hair follicles from damage.

Tests have been done on animals, which saw hair retention of around 80 percent with no adverse effects — and while full human trials are something that will need some time and approval to set up, initial tests of the headset’s bloodflow-blocking effects on healthy patients showed that it works exactly as expected on people as well.

“We’re really excited about the efficacy of this therapy because it works with lots of hair types,” said Hannon. That’s a real consideration, since a tech that only worked with short hair, straight hair, or some other subset of hairstyles would exclude far too many people.

Luminate's app showing how long is left in therapy for the user.

Image Credits: Luminate / Wild Island Pictures

As for competition, although there are some new treatments that cool the scalp instead of compressing it, Hannon noted that the most money is spent by far on wigs. An average of a thousand dollars per patient who opts for a wig means there’s considerable leeway for a device in that neighborhood.

Although hair loss is considered a medical condition by many insurance companies and other methods of reimbursement, and wigs are often covered, it will take time and lots of evidence to get Luminate’s device approved for those processes. But the team is confident that at around $1,500, the device is within the means of many as long as other costs are being picked up by insurance. People do, after all, spend that much and more not just on wigs but on other hair retention products and methods. If there was a checkbox for “don’t lose hair” on the chemo forms with a $1,500 price tag, a whole lot of people would check it without a second thought.

Cofounders Bárbara Oliveira (left) and Aaron Hannon.

Image Credits: Luminate

Ultimately, however, Luminate wants to be able to offer the device also to those who can’t afford the cost out of pocket, so they are progressing towards FDA approval and a U.S. launch, with Europe and others to come.

 

So far Luminate, just graduating from Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 batch, has been lucky enough to operate on funds provided through grants from the Irish government, which are of course non-dilutive. While more capital will almost certainly be required come time for scaling and international launch, right now the team is focused on getting the device into the hands (and onto the heads) of its first set of patients.

5 takeaways from Toast’s S-1 filing

Welcome back to IPO season.

No, we won’t call it hot liquidity summer, but after an August lull, the public-offering cycle is back upon us. Last week we saw filings from Warby Parker, Toast and Freshworks. We’ve dug into Warby already. This week, we’re tackling the details of the latter two debuts, starting with Toast.


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Why do we care about Toast? It’s a technology startup. It’s a unicorn. And it raised more than $900 million while private, per Crunchbase data. And the company is a leading constituent of the Boston startup scene.

Even more, the software-and-payments company combines subscription incomes, transaction fees, hardware revenues and lending earnings. Its business is complex — in a good way — and may help us better understand what happens to software companies when they build more financial capabilities into their original applications.

It’s an interesting company, one that was initially impacted heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s go over the company’s overall financial performance, dig into how COVID affected the company’s business, consider how its revenue mix is changing over time, discuss how important fintech incomes are for the company and what it might be worth. This will be good fun. Let’s go!

Toast’s growth is accelerating

We’ll carve more deeply into how the company generates revenues shortly. For now, just keep in mind that the company has a number of revenue streams, each of which has a different gross-margin profile. So, we’re not only discussing high-margin software revenues in the following.

Here’s Toast’s topline performance for 2019, 2020, and the first half of both 2020 and 2021, taken from its S-1 filing:

Image Credits: Toast S-1

We can quickly see that the company grew from 2019 to 2020, albeit at a moderate clip. More recently, observing the two columns on the far right, we can see much more rapid growth from the company. In year-on-year comparative terms, Toast grew 24% in 2020 and 105% in the first half of 2021.

Thinking about how COVID-19 hit the food business, observing modest growth at the company in 2020 feels somewhat strong; despite huge market chop, Toast still grew nicely. And the company’s H1 2021 results indicate that the product work that Toast engaged in during the global pandemic has worked well, allowing it to accelerate growth by a factor of four in the last two quarters when compared to 2020’s overall pace of revenue expansion.

The above data also helps us better understand why Toast is going public now. After pushing through 2020, the company’s current portrait is one of accelerating growth leading to massive top-line accretion. Toast looks more than strong. And there’s no better time to go public than when you have numbers to brag about.

Heimdal pulls CO2 and cement-making materials out of seawater using renewable energy

One of the consequences of rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere is that levels also rise proportionately in the ocean, harming wildlife and changing ecosystems. Heimdal is a startup working to pull that CO2 back out at scale using renewable energy and producing carbon-negative industrial materials, including limestone for making concrete, in the process, and it has attracted significant funding even at its very early stage.

If the concrete aspect seems like a bit of a non sequitur, consider two facts: concrete manufacturing is estimated to produce as much as eight percent all greenhouse gas emissions, and seawater is full of minerals used to make it. You probably wouldn’t make this connection unless you were in some related industry or discipline, but Heimdal founders Erik Millar and Marcus Lima did while they were working in their respective masters programs at Oxford. “We came out and did this straight away,” he said.

They both firmly believe that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but were disappointed at the lack of permanent solutions to its many and various consequences across the globe. Carbon capture, Millar noted, is frequently a circular process, meaning it is captured only to be used and emitted again. Better than producing new carbons, sure, but why aren’t there more ways to permanently take them out of the ecosystem?

The two founders envisioned a new linear process that takes nothing but electricity and CO2-heavy seawater and produces useful materials that permanently sequester the gas. Of course, if it was as easy that, everyone would already be doing it.

Heimdal founders Marcus Lima (left) and Erik Millar sitting by a metal gate on stone steps..

Image Credits: Heimdal

“The carbon markets to make this economically viable have only just been formed,” said Millar. And the cost of energy has dropped through the floor as huge solar and wind installations have overturned decades-old power economies. With carbon credits (the market for which I will not be exploring, but suffice it to say it is an enabler) and cheap power come new business models, and Heimdal’s is one of them.

The Heimdal process, which has been demonstrated at lab scale (think terrariums instead of thousand-gallon tanks), is roughly as follows. First the seawater is alkalinized, shifting its pH up and allowing the isolation of some gaseous hydrogen, chlorine, and a hydroxide sorbent. This is mixed with a separate stream of seawater, causing the precipitation of calcium, magnesium, and sodium minerals and reducing the saturation of CO2 in the water — allowing it to absorb more from the atmosphere when it is returned to the sea. (I was shown an image of the small-scale prototype facility but, citing pending patents, Heimdal declined to provide the photo for publication.)

A diagram describing Heimdal's carbon extraction process

Image Credits: Heimdal

So from seawater and electricity, they produce hydrogen and chlorine gas, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Carbonate, and Magnesium Carbonate, and in the process sequester a great deal of dissolved CO2.

For every kiloton of seawater, one ton of CO2 is isolated, and two tons of the carbonates, each of which has an industrial use. MgCO3 and Na2CO3 are used in, among other things, glass manufacturing, but it’s CaCO3, or limestone, that has the biggest potential impact.

As a major component of the cement-making process, limestone is always in great demand. But current methods for supplying it are huge sources of atmospheric carbon. All over the world industries are investing in carbon reduction strategies, and while purely financial offsets are common, moving forward the preferred alternative will likely be actually carbon-negative processes.

To further stack the deck in its favor, Heimdal is looking to work with desalination plants, which are common around the world where fresh water is scarce but seawater and energy are abundant, for example the coasts of California and Texas in the U.S., and many other areas globally, but especially where deserts meet the sea, like in the MENA region.

Desalination produces fresh water and proportionately saltier brine, which generally has to be treated, as to simply pour it back into the ocean can throw the local ecosystem out of balance. But what if there were, say, a mineral-collecting process between the plant and the sea? Heimdal gets the benefit of more minerals per ton of water, and the desalination plant has an effective way of handling its salty byproduct.

“Heimdal’s ability to use brine effluent to produce carbon-neutral cement solves two problems at once,” said Yishan Wong, former Reddit CEO, now CEO of Terraformation and individually an investor in Heimdal. “It creates a scalable source of carbon-neutral cement, and converts the brine effluent of desalination into a useful economic product. Being able to scale this together is game-changing on multiple levels.”

Terraformation is a big proponent of solar desalination, and Heimdal fits right into that equation; the two are working on an official partnership that should be announced shortly. Meanwhile a carbon-negative source for limestone is something cement makers will buy every gram of in their efforts to decarbonize.

Wong points out that the primary cost of Heimdal’s business, beyond the initial ones of buying tanks, pumps, and so on, is that of solar energy. That’s been trending downwards for years and with huge sums being invested regularly there’s no reason to think that the cost won’t continue to drop. And profit per ton of CO2 captured — already around 75 percent of over $500-$600 in revenue — could also grow with scale and efficiency.

Millar said that the price of their limestone is, when government incentives and subsidies are included, already at price parity with industry norms. But as energy costs drop and scales rise, the ratio will grow more attractive. It’s also nice that their product is indistinguishable from “natural” limestone. “We don’t require any retrofitting for the concrete providers — they just buy our synthetic calcium carbonate rather than buy it from mining companies,” he explained.

All in all it seems to make for a promising investment, and though Heimdal has not yet made its public debut (that would be forthcoming at Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day) it has attracted a $6.4 million seed round. The participating investors are Liquid2 Ventures, Apollo Projects, Soma Capital, Marc Benioff, Broom Ventures, Metaplanet, Cathexis Ventures, and as mentioned above, Yishan Wong.

Heimdal has already signed LOIs with several large cement and glass manufacturers, and is planning its first pilot facility at a U.S. desalination plant. After providing test products to its partners on the scale of tens of tons, they plan to enter commercial production in 2023.

Instagram will require users to provide their birthday

Instagram will begin prodding users to share their birthday with the service, if they haven’t already done so. The company today announced it will now start popping up a notification that asks you to add your birthday to “personalize your experience.” But the prompt can only be dismissed a handful of times before becoming a requirement. The move is a part of Instagram’s larger goal to create new safety features aimed at younger users, the company explains. This includes the teen privacy protections introduced earlier this year, as well as Instagram’s longer-term plan to launch a version of its service aimed at users under the age of 13.

This March, Instagram rolled out new features that made it more difficult for adults to contact teens through its app. Then in July, the company announced a larger series of changes to the default settings for new users under the age of 16. It will now default these users’ accounts to “private” and limit their accounts from being suggested elsewhere in the app. It also now restricts adults whose accounts are flagged as “potentially suspicious” from being able to reach out to other minors or interact with their posts.

Starting this week, Instagram says users who have not yet shared their birthday will begin to see pop-up notifications when they open the Instagram app.

These notifications will appear a handful of times, but at some point, users will no longer be able to dismiss the message by tapping “Not Now.” Instead, everyone will ultimately be required to share their birthday to continue to use Instagram.

The company will also now request you to share your birthday information when you come across a post with a warning screen. These screens, which hide content that’s flagged as sensitive or graphic, are not new. But Instagram has never before asked for a user’s birthday before displaying the hidden content.

Image Credits: Instagram

The birthday entry form itself is not complex. You simply scroll to choose the month, day and year of your birthday.

Of course, kids are commonly known to lie on these entry forms in order to bypass restrictions when signing up for apps. On this front, Instagram has developed A.I. technology to help it identify accounts were kids may have lied. For instance, it may be able to infer someone’s birthday based on comments left on “Happy Birthday” posts, where the user’s age may be referenced. The company also hints at further plans in this area, noting how it will later require users to verify their age when Facebook’s technology determines a mismatch between the age the user submitted and what appears to be their real age, based on other signals.

That technology is still in the “early stages,” says Instagram, but will involve a menu of options that will allow someone to verify their age.

The need to have users’ birthdays on hand isn’t only meant to power the recently launched teen protection features. Instagram is also working to bring its app to younger users — a decision that’s been met with a hostile response from legislators and consumer advocacy groups alike. In addition, age remains an important data point for ad targeting. Even as Instagram pulled back on the ability for marketers to target teens using interest data or their activity on other apps, it will continue to allow ad targeting based on age, gender and location across age groups.

The company is now one of several to have rolled out added protections for younger teen users, ahead of regulations that would force them to do so. Over the course of this year, TikTok, YouTube, and Google have also announced changes to how younger teens can use their services and how they can be targeted by ads, in anticipation of a regulatory crackdown. While each has crafted its own set of teen safety features independently, the changes have largely addressed making the default settings for new teenage users more restrictive.

Instagram says the new birthday pop-up notifications will begin to appear this week on the mobile app and will continue to roll out over the weeks ahead to reach more users.

Russell Westbrook, Chainsmokers join group pouring $13.5M into prebiotic soda brand Poppi

Poppi, a prebiotic soda brand, closed $13.5 million in a Series A2 round and is on a mission to lead in the new category of “functional soda” by offering a better-for-you product that also tastes good.

The investor group includes CAVU Ventures as well as sports and entertainment celebrities like Russell Westbrook, the Chainsmokers, 24kGoldn, Kygo, Halsey, Kevin Love, Ellie Goulding, Olivia Munn, Nicole Scherzinger, Chantel Jeffries, Bryce Hall, Noah Beck, Josh Richards, Griffin Johnson and Blake Gray.

Husband-and-wife co-founders Stephen and Allison Ellsworth, former oil and gas researchers, launched the soda in 2020 after Allison Ellsworth began having stomach issues about two years prior. She went to doctor after doctor without a definitive diagnosis and decided to take to the internet to find some answers. She not only found that 80% of our body’s immunity stems from gut health, but that she could assist by healing her body through food.

One of the foods that helped with the stomach issues was apple cider vinegar, but drinking it straight everyday became difficult for her. So she went into the kitchen and began concocting a drink that would help her tolerate the vinegar and be tasty enough to drink regularly.

What resulted was a drink that eventually became a hit at a Dallas farmers market, which is where the pair was approached to sell Poppi in Whole Foods Market. They then decided to quit their jobs and do Poppi full time, even gaining a deal from CAVU Ventures co-founder Rohan Oza on Shark Tank in December 2018.

Each can of Poppi includes approximately a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, sparkling water, real fruit and plant-based sweeteners mixed into a formula that provides a balance of gut-friendly prebiotics known to aid in digestion, immunity and glowing skin.

The drinks retail for $2.49 per can and come in nine flavors like watermelon, strawberry lemon, raspberry rose and orange. They are available in over 7,500 retail locations, including Target, Safeway, Kroger, Publix, Whole Foods and Amazon.com.

Allison and Stephen Ellsworth, Poppi co-founders. Image Credits: Poppi

Now the Ellsworths say they are receiving comments from consumers who say Poppi has “changed their lives.”

“At the end of the day, we are putting out a product that is healthy and tastes good,” Allison Ellsworth said. “We don’t want to be a niche health product — that is secondary to what we are trying to do, but it’s a bonus that we get that, too.”

Another bonus is that within the functional soda category, which has grown 465% year over year based on data from research company SPINS, the Ellsworths boast their annual growth put Poppi in the No. 1 spot based on four-week data from SPINS ending June 13, 2021.

Prior to the round, the company was bootstrapped. Proceeds will be used to expand distribution, scale Poppi’s team of 50 currently and marketing. The company is based in Dallas for now, but Allison Ellsworth said the company is moving its headquarters to Austin.

The company grew its revenue 550% year over year and the funding assists in giving Poppi a burn rate of 12 months and the ability to continue in high-growth mode, Stephen Ellsworth said.

Stevie Clements, chief brand architect at CAVU Ventures and a member of Poppi’s board, said via email that the company’s product, founders and growth to date were the drivers for her firm to invest in the company.

In addition, people are looking for products like Poppi that do more for them, while gut health, in particular, is a highly relevant category. The company’s ability to “deliver real function with incredible flavor is unlike anything on the market,” she said.

“Soda is a massive category ripe for disruption, and Stephen and Allison are a great team with an authentic story that’s really proven to resonate with people,” Clements added. “We’re excited by what Poppi has accomplished thus far and feel strongly that a better-for-you soda that tastes amazing and offers real function can shake up the multibillion dollar soda category.”

 

Alpaca raises $50M to rapidly scale its API-delivered equities trading business

Alpaca said this morning that it has closed a massive $50 million Series B round of capital. TechCrunch previously covered the company’s late-2019 $6 million seed round and its late-2020 $10 million Series A.

Alpaca offers equities trading software via API. The company initially allowed firms to plug into its technology, powering the trading capabilities of investing groups. More recently, Alpaca has begun allowing other fintech companies to offer equities trading through its service to their consumer user bases, work that fits under the larger embedded finance trend.

Tribe Capital led the company’s Series B, which saw participation from existing investors Spark Capital, Portage Ventures and Social Leverage. New investors including Horizons Ventures also put funds into the round.

Alpaca is an interesting startup. During the savings-and-trading boom of 2020, we used the company’s trading volume growth as a proxy not only for the growth of API-delivered software startups, but also as a window into interest in buying and selling U.S. equities more broadly.

By now offering its trading services to fintechs with consumer end users — the B2B2C model, if you will — Alpaca has expanded its market remit. Per the startup, the number of brokerage accounts it supports has risen some 1,500% this year to more than 100,000. The startup’s CEO, Yoshi Yokokawa, told TechCrunch that it expects to secure 100 partners for its equities trading tech by the end of 2021. That figure was zero at the end of 2020, before its embedded finance product was released.

For Alpaca, working with more fintech companies opens up new revenue streams. The company will continue to generate payment for order flow incomes (PFOF), it said, but by supporting international customers, it can also earn incomes from foreign exchange fees and more.

Notably, Alpaca intends to make its service an anti-cost center by sharing PFOF revenues with partners that embed its fintech APIs. Yokokawa declined to share the PFOF split with customers, but our guess is that something around 15% to 25% makes sense, providing incentives to potential partners to choose Alpaca over rival tech while keeping enough top line on the Alpaca side of the ledger to continue building a venture-scale business.

The startup has big plans: It is moving into the cryptocurrency market, it announced this morning, and partnering with Plaid to make money transfer easier for investors. Recent results from Robinhood, a consumer trading platform popular in the United States, helped underscore just how lucrative crypto trading can be for platforms.

Why raise $50 million? TechCrunch was curious why the company would put so much capital onto its books in a single shot instead of raising a more modest round of, say, $25 million, still a healthy figure for a Series B and one closer in size to its preceding Series A.

Yokokawa said Alpaca has a lot of stuff to build. And to build it all is going to take a lot of folks. Alpaca had just 10 employees when COVID-19 hit, which means that the company has a lot of hiring in front of it. And the sorts of developers it needs, we suppose, aren’t going to come cheap.

Still, big rounds mean big expectations, from both investors and the observer team (that’s us) as well. We’ll check back with the company in a few months to see if it is on track to reach its partner goal for 2021.

The Station: Rivian makes its IPO move, Nuro pushes into Nevada and Waymo scales up in SF

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Hello readers: Welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B. I’m back after a one-week hiatus. Did ya miss me? Yes, of course you did.

A lot happened while I was away and I’ll try my best to highlight the important stuff. Before I get to the hard news, I want to direct your attention to the latest founders Q&A — an ongoing series to highlight people who have started and are running transportation companies. Our twist? We will check on these founders a year from when their interview has been published.

This week, Zūm co-founder and CEO Ritu Narayan was in the hot seat. Check it out.

Also, it’s been awhile since I have directed y’all to The Autonocast, the podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer. We’ve had some great episodes in recent weeks, notably our interview with mobility-focused venture capitalist Olaf Sakkers. He joined the show to discuss “The Mobility Disruption Framework,” a funny, insightful book about the trends and technologies transforming the ways we get around. You can read the book here.

As always, you can email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Nuro’s Nevada play

Nuro-Vegas

Image Credits: Nuro

Earlier this month, we published a series of articles that took a deep dive into autonomous vehicle technology company Nuro. We mentioned that the company was aiming to move into Nevada. Now, there are more details.

Nuro, which is applying its AV tech to delivery, is investing $40 million to develop a factory and closed course test track in southern Nevada. Nuro co-founder and CEO Jiajun Zhu said this will allow Nuro to “build tens of thousands of robots.”

And Nuro isn’t wasting any time getting started. Construction on the factory will begin in fall 2021 and is expected to be completed in 2022. Both the factory and closed-course testing facility are expected to be fully operational in 2022, the company said.

The factory, which will be more than 125,000 square feet, will be used to build Nuro’s third-generation autonomous vehicles with current and future partners. BYD North America will be Nuro’s manufacturing partner.

Nuro is also taking over 74 acres of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to build a closed-course testing facility that will allow the development and validation of its autonomous on-road vehicles. The testing track will measure bot performance in a broad range of scenarios, from avoiding pedestrians and pets to giving bicycles space on shared roadways, as well as environmental tests and vehicle systems validation. the company said.

Deal of the week

money the station

Rivian has raised more than $10.5 billion in its lifetime, funds that have been directed towards the design, development and production of its first two electric vehicles as well as commercial vans for Amazon.

It’s a hefty sum that should be enough to fulfill that mission — and more. And yet, even Rivian is no match for the public market’s siren song.

The company, just weeks before its first electric pickup trucks are expected to be delivered to customers, confidentially filed paperwork with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to go public. A Rivian IPO announcement has been expected for months now. The valuation the company is shooting for is the big surprise. If Bloomberg’s sources are right, Rivian is shooting for a valuation roughly around $80 billion.

That’s nearly three times larger than the last valuation I was able to nail down in January. At that time, the company had just raised another $2.65 billion from existing investors T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., Fidelity Management and Research Company, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, Coatue and D1 Capital Partners. New investors also participated in that round, which pushed Rivian’s valuation to $27.6 billion, a source familiar with the investment round told TechCrunch at the time.

Rivian has raised more money since then. In July, the company announced it had closed a $2.5 billion private funding round led by Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, D1 Capital Partners, Ford Motor and funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. Third Point, Fidelity Management and Research Company, Dragoneer Investment Group and Coatue also participated in that round. The company did not share a post-money valuation at the time of the July 2021 announcement.

Officially, Rivian says the size and price range for the proposed offering have yet to be determined.

Other deals that got my attention this week …

Coco, the Los Angeles delivery robot startup, raised $36 million in a Series A round led by Sam Altman, Silicon Valley Bank and Founders Fund, with participation from Sam Nazarian, Ellen Chen and Mario Del Pero. It brings the company’s total funding up to around $43 million.

DealerPolicy, an insurance marketplace for automotive retail, raised $110 million in a Series C rouond led by the Growth Equity business within Goldman Sachs Asset Management. Additional investors include 3L Capital and Hudson Structured Capital Management Ltd. Goldman Sachs’ Paul Pate will also join the company’s board of directors.

Getaround, the peer-to-peer car-sharing startup, is in talks to go public through a merger with special purpose acquisition company Altitude Acquisition Corp , Reuters reported. The company has confidentially sought investors to participate in the deal through a private placement in public equity, or PIPE, at a valuation of around $1.7 billion.

HyPoint, the two-year-old fuel cell developer, has secured a $6.5 million development agreement with Piasecki Aircraft Corporation for the design and certification of hydrogen fuel cell systems. Through the partnership, HyPoint aims to deliver five full-scale, 650 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for ground testing, demo flights and the certification process.

KKR, the global investment firm, has plans to acquire New Zealand bus and coach company Ritchies Transport, which currently has a fleet of more than 1,600 vehicles and 42 depots that operate across the country. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but sources familiar with the circumstances say the deal values Ritchies at over $347 million ($500 million NZD). This is KKR’s first infrastructure investment in New Zealand.

Malta Inc., an energy storage company, said that Chevron Technology Ventures and Piva Capital have joined a group of investors including Proman, Alfa Laval, Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Dustin Moskovitz in its oversubscribed Series B financing, increasing the round to more than $60 million.

MaxAB, the Egyptian B2B e-commerce platform that serves food and grocery retailers, raised a $15 million extension from existing investors RMBV, IFC, Flourish Ventures, Crystal Stream Capital, Rise Capital, Endeavour Catalyst, Beco Capital and 4DX Ventures. The extension brings its total Series A fundraise to $55 million.

Point Pickup Technologies, a last-mile delivery service, acquired white-label e-commerce platform GrocerKey for $42 million. The acquisition means Point Pickup will be able to offer retailers services such as same-day delivery under their own brand name, rather than under third parties like Instacart.

Upstream, the Israeli automotive security firm, raised $62 million in a Series C funding round led by Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance and was joined by new investors I.D.I. Insurance, 57 Stars’ NextGen Mobility Fund and La Maison Partners. Existing investors Glilot Capital, Salesforce venture, Volvo Group Venture Capital, Nationwide, Delek US and others also participated in the round. With this latest round, the company has raised a total of $105 million since its founding in 2017.

Volvo Group has agreed to buy heavy duty truck subsidiary of Jiangling Motors Corp for about 1.1 billion Swedish crowns ($125.7 million) to make trucks in China, Reuters reported.

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

Welcome back to policy corner! The stalemate over the budget reconciliation that I warned might take months to break — just kidding! The House managed to pass the $3.5 trillion budget resolution and made progress on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill on Tuesday, in a 220-212 bipartisan vote. The vote includes a non-binding agreement to vote on the infrastructure bill by Sept. 27.

The path is now clear for Democrats to pass one of the most socially progressive budgets in decades, with a slew of social safety net provisions for childcare, healthcare, climate and education. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had previously sworn she would stall the infrastructure bill until the budget passed, so the infrastructure bill passing sometime in our lifetime is suddenly looking like a much more realistic proposal!

Progressive Democrats in particular are committed to keeping the fate of the two bills intertwined. “We will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill,” Progressive Caucus chairwoman, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.), said in a statement.

Speaking of the two bills… while consumer incentives for electric vehicles were slashed from the infrastructure bill, they did survive the budget reconciliation. Right now, there currently exists a 30D tax credit, but the $7,500 incentive doesn’t include automakers that have sold more than 200,000 EVs (so General Motors and Tesla don’t qualify).

Leilani Gonzalez with the Zero Emission Transportation Association urged reform to the EV tax credit. She suggested that Congress slash means-testing for the credit, like one that only allows people under a certain annual income to access it.

“Congress should ensure that this tax credit is not impeded by restrictive means-tested requirements, like low manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) or adjusted gross income (AGI) caps,” she wrote. “These limitations ignore the public benefits of EVs that leave everyone better off, and they would only serve to hinder EV adoption.”

Even beyond reform, some Democrats are pushing for a direct cash rebate — meaning that the dollar amount would just be taken off the cost of the car at the point of sale, rather than the consumer having to wait to get that money back at tax time. But we’re still a long way from seeing a new kind of consumer incentive put into law, with some Democrats urging a $12,500 tax credit, and others arguing for a rebate, with still others arguing for either but with means-testing like what Gonzalez writes about.

In any case, we’ll be keeping an eye on it. It’s very hard to imagine how the country will achieve any kind of meaningful transition to electric vehicles by 2030 without some mechanism to make them easier (and cheaper) to buy.

In other news, the Federal Aviation Administration is spending $20.4 million in grants to airports who want to electrify equipment and transition to ZEVs. This isn’t about the planes themselves, though they tend to get the most media attention. These grants would be for less sexy things like airport shuttle buses and mobile ground power units, but which collectively still generate a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. The FAA has earmarked $300 million out of its $3.5 billion budget for electrification initiatives.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Notable news and other tidbits

It’s one of those weeks folks. Lotta news so let’s get down to it.

ADAS

Tesla CEO Elon Musk admitted that the latest version of its so-called FSD tech — which is an upgraded version of its Autopilot advanced driver assistance system — is “not great.” He went on to write that the “Autopilot/AI team is rallying to improve as fast as possible. We’re trying to have a single tech stack for both highway & city streets, but it requires massive [neural network] retraining.”

Autonomous vehicles

Cruise, GM’s self-driving car subsidiary, launched a new initiative called Farm to Fleet that will allow the company to source solar power from farms in California’s Central Valley. Cruise is directly purchasing renewable energy credits from Sundale Vineyards and Moonlight Companies to help power its fleet of all-electric autonomous vehicles in San Francisco.

Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky has a great explainer on the various levels of SAE autonomy.

Toyota suspended the operation of its e-Palette autonomous shuttles — which do have two human safety operators on board — at the Paralympic Games Athletes’ Village after one of the shuttles struck an athlete. The schedule for resuming operations at the Paralympic Games has not yet been determined, the company said. A spokesperson also noted to me that only the shuttles at the Olympics were halted. The e-Palette program is still operational.

Update: Since the newsletter went out to subscribers over the weekend, Toyota has restarted the e-Palette shuttles in the Olympic village. It’s important to note that these shuttles use a combination of manual and autonomous driving modes while underway. Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized for the incident during a recent interview. The translation provided in closed captioning isn’t great, but he does make some interesting comments about the readiness of autonomous vehicle technology. In short: it’s not ready and humans are still better drivers.

Waymo has launched a robotaxi service that will be open to certain vetted riders in San Francisco. The company officially kicked off its Waymo One Trusted Tester program in the city with a fleet of all-electric Jaguar I-PACEs equipped with the company’s fifth generation of its autonomous vehicle system. This is a big step for Waymo and we’ll be watching closely to see how the ramp mirrors, or differs, from its service in the Phoenix area.

Greg Bensinger took a look at the terms of service on the Waymo One ride-hailing app and in a tweet thread provides a breakdown of what riders are agreeing to, including that the company will record video of riders while being driven around San Francisco.

Waymo also has decided to get out of the lidar sales business as it shifts its focus to deploying its autonomous vehicle technology across its ride-hailing and trucking divisions. In 2019, Waymo announced it would sell its short-range lidar, called Laser Bear Honeycomb, to companies outside of self-driving cars. It initially targeted robotics, security and agricultural technology.

Electric vehicles

GM expanded (again) its recall of Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles due to fire risks from battery manufacturing defects. The automaker said it would seek reimbursement from LG Chem, its battery cell manufacturing partner, for what it expects to be $1 billion worth of losses. this is the third recall GM has issued for this vehicle related to batteries.

Lordstown Motors hired Daniel A. Ninivaggi, a longtime automotive executive and former head of Carl C. Icahn’s holding company, as CEO and a board member. The appointment follows months of tumult at Lordstown, which became publicly traded via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company.

Other bits

Aria Alamalhodaei wrote up a feature on Buoyant, a recent Y Combinator grad and one of several airship startups that have popped up recently.

Mercedes-Benz’s chief technology officer Sajjad Khan is leaving the automaker to start a venture capital fund, the company said in a statement. Khan’s replacement, Magnus Östberg, will take over the CTO role effective Sept. 1.

Porsche Cars North America added its entire U.S. inventory of new cars to an online marketplace that it launched in May 2020. The platform called Porsche Finder is one of the ways the automaker is trying to keep up with customer demands and the industry’s shift to digital commerce. The product lets customers search by vehicle model and generation as well as price, equipment, packages and colors, on all new and used vehicle inventory from its 193 U.S. dealerships.

Tesla wants to supply electricity directly to customers, according to an application filed with Texas electricity regulators earlier this month. Energy Choice Matters first reported on the application.

The application, filed with the Public Utilities Commission of Texas on August 16, is a request to become what’s called a “retail electric provider” under its subsidiary Tesla Energy Ventures. On the deregulated, idiosyncratic Texas power market, REPs generally purchase wholesale electricity from power generators and sell it to customers. More than 100 REPs currently compete on the open market.

Brazil’s Petlove raises $150M from Riverwood, SoftBank to sell pet products and services online

Petlove&Co, a São Paulo-based digital platform for products and services for the pet market, announced today that it has raised about $150 million (R$750 million) today in a funding round led by Riverwood Capital.

The round is nearly double that of what Petlove has raised in its history. The company started its life as PetSuperMarket when it was founded in 1999 in the early days of the internet. Today, the company continues to operate an online store offering a wide range of pet products and services.

Tarpon, SoftBank, L Catterton, Porto Seguro and Monashees also participated in the funding round, which brings the company’s total raised to a known $225.8 million over its lifetime, according to Crunchbase. Since January 2020 alone, Petlove has raised over $192 million. The company has declined to reveal at what valuation this last round was raised.

Petlove CEO Talita Lacerda said the company will use the new capital in part to further expand its logistics network with the goal of accelerating its delivery capabilities. In particular, it plans to expand its express delivery service, Petlove Já, which allows products to be delivered within 4 hours of placing their order, to other geographies. Currently it is only available in a few cities in Brazil, such as São Paulo and Belo Horizonte. 

The funding will also go toward growing Petlove’s subscription program, which Lacerda said is the first of its kind in the country, and one of the company’s flagship services.

“The Brazilian pet market is one of the largest in the world and Brazilian consumers are increasingly demanding digitally native products and services with a high level of customer-centricity,” said Francisco Alvarez-Demalde, co-founding partner and managing partner at Riverwood Capital, in a written statement.

The company has evolved and grown after a recent integration with DogHero, the acquisitions of Vetus and VetSmart and the launch of Porto.Pet.

“We have built an increasingly comprehensive and inclusive platform to meet the needs of all stakeholders in this rapidly expanding market,” Lacerda said.

Brazil is the 4th largest pet market in total spend, the company says. According to the Instituto Pet Brasil, total sales of the Brazilian pet market surpassed US$7 billion (R$40 billion) in 2020, growing 13.5% compared to the previous year, while Petlove grew 65%. Overall, pet ownership in the country is high, with 60% of Brazilians owning pets compared to 50% in the US. 

Petlove has over 400 employees, according to Pitchbook.

Alex Szapiro, head of Brazil and operating partner of SoftBank Latin America Fund described the work that Petlove has done to help “form the largest ecosystem in Latin America” as  “one of the most extraordinary in the segment and in the entire retail sector.”

Ideanomics to buy EV fleet maker Via Motors in $450M all-stock deal

Ideanomics, a fintech and electric mobility firm based in New York, has added to its list of acquisitions on Monday to buy commercial electric vehicle manufacturer Via Motors in an all-stock deal valued at $450 million.

Ideanomics has been aggressively purchasing mobility businesses this year, as it seeks to build out vertically integrated offerings for fleet operators and transit authorities transitioning to electric vehicles. The Via Motors acquisition announcement pushed Ideanomics’ share price up 6% since the market opened to $2.43.

This year alone, Ideanomics has completed acquisitions of US Hybrid, a manufacturer of electric powertrain components and fuel cell engines, EV tractor maker Solectrac, which builds the only American-made electric tractor, Utah-based wireless charging company Wave and Timios Holdings Corp., which provides title and escrow services.

The acquisition of Via Motors is by far the largest in Ideanomics’ history. Via designs and manufacturers electric vans and trucks for short- and middle-mile delivery, using a modular, “skateboard” style architecture across three vehicle models.

“This acquisition marks a transformational milestone for Ideanomics,” Poor said in an investor call on the deal Monday. He noted that the acquisition also provides “full OEM manufacturing capabilities,” meaning the company can now make the EVs that it finances and keeps charged.

The transaction includes a potential earnout for Via stockholders of up to $180 million, contingent on vehicle deliveries through 2026. The shareholders will also own around 25% of the combined company. Separately, Ideanomics said it will advance a $50 million financing note to fund Via operations.

Ideanomics currently facilitates everything from EV procurement to setting up charging management infrastructure. Through its fintech arm, Ideanomics also offers financing as well as charging-as-a-service and vehicle-as-a-service services, which it says will let fleet companies switch their investment model from capital expenditure-driven to operating expenses-driven.

“We believe the shift from CapEx to OpEx will have a profound effect on fleet operators, accelerating the adoption of zero-emission fleets by removing the obvious barrier to entry but having to invest in new products and infrastructure,” CEO Alfred Poor said in a recent second quarter earnings call.

While the company stayed quiet about financial projections for Utah-based Via through 2026, Poor added that these figures would be included in Ideanomics’ proxy statement submitted to regulators in advance of the acquisition’s closing.

Kocomo raises millions to give people a way to co-own a luxury vacation home

Who doesn’t want a vacation home?

Right. That’s what I thought.

Kocomo is a Mexico City-based startup that wants to help make that dream a reality. And it has just closed on $6 million equity and $50 million debt financing to advance on that goal.

The company aims to allow for cross-border co-ownership of luxury vacation properties that goes beyond the historical use of timeshares. Put simply, the founders of Kocomo — who are a mix of Colombian, British, Mexican, American and Panamanian — want to upend conventional vacation home ownership with a marketplace that gives people a way to purchase, own and sell fractional interests in luxury homes. Or even more simply, Kocomo’s mission is to make the dream of vacation home ownership “an attainable reality for more people around the world.”

Founded this year, it has been operating in stealth mode since May, recently launching a beta version of its website to engage with a “select” group of clients from its waiting list. 

“We are focused initially on Americans and Canadians wanting to buy a vacation home in Mexico, the Caribbean and Costa Rica and then eventually we will be doing the same in Europe,” said Martin Schrimpff, co-founder and CEO of Kocomo.

AllVP and Vine Ventures co-led the equity portion of the financing, which included participation from Picus Capital, Fontes – QED, FJ Labs and Clocktower Technology Ventures, and JAWS — the family office of Starwood Capital Group Chairman Barry Sternlicht. Architect Capital provided the debt investment.

Interestingly, the founders of four Latin American unicorns also put money in the equity round, including Mate Pencz and Florian Hagenbuch of Loft, Oskar Hjertonsson of Cornershop, Carlos Garcia of Kavak and Sergio Furio of Creditas.

No doubt the COVID-19 pandemic had many people reassessing their views about life and work.

In Schrimpff’s case, spending more time with friends and family became a top priority and he accelerated his plans to find a vacation home. But he was disappointed as he explored options. 

“Buying an entire vacation home that I was only going to use a few weeks a year, and which I’d have to manage myself, seemed wasteful, stressful and outdated,” he said. “Furthermore, it was impossible to find a beautiful house on the beach in Mexico that fell within my budget.” 

The experience of renting an Airbnb year after year, with what Schrimpff described as having “inconsistent quality and lack of professional management,” did not make sense to him either. 

And so, as he discussed his frustration with his now co-founders, the idea for Kocomo was born.

Image Credits: Left to right: Kocomo co-founders Tom Baldwin, Martin Schrimpff, Graciela Arango (Brian Requarth not pictured) / Kocomo

The startup’s model is similar to that of another early-stage proptech based here in the U.S. called Pacaso.

In Schrimpff’s view the biggest difference between the two models is that Pacaso is focused more on the second home market in places that are a one- to two-hour drive from where the owners are living.

“Kocomo is focused more on the cross-border vacation homes which are more like a two- to three-hour flight away from where the owners are located,” he said. Also, “the complexities and problems” tackled by Kocomo are larger, considering that they involve cross-border transactions, according to Schrimpff.

Another big differentiator from Pacaso is that Kocomo gives owners the option to “rent their weeks,” added Schrimpff. 

In the same way that NetJets uses shared ownership to create an opportunity for people to enjoy the benefits of private air travel, Kocomo aims to apply a co-ownership model to vacation homes, he said.

“Our platform enables multiple people to own and enjoy a luxury vacation home and split all the costs amongst them without the fuss and hassle normally involved,” explained CFO and co-founder Tom Baldwin. “We call this the smarter way to own a home abroad. Buying a whole home for just a few weeks a year feels like more hassle than it’s worth while spending money on a rental is a waste and an expense, not an asset.”

Kocomo, said co-founder and CPO Graciela Arango, manages all of the legal and administrative processes that come with home acquisition and ownership. For example, it purchases the home through an LLC, finds and vet qualified co-owners, allocates time equitably among the co-owners and performs all of the services necessary to manage and maintain the home over time. It even deals with managing utilities, landscaping and preventive maintenance.

Image Credits: Kocomo

One way it is different from the concept of timeshares, the executives say, in that participants actually own a part of the real estate, not just the use of time. So if the property value goes up, so does someone’s investment.

The company plans to use its equity capital in part toward increasing the number of its nine-person staff, with a particular focus on sales, marketing and engineering. It also, naturally, plans to invest in the technology that powers its platform. The debt capital will go toward the acquisition of about 20 luxury vacation properties in “sought after” destinations in Mexico that are close to airports with international flights — such as Los Cabos, Punta Mita and Tulum.

Next, the company plans to expand to other vacation destinations within direct flying distance of the U.S., such as Costa Rica and the Caribbean. Down the line, the company sees “huge potential” in ski locations, Mediterranean beach destinations and cultural centers such as Paris, London, Madrid and Berlin.

Kocomo has also identified a financial institution partner so that it can provide financing to clients for the purchase of ownership interests in properties on their platform, and is in late-stage discussions to formalize the partnership, according to Baldwin.

“Whereas many startups coming out of stealth-mode focus on going from 0 to a high number of sales quickly, our primary focus initially is to go from 0 to 10 Kocomo qualified co-owners,” said Schrimpff. “Even though we are a B2C company, since our ticket size is upwards of $200,000, our sales cycle exhibits a trajectory more akin to that of a B2B startup.”

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Kocomo is seeing that most of its early interest is coming from people in the tech community. Pacaso, too, saw a similar trend.

“This profile fits our model because they often have flexibility in their calendars, or ability to work remotely, and are open to trying new models, especially if they feel like this is a savvier way to become an owner,” said Schrimpff.

AllVP’s Antonia Rojas said that Kocomo is leveraging technology to deliver “an evolved model of real estate ownership which taps into deep-seated changes in the way consumers organize and prioritize work, family and free time in a post-COVID world.”

The firm was also impressed by the caliber of the team. Schrimpff founded and later sold PayU, a global payments business now owned and controlled by Naspers. Baldwin is a former Goldman Sachs banker who spent the last eight years as a venture capital and private equity investor in Mexico and Brazil. Arango graduated from Harvard Business School, and previously worked at IDEO in Silicon Valley. Brian Requarth, co-founder & non-executive chairman, previously founded real estate classifieds company Vivareal.

Clay debuts a new tool to help people better manage their business and personal relationships

A new startup called Clay, backed by $8 million in seed funding, has built a system designed to help you be more thoughtful with the people in your life, which operates somewhat like a personal CRM. With Clay, you build a collection of the people you meet by connecting your email and calendar with social apps, including Twitter and LinkedIn. Clay then populates each person’s entry with all the relevant information you would need to recall for any future meeting — ranging from their work history to latest tweets to the details on how you met and when you last communicated, among other things.

You also can add notes of your own to each entry, click to activate reminders to follow up with certain people and organize entries into groups. The app supports a command bar, keyboard shortcuts and home screen widgets, as well.

The end result is something that’s not exactly an address book but also not necessarily as sales and pipeline-focused as a CRM system.

Clay’s founders instead refer to their app as a “home for your people,” as it’s attempting to carve out a new space in the market for a more personal system of tracking who you know and how.

Image Credits: Clay

The idea for the startup comes from entrepreneurs Matthew Achariam and Zachary Hamed, Clay’s co-founders and co-CEOs, who met back in their early days of working with startups. Prior to starting Clay, Achariam helped lead product at Y Combinator-backed analytics company, Custora, and Hamed led the product management team for Goldman Sachs’ web platform, Marquee.

“We think that people and relationships have played such an important role in our own career trajectories. And we wanted to dive into that,” Hamed explains, when speaking about what prompted their interest in building Clay.

To get started with Clay — which is available as a web, desktop and mobile app — you’ll first connect your accounts. At present, Clay supports Microsoft Outlook/Office 365, Google Calendar, Gmail/Google Mail and Twitter. You also can add other services via Zapier integrations. After setup, Clay will then automatically track your meetings and personal connections, and augment people’s entries with other details pulled from the web, like their background and work experience listed on LinkedIn and latest tweets.

People’s entries will also detail how you met the person — something people tend to forget over time. For example, they may be noted as a connection you made on LinkedIn, or someone you met in person or in an online meeting.

Through Clay’s desktop app, you also can optionally connect Clay with iMessage, which allows it to augment its people entries with phone numbers and details about when you last communicated. However, this feature should be met with some caution. While Clay doesn’t import the content of your messages, the company says, it has to work around the lack of an official API or SDK to perform this integration. That means the feature requires full disk access in order to function. That’s an elevated security permission some will not feel comfortable using.

Image Credits: Clay

The founders, however, say they’ve built Clay to respect people’s privacy and security. The company’s privacy policy is human-readable and each integration is explained in terms of what data is pulled, what’s not pulled and how the data is used. Currently, data is encrypted on Clay’s servers and in transit, but the goal — and part of what the funding round is going toward — is to make Clay work fully locally on users’ devices.

“We want it to work fully on your machine. We don’t want to be storing any data at all,” says Hamed. “To do that is a very technically complex task, so it was prohibitively out of reach for Matt and I as we were building Clay in the beginning. But now that we have resources, that is our eventual goal.”

Still, Clay may face a difficult time convincing users that it’s safe, due to how many times people have been burned in the past over “smart” address books that abused users’ private data. Only last year, a new startup in this space, Sunshine Contacts, was found to be distributing people’s home addresses, even though these people hadn’t signed up for the app. Many other prior efforts also failed because they overstepped user privacy concerns in order to generate revenue.

Achariam believes the problem with these earlier products was often the business model they adopted.

“That was one of the things we really were thinking about when we started going into the space — because we, ourselves, wanted something like this — and every product that we saw kind of rubbed us the wrong way or exploded because of those reasons,” notes Achariam, of the smart address market’s history. “A lot of these things started off with making the user the product. And then you weren’t paying for it. There was no sustainable business model and at some point, they had to balance those trade-offs,” he says.

Image Credits: Clay

Clay is doing things differently. It’s starting from day one with a pricing plan that will allow it to self-sustain. Right now, that’s a fairly steep $20 per month, but the goal is to bring that down over time and introduce a free plan. (It’s also offering cheaper access to certain groups, like students and nonprofits, if a request is emailed.)

During testing, Clay was adopted by a number of different types of users, including teachers who wanted to remember students and their parents; a congressional candidate who wanted to track their constituents; and a veterinarian who wanted to remember customers and their pets.

“We intentionally made it really cross-industry, cross-disciplinary. We didn’t think that this was a tech problem or investor problem. We went broader,” notes Hamed.

The startup has raised a total of $8 million in seed funding from 2019 through 2020. The funding was led by Forerunner Ventures, with participation from General Catalyst.

Angel investors include Shannon Brayton, former CMO at LinkedIn; Kevin Hartz, former CEO of Eventbrite; Kelvin Beachum, an NFL player, philanthropist and investor; Lindsay Kaplan, co-founder of Chief and former VP of Communications and Brand at Casper; Zoelle Egner, former marketing lead at Airtable; Adam Evans, former CTO of RelateIQ; Charlie Songhurst, former head of corporate strategy at Microsoft; Sam Lessin, former VP of product management at Facebook; Jonah Goodhart, former CEO of Moat and SVP at Oracle; Jeff Morris Jr., Chapter One Ventures and others.

“Emerging from COVID, people are recognizing what had already become true. Relationships are increasingly digital, formed through online interaction and honed through messaging apps. So, how is it that we can be continuously connected, yet increasingly lonely at the same time?” stated Forerunner GP Brian O’Malley, about his firm’s investment. “The problem is that existing social products don’t serve you as the end user. You are just a pawn for some other customer, like a recruiter or some unknown advertiser. Clay is the first relationship software company built to understand all the signals that drive your connections, helping you form better ones with a broader set of people. Clay understands that your network is yours, so you should be empowered to own it,” he added.

Clay is currently opened to sign-ups through its website.

A majority of tech workers support antitrust legislation enforcement

With the arrival of U.S. Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan, breaking up Big Tech has reemerged as a major policy discussion in Washington. The issue seems to be bipartisan, with Republicans and Democrats alike in favor of stemming monopolistic behavior in the tech industry. Of course, the situation on the ground is more nuanced.

One month after the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance five bipartisan bills that would force Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google to split up or walk away from core businesses, Republican committee members introduced new legislation to give Americans legal recourse against online censorship by Big Tech companies. The more conservative-driven policy measures also propose greater transparency into content moderation practices by Big Tech.

This sparring between lawmakers on how to regulate Big Tech is not expected to end anytime soon. But as the U.S. ushers in a new era of digital transformation accelerated by the pandemic, Congress stands firmly united in the belief that Big Tech’s power must be checked to preserve the free market.

As it stands now, small competitors and consumers alike have little choice but to be tethered to Big Tech to participate in today’s modern economic engine. And coming out of the pandemic, the five biggest tech giants are growing at breathtaking speed unseen before in the history of capitalism.

Big Tech companies have come out strongly against regulation that would break up their business operations, suggesting reform would result in the loss of research and development, impractical market fragmentation and higher service costs to consumers.

A survey commissioned by a tech industry trade group funded by Big Tech companies such as Apple, Facebook and Amazon suggests that Americans view tech regulation as a low priority for Congress. Among those listed as top priority for Americans were the economy, public health, climate change and infrastructure. The survey also revealed that Americans are more likely to oppose regulation if it were to affect offerings like free shipping on Amazon Prime products.

Perhaps this poll and the bipartisan sentiment among elected leaders signals that after COVID-19, society has become aware of its dependency on tech giants, for better or worse. For the last 18 months, American workers have adapted to remote work. They utilize programs run by Big Tech companies to communicate with other employees, to run companies, and to buy groceries and essentials. It is unlikely this dynamic will change, as many companies have announced their transition to a fully remote or hybrid work model.

This topic has raised interest among professionals, more specifically those who work in the tech industry, startups and small businesses. We at Fishbowl thought we’d ask professionals — many of whom work in the tech industry — about breaking up tech giants. Fishbowl is a social network for professionals, so conducting surveys on this and other workplace topics is a natural fit.

The survey ran from July 26-30, 2021, to determine how employees in the field feel about antitrust laws. The survey asked professionals: Do you believe antitrust legislation should be used to break up Big Tech companies like Amazon and Google?

There were 11,579 verified professionals on the Fishbowl app who participated in the survey, and they were given the option to answer either yes or no. The survey was broken down into state and professional industries such as law, consulting, finance, tech, marketing, accounting, human resources, teachers and others.

Here’s what the survey revealed:

Image Credits: Fishbowl

Out of 11,579 professionals, the majority — 6,920 (59.76%) — responded yes to the survey question.

Based on responses, we found that law professionals were the highest group responding in the affirmative to the survey, with 66.67%. Consulting professionals followed with 61.97%, while finance (60.64%) marginally beat out tech (60.03%). Conversely, teachers had the lowest percentage with 53.49%. Human resources (55.65%), accounting (58.51%) and other professional industries (58.83%) trailed behind.

The survey’s data was collected from professionals in 25 U.S. states. The highest percentage responding “yes” was Colorado with 76.83%. In second place was Washington with 73.17%, and Michigan rounded out the top three with 69.70%. Missouri (51.35%) had the lowest percentage of employees responding “yes” to splitting up Big Tech. Following closely behind were Indiana (52.59%) and Massachusetts (52.83%). Overall, the majority of the states involved in the survey agreed that they believed antitrust legislation should indeed break up Big Tech companies.

Tech had the fourth-highest percentage of professionals agreeing that Big Tech companies should be broken up. Some benefits from breaking up Big Tech companies are more opportunities for small businesses — for a tech professional or entrepreneur, this could open up opportunities to launch new products, programs and services. It could also add more jobs for highly skilled professionals. Second, it can reduce data privacy and national security concerns. But some cons of breaking up Big Tech companies include the loss of research and development — large companies provide major funding for artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, wearables, robots and more. Ultimately, breaking up Big Tech companies can also increase service costs for professionals and the overall public.

As policymakers continue to negotiate on how to break up Big Tech, the White House is also making moves. President Joe Biden recently named Khan, a professor at Columbia Law School, as chair of the FTC. A staunch critic of Big Tech, Khan’s main priority is to protect the public from corporate abuse and ensure merger guidelines reflect economic realities and empirical learning and enforcement. Simply put, she reviews mergers with skepticism.

And in July, Biden announced his intention to nominate Jonathan Kanter for chief of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. Kanter is an antitrust lawyer with over 20 years of experience who has been a leading advocate and expert in the effort to promote strong and meaningful antitrust enforcement and competition policy.

With these additional members, it is expected that there will be an aggressive approach to enforcing antitrust laws across industries, leaving it to Congress to ensure that moving forward things are different.

Xayn launches a desktop version of its ad-free, privacy-safe search

Berlin-based Xayn, which as we reported last year is doing ad-free, personalized, privacy-safe search as an alternative to tracking and profiling adtech giants like Google, has expanded its product offering — launching a desktop version (in beta for now).

The desktop Xayn WebBeta is described as a “light web version” of the product with similar functionality to the mobile app — though of course there are differences, such as not being able to literally swipe on content to signal interest/disinterest, as you do on Xayn’s mobile apps.

Xayn isn’t a browser itself, per se, though it’s crossing the streams a bit (and can self-describe as a “browsing engine”) — since, as well as private search, it also offers an in-app browsing experience by populating a feed with snippets of content organized in the form of a discovery/news feed.

You’ll likely notice a short lag on loading the software in a desktop browser (also true on mobile) as Xayn’s AI figures out what to populate this feed with. It seems marginally longer the first time you fire the software up — when it’s starting from scratch (localizing the content to your country) vs repeat visits when the AI will have your individual browsing signals to work with.

On the desktop Xayn, you can signal a like or dislike on a particular piece of content by hovering the mouse next to the green (to like) or pink (to dislike) bar, which appear on the left and right sides of the content box respectively, and then clicking on the up (or down) thumb icon that pops up. So it’s actually a left click to like.

And if you really don’t need another feed in your online life you can switch off the discovery view — and have only a search bar on loading.

Search results are displayed by default in a similar grid of rectangular content panes to the discovery feed. Which is a little lacking in information density for this information worker…

Sample search result page as seen on Xayn’s WebBeta version (Screengrab: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch)

Xayn’s learning AI can be toggled off whenever you like, by clicking on the brain icon in the top right. Say if you want to browse ‘unwatched’ — i.e. without the stuff you’re looking at being used as learning material for the AI to decide what else you’ll get shown (both for content in the feed and search results).

You can also reset the learning manually by clearing your browsing data — if you want to purge the whole thing and start again.

Another carrot to entice users is no ads: Xayn is ad-free — which of course isn’t the case with other non-tracking private search engines (like DuckDuckGo or Qwant), which tend to rely on showing contextual ads.

And in another break from the search industry ‘norm’, its AI’s search algorithms are open source.

Other features available on the desktop version of Xayn include a ‘deep search’ offering that it says lets users dive into a topic via “a simple click to be shown a personal reference library of relevant content”; and ‘collections’ — a bookmark-like offering which lets users “collect and store their favorite web content by creating, filling, and managing collections”.

Plus, as well as being ad-free itself, Xayn has baked in an ad blocker — blocking ads on third party sites for a “noise-free” browsing experience as it puts it.

Its first focus for the desktop is Chromium-based browsers and Firefox — so Safari users will need to switch to a supported browser to kick the tyres of its WebBeta.

The mobile version of Xayn’s product launched back in December and has been downloaded more than 250,000 times worldwide since then, according to the startup.

Three months after launch it says users were already conducting 100,000+ active daily searches — feeding in the browsing data and interest-based swipes that the AI uses to train and improve the personalized content discovery which is core to Xayn’s value proposition. And because it’s doing all this learning and reranking on device it’s able to tout its user-specific search results as ‘privacy safe’.

It also tries to avoid a filter bubble type effect by consciously injecting variance — so its algorithms don’t always just feed users more of the same.

Both the desktop and mobile version of Xayn use a technique called Masked Federated Learning to tailor the user’s web experience without compromising their privacy.

Google is also of course working on evolving its own ad targeting technology — currently it’s piloting a technology called FloCs (aka ‘federated learning of cohorts’) to put browser users in interest buckets for ad targeting purposes, as it works on deprecating tracking cookies. But its core business remains people profiling and selling your attention to advertisers — something Xayn definitely isn’t doing.

“We started Xayn as a direct response to the false privacy vs convenience dilemma and quickly proved that it’s possible to solve this trade-off so users are no longer losers. In fact, with each update, our fantastic team of engineers and designers demonstrates all over again how privacy, quality, and great UX go hand in hand,” said Leif-Nissen Lundbæk, co-Founder and CEO, in a statement.

“We didn’t want to copy what’s already out there but instead re-think it and create something new. With Xayn, you can find your favorite part of the Internet — either by actively searching the web or by browsing through the discovery feed that offers personalized content suggestions from the entire Internet. Either way, your privacy is always protected.”

“In creating Xayn’s web version, we have taken all the elements that made the app great and adapted them to the desktop browser window,” added Julia Hintz, its head of design, in another statement.

“The privacy-protecting algorithms, the intuitive design, and the smooth animations have found their way into the web version. Users can switch effortless between mobile and desktop without leaving their familiar environment. This is key for the seamless, deep interaction experience that makes Xayn special.”

In the web version of the product, Xayn says users’ personal data stays privately within the browser.

Asked about the security of the desktop product, a spokesperson told us: “Desktop computers are less safe than smartphones in general. However, Xayn protects personal data by using decentralized privacy-preserving machine learning in combination with encryption. From the pure technical point of view, Xayn is actually a browser within a browser on a desktop device. On desktop devices, Xayn runs in a sandbox in the respective browsers and this is how it protects personal data from unwanted third-party access.”

Future features Xayn plans to add includes the ability for mobile and desktop users to synchronize their personalized experience across multiple devices, while keeping their privacy intact, so the AI’s learnings can go with them wherever they’re online.

To check out the WebBeta version of Xayn’s search engine on your desktop computer point your browser at www.xayn.com.

Earlier this summer, Xayn announced a $12 million Series A funding round led by the Japanese investors Global Brain and Japanese telco KDDI, along with participation from prior backers including Berlin’s Earlybird VC — bringing its total financing to $23M+. Unsurprisingly, then, Asia (starting with Japan) is now a big focus for the Berlin startup.

Thatch using $3M round to put travel creators on the map

After a difficult year, the travel industry is gaining steam again this summer and Thatch is carving out a space for itself in the sector by enabling travel creators to monetize their recommendations.

Today the company announced a $3 million Seed II round led by Wave Capital. They were joined by Freestyle VC’s Jenny Lefcourt, Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph and Airbnb’s head of data science for user trust, Kapil Gupta. It brings Thatch’s total investment to $5.2 million since the company was founded by West Askew, Abby West and Shane Farmer in 2018.

Prior to the global pandemic, the company was a subscription-based consumer travel service that matched travelers with someone who would essentially plan their trips from top to bottom. Then the industry came to a grinding halt in 2020, and the co-founders saw a bigger need to help travel creators — those who share their experiences on social media — better connect to their followers and capture value for the travel recommendations, tips and perspectives they create.

“We noticed consumers were willing to pay individuals for their time and expertise,” Abby West told TechCrunch. “Increasingly, instead of going to travel agencies, they are going to Instagram or YouTube and then DM’ing them for information. We are formalizing that relationship so that the travel creator can get paid and can then provide a better experience for the end user.”

Askew and West say travel creators drive billions of dollars of consumer travel spending. Thatch’s free mobile app provides tools for them to build their own travel-based businesses in order to curate, share and will soon be able to sell interactive travel guides and planning services. Thatch makes money when the creators do, taking a small percentage of the transactions.

While the pandemic was detrimental to the travel industry, it gave the Thatch team time to build out its app, and now it is focused on building the creator side and marketing to attract creators to the app. This is where the new funding will come in: The company intends to hire additional engineers, build out new content and launch new features for selling or earning tips on interactive guides that creators produce in the app.

Thatch app. Image Credits: Thatch

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Among the travel creators already using the app, their audience reach is over 12 million, and the company saw a bump in usage in July, a sign that the travel industry is improving, Askew said.

Following the seed, the company will go live with the monetization and booking features so the creators can get paid, and it is looking at a strong first quarter in terms of potential bookings. The founders also want to attract larger creators and build a network for them, with Askew saying they need to be considered like the small businesses that they are and wants to help them grow.

“There is unfortunately a graveyard full of travel companies, but we are doing things differently,” West said. “We are unique with our people-to-people angle, and in this case, with people who have a built-in audience and who are trusted by that audience. That is something we don’t see in this space today.”

Wave Capital’s general partner Riley Newman said he and his other general partner, Sara Adler, both former Airbnb executives, were introduced to the company through one of Thatch’s existing investors.

His firm typically invests in marketplaces at the seed stage and the investment in Thatch marks the first into the travel sector, saying, “It is one we know well from Airbnb and a good moment to dive back into the industry.”

The travel market is poised for growth in the years ahead, especially with the pent-up demand for travel post-pandemic, Newman said. At the same time, the creator economy is on the same trajectory to democratize travel planning similar to the way he said Airbnb did, and that was a compelling vision for Wave Capital.

“Travel planning has been around for a long time, but this is an interesting new angle,” Newman added. “We look at the founding team and see Abby and West having complementary backgrounds and energy. This is a good moment for travel given their approach, and their concept for attacking the market is right and needed.”

Ragnarok ransomware gang shuts down and releases its decryption key

Ragnarok, a ransomware gang operational since 2019 that gained notoriety after launching attacks against unpatched Citrix ADC servers, has shut down and released a free decryption key for its victims.

The gang, sometimes referred to as Asnarok, last week replaced all 12 of the victims listed on its dark web portal with a short instruction on how to decrypt files. This was accompanied by the release of a decryptor, which experts at Emsisoft confirmed contains the master decryption key. The security firm, known for assisting ransomware victims with data decryption, has also released a universal decryptor for Ragnarok ransomware.

Ragnarok is best known for using the Ragnar Locker ransomware to target IT networks. It claimed dozens of victims after exploiting a Citrix ADC vulnerability to search for Windows computers that are vulnerable to the EternalBlue vulnerability — the same vulnerability behind the now-notorious WannaCry attack — and has racked up more than $4.5 million in ransom payments, according to the Ransomwhe.re payments tracker.

In April 2020, the cybercriminals stole 10 terabytes of data belonging to Portuguese energy giant EDP and threatened to leak it if a ransom of $10.9 million was not paid. The gang went on to exfiltrate up to 2TB of data, including bank statements, employee records, and celebrity agreements, from the servers of Italian liquor giant Campari Group, and demanded it hands over $15 million in ransom.

And in November, the short-lived ransomware gang also targeted Capcom, the Japanese video games giant behind titles such as Street Fighter, Resident Evil, and Devil May Cry. The gang reportedly stole the personal data of 390,000 customers, business partners, and other external parties from Capcom’s systems.

News of the shut down was first reported by Bleeping Computer.

With no formal departure note, it’s not clear why Ragnarok has seemingly decided to call it quits. But other ransomware gangs have adopted a similar self-destruction tactic in the face of increasing pressure from the U.S. government, which earlier this year branded ransomware as a national security threat; REvil, the gang behind the JBS attack, mysteriously disappeared from the internet, and DarkSide, the gang behind the Colonial Pipeline incident, also announced it was retiring.

Other ransomware gangs, including Ziggy Avaddon, SynAck, and Fonix, have also all retired from hacking this year, each giving up their keys to help victims recover from their attacks.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Ragnarok’s disappearance is permanent, or whether it will simply rebrand; the infamous DoppelPayment ransomware gang recently reappeared as Grief Ransomware after months of no activity.

“Even though I am sure is only temporary, it is nice to see another win,” tweeted Allan Liska, from Recorded Future’s Computer Security Incident Response Team.

Ola Electric in talks to raise at over $2.75 billion valuation

Ola Electric is in advanced talks to raise between $250 million to $500 million in a new financing round as the Indian firm looks to scale its electric vehicle manufacturing business in the South Asian market, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Falcon Edge Capital is in advanced talks to the lead the round, which values Ola Electric between $2.75 billion to $3.5 billion (up from $1 billion in its previous fundraise in 2019), sources told TechCrunch, requesting anonymity as the matter is private. Singapore’s Temasek is also holding conversations, the people said.

The talks come at a time when ride-hailing giant Ola, the initial parent firm of Ola Electric, is looking to file for an initial public offering. The firm, which recently raised $500 million, has signed up a few bankers and is looking to file for the IPO later this year, according to a third person familiar with the matter.

Terms of the deal are not final yet so they may change, sources cautioned.

The firm is looking to raise as much as $1 billion, the person said, cautioning that the matter is not final. Indian media first wrote about the IPO talks.

Earlier this month, Ola Electric launched its first electric scooter, called Ola S1, that is priced at 99,999 Indian rupees, or $1,350. The electric scooter offers a range of 121 kilometers (75 miles) on a complete charge.

“Ola is the best product in the market currently with features significantly better than peers. Incumbents, despite all their resources have launched products which appear as another variant of an ICE product and lack the punch. We have in general been specifically disappointed with both Bajaj and TVS on this front,” analysts at Bernstein wrote to clients in a report earlier this month.

“While startups such as Ather have made significant efforts on the product, the steep pricing, significantly slow pace of manufacturing scale up, restricted launch in only a few cities earlier were the key drivers for weak sales. The crucial differentiators for Ola are the software based features, range, peak speeds, and acceleration (fastest EV scooter now), boot space, and colour options.”

Ola / Ola Electric declined

The story was updated with additional details.

Ola Electric in talks to raise at over $2.5 billion valuation

Ola Electric is in advanced talks to raise over $500 million in a new financing round as the Indian firm looks to scale its electric vehicle manufacturing business in the South Asian market, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Falcon Edge Capital is in advanced talks to the lead the round, which values Ola Electric between $2.5 billion to $3 billion (up from $1 billion in its previous fundraise in 2019), sources told TechCrunch, requesting anonymity as the matter is private. Singapore’s Temasek is also holding conversations, the people said.

The talks come at a time when ride-hailing giant Ola, the initial parent firm of Ola Electric, is looking to file for an initial public offering. The firm, which recently raised $500 million, has signed up a few bankers and is looking to file for the IPO later this year, according to a third person familiar with the matter.

The firm is looking to raise as much as $1 billion, the person said, cautioning that the matter is not final. Indian media first wrote about the IPO talks.

Earlier this month, Ola Electric launched its first electric scooter, called Ola S1, that is priced at 99,999 Indian rupees, or $1,350. The electric scooter offers a range of 121 kilometers (75 miles) on a complete charge.

“Ola is the best product in the market currently with features significantly better than peers. Incumbents, despite all their resources have launched products which appear as another variant of an ICE product and lack the punch. We have in general been specifically disappointed with both Bajaj and TVS on this front,” analysts at Bernstein wrote to clients in a report earlier this month.

“While startups such as Ather have made significant efforts on the product, the steep pricing, significantly slow pace of manufacturing scale up, restricted launch in only a few cities earlier were the key drivers for weak sales. The crucial differentiators for Ola are the software based features, range, peak speeds, and acceleration (fastest EV scooter now), boot space, and colour options.”

Ola / Ola Electric didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Korean 3D spatial data tool startup Urbanbase closes $11.1M Series B+ round

Urbanbase, a Seoul-based company that develops a 3D spatial data platform for interior planning and design, announced today it has raised $11.1 million (13 billion won) in a Series B+ round as it scales up.

This round of funding was led by Hanwha Hotel & Resort, which is a subsidiary of South Korean conglomerate Hanwha Corporation.

Urbanbase, founded in 2013 by chief executive officer and a former architect Jinu Ha, has now raised $20 million (approximately 23 billion won) in total.

Existing investors did not join this round. The company had raised Series A funding of $1.8 million and an additional $1.2 million in 2017 and its first Series B round in April 2020, from backers that included South Korea-based Shinsegae Information & Communication, Woomi Construction, SL Investment, KDB Capital, Shinhan Capital, Enlight Ventures, CKD Venture Capital, and Breeze Investment, Ha said.

The latest funding will be used for enhancing its B2B SaaS, investing in R&D for advanced virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and 3D tools, which are considered core technologies of metaverse that is its new business Urbanbase plans to enter, according to Ha. Global metaverse market size is projected to increase $280 billion by 2025 from $30.7 billion in 2021, based on Strategy Analytics’ report.

Companies that focus on opportunities in the so-called “metaverse” have been growing as part of a next-generation approach to building viable business models in areas like virtual and augmented reality, and all the hardware and software and new tech that are being built for them. Big tech corporations, ranging from Facebook, Intel to Microsoft, are targeting to move in the area. Apple also waded into the area of virtual reality, working on developing a high-end VR headset.

Urbanbase also plans to upgrade its home interior software platform, Urbanbase Studio, that has functions to transform 2D indoor space images into 3D displays via Urbanbase’s patented algorithm, visualize interior products in augmented reality and analyze spatial images based on the AI technology.

Urbanbase claims 50,000 monthly active users with 70,000 registered B2C users. The company has about 50 B2B customers.

“Most of our B2B clients are large conglomerates in South Korea and Japan, for example, LG Electronics, Japan-based Mitsubishi Real Estate Service, Nitori Holdings, Dentsu Group and SoftBank, but we would like to extend our B2B clients base to small, midsized companies and bring more B2C users after closing the Series B+ funding,” Ha mentioned.

Urbanbase is seeking an acquisition target in prop-tech and construction technology sectors, Ha told TechCrunch. Urbanbase currently focuses on developing the interior tools for apartment buildings because about 70-80 percent of total households in South Korea and Japan live in apartments, Ha said, adding that it will diversify its portfolio by acquiring a startup that covers different types of residence.

It currently operates the platform in Korean and Japanese, but it will add English language service prior to entering in Singapore in the end of 2021, Ha said.

Gillmor Gang: Half a Loaf

When Salesforce announced its streaming platform Salesforce+, the CRM Playaz’ Paul Greenberg and Brent Leary interviewed Colin Fleming, SVP of Global Brand Experiences at the CRM company (disclosure: I work at Salesforce). Later, I asked Brent about his show on this episode of the Gang.

Brent: With all the things going on with data privacy and cookies going away, companies are going to have to figure out a way to get first—and that third party, but first party data in a clean way.
Me: Can you describe the difference?
Well, a third party, you go to a website and this website has partners that you have nothing to do with, and all of a sudden you land on a website and the next thing you know, you might be getting hit up with an ad or an email from a company you didn’t even expect, you don’t have a relationship with. But that company has a relationship with the website owner. So all of this stuff, all of these interactions or nuisance breakup of your day because of ads and notifications you’re getting, you’re getting it not because you had a direct relationship, but you landed on a site that has potentially thousands of relationships with other companies that want to get at you.
And that’s the third party cookies way of doing things. Well, that’s going away. And one of the things that [Fleming] pointed out is that what Salesforce wants to do is create great content in order to be able to build a direct relationship and not have to depend on the traditional third party backroom deals. And I thought that was really great. I was really excited to hear that part of it, because I think it’s another way of forcing people to actually get away from this third party stuff and and be more direct about what their intentions are and what they’re trying to do.

I asked Keith Teare how quickly third party data is going to go away.

Keith: Well, it’s already starting to go away because of Apple’s implementation on iOS blocking things. Microsoft’s browser [market share] is quite small these days, but it also blocks things. So you’re moving from these common pools, lakes of data, to what you could think more of as a walled garden data, meaning first person data. Companies can’t rely on targeting through the network anymore unless they themselves know the users and then they can.
So that leads to this big question, which is: what is the right balance between content marketing (which is what I really think Salesforce is doing) where you’ve got a direct audience, versus advertising, where you pay somebody to show an ad? The targeting on ads is going to deteriorate and content marketing, which is what you could think of as earned media—that is to say, you work to get the attention—is going to grow. So this is really a fairly major shot in the arm of what some people call the creator economy and spreading it out into the enterprise. Every enterprise is going to have to become a creator in this world.

Denis Pombriant added:

Denis: I read an interesting report this week. It was the seventh edition of the Salesforce Marketing Survey. The first half of it was very positive about using new technology to support work from anywhere and a variety of other things that free you from the office. But the second part of it had some very interesting data about where investments were going by corporations into new marketing. In about a dozen categories, no category had more than a 50 percent response. Basically saying, yeah, we’re investing enough or we’re actively pursuing this. So the conclusion I draw from is that everything we seem to be doing about being more tech savvy out on the Web and addressing customers and colleagues and cohorts or whatever it is, is somewhat lagging and will lag until organizations invest in the skills and the people to support some of the new things like content development, audio content development, video content development, AI, and quite a few other things as well.

I think that’s right. It’s not whether there’s a creator economy or not. The investments made by vendors, while significant and market-making, depend on the market expanding beyond its roots. Blogs and podcasts began as a kind of extension of the mainstream media, but foundered when readers and listeners moved to social authority as a measure of credibility. Newsletters and livecasting suffer when the value proposition of the ad hoc media looks too much like the mainstream media it hopes to replace. Instead, we turn the mute button on and eventually escape to fictionalized stories where good triumphs over evil or the reverse.

The creator economy has produced a kind of vaudeville, where talent bubbles up to feed a hungry niche. Where real success comes is when that consensus of what is right for the emotional center mitigates the extremes of the partisan groups and the controversy that drives the current mainstream model. The Rachel Maddow negotiations and the lumbering infrastructure deals suggest a progress of moderate success. Maddow is moving toward a weekly show with creator spinoffs yet to be defined, and Congress is developing a half a loaf plus a little legislative strategy to carve up an unachievable agenda into small successes loosely joined. Not too left, not too right, but enough to beat back the assault on voter rights while protecting the middle. Half a loaf is better than none.

the latest Gillmor Gang Newsletter

__________________

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, August 13, 2021.

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang

Subscribe to the new Gillmor Gang Newsletter and join the backchannel here on Telegram.

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How Amazon EC2 grew from a notion into a foundational element of cloud computing

The beta launched 15 years ago this week

Fifteen years ago this week on August 25, 2006, AWS turned on the very first beta instance of EC2, its cloud-based virtual computers. Today cloud computing, and more specifically infrastructure as a service, is a staple of how businesses use computing, but at that moment it wasn’t a well known or widely understood concept.

The EC in EC2 stands for Elastic Compute, and that name was chosen deliberately. The idea was to provide as much compute power as you needed to do a job, then shut it down when you no longer needed it — making it flexible like an elastic band. The launch of EC2 in beta was preceded by the beta release of S3 storage six months earlier, and both services marked the starting point in AWS’ cloud infrastructure journey.

You really can’t overstate what Amazon was able to accomplish with these moves. It was able to anticipate an entirely different way of computing and create a market and a substantial side business in the process. It took vision to recognize what was coming and the courage to forge ahead and invest the resources necessary to make it happen, something that every business could learn from.

The AWS origin story is complex, but it was about bringing the IT power of the Amazon business to others. Amazon at the time was not the business it is today, but it was still rather substantial and still had to deal with massive fluctuations in traffic such as Black Friday when its website would be flooded with traffic for a short but sustained period of time. While the goal of an e-commerce site, and indeed every business, is attracting as many customers as possible, keeping the site up under such stress takes some doing and Amazon was learning how to do that well.

Those lessons and a desire to bring the company’s internal development processes under control would eventually lead to what we know today as Amazon Web Services, and that side business would help fuel a whole generation of startups. We spoke to Dave Brown, who is VP of EC2 today, and who helped build the first versions of the tech, to find out how this technological shift went down.

Sometimes you get a great notion

The genesis of the idea behind AWS started in the 2000 timeframe when the company began looking at creating a set of services to simplify how they produced software internally. Eventually, they developed a set of foundational services — compute, storage and database — that every developer could tap into.

But the idea of selling that set of services really began to take shape at an executive offsite at Jeff Bezos’ house in 2003. A 2016 TechCrunch article on the origins AWS described how that started to come together:

As the team worked, Jassy recalled, they realized they had also become quite good at running infrastructure services like compute, storage and database (due to those previously articulated internal requirements). What’s more, they had become highly skilled at running reliable, scalable, cost-effective data centers out of need. As a low-margin business like Amazon, they had to be as lean and efficient as possible.

They realized that those skills and abilities could translate into a side business that would eventually become AWS. It would take a while to put these initial ideas into action, but by December 2004, they had opened an engineering office in South Africa to begin building what would become EC2. As Brown explains it, the company was looking to expand outside of Seattle at the time, and Chris Pinkham, who was director in those days, hailed from South Africa and wanted to return home.

This Week in Apps: Developers sound off on App Store settlement, OnlyFans’ flip-flop, Snap’s new camera

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters.

Changes to the App Store ecosystem dominated the headlines this week. In South Korea, legislators are set to vote on a landmark bill that could end Apple and Google’s payment exclusivity on their app stores. Meanwhile, Apple dropped commissions to 15% for news publishers’ apps, if they agree to participate in the Apple News ecosystem. Apple also agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit from U.S. app developers that, pending court approval, will introduce a few changes to App Store rules — the most notable being that it allows developers to communicate with their users outside of their iOS apps to tell them about other purchase options.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

As it turns out, this App Store settlement agreement isn’t really as earth-shattering as some headlines may have made it seem. For starters, Apple had already slightly adjusted its App Store policies in June when it clarified developers were allowed to communicate through email and text with their customers about other purchasing methods besides Apple’s own in-app purchases. But this was only permitted if developers weren’t using contact information obtained from within the app. With the new settlement, that changes a bit.

Developers can now take the smallest of steps forward as they are allowed to inform users  — well, users who have consented to receive offers via email or other communications — about alternative methods of payment besides in-app purchases. That means developers will also have to collect users’ contact information from their app where users may already be logging in using third-party credentials like Facebook’s, Google’s or even Apple’s own sign-on systems. (Apple’s system, of course, has an option to hide your email address from developers. Wow, someone was thinking ahead there!)

But this change wasn’t what developers want. They actually want to point users from inside their app to their website where they could market their own payment and subscription options — possibly even at a reduced rate since they wouldn’t have to share a commission with Apple. Even if Apple allowed this more permissive action, it’s likely many consumers would continue to use in-app purchases for the sake of convenience. The real concern on Apple’s part is that such a change could redirect significant income from the App Store’s biggest moneymakers, like games, to payment systems outside the App Store.

The settlement agreement proposes other changes as well, such as the expansion of price points from fewer than 100 to more than 500. Apple also agreed to publish a transparency report on the App Review process. (This could potentially be an even bigger deal than the App Store rule changes, as it could push Apple to address some of the outstanding issues with erroneous rejections, app scams and delays.) And Apple said it would establish a $100 million fund for U.S. developers less than $1 million per calendar year, which will pay out in a range of $250 to $30,000, depending on the size of the developers’ app business.

Developer responses to the settlement

Image Credits: Apple

Apple put out the news of the settlement in its usual style of a polished press release, albeit one buried late on a Thursday night with reporter briefings scheduled for hours where they could easily get missed. Apple, in its release, touted the “even better business opportunity” this represented for developers whose feedback it “appreciates” and whose “ideas… helped inform the agreement.”

We wanted to hear what developers thought about this change. Here’s a sampling of feedback from the community: 

Ryan Jones, founder and CEO of iOS flight tracker Flighty (whose Twitter thread offers a good summary of the news): 

“I just keep praying Apple will wake up and change the rules themselves but today wasn’t that day. Its not a great idea to let 70-year-old bureaucrats who get tech support from their grandkids write technology ecosystem law. I just have to believe Apple is realizing this is a ticking time bomb – they have to change it themselves, or we’ll all pay the consequences for years to come. There’s real resentment building the way Apple PR keeps basically gaslighting us. Anyone who can read critically can immediately tell there’s zero substance to this announcement. They need to step up and make changes before courts do it for them.” 

James Thomson, indie developer and creator of PCalc app:

“On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like the announcements are particularly significant for us. It’s mainly clarification on existing rules that were already in place. It’s still not permitted to link within your app to an alternative payment mechanism, but you can at least email the customer to tell them about it, if they have opted-in. It’s not 100% clear to me that wasn’t allowed in the first place. The developer fund is also U.S. only, so that doesn’t help us. Overall, I don’t see this doing very much to change the opinion of those calling for antitrust legislation.”

Becky Hansmeyer, indie developer behind YarnBuddy and Snapthread apps: 

“Apple has made zero concessions in this settlement. App Store search and discovery are still terrible, developers still can’t reference outside payment methods within their apps, and App Review is still a needlessly draconian process that discourages innovation and punishes good actors while letting scams run rampant. The ‘Small Developer Assistance Fund’ is nothing more than payouts to class members as a form of self-punishment. Nothing about this is good for developers, or consumers.”

David Heinemeier Hansson, Basecamp co-founder, developer of HEY email app and noted Apple critic:

“…The trophy of this settlement, as presented in the press, is supposedly that developers can now tell their customers where to buy services outside the app. Except no, that’s not actually what’s happening! Apple is simply ‘clarifying’ that companies can send an email to their customers, if they’ve gotten permission to do so, on an opt-in basis. That email may include information about how to buy outside the app. So the steering provisions of the App Store, that developers are not allowed to tell users inside their app or on the signup screen about other purchasing choices than IAP – the only places that actually matter! – is being cemented with this ‘clarification.’ It draws a thicker line, asserts Apple’s right to steer in the first place, and offers the meaningless concession of opt-in email, which was something developers had already been doing.”

Kosta Eleftheriou, FlickType developer who’s also suing Apple over lost revenues due to App Store scams: 

“Apple’s draconian anti-steering provisions remain in place just as before. This settlement is a meaningless concession for developers who all see what PR game Apple is playing. And Apple labelling the restitution they’ve agreed to pay as an ‘assistance’ fund is deceitful and shameful: Developers aren’t asking for help, they are asking for fairness.”

Jacob Eiting, CEO of RevenueCat, which offers app developers a suite of tools for their subscription-based apps:

“The changes proposed in the settlement are largely a repackaging of existing work Apple has done, a much smaller change than it seemed from Apple’s press release. They are rolling back one recently enacted anti-steering rule, but leaving all other anti-steering rules in place. The settlement also puts into place commitments to programs that most likely weren’t going anywhere anyway. They’ve also agreed to pay out $100M to small developers as a settlement, acting as if it’s some magnanimous gesture. However, it’s in exchange for developers waiving any claims of unfairness in Apple’s fees for the last 6 years. Seeing how good Apple has gotten at patting themselves on the back, this will likely be dragged out any time Apple needs evidence of developer friendliness for years to come.”

Aaron Pearce, indie iOS developer behind a suite of HomeKit-connected apps including HomeRun, HomeCam, HomePass and others: 

“To me, there weren’t any real changes that matter. These are mostly clarifications of existing rules or statements. The pledge to keep the Small Business program is nice, but no one expected that to go away. Keeping App Store search the same was a near guarantee previously. The only real change is introducing more pricing points that I cannot see helping developers in a huge way in the immediate future. The $100 million fund is a lawsuit settlement, not Apple being generous to help developers. I find the PR spin on these ‘changes’ to be disingenuous. They aren’t fixing the core problems with the App Store that small or large developers face when they are simply trying to ship products to their customers.”

CAF, a nonprofit representing developers including Epic Games, Spotify, Tile and dozens of others pushing for regulation of app stores:

“Apple’s sham settlement offer is nothing more than a desperate attempt to avoid the judgment of courts, regulators, and legislators worldwide. This offer does nothing to address the structural, foundational problems facing all developers, large and small, undermining innovation and competition in the app ecosystem. Allowing developers to communicate with their customers about lower prices outside of their apps is not a concession and further highlights Apple’s total control over the app marketplace. If this settlement is approved, app makers will still be barred from communicating about lower prices or offering competing payment options within their apps. We will not be appeased by empty gestures and will continue our fight for fair and open digital platforms.”

Samantha John, CEO and co-founder of coding app Hopscotch

“Nothing changed. You were always able to write whatever you wanted in your emails or website. They still are not letting you link to or mention an alternate payment processor inside your app. It’s a weird news story because it made me hopeful when I saw the headlines but nothing had actually happened.”

Overall, it’s seems developers aren’t impressed with this minor concession and it doesn’t seem this settlement will do anything to stop the push for increased App Store legislations.

Apple Platform Updates

  • Apple released the seventh developer betas for iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 as well as watchOS 8 and tvOS 15. Among the notable changes, Apple announced its new service iCloud Private Relay would now be introduced as a public beta to gather more feedback instead of being enabled by default as part of the iCloud+ subscription service. The release notes indicate some websites still have issues with the feature, including showing content for the wrong region or requiring extra steps to sign in.
  • Apple released a beta version of its TestFlight app testing platform to Mac developers for the first time. The beta only worked on macOS Monterey beta 5, which came out on August 10.
  • Apple also released an update to the App Store Connect app, which now allows developers to create multiple TestFlight internal tester groups and configure build access for each one.
  • Apple notified developers that local regulatory changes will require them to add the bank account holder’s address in App Store Connect, which must be done by October 22, 2021 in order to avoid an interruption in payments.
  • Apple launched a new iOS app called “Siri Speech Study” to gather feedback for Siri improvements. The unlisted app was only open to invited participants who choose to share to Apple when Siri gets one of their requests wrong.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

Google Platform Updates

  • Google announced a change in how ratings and reviews on Google Play will appear to end users. Developers had complained how negative feedback that only affected users in one region could have brought down the rating for all. To address this, starting in November 2021, users on phones will only see ratings specific to their registered country. Then, in early 2022, users on other devices like tablets, Chromebooks and wearables, will see ratings that are only specific to the devices they’re on. Google says changes are rolling out to the Google Play Console which will help developers prepare for the changes, including dimensions like “Device Type” dimensions.

E-commerce

Shopify and TikTok for business with TikTok image of Kylie Jenner

Shopify and TikTok for business with TikTok image of Kylie Jenner. Image Credits: Shopify

  • TikTok and Shopify announced an expansion of their existing partnership to launch a pilot test of “TikTok Shopping” in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. The new service allows Shopify merchants with a TikTok For Business account to add a new “Shopping” tab to their TikTok profiles and sync their product catalogs to create mini-storefronts on their profile. They’ll also be able to tag products with links in videos. When viewers click to purchase, they’re redirected to the Shopify merchant’s website to complete the transaction.
  • Instagram introduced ads on the Instagram Shop tab globally, rolling them out to all countries where the tab is available. Previously, the ads were tested only in the U.S.

Augmented Reality

  • TikTok is building its own AR development platform, which was spotted on a website called TikTok Effect House. The company confirmed the creative toolset is in private beta testing, but characterized it as an early experiment.

Fintech

  • WhatsApp Pay will get more prominent placement in the messaging app. Changes spotted in testing show the WhatsApp Pay shortcut button in between the sticker and camera buttons, making it easier to access.

Social/Creators

  • OnlyFans flip-flopped on its porn ban. Initially, the company said it would ban sexually explicit content on its platform as of October 1 — a decision that was met with much criticism from the sex worker community who relied on the platform for their income. Creators also said they had received no heads-up from the company, which gave them less time to prepare. OnlyFans, meanwhile, blamed its original decision on pressure from banking partners and payout providers. Now, it’s saying it has received “assurances” from these partners that will allow its business to continue as usual. But the situation may have burned up creator goodwill, and some may now choose to move their businesses elsewhere.

Image Credits: Snap Camera Shortcuts

  • Snapchat on Thursday upgraded its two-year-old “Scan” feature which lets people use Snap’s Camera to explore the world around them. The new generation of Scan, which was relocated to be front-and-center in the Snapchat app, will now offer suggestions of different ways to use the Camera, including Camera Shortcuts and shopping features. Camera Shortcuts help people capture a moment by suggesting things like camera modes, Lenses and soundtracks relevant to what is seen through the Camera. Over time, Snap will introduce more Shortcuts, including those for its short-form TikTok competitor, Spotlight. With the update, users can now also tap into their screenshots of items they wanted to buy, then use Scan to find and purchase those outfits through Memories. For instance, you can scan a friend’s outfit then use Screenshop to find similar looks across brands. You can also use Scan with food and ingredients at home to get recipe suggestions. Snap says it sees potential for Scan not only on mobile, but also in its next generation of Spectacles glasses.

Image Credits: Snap Screenshot

  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced changes to the app’s search feature on Wednesday. The changes will more prominently feature photos and videos in search results, alongside accounts and hashtags. The move makes Instagram search work more like TikTok’s.
  • Instagram is also ditching the “swipe up” links in Instagram Stories in favor of Link Stickers, starting on August 30. The feature will be available to businesses and creators who are either verified or who have met the threshold for follower count, commonly said to be at least 10,000.
  • TikTok is testing an extended video upload limit of five minutes or more. Some users have gained the ability to upload videos as long as 10 minutes, which indicates TikTok is experimenting with different lengths to gain feedback. The app in December introduced longer videos for the first time with the support for the three-minute video.

Messaging

Image Credits: Messenger

  • Facebook celebrated Messenger’s 10th anniversary with new features that included games, effects, contact sharing and more. The company also confirmed it’s testing an integration that brings Messenger back into the Facebook mobile app, saying that it would give users an easy way to connect with people from where they already are. The company now sees Messenger more as the underlying “connective tissue” between its services, including one day, the metaverse.
  • WhatsApp is working on message reactions, according to a leak from WABetaInfo, which keeps tabs on the app’s newest features. Users who aren’t on the supported version would receive a message telling them to update their app in order to gain the ability to see the message reactions (emoji) that others had sent. It’s not yet known which emoji will be offered as a part of the new feature.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: Movies Anywhere

  • Digital locker app Movies Anywhere added a new feature that organizes users’ movie libraries into algorithmically generated lists, giving you an easier way to browse your collection by factors like genre, theme, actors, franchise and more.
  • YouTube is rolling out picture-and-picture viewing for all U.S. iPhone users, starting with its Premium subscribers. The feature will allow users to watch videos in a mini player while browsing other apps on their iPhone.
  • YouTube Music finally gets a WearOS version, but only for Samsung’s newest watches — the Galaxy Watch 4 or Galaxy Watch 4 Classic. The watches become available on August 27. Google didn’t say when the app will come to other WearOS devices.
  • Spotify’s Podcasts Subscriptions service opened to all U.S. creators. Using the Anchor app, creators can mark select episodes as subscriber-only content, then publish them to Spotify and other platforms. Since its launch, more than 100 podcasts have adopted subscriptions. The company also expanded the array of price points from three to 20 options to meet creators’ needs.
  • Clubhouse hid the account bios and images of its Afghan users in wake of the Taliban takeover of the country. The change impacted tens of thousands of users, but can be reversed if the user chooses.

Gaming

Netflix tests mobile gaming, netflix app, Android Netflix app

Image Credits: Netflix

  • Netflix began testing mobile games in its Android app in Poland. The streamer, which said recently it would be expanding further into the mobile gaming market, said Poland was a good fit for the initial test because of its active mobile gamer community. The test will see listings for two “Stranger Things”-themed games inside the Netflix app, which direct members to the Google Play store to download. The games then require users’ Netflix credentials to start playing.
  • After backlash from its community, Niantic reinstated the COVID safety and accessibility features it had launched in Pokémon GO during the pandemic, then later removed when it looked like things were getting back to normal (before the Delta surge). It’s unclear why Niantic believed it was the right time to pull the features, which allowed users to social distance while gaming, as they hadn’t impacted game revenues — 2020 was the game’s best ever year to date, earning the AR title over $1 billion. 
  • China’s largest indie game distributor, XD Inc., is planning to introduce its commission-free app store, TapTap, to global markets, Bloomberg reported. The company, which is backed by TikTok owner ByteDance and Alibaba, publishes its own titles to draw users to its app store. But shares of XD have fallen 60% since February over investor concerns about a model that relies on ads instead of commissions.

Health & Fitness

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • Amid the Delta surge, downloads for the two top COVID-19 home testing apps in the U.S., BinaxNOW and Ellume, have spiked 134% month-over-month so far in August, after seeing 107% growth in July, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Very few people used the COVID-19 apps powered by Apple and Google’s API in the U.S., an Insider investigation found. Only 2.14% of possible COVID cases were recorded in exposure notification apps across 26 U.S. states. The problem was likely hampered by the fact that launching apps was left up to individual states, instead of being a national effort as with the contact tracing apps built using the API in other markets. Less than half of U.S. states chose not to even build an app in the first place, limiting the tools’ reach further.
  • Google pulled the plug on Streams, a U.K.-based clinician support app which was developed back in 2015 by DeepMind, an AI division of Google. The app had been used by the U.K.’s National Health Service, with a number of NHS Trusts inking deals with DeepMind Health, including London’s Royal Free and Taunton & Somerset. Google says the patient data the app processed will be deleted. 
  • Israel-based air quality measurement service BreezoMeter, which helps power Apple’s Weather app, introduced a new product, Wildfire Tracker. The feature can identify the edges of wildfires in real time using a combination of sensor data, satellite imagery and local eyewitness reports.
  • A reference to Peloton’s unannounced rowing machine was discovered in its app’s code. The code also suggested the app would track things like average and max stroke rates.

Transportation

  • Google is shutting down its Android Auto mobile app, aka “Android Auto for Phone Screens,” starting with Android 12. The company said Google Assistant driving mode will be the built-in mobile driving experience going forward.
  • Telsa released a redesigned iPhone app in its biggest update in many months. The app features new controls, improvement management, new visuals and the choice between two differently sized widgets for your home screen. Among the new features is the ability to now send commands to your car immediately instead of waiting for the vehicle to wake up.
  • Electrify America launched CarPlay and Android Auto apps for finding the nearest EV charging stations across the U.S. Electrify America operates over 650 stations with 2,700 chargers total.

Productivity

Image Credits: Edison

  • Edison’s new email service OnMail has launched a new feature that gives you a break from receiving emails for a temporary period of time or schedule you designate. The “Inbox Break” option lets you pick which accounts to pause and optionally set away messages that automatically reply to emails while you’re on a break.
  • Microsoft confirmed it would next month begin to transition its Android-based Office apps running on Chromebooks to web apps instead. “In an effort to provide the most optimized experience for Chrome OS/Chromebook customers, Microsoft apps (Office and Outlook) will be transitioned to web experiences (Office.com and Outlook.com) on September 18, 2021. This transition brings Chrome OS/Chromebook customers access to additional and premium features,” a spokesperson said.

Utilities

  • Apple Maps expanded its native ratings and photos feature in the U.S. The feature, first introduced in iOS 14, allows users to review places like restaurants, shops and other businesses. In iOS 15, users can also thumb up and down specific factors like food, customer service, atmosphere and more, and can upload photos of their own to the listing.
  • Google Maps is working to add toll prices to help users price their rides. A similar feature is already available in Google’s Waze app.

Government & Policy

Apple app store iOS

Image Credits: TechCrunch

  • South Korea delayed the vote on a landmark bill that would prevent Apple and Google from forcibly charging commissions on in-app purchases within apps. If approved, developers would be able to offer alternative payment systems inside their apps. The bill, the first of its kind globally, was supposed to see a final vote on Wed., August 25, but was tentatively delayed until August 30, according to media reports. Apple has pushed back on the bill saying it will put users at risk of fraud and privacy violations.
  • Chinese regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), on Friday proposed new guidelines that aim to forbid companies from deploying algorithms that “encourage addiction or high consumption” and endanger national security or disrupt the public order. Services also can’t create fake accounts or create other false impressions. And users will be able to turn off algorithmic recommendations. The rules appear to target companies like ByteDance, Alibaba Group, Tencent, Didi and others whose services have been built on top of proprietary algorithms. CAC will take public feedback about the guidelines through September 26.

Security & Privacy

  • A report from MDM company Jamf uncovered the most commonly requested iOS permissions by analyzing a sample of nearly 100,000 apps from 2.5 million Wandera customers. The most common were Photos, Camera, Location and Microphone access, it found.
  • An investigation by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) found holes in the App Store’s child safety measures, noting it was too easy for kids and teens to access adult apps, due to lack of protections built into the apps themselves. However, the study didn’t enable parental controls which is the tools parents would presumably use to keep kids from accessing adult apps.

💰 Design and editing app Picsart raised $130 million Series C led by Softbank with participation from Sequoia, GSquared, Tribe Capital, Graph Ventures and Siguler Guff & Company. The round values Picsart at a near $1.5 billion valuation. The app has over 1 billion installs across 180 countries and more than 150 million MAUs.

💰 Mexican fintech Flink raised a $57 million Series B round of funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners. The app allows consumers to participate in the stock market, and has grown to 1.6 million users, 85% of whom are first-time investors.

💰 African mobile payments platform OPay raised $400 million in funding led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2, with participation from existing investors Sequoia Capital China, Redpoint China, Source Code Capital and Softbank Ventures Asia. The round values the business at $2 billion.

🤝  Meditation app Headspace announced plans to merge with on-demand mental health service Ginger, valuing the combined business of $3 billion with a headcount of more than 800.

💰 London-based EV charging platform Bonnet raised $1.3 million (£920,000 total in new funding, including £850,000 in an equity financing round led by Ascension Ventures, with investors from Imperial College London and APX. It also won an additional £70,000 grant from Innovate UK and OZEV. The app gives drivers real-time data on charger availability and functionality and seller bundles of cheaper charging, which can be used across the network.

💰 European stock trading app Shares raised $10 million in a pre-product seed round led by Singular for its app that would allow users to trade 1,500 stocks without paying fees, as well as start conversations with friends and learn from experts.

💰 Tencent has entered advanced stages of talks to lead a new $20-35 million investment round in Gurgaon-headquartered podcasts and audiobooks app Pocket FM. The terms being discussed would value the three-year-old company around $75-$100 million.

💰 Estonia-based grocery delivery app Membo, which serves a European audience, snagged Y Combinator backing and will present during the incubator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day next week.

  • A decade and a half of instability: The history of Google messaging apps. Sixteen years after the launch of Google Talk, Ars Technica analyzes everything that went wrong — and continues to go wrong — across Google’s messaging app strategy. “…no single company has ever failed at something this badly, for this long, with this many different products,” the article snipes, before introducing the long table of contents to its many sections, each detailing the fate of an individual app. The article concludes that no one seems to be in charge of the company’s overarching messaging app strategy, as messaging isn’t treated as one of the key pillars alongside others like Search, Gmail, Chrome, Android, Docs, Maps and YouTube.

Popcorn

A new startup called Popcorn wants to make work communication more fun and personal by offering a way for users to record short video messages, or “pops,” that can be used for any number of purposes in place of longer emails, texts, Slack messages or Zoom calls. While there are plenty of other places to record short-form video these days, most of these exist in the social media space, which isn’t appropriate for a work environment. With Popcorn, you can instead create a short video and then send a URL to that video anywhere you would want to add a personal touch to your message — like for outreach on LinkedIn or a quick check-in with a colleague, for example. The app is currently a free download on iPhone, iPad and Mac. (Read the full review here on TechCrunch.)

Luma

A new iPad drawing app called Luma connects the screen with real-world play by allowing kids (or anyone) to attach paper to their iPad then trace the lit-up drawing using a pen or pencil. Each drawing will connect to the previous one and can be colored in however the user sees fit. As kids draw, they’ll bring an audio story to life for a more immersive and creative experience. The app was built by Jonathan Wegener (Timehop co-founder, Snapchat designer), Bernardo Nunez (YouTube), Jeffrey Neafsey (Microsoft, Apple), Britt Hatzius and Ant Hampton. It’s backed by the founders of YouTube, Oculus, Eventbrite, Tumblr, HQ Trivia, Google Photos, Venmo, Tinder and more.

LOVE

Image Credits: LOVE

A London-headquartered startup called LOVE, valued at $17 million following its pre-seed funding, aims to redefine how people stay in touch with close family and friends. The company is launching a messaging app that offers a combination of video calling as well as asynchronous video and audio messaging, in an ad-free, privacy-focused experience with a number of bells and whistles, including artistic filters and real-time transcription and translation features. But LOVE’s bigger differentiator may not be its product alone, but rather the company’s mission. LOVE aims for its product direction to be guided by its user base in a democratic fashion as opposed to having the decisions made about its future determined by an elite few at the top of some corporate hierarchy. In addition, the company’s longer-term goal is ultimately to hand over ownership of the app and its governance to its users. (Read the full review here on TechCrunch.)

Want to be a more holistic healthcare company? Add some Ginger 

When Headspace merged with on-demand mental healthcare platform Ginger, I was surprised. After all, Ginger raised $100 million in Series E funding just a few months ago — and last time I spoke to CEO Russell Glass, he stressed the importance of integrating into employer-paid health plans. To me, Headspace’s meditation app is about as direct to consumer as one could go, so what business did Ginger have to get into literal business with it? Fragmentation, much?

Turns out, there’s precedent, and, per a slew of health tech investors and techies, there is more consolidation and commodification to come in behavioral health. I love learning things!

As we discussed during a Twitter Spaces about the merger, Headspace has been pursuing clinical validation for mindfulness for quite a while. That validation could help it pitch its somewhat-fresh employee benefit program and compete with its closest rival, Calm. By merging with an on-demand mental healthcare platform such as Ginger, Headspace can now offer a more holistic approach to mental health. Ginger, for those who don’t know, specializes in helping people access care when they need it, ranging from text-based support to escalation to trainers in real time.

But beyond the news, what does this mean? There are a few main takeaways I had after the Spaces. First, in the best-case scenario, Headspace and Ginger’s merger could show us what a holistic and integrative approach to mental health could look like. As Omers Ventures’ Chrissy Farr said, some patients could use a combination of approaches that vary over time. The industry is evolving so that users have more options when it comes to mental health care; from meditation to texts to Zoom therapy sessions. Second, and this came up throughout the chat, parts of behavioral health are going to get commoditized as the sector grows. Now, it’s no longer enough to just connect a user to a specialist. How do platforms more thoughtfully connect nuanced patients to nuanced options? It’s more than holistic, it’s integrative, says Lux Capital’s Deena Shakir.

Finally, 2021 is all about consolidation — and that includes digital health. 7WireVenture’s Alyssa Jaffe noted that 80% of the cost and complexity in mental health is with severe mental illnesses, but 80% of startups begin with lower acuity care. The new combined entity could become more acquisitive in what it aspires to address, now, beyond non-acute conditions.

In the rest of the newsletter, we’ll get into fintech’s friendly foes, edtech turning into SaaS and a must-read LatAm deep dive. As always, you can support me by following me on Twitter @nmasc_, where I post all my work throughout the week.

For the love of fintech

Image of a businessman blowing up a green balloon with a dollar sign on it to represent investment.

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

On Equity this week, we spoke about how fintech startups Ramp and Brex are growing into their massive valuations. The conversation bubbled up because Ramp raised money at a $3.9 billion valuation, while Brex announced the launch of a $150 million debt venture business within days of each other.

Here’s what to know: Ryan Lawler and Alex Wilhelm dug into Brex and Ramp’s diverging M&A strategies for deeper insight on how to differentiate in the corporate management space.

From the story:

While Ramp seems primarily interested in providing customers a detailed view into company finances with an eye toward cost control, many of Brex’s big announcements and initiatives lately have focused on helping provide small businesses — particularly e-commerce sellers — faster access to cash flows through instant payouts.

Personal finance for startups: 

 Hiring is (still) hard 

Image Credits: alashi (opens in a new window) / Getty Images (Image has been modified)

I wrote two stories this week that underscore two realities about the hiring landscape today. First, I reported that tech bootcamp Flockjay cut at least half of its workforce as it pivoted away from its original job placement focus. Second, Workstream raised $48 million for its text-based recruitment platform for hourly workers.

Here’s what to know: Flockjay’s entire premise was helping non-tech workers break into tech through sales jobs. Its recent pivot to a B2B SaaS tool tells us how hard of a business job placement may be, even in high-demand roles such as sales operations. A day later, Workstream raised money for its recruitment software for the hourly worker. The $48 million Series B is a note on how employers facing high turnover are willing to spend money on recruitment tools that meet candidates where they are, which may be their cell phones.

While one story tells us hiring is a hard business to do at scale, another shows that existing gaps still need focused attention.

Dear Seedlings, take note: 

Around TC

TechCrunch Disrupt is less than a month away. And I’m shook.

Use “Mascarenhas20” for a sweet, sweet discount code when you buy your ticket. It’s a stacked line up of candid speakers and no-BS questions. But, in case you need more convincing on why it’s worth attending, check this out:

Newsroom top picks

Favorites from TechCrunch

Favorites from Extra Crunch

To end, a friendly reminder that it’s still hard for most people to raise capital these days. The boom, my friends, is uneven.

Till next week,

N

CryptoPunks blasts past $1 billion in lifetime sales as NFT speculation surges

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review! Last week we dove into Bezos’s Blue Origin suing NASA. This week, I’m writing about the unlikely and triumphant resurgence of the NFT market.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

If I could, I would probably write about NFTs in this newsletter every week. I generally stop myself from actually doing so because I try my best to make this newsletter a snapshot of what’s important to the entire consumer tech sector, not just my niche interests. That said, I’m giving myself free rein this week.

The NFT market is just so hilariously bizarre and the culture surrounding the NFT world is so web-native, I can’t read about it enough. But in the past several days, the market for digital art on the blockchain has completely defied reason.

Back in April, I wrote about a platform called CryptoPunks that — at that point — had banked more than $200 million in lifetime sales since 2017. The little pop art pixel portraits have taken on a life of their own since then. It was pretty much unthinkable back then but in the past 24 hours alone, the platform did $141 million in sales, a new record. By the time you read this, the NFT platform will have likely passed a mind-boggling $1.1 billion in transaction volume according to crypto tracker CryptoSlam. With 10,000 of these digital characters, to buy a single one will cost you at least $450,000 worth of the Ethereum cryptocurrency. (When I sent out this newsletter yesterday that number was $300k)

It’s not just CryptoPunks either; the entire NFT world has exploded in the past week, with several billions of dollars flowing into projects with drawings of monkeys, penguins, dinosaurs and generative art this month alone. After the NFT rally earlier this year — culminating in Beeple’s $69 million Christie’s sale — began to taper off, many wrote off the NFT explosion as a bizarre accident. What triggered this recent frenzy?

Part of it has been a resurgence of cryptocurrency prices toward all-time-highs and a desire among the crypto rich to diversify their stratospheric assets without converting their wealth to fiat currencies. Dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into an NFT project with fewer stakeholders than the currencies that underlie them can make a lot of sense to those whose wealth is already over-indexed in crypto. But a lot of this money is likely FOMO dollars from investors who are dumping real cash into NFTs, bolstered by moves like Visa’s purchase this week of their own CryptoPunk.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that this growth is unsustainable, but how much further along this market growth gets before the pace of investment slows or collapses is completely unknown. There are no signs of slowing down for now, something that can be awfully exciting — and dangerous — for investors looking for something wild to drop their money into… and wild this market truly is.

Here’s some advice from Figma CEO Dylan Field who sold his alien CryptoPunk earlier this year for 4,200 Eth (worth $13.6 million today).


Image Credits: Kanye West

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

OnlyFans suspends its porn ban
In a stunning about-face, OnlyFans declared this week that they won’t be banning “sexually explicit content” from their platform after all, saying in a statement that they had “secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change.”

Kanye gets into the hardware business
Ahead of the drop of his next album, which will definitely be released at some point, rapper Kanye West has shown off a mobile music hardware device called the Stem Player. The $200 pocket-sized device allows users to mix and alter music that has been loaded onto the device. It was developed in partnership with hardware maker Kano.

Apple settles developer lawsuit
Apple has taken some PR hits in recent years following big and small developers alike complaining about the take-it-or-leave-it terms of the company’s App Store. This week, Apple shared a proposed settlement (which still is pending a judge’s approval) that starts with a $100 million payout and gets more interesting with adjustments to App Store bylines, including the ability of developers to advertise paying for subscriptions directly rather than through the app only.

Twitter starts rolling out ticketed Spaces
Twitter has made a convincing sell for its Clubhouse competitor Spaces, but they’ve also managed to build on the model in recent months, turning its copycat feature into a product that succeeds on its own merits. Its latest effort to allow creators to sell tickets to events is just starting to roll out, the company shared this week.

CA judge strikes down controversial gig economy proposition
Companies like Uber and DoorDash dumped tens of millions of dollars into Prop 22, a law which clawed back a California law that pushed gig economy startups to classify workers as full employees. This week a judge declared the proposition unconstitutional, and though the decision has been stayed on appeal, any adjustment would have major ramifications for those companies’ business in California.


Image of a dollar sign representing the future value of cybersecurity.

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

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Future tech exits have a lot to live up to
“Inflation may or may not prove transitory when it comes to consumer prices, but startup valuations are definitely rising — and noticeably so — in recent quarters. That’s the obvious takeaway from a recent PitchBook report digging into valuation data from a host of startup funding events in the United States…”

OpenSea UX teardown
“…is the experience of creating and selling an NFT on OpenSea actually any good? That’s what UX analyst Peter Ramsey has been trying to answer by creating and selling NFTs on OpenSea for the last few weeks. And the short answer is: It could be much better...

Are B2B SaaS marketers getting it wrong?
“‘Solutions,’ ‘cutting-edge,’ ‘scalable’ and ‘innovative’ are just a sample of the overused jargon lurking around every corner of the techverse, with SaaS marketers the world over seemingly singing from the same hymn book. Sadly for them, new research has proven that such jargon-heavy copy — along with unclear features and benefits — is deterring customers and cutting down conversions…”


Thanks for reading! And again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

Lucas Matney

Now that summer is forever, here are 6 books on climate change to sharpen your intuitions and models

The end is just beginning

The climate is finally hitting a climax. Decades of discussions and reports by scientists have yielded pathbreaking works by writers like Elizabeth Kolbert, and today, climate fiction and non-fiction are even becoming global bestselling works. Everyone wants to read about collapse, dystopia, the aftermath — it’s in the very air we breathe after all, what with the IPCC just reporting once again that all numbers point hotter, redder, and closer to us than ever.

The shelves of climate change books extend ever farther, and yet, one can’t help but feel that not much is changing about such a dynamic topic. There are always more details to unravel of course: another species that’s meeting the end of its precarious existence, a river that no longer flows, a town losing its last sparks of civilization. Yet, we know the tropes and the typical plots at this point (or just deny any of it is happening so it doesn’t matter anyway). The most challenging problem on the Earth today is, frankly, getting a bit repetitive.

The upshot is that there are still original works, works that push the edges of our understanding, reformulate some of the old tropes, and can deliver a forceful punch that unmoors our thinking and forces us to confront the familiar destruction with a new empathy.

I wanted to find the most intriguing books for engineers and technologists who are interested in more systematic ways for understanding what is happening to our planet. Not so much on point solutions (although we have one book on that), but rather books that can develop our thinking about how to understand the changes that are by now inevitably coming.

And so, I picked out and reviewed six books that I think represent a strong canon by which to develop our intuitions about climate change, not just as an environmental problem, but as an economic, social, and personal one as well. They range from systems-thinking analyses and prototypical non-fiction to personal reflections and an atmospheric novel. Each in its own way can help us come to terms with what will be the most challenging collective mission in our lives.

Call it beach reading, while that beach is still there.

Can the world really just fall apart?

Books on climate change, as diverse as the library is, tend to fall into a couple of categories. There are the field guides and observational accounts that chronicle the destruction of our world and make it legible for readers worldwide. There are the policy and tech analyses that splay out options for the future, deliberating tradeoffs and offering guidance to individuals and governments on their decisions. There are the histories that look at missed opportunities, and the geological histories that show what our world was really like over the eons.

Then there’s the much darker category of dystopia.

Dystopic visions of the future are engaging precisely because they are visions. That makes them easy fodder for climate fiction (“cli-fi”) novels or even video games like Final Fantasy VII, a stream of work that has accelerated much in the way that carbon has in the atmosphere. Yet, it’s a field that almost uniquely remains focused on the imagination, of “what if” scenarios and running those contexts to their narrative conclusions.

What makes “How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times” a rare read is that it is both dystopic and non-fiction.

The book, which was translated into English last year and first published in French in 2015, argues for a hard acceptance of what the authors Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens dub “collapsology.” Less a movement like the Extinction Rebellion and Deep Adaptation communities that have risen up in the Anglophone world, collapsology is centered around a multi-disciplinary and systematic inquiry into the state of our world, our civilization, and our society.

In this, they spurn the American frame of progress and technological advancement to solve challenges, as well as humanity’s innate hopeful desire to see a better world going forward. Instead, they want to understand what’s really happening today, and whether the stresses, shocks, and crises that smash into our consciousness on a regular basis are really just a mirage or a phenomenon far more profound.

It shouldn’t be hard to glean what their answer is. Servigne and Stevens walk through earth systems like energy and food production and more as they scout for tipping points, physical limits, and the other impassable barriers to society’s exponential development. What they find is troubling, of course. Exponential human population growth over more than a century has led to practically insatiable demand for every resource and alimentation that the planet has in stock.

That’s a story many of us are familiar with, but where it gets interesting is when they start to systematically explore what that demand has done for efficiency. Perhaps the most striking example they offered was the history of petroleum and Energy Return on Energy Invested, or the amount of oil and gas it takes to drill for that very resource. ERoEI, they note, has declined from 35:1 in 1990 to a factor today of about 11:1. Fuel is getting harder to find — and that means we use more fuel to drill for less fuel. It’s a negative feedback loop — and worse, an exponential one — and there’s little reason to expect these trends to reverse.

These sorts of negative feedback loops are everywhere in earth systems today if you look closely for them. The permafrost is melting in the Arctic, the Amazon rainforest today emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, higher temperatures are making it more difficult and more expensive to grow food. All this at a time when the human population is expected to add several billion more individuals this century.

As with any system, there are lock-ins where components can’t adapt because they are connected to other systems. We can’t replace gas because the entire financial and industrial system is predicated on an abundant and relatively affordable form of energy. We could try to limit the use of automobiles and trucks, but few people (in the West at least) live anywhere near the farms or mining sites where the key sustaining goods of our society come from. Those ears of corn and bags of potatoes are going to have to travel to us, or we to them, but either way, traveling is going to take place.

In the authors’ collective minds, collapsology is about coming to terms with the reality of the systems all around us and just reading the dials. It’s about accepting tipping points, discontinuities, and other non-linear paths in these systems and projecting what they mean for our own lives and those of others. It’s a call to reality, rather than a call to arms. Just look, the authors practically say.

While the first half of the book is mostly centered around exploring systems and how they inter-connect, the second half of the work explores us as humans, and debating collapsology as a phenomenon. Is it too negative? Why do we have psychological barriers that prevent us from seeing the fragility of our ecosystems and our planet? How will art and movies and books adapt to our new context? How are we going to respond to the challenges that are about to confront us in a much more visceral way? The answers — when they are available — are interesting if not always novel.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

It’s fascinating to see a bit of a cultural counterpoint to the American sensibility. In some ways, collapsology is just the latest manifestation of French existentialism, updated for the twenty-first century. The book doesn’t provide solutions, nor does it necessarily argue that progress must happen or even that it could happen. Instead, it just observes the human condition, and the conditions around humans. Humans are diverse, and they are going to react to the cataclysm in the diverse ways one would come to expect.

The book offers no solution and paints a dreary future that’s just on the cusp of dystopia. But the title is fascinating, since it posits a conditional rather than an assurance. The world “can collapse” not that it “will collapse.” A reader will be forgiven for thinking the latter is the case the book is making, but ultimately, Servigne and Stevens believe that the only way to avoid collapse is to fully see the world in all its complexity. Collapsology then is really anti-collapsology, or deeply understanding the brittleness of our systems before the limits are reached. That’s a refreshingly intellectual point of view, if not necessary a salve to the fears we read and see and feel every day.


How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens. Translated from French by Andrew Brown.

Wiley, 2020, 250 pages

Originally published as “Comment tout peut s’effondrer: Petit Manuel de collapsologie à l’usage des générations présentes”

See Also

Bill Gates offers direction, not solutions

Bill Gates has solved many problems in his (professional) life, and in recent decades, he’s been dedicated to the plight of the world’s poor and particularly their health. Through his foundation work and charitable giving, he’s roamed the world solving problems from malaria and neglected tropical diseases to maternal health, always with an eye toward the novel and typically cheap solution.

It’s that engineering brain and mode of thinking that he brings to bear on climate change in his book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need” (yes, it’s italicized on the cover — we really do need them). Gates describes a bit of his evolution from software mogul to global health wizard to concerned climate citizen. If you look at challenges like neglected tropical diseases, for instance, climate change abundantly affects the prevalence of mosquitos and other vectors for infection. No one can avoid climate change when analyzing food security in developing nations.

With this early narrative, Gates is attempting to connect perhaps not with climate change skeptics (it’s hard to connect with them on a good day anyway), but instead to build a bridge to the skeptical-but-ready-to-rethink crowd. He admits that he didn’t think much of the problem until he saw its effects first hand, opening the door to at least some readers who may be ready to undertake a similar intellectual journey.

From there, Gates delivers an extremely sober (one could easily substitute dry) analysis of the major components of greenhouse gas emissions and how we get to net zero by removing 51 billion tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year, which in chapter order are energy production (27%), manufacturing (31%), agriculture (19%), transportation (16%), and air conditioning (7%).

Gates is an engineer, and it shows and it is marvelous. He places a great emphasis throughout the book on understanding scale, of constantly trying to disentangle the numbers and units we hear about in the press and actually trying to understand whether a particular innovation might make any difference whatsoever. Gates offers the example of an aviation program that will save “17 million tons” of CO2, but points out that the figure is really just 0.03% of global emissions and isn’t necessarily likely to scale up more than it already has. With this framing, he’s borrowing the approach of effective altruism, or the idea that charitable dollars should flow to the projects that can provide the biggest verifiable improvement to quality of life for the least cost.

Unsurprisingly, Gates is a capitalist, and his framework for judging each potential solution is to calculate a “Green Premium” for their use. For instance, a carbon-free cement manufacturing process might cost double the more normal carbon-emitting one. Compare those added costs with the actual savings these substitutions would have on greenhouse gas emissions, and voila: you have an instant guide on the most efficient means to solving climate change.

The answer he comes up with tends to be quite portable in the end. Electrify everything, decarbonize electricity, carbon capture what’s left, and be more efficient. If that sounds hard, that’s because it is, and Gates notes the challenges in an aptly-named chapter entitled “This Will Be Hard” which begins with the line “Please don’t let the title of this chapter depress you.” I’m not sure you needed to buy the book to figure that out.

Gates ends up being an end-to-end conservative figure throughout the book. It’s not just his general approach of protecting the status quo, which is obviously latent in solutions which are essentially substitutable tweaks to our way of life and shouldn’t be surprising given the messenger. It’s also the surprising conservatism of his views on the power of technology to solve these problems. For a person who has quite literally invested billions in clean energy and other green technologies, there is surprisingly little magic that Gates proposes. It’s probably realistic, but considering the source, it can feel like pessimism.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

Read in concert with some of the other books in this group of climate change reviews, and one can’t help but feel a sort of calculated naiveté on the part of Gates, a sense that we should just keep playing our cards a little while longer and see if we get a last-minute royal flush. There are early signs of solutions, but most aren’t ready for scale. Some technologies are already available, but would require prodigious outlays to retrofit cars, homes, businesses, and more to actually impact our emissions numbers. Then there’s everyone outside of the West, who deserve access to modern amenities. It’s all so easy, and yet, so out of reach.

The book’s strengths — and simultaneously its weaknesses — is that it is apolitical, fact-laden and ready to be read by all but the most ardent climate change skeptics. But it also acts as a gateway drug of sorts: once you understand the scales of the problem, the scopes of the solutions, and the challenges of Green Premiums and policy implementation, you’re left with the feeling that there is no way we are going to do this in the next few years anyway, so what’s really the point?

Gates ends the book by saying that “We should spend the next decade focusing on the technologies, policies, and market structures that will put us on the path to eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050.” He’s not wrong, but it’s also an evergreen comment, in a world that won’t be evergreen for much longer.


How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates
Alfred A. Knopf, 2021, 257 pages

See Also

Is the best way to solve climate change to “do nothing?”

When it comes to climate change, it might seem that a book entitled “How to Do Nothing” would not only be irrelevant, but also downright obscene and even dangerous. Not to mention that after more than a year of pandemic living, many people are understandably fatigued at the prospect of continuing to keep their lives empty of social activities.

Yet, messing with our notions of action and contemplation is precisely the plan that Jenny Odell has laid out in her lapidary work, a meditation that is, ironically, a call to action.

Odell is a Bay Area star, who has been an artist in residence at a variety of institutions from the Internet Archive to Recology, San Francisco’s trash pickup and processing company. Her artistic work centers on attention, of focusing on the details that envelop us in this world and what we can learn from them. It’s an activity that leads her to birdwatching and long walks in Oakland’s public parks such as the Morcom Rose Garden.

Her book, it might be helpful to note, is subtitled “Resisting the Attention Economy” and Odell has made it her mission to help wean a generation, and well, a population off the spasmodic negativity that emanates from our social media platforms. In fact, she has a more ambitious goal: to wean people off the notion that productivity is the only value to life — that action is the only useful metric by which to measure ourselves. She wants to direct our attention to more important things.

“I fully understand where a life of sustained attention leads. In short, it leads to awareness,” she writes in the introduction. The key word here is sustained — and that’s also the connection with sustainability and the climate more broadly.

We don’t lack for information, data or opinions. In fact, we are overwhelmed with the dross of human thought. Some studies have shown that modern knowledge workers read more words per day than ever before in history — but they’re reading social media posts, emails, Slack messages and other ephemera that are each nibbling and collectively devouring our attention. What’s left is, for many of us, not much of any thought at all. The world is more frenetic and chaotic than ever before, but in the process, we have traded a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in this world for an incessant deluge of media. Odell wants us to take that imbalance and level it.

For her, that means practicing a more sustained form of attention. That’s a skill most of us have little practice with (a deficit we may not even be aware of, ironically), and indeed, sustaining attention might even mean regularly refusing to engage with the world around us. That’s a good thing in her analysis. “At their loftiest, such refusals can signify the individual capacity for self-directed action against the abiding flow; at the very least, they interrupt the monotony of the everyday.”

Controlling our attention, directing it, and filtering out the noise of contemporary life results not in further atomization and narcissism, but rather a more collective sense of being. “When the pattern of your attention has changed, you render your reality differently. You begin to move and act in a different kind of world,” she writes. Suddenly, the trees and flowers that were once backdrops to our walks to brunch become complex and elegant life in their own right. We deepen our camaraderie with our friends and colleagues in ways that we never could with an emoji in Slack. We build up the potential to work together to solve problems.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

Our sustained attention also allows us to notice the details of what is changing around us, the subtle variations of our environment that come from a warming planet. “Things like the American obsession with individualism, customized filter bubbles, and personal branding—anything that insists on atomized, competing individuals striving in parallel, never touching—does the same violence to human society as a dam does to a watershed.” We can’t fix what we don’t see, and with our fragmented attention, we really don’t see much.

The irony of course is that while technology products dissolve attention — building them takes an extraordinary amount of it. While some startup founders strike it rich on a whim and others are injected with product ideas from friends or VCs, the vast majority learned to sustain their attention on a market or customer for sometimes extraordinarily long periods of time in order to notice the gaps in a market. A founder recently told me that he had been working with customers in his market for more than a decade before he eventually understood a need that wasn’t being fulfilled with existing solutions.

What’s missing in the tech and startup community today is connecting that user empathy and focus on product-market fit to the attention we need in all the other aspects of our lives today. Odell analyzes it a bit more negatively than I would: we actually have these skills and in fact, use them quite specifically. We just don’t use them broadly enough to bring our minds to look at our friendships, communities and planet in a deeper light.

Doing nothing allows us to see what matters and what doesn’t. When it comes to solving big problems, particularly some of the most intractable like climate change, it’s precisely doing nothing that allows us to see the right path to doing something.


How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
Melville House, 2019, 256 pages

See Also