Journey Clinical raises $3M to allow psychotherapists to prescribe psychedelics

Psychedelics companies are all the rage right now. Compass Pathways is working with the magic mushroom compound psilocybin to treat depression. It’s has raised $290 million in total. Atai Life Sciences — backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel — brought in $258 million from its IPO. In the tech space, this has not gone unnoticed and the same business models that have been used in other platforms for health and wellness startups are coming to psychedelics.

The latest is Journey Clinical, based out of NYC, which has raised a $3 million seed round led by San Francisco VC firm Fifty Years. Also participating were Neo Kuma Ventures, Palo Santo, PsyMed Ventures, Lionheart Ventures, Christina Sass co-founder of Andela, ​​Edvard Engesæth, MD co-founder of Nurx and, Hans Gangeskar co-founder of Nurx.

Journey joins other startups in the space looking at psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, where ketamine is used to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and trauma, known as ketamine-assisted psychotherapy (KAP). Miami-based startup NUE Life Health raised a $3.3 million seed round for the same purpose back in June. There is also Field Trip and Mindbloom playing in this space.

These startups are pushing at an open door on depression and anxiety. Pre-COVID-19, the National Center for Health Statistics estimated some 50 million Americans were fighting the afflictions. The pandemic has of course exacerbated this issue, with those figures doubling, by some estimates.

It’s still an early market. Journey says the market landscape for legal psychedelic therapies is very disparate, with over a million licensed mental health professionals lacking the infrastructure to offer these treatments as they lack access to prescribing clinicians. On the flip side, patients struggle to find psychotherapists who can prescribe psychedelics as treatment.

Journey says it has a “decentralized clinic model” that allows psychotherapists to offer legal psychedelic therapy treatments in their practice, starting with ketamine. The way it works is that Journey takes care of the pharmacology side, while psychotherapists that sign up to the platform take care of the psychotherapy of the patient. The treatment plans are then customized to meet the patient’s needs.

Jonathan Sabbagh, co-founder and CEO, was previously diagnosed with PTSD, but after discovering psychedelics, he went back to school to study clinical psychology, and went on to co-found Journey. He said: “We are on the verge of a paradigm shift in the field of mental health. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies are one of the most promising new means of treatment available; they will allow clinicians to tackle the growing global mental health crisis we are facing.”

Speaking to TechCrunch he added: “When we asked what was the main bottleneck for therapists to offer KAP to their patients, the #1 response was access to a prescribing doctor. Our alpha test group confirmed that guaranteeing access to a trained medical team and building a robust care management system would solve an essential bottleneck of mainstream adoption for KAP.”

Journey has two revenue streams. Psychotherapists pay them a $200 monthly membership fee which gives them access to a number of services including and access to the prescriber, an EHR (achieved through a white label), a KAP training (training materials created by a specialized training company), a profile on Journey’s directory, and a community of peers. Patients pay journey for medical services. They pay $250 for the intake consultation and $150 for follow-up consultations.

Ela Madej, Founding Partner at Fifty Years, said: “I dream of a world where those of us affected by trauma, anxiety, or depression don’t have to fall into learned helplessness. We’re lucky that powerful psychedelic treatments for the mind exist, but they need to be delivered responsibly, with proper screening, protocols, and follow-up. We’ve been incredibly impressed by Journey Clinical’s ambitious plan to empower psychotherapists to better treat their existing patients.”

The team also comprises Kyle Lapidus MD, Ph.D., who has over 20 years as a board-certified psychiatrist and has extensive experience working with ketamine; and Brigitte Gordon DNP a professor at Columbia University and also works for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS.)

#alpha, #andela, #atai-life-sciences, #christina-sass, #co-founder, #columbia-university, #compass-pathways, #depression, #drug-discovery, #drugs, #ela-madej, #fifty-years, #medicine, #mental-health, #miami, #multidisciplinary-association-for-psychedelic-studies, #nue-life-health, #nurx, #partner, #paypal, #peter-thiel, #ptsd, #tc

Tyk raises $35M for its open-source, open-ended approach to enterprise API management

APIs are the grease turning the gears and wheels for many organizations’ IT systems today, but as APIs grow in number and use, tracking how they work (or don’t work) together can become complex and potentially critical if something goes awry. Now, a startup that has built an innovative way to help with this is announcing some funding after getting traction with big enterprises adopting its approach.

Tyk, which has built a way for users to access and manage multiple internal enterprise APIs through a universal interface by way of GraphQL, has picked up $35 million, an investment that it will be using both for hiring and to continue enhancing and expanding the tools that it provides to users. Tyk has coined a term describing its approach to managing APIs and the data they produce — “universal data graph” — and today its tools are being used to manage APIs by some 10,000 businesses, including large enterprises like Starbucks, Societe Generale, and Domino’s.

Scottish Equity Partners led the round, with participation also from MMC Ventures — its sole previous investor from a round in 2019 after boostrapping for its first five years. The startup is based out of London but works in a very distributed way — one of the co-founders is living in New Zealand currently — and it will be hiring and growing based on that principle, too. It has raised just over $40 million to date.

Tyk (pronounced like “tyke”, meaning small/lively child) got its start as an open source side project first for co-founder Martin Buhr, who is now the company’s CEO, while he was working elsewhere, as a “load testing thing,” in his words.

The shifts in IT towards service-oriented architectures, and building and using APIs to connect internal apps, led him to rethink the code and consider how it could be used to control APIs. Added to that was the fact that as far as Buhr could see, the API management platforms that were in the market at the time — some of the big names today include Kong, Apigee (now a part of Google), 3scale (now a part of RedHat and thus IBM), MuleSoft (now a part of Salesforce) — were not as flexible as his needs were. “So I built my own,” he said.

It was built as an open source tool, and some engineers at other companies started to use it. As it got more attention, some of the bigger companies interested in using it started to ask why he wasn’t charging for anything — a sure sign as any that there was probably a business to be built here, and more credibility to come if he charged for the it.

“So we made the gateway open source, and the management part went into a licensing model,” he said. And Tyk was born as a startup co-founded with James Hirst, who is now the COO, who worked with Buhr at a digital agency some years before.

The key motivation behind building Tyk has stayed as its unique selling point for customers working in increasingly complex environments.

“What sparked interest in Tyk was that companies were unhappy with API management as it exists today,” Buhr noted, citing architectures using multiple clouds and multiple containers, creating more complexity that needed better management. “It was just the right time when containerization, Kubernetes and microservices were on the rise… The way we approach the multi-data and multi-vendor cloud model is super flexible and resilient to partitions, in a way that others have not been able to do.”

“You engage developers and deliver real value and it’s up to them to make the choice,” added Hirst. “We are responding to a clear shift in the market.”

One of the next frontiers that Tyk will tackle will be what happens within the management layer, specifically when there are potential conflicts with APIs.

“When a team using a microservice makes a breaking change, we want to bring that up and report that to the system,” Buhr said. “The plan is to flag the issue and test against it, and be able to say that a schema won’t work, and to identify why.”

Even before that is rolled out, though, Tyk’s customer list and its grow speak to a business on the cusp of a lot more.

“Martin and James have built a world-class team and the addition of this new capital will enable Tyk to accelerate the growth of its API management platform, particularly around the GraphQL focused Universal Data Graph product that launched earlier this year,” said Martin Brennan, a director at SEP, in a statement. “We are pleased to be supporting the team to achieve their global ambitions.”

Keith Davidson, a partner at SEP, is joining the Tyk board as a non-executive director with this round.

#api, #api-gateway, #api-management, #apigee, #apis, #ceo, #cloud-computing, #co-founder, #computing, #coo, #developer, #enterprise, #europe, #funding, #google, #graphql, #ibm, #london, #microservices, #mmc-ventures, #mulesoft, #new-zealand, #salesforce, #scottish-equity-partners, #societe-generale, #starbucks, #technology, #tyk

Constructor finds $55M for tech that powers search and discovery for e-commerce businesses

One of the biggest problems in the world of e-commerce is the predicament of shopping cart abandonment: when shoppers aren’t getting to what they want fast enough — whether it’s finding the right item, or paying for it in a quick and easy way — they bounce. That singular problem is driving a wave of technology development to make the experience ever more seamless, and today one of the companies closely involved in that space is announcing some funding on the back of healthy growth.

Constructor, which has built technology that powers search and product discovery tools for e-commerce businesses, has picked up $55 million in a Series A round of funding. Constructor says that it powers “billions” of queries every month, with revenues growing 233% in the last year. Customers it works with include Sephora, Walmart’s Bonobos, Backcountry and many other big names.

The round is being led by Silversmith Capital Partners — which coincidentally, just today, led another round for an e-commerce startup, Zonos.

It is joined by a long list of notable individual investors. They include David Fraga, former president of InVision; Kevin Weil, former head of product at Twitter and Instagram; Jason Finger, founder of Seamless; Carl Sparks, ex-CEO of Travelocity; Robyn Peterson, CTO at CNN; Dave Heath, founder of Bombas; Ryan Barretto, president at Sprout Social; Melody Hildebrandt, EVP engineering and CISO at FOX; Zander Rafael, co-founder of Better.com; and Seth Shaw, CRO at Airtable. Cap Table Coalition — a firm that helps underrepresented-background investors back up-and-coming startups — was also involved. Fraga is joining Constructor’s board with this round.

The last year and a half has been a bumper one for the world of e-commerce — with more traffic, transactions and retailers moving online in the wake of social distancing measures impacting in-person, physical shopping. But that has also exposed a lot of the cracks in how e-commerce works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be).

One of the more dysfunctional areas is search and discovery. As most of us have unfortunately learned first-hand, when we search for things in the search window of an online store, it’s almost always the case that the results don’t have what we want.

When we browse as we might in a physical store, because we are not sure of what we want, all too often we are not prompted with pictures of things we might actually like to buy. They may be there — we typically visit sites because we either already know them, or have seen something we like elsewhere — but nevertheless, finding what we might actually like to buy can take a lot of time, and in many cases may never happen at all.

Eli Finkelshteyn, Constructor’s CEO and founder, says that one of the issues is that search and discovery are often built as static experiences: they are designed to meet a one-size-fits-all model where site architects have effectively guessed at what a shopper might want, and built for that. This is one area that Constructor has rethought, specifically by making search and discovery more dynamic and responsive to what’s happened before you ever visit a site.

“One of the things wrong with product discovery was that prescriptively sites show you what they think is valuable to you,” he said. “We think the process should be descriptive.”

As an example, he talked about Cheetos. Sometimes people who might want to buy these start out by navigating to the potato chip category. In many static searches, those results might not include Cheetos. Some people might abandon their search altogether (bounce), but some might navigate away from that and search specifically for Cheetos and add them to their carts. In a descriptive and more dynamic environment, Finkelshteyn believes that these two flows should subsequently inform all future chip searches.

“We take into account as much data as we can learn from, and that list is always growing,” he said. “The goal is anything we can learn from should become part of the user experience.”

Google is the current, undisputed leader in the world of search, and it too uses a lot of dynamic, AI-based tools to learn and tweak how it searches and what results it produces.

Interestingly it hasn’t extended as much of this to third parties as you might think. The company wound down its own site search product in 1997 and now if you look for this you are redirected to the company’s enterprise search suite.

There are however others that have also stepped into that void to provide services that compete with Constructor, including the likes of Algolia, Yext, Elasticsearch and more. Finkelshteyn believes that among all of these, none have managed yet to provide a service like Constructor’s that learns and adjusts its results constantly based on search and browsing activity.

This is one reason the company has stood out with its customers, and with investors.

“Constructor has built a search and discovery platform that is truly making a difference for enterprise retailers. They are providing customers with comprehensive and optimized search and discovery that is unmatched in the market,” said Sri Rao, Constructor board member and general partner at Silversmith Capital Partners, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with the Constructor team as they continue to revolutionize search and discovery capabilities for retailers across all platforms.”

Looking forward, there will be some interesting opportunities ahead for Constructor to take its search and discovery tools to new frontiers. These could include ways to bring in and account for shoppers on third-party platforms — currently Constructor does not power experiences on, say, social media, so that is one potential area to explore — as well as more offline experiences, critical as retailers and shoppers take on more blended approaches that might start online and finish in stores, or proceed the other way around, or find users walking around with their phones to shop even as they are in physical stores.

#algolia, #artificial-intelligence, #better-com, #board-member, #bonobos, #carl-sparks, #ceo, #co-founder, #constructor, #cto, #david-fraga, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #founder, #funding, #google, #google-search, #invision, #jason-finger, #kevin-weil, #marketing, #merchandising, #online-shopping, #partner, #president, #retail, #seamless, #sephora, #shopping, #silversmith-capital-partners, #social-media, #sprout-social, #technology-development, #travelocity, #yext, #zonos

App Annie and co-founder charged with securities fraud, will pay $10M+ settlement

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has charged App Annie, a leading mobile data and analytics firm, as well as its co-founder and former CEO and Chairman Bertrand Schmitt, with securities fraud. App Annie and Schmitt have agreed to pay over $10 million to settle the fraud charges which are related to “deceptive practices and making material misrepresentations about how App Annie’s alternative data was derived,” the SEC said.

App Annie is one of the largest sellers of mobile app performance data, offering details that are useful to developers, publishers, advertisers, and marketers — like how many times an app is downloaded, how often it’s used, the revenue it generates, and other competitive analysis and insights. This is what trading firms call “alternative data,” because it’s not detailed in their financial statements or other traditional data sources, the SEC explains. App Annie told app makers it would not disclose their data to third parties directly, but would rather use the data in an aggregated and anonymized way to provide app insights. Specifically, companies were told the data would be used to build a statistical model to generate estimates of app performance.

However, the SEC says from late 2014 through mid-2018, App Annie used non-aggregated and non-anonymized data to alter its model-generated estimates in order to make them more valuable to sell to trading firms. It also says that the company and Schmitt then misrepresented to its customers how it was able to generate the data, saying it did so with the appropriate consent from customers, and that it had effective internal controls to prevent the misuse of confidential data, ensuring it was in compliance with federal securities laws. Trading firms were making investment decisions based on this data and App Annie had even shared ideas as to how they could use the estimates to trading ahead of earnings announcements.

In the full complaint, the SEC further explains Schmitt had agreed to an internal policy where certain public company “Connect Data” — “Connect” being App Annies’ analytics product — would be excluded from its statistical model in late 2014. But he didn’t actually direct anyone at App Annie to document this policy until April 2017. And then when it was documented, it only said to exclude app revenue data from public companies whose app revenue exceeded 5% of the company’s total revenue. It never said to exclude app download or usage data.

The SEC says the documented policy was never properly enforced. It wasn’t until after App Annie learned of the SEC investigation in June 2018 that it amended the policy to exclude public company Connect Data from its estimate generation process, and began to fully implement the policy.

The investigation also discovered that App Annie engineers in Beijing, China were directed by Schmitt to manually alter estimates that would be of most interest to the company’s highest-paying customers. It did so by looking at the confidential Connect Data, which is one of the ways its estimates were able to be more accurate than rivals.

“The federal securities laws prohibit deceptive conduct and material misrepresentations in connection with the purchase or sale of securities,” said Gurbir S. Grewal, Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, in a statement. “Here, App Annie and Schmitt lied to companies about how their confidential data was being used and then not only sold the manipulated estimates to their trading firm customers, but also encouraged them to trade on those estimates—often touting how closely they correlated with the companies’ true performance and stock prices,” Grewal added.

The SEC says App Annie and Schmitt violated the anti-fraud provisions of Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5. App Annie, without either admitting or denying the findings, consented to a cease-and-desist order and is paying a penalty. App Annie agreed to pay a penalty of $10 million. Meanwhile, Schmitt is ordered to pay a penalty of $300,000 and is prohibited from serving as an officer or director of a public company for three years.

Reached for comment, App Annie’s current CEO provided a statement:

“Since I have taken over as CEO, we have established a new standard of trust and transparency for the newly created alternative data market. App Annie is uniquely positioned to be the first to deliver on a unified data AI vision,” said Theodore Krantz, CEO at App Annie. “Many businesses may be unknowingly leveraging data reliant on confidential public company information without explicit consent which we believe puts companies using digital/mobile market data at significant risk. It is our opinion that the entire alternative data space needs to be regulated.”

In a newsroom post, the company also pointed out that the SEC investigation does not relate to its “current products,” nor did it relate to “our current relationships with customers.” And it says in the three years since the violating practices, it has appointed a new CEO and executive team, changed how it built its data estimates, and established a company-wide “culture of compliance,” which included the appointment of a Head of Global Compliance. It also documented its procedures for ensuring confidential data is excluded from its process of generating market estimates.

App Annie’s mobile market data solution was one of the first to serve the growing app ecosystem when it launched in 2010. Today, its firm counts more than 1,100 enterprise clients and over a million registered users, according to its corporate website.

The details of the complaint and settlement are below.

This story is breaking and may be updated. 

 

#app-annie, #app-store, #apps, #beijing, #ceo, #china, #co-founder, #computing, #director, #mobile-app, #officer, #software, #u-s-securities-and-exchange-commission

Dispo launches a test to gauge user interest in selling their photos as NFTs

The photo-sharing app that emulates disposable cameras, Dispo started rolling out a test yesterday that will record user interest in selling photos as NFTs. Some users will now see a sell button on their photos, and when they tap it, they can sign up to be notified when the ability to sell Dispo photos launches.

CEO and co-founder Daniel Liss told TechCrunch that Dispo is still deciding how it will incorporate NFT sales into the app, which is why the platform is piloting a test with its users. Dispo doesn’t know yet what blockchain it would use, if it would partner with an NFT marketplace, or what cut of sales Dispo would take.

“I think it’s safe to say from the test that there will be an experience native to the Dispo app,” Liss said. “There are a number of ways it could look — there could be a native experience within Dispo that then connects through an API to another platform, and in turn, they’re our partner, but to the community, it would look native to the Dispo app.”

Image Credits: Dispo

This marks a new direction for the social media app, which seeks to redefine the photo-sharing experience by only letting users see the photos they took at 9 AM the next morning. From Dispo’s perspective, this gimmick helps users share more authentically, since you take one photo and then you’re done — the app isn’t conducive to taking dozens of selfies and posting the “best” image of yourself. But though it only launched in December 2019, Dispo has already faced both buzzy hype and devastating controversy.

Until about a year ago, the app was called David’s Disposables, named after co-founder and YouTuber David Dobrik. The app was downloaded over a million times in the first week after its release and hit number one on the App Store charts. In March 2021, the app dropped its waitlist and relaunched with social network features, but just weeks later, Insider reported sexual assault allegations against a member of Vlog Squad, Dobrik’s YouTube prank ensemble. In response, Spark Capital severed ties with the company, leading to Dobrik’s departure. Other investors like Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures, who contributed to the company’s $20 million Series A round, announced that they would donate any profits from their investments in Dispo to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault.

Liss told TechCrunch in June, when the company confirmed its Series A, that Dobrik’s role with the company was as a marketing partner — Liss has been CEO since the beginning. In light of the controversy, Liss said the app focused on improving the product itself and took a step back from promotion.

According to data from the app analytics firm SensorTower, Dispo has reached an estimated 4.7 million global installs to date since launch. Though the app saw the most downloads in January 2020, when it was installed over 1 million times, the app’s next best month came in March 2021, when it removed its waitlist — that month, about 616,000 people downloaded Dispo. Between March and the end of August, the app was downloaded around 1.4 million times, which is up 118% year over year compared to the same time frame in 2020 — but it should be expected that this year’s numbers would be higher, since last year, the app’s membership was exclusive.

Image Credits: Dispo

Now, with the announcement that Dispo is pursuing NFTs, Liss hopes that his company won’t just change how people post photos, but what the relationship will be between platforms and the content that users create.

“Why NFTs? The most powerful memories of our lives have value. And they have economic value, because we created them, and the past of social media fails to recognize that,” Liss told TechCrunch. “As a result, the only way that a creator with a big following is compensated is by selling directly to a brand, as opposed to profiting from the content itself.”

Adding NFT sales to the app offers Dispo a way to profit from a cut of user sales, but it stands to question how adding NFT sales could impact the community-focused feel of Dispo.

“I think there is tremendous curiosity and interest,” Liss said. “But these problems and questions are why we need more data.”

#app-store, #apps, #ceo, #co-founder, #computing, #daniel-liss, #david-dobrik, #dispo, #freeware, #instagram, #internet-culture, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #nfts, #operating-systems, #series-a, #social, #social-media, #social-media-app, #software

AI-driven voice assistant PolyAI raises $14M round led by Khosla Ventures

“Conversational AI” startup PolyAI, based out of London, has raised $14 million in a funding round led by Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures, with participation from existing investors (Point72 Ventures, Amadeus Capital, Sands Capital Ventures, Passion Capital and Entrepreneur First). This follows their $12m Series A, and will provide resources for further US expansion beyond its existing US team. The startup has now raised $28m to date.

PolyAI builds and deploys voice assistants for automating customer services, which, claims the startup, sound like real humans. This helps companies get an infinite and cheaper supply of their best human voice operators, which reduces customer waiting times, and increases customer satisfaction and retention, says the company.

Co-founder Dr Nikola Mrkšić said: “The technical term for our technology is ‘multi-turn conversational AI’, but all the caller has to do is talk to it, like they would to a human. Compared to existing call centers, our assistants can boost customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores by up to 40% and reduce handling times by up to five minutes.”

“We build these systems very quickly (relative to the competition) — we get experiences like these up and running in 2-4 weeks thanks to our transformer-based language understanding models and the underlying dialog management platform,” he added.

In a statement, Vinod Khosla said: “PolyAI is one of the first AI companies using the newest generation of large pre-trained deep learning models (akin to BERT and GPT-3) in a real-world enterprise product. This means they can deploy automated AI agents in as little as two weeks, where incumbent providers of voice assistants would take up to six months to deploy an older version of this technology.”

A spinout from the University of Cambridge, PolyAI says it is is effectively ’pushing at an open door’ as the pandemic has led to staffing shortages in call centers, driving more companies to deploy smart voice assistants, which appear not to have been replaced chatbots at all, as consumer generally prefer to speak than type.

“We were expecting the system to handle 40% of calls, but at launch it handled 80%, and within two weeks it was up to 87%,” said Brian Jeppesen of Landry’s Golden Nugget Hotels & Casinos. “Callers think the AI agent is human”, Jeppesen continued, “which is great because the voice assistant never has a bad day, and is on 24/7. I wish I could hire more agents like that!”

Competitors include Nuance (recently acquired by Microsoft), IPSoft, Interactions, SmartAction, and Replicant. But PolyAI says its voice assistant can be turned live more quickly, in more languages, and charges on a per-minute basis.

Founded by Nikola Mrkšić (CEO), Tsung-Hsien Wen (CTO), Pei-Hao Su (Engineering Director), the three met while doing PhDs with Professor Steve Young, a leader in spoken dialog systems who pioneered many technologies that underpin voice assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa.

Recent PolyAI clients include Landry’s Entertainment, Greene King, Starling Bank, and Viasat. 

#alexa, #artificial-intelligence, #cambridge, #ceo, #chatbots, #co-founder, #computing, #cto, #customer-satisfaction, #entrepreneur, #europe, #google, #instant-messaging, #interactions, #khosla-ventures, #leader, #london, #microsoft, #nikola, #nuance, #passion-capital, #point72-ventures, #polyai, #replicant, #sands-capital-ventures, #software, #starling-bank, #tc, #united-states, #university-of-cambridge, #user-interfaces, #viasat, #vinod-khosla, #virtual-assistant, #voice-assistant

Gaia Capital Partners in Paris rebrands as Revaia, closes first €250M growth fund

Paris-based VC fund Gaia Capital Partners has change its name to Revaia and announced the final closing of its first growth fund, at €250 million. The firm said it exceeded its initial target of €200 million, and the fund will be ‘ESG focused’.

Revaia is also claiming to be Europe’s largest female-founded VC fund, although TechCrunch has not been able to verify that at the time of publication.

As Gaia Capital Partners, Revaia launched its first fund in late 2019, the portfolio for which currently consists of ten investments, including Aircall, recently achieved a unicorn valuation. Other investments include Epsor (Paris: Epsor designs and distributes employee savings and retirement plans), GetAccept (SF: an all-in-one sales enablement solution that assists B2B sales reps in closing remote deals), gohenry (London: a kids money management application), Planity (Paris: an online booking platform for hair and beauty salons), Welcome to the Jungle (Paris: a multichannel media company), and Yubo (Paris: a social platform for Generation Z).

Alice Albizzati, co-founder of Revaia said in a statement: “When we set up the firm, we were determined to create an investment strategy in line with our convictions – a focus on European companies with high ambitions but with no compromise on sustainability – and with the objective of bridging the gap between private and public markets. Our venture has performed beyond our initial expectations.”

The firm now has an office in Paris and Berlin, as well as a presence in New York and Toronto

The fund’s institutional investors include insurance companies such as Generali, Allianz, and Maif, pension funds, other institutional investors such as Bpifrance, as well as over 50 family offices and Angels.

Elina Berrebi, co-founder of Revaia, said: “We are very grateful to our investors and entrepreneurs who trusted us as we accelerated the build-up of our portfolio. This final closing of our first fund is a huge milestone. It is a solid foundation from which we can support future European technology leaders with their ambitions and sustainability plans, as well as expand and internationalize our team while building a strong value creation platform.”

Revaia said the new fund had already begun investing, and “two new investments should be announced soon”.

The firm says it aims to invest in around 15 companies and expand across Europe.

It’s also partnered with listed market sustainable investor Sycomore Asset Management.

#accel, #allianz, #berlin, #bpifrance, #co-founder, #europe, #finance, #gaia-capital-partners, #insurance, #investment, #london, #maif, #money, #new-york, #paris, #tc, #vc

Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

#alexia-bonatsos, #andreessen-horowitz, #app-store, #apps, #blake-robbins, #byte, #ceo, #co-founder, #coinbase, #editor-in-chief, #firstmark, #fred-ehrsam, #gaming, #instagram, #internet-culture, #iphone, #jonathon-triest, #kyle-russell, #legos, #ludlow-ventures, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #nate-mitchell, #oculus, #rick-heitzmann, #roblox, #skydio, #social-media-app, #software, #startups, #tiktok, #twitter, #web-app

iPhone inside 30 mins? Germany’s Arive brings consumer brands to your door, raises €6M

In Europe and the US we are very much getting used to groceries being delivered within 15 minutes, with a huge battleground of startups in the space. Startups across Europe and the US have raised no less than $3.1 billion in the last quarter alone for grocery deliveries within 10 or 20-minute delivery promises. But all are scrambling over a market where the average order size is pretty low. What if it was in the hundreds, and didn’t require refrigeration?

This is probably going to be the newest “15/30minute” consumer battleground, as high-end consumer goods come to last-mile deliveries.

The latest to Arive in this space is… arive – a German-based startup that delivers high-end consumer brands within 30 minutes. It’s now raised €6 million in seed funding from 468 Capital, La Famiglia VC and Balderton Capital.

But stacking its shelves with well-known brands and spinning up last-mile delivery logistics, Arive is offering fitness products, cosmetics, personal care, homeware, tech and fashion. Consumers order via an app, with the delivery coming via a bike-only fleet in 30-minutes or less.

The behavior it’s tapping into is already there. It seems the pandemic has made us all work and play from home, leaving foot traffic in inner cities still below pre-Covid levels.

Arive says it works directly with brands to offer a selection of their products for on-demand delivery, offering them a new distribution channel to a new type of customer that wants speed and convenience.

arive is currently available in Munich and has recently launched in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. The 30-minute delivery guarantee means it doesn’t need as many micro fulfillment centers as grocery players, helping it to keep infrastructure costs low.

Maximilian Reeker, co-founder of arive, said: “While the space for hyper-fast grocery delivery is increasingly crowded, we found the brands we love are still stuck in a three-day delivery scheme. For today’s time-poor consumers, this is too long.”

Bardo Droege, investor at 468 Capital, commented: “Our cities are dynamic, fast-moving places, and people living there want the tools and services that reflect their lifestyles so it’s no wonder the 15-minute groceries category has taken off so quickly. We’re confident the arive team will take this on.”

#balderton-capital, #berlin, #business, #co-founder, #delivery, #distribution, #economy, #europe, #frankfurt, #grocery-store, #hamburg, #marketing, #munich, #tc, #united-states

How a Vungle-owned mobile marketer sent Fontmaker to the top of the App Store

Does this sound familiar? An app goes viral on social media, often including TikTok, then immediately climbs to the top of the App Store where it gains even more new installs thanks to the heightened exposure. That’s what happened with the recent No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, Fontmaker, a subscription-based fonts app which appeared to benefit from word-of-mouth growth thanks to TikTok videos and other social posts. But what we’re actually seeing here is a new form of App Store marketing — and one which now involves one of the oldest players in the space: Vungle.

Fontmaker, at first glance, seems to be just another indie app that hit it big.

The app, published by an entity called Mango Labs, promises users a way to create fonts using their own handwriting which they can then access from a custom keyboard for a fairly steep price of $4.99 per week. The app first launched on July 26. Nearly a month later, it was the No. 2 app on the U.S. App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. By August 26, it climbed up one more position to reach No. 1. before slowly dropping down in the top overall free app rankings in the days that followed.

By Aug. 27, it was No. 15, before briefly surging again to No. 4 the following day, then declining once more. Today, the app is No. 54 overall and No. 4 in the competitive Photo & Video category — still, a solid position for a brand-new and somewhat niche product targeting mainly younger users. To date, it’s generated $68,000 in revenue, Sensor Tower reports.

But Fontmaker may not be a true organic success story, despite its Top Charts success driven by a boost in downloads coming from real users, not bots. Instead, it’s an example of how mobile marketers have figured out how to tap into the influencer community to drive app installs. It’s also an example of how it’s hard to differentiate between apps driven by influencer marketing and those that hit the top of the App Store because of true demand — like walkie-talkie app Zello, whose recent trip to No. 1 can be attributed to Hurricane Ida

As it turns out, Fontmaker is not your typical “indie app.” In fact, it’s unclear who’s really behind it. Its publisher, Mango Labs, LLC, is actually an iTunes developer account owned by the mobile growth company JetFuel, which was recently acquired by the mobile ad and monetization firm Vungle — a longtime and sometimes controversial player in this space, itself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.

Vungle was primarily interested in JetFuel’s main product, an app called The Plug, aimed at influencers.

Through The Plug, mobile app developers and advertisers can connect to JetFuel’s network of over 15,000 verified influencers who have a combined 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100 million daily Snapchat views.

While marketers could use the built-in advertising tools on each of these networks to try to reach their target audience, JetFuel’s technology allows marketers to quickly scale their campaigns to reach high-value users in the Gen Z demographic, the company claims. This system can be less labor-intensive than traditional influencer marketing, in some cases. Advertisers pay on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis for app installs. Meanwhile, all influencers have to do is scroll through The Plug to find an app to promote, then post it to their social accounts to start making money.

Image Credits: The Plug’s website, showing influencers how the platform works

So while yes, a lot of influencers may have made TikTok videos about Fontmaker, which prompted consumers to download the app, the influencers were paid to do so. (And often, from what we saw browsing the Fontmaker hashtag, without disclosing that financial relationship in any way — an increasingly common problem on TikTok, and area of concern for the FTC.)

Where things get tricky is in trying to sort out Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel/Vungle. As a consumer browsing the App Store, it looks like Mango Labs makes a lot of fun consumer apps of which Fontmaker is simply the latest.

JetFuel’s website helps to promote this image, too.

It had showcased its influencer marketing system using a case study from an “indie developer” called Mango Labs and one of its earlier apps, Caption Pro. Caption Pro launched in Jan. 2018. (App Annie data indicates it was removed from the App Store on Aug. 31, 2021…yes, yesterday).

Image Credits: App Annie

Vungle, however, told TechCrunch “The Caption Pro app no longer exists and has not been live on the App Store or Google Play for a long time.” (We can’t find an App Annie record of the app on Google Play).

They also told us that “Caption Pro was developed by Mango Labs before the entity became JetFuel,” and that the case study was used to highlight JetFuel’s advertising capabilities. (But without clearly disclosing their connection.)

“Prior to JetFuel becoming the influencer marketing platform that it is today, the company developed apps for the App Store. After the company pivoted to become a marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating apps but continued to use the Mango Labs account on occasion to publish apps that it had third-party monetization partnerships with,” the Vungle spokesperson explained.

In other words, the claim being made here is that while Mango Labs, originally, were the same folks who have long since pivoted to become JetFuel, and the makers of Caption Pro, all the newer apps published under “Mango Labs, LLC” were not created by JetFuel’s team itself.

“Any apps that appear under the Mango Labs LLC name on the App Store or Google Play were in fact developed by other companies, and Mango Labs has only acted as a publisher,” the spokesperson said.

Image Credits: JetFuel’s website describing Mango Labs as an “indie developer”

There are reasons why this statement doesn’t quite sit right — and not only because JetFuel’s partners seem happy to hide themselves behind Mango Labs’ name, nor because Mango Labs was a project from the JetFuel team in the past. It’s also odd that Mango Labs and another entity, Takeoff Labs, claim the same set of apps. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is associated with JetFuel too.

Breaking this down, as of the time of writing, Mango Labs has published several consumer apps on both the App Store and Google Play.

On iOS, this includes the recent No. 1 app Fontmaker, as well as FontKey, Color Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Fitness, CopyPaste, and Part 2. On Google Play, it has two more: Stickered and Mango.

Image Credits: Mango Labs

Most of Mango Labs’ App Store listings point to JetFuel’s website as the app’s “developer website,” which would be in line with what Vungle says about JetFuel acting as the apps’ publisher.

What’s odd, however, is that the Mango Labs’ app Part2, links to Takeoff Labs’ website from its App Store listing.

The Vungle spokesperson initially told us that Takeoff Labs is “an independent app developer.”

And yet, the Takeoff Labs’ website shows a team which consists of JetFuel’s leadership, including JetFuel co-founder and CEO Tim Lenardo and JetFuel co-founder and CRO JJ Maxwell. Takeoff Labs’ LLC application was also signed by Lenardo.

Meanwhile, Takeoff Labs’ co-founder and CEO Rhai Goburdhun, per his LinkedIn and the Takeoff Labs website, still works there. Asked about this connection, Vungle told us they did not realize the website had not been updated, and neither JetFuel nor Vungle have an ownership stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website showing its team, including JetFuel’s co-founders.

Takeoff Labs’ website also shows off its “portfolio” of apps, which includes Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey — three apps that are published by Mango Labs on the App Store.

On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the developer credited with Celebs, as well as two other apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. But on the App Store, Vibe is published by Mango Labs.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website, showing its app portfolio.

(Not to complicate things further, but there’s also an entity called RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug and other consumer apps, including Mango — the app published by Mango Labs on Google Play. Someone sure likes naming things “Labs!”)

Vungle claims the confusion here has to do with how it now uses the Mango Labs iTunes account to publish apps for its partners, which is a “common practice” on the App Store. It says it intends to transfer the apps published under Mango Labs to the developers’ accounts, because it agrees this is confusing.

Vungle also claims that JetFuel “does not make nor own any consumer apps that are currently live on the app stores. Any of the apps made by the entity when it was known as Mango Labs have long since been taken down from the app stores.”

JetFuel’s system is messy and confusing, but so far successful in its goals. Fontmaker did make it to No. 1, essentially growth hacked to the top by influencer marketing.

But as a consumer, what this all means is that you’ll never know who actually built the app you’re downloading or whether you were “influenced” to try it through what were, essentially, undisclosed ads.

Fontmaker isn’t the first to growth hack its way to the top through influencer promotions. Summertime hit Poparrazzi also hyped itself to the top of the App Store in a similar way, as have many others. But Poparazzi has since sunk to No. 89 in Photo & Video, which shows influence can only take you so far.

As for Fontmaker, paid influence got it to No. 1, but its Top Chart moment was brief.

#app-developer, #app-store, #apps, #blackstone, #co-founder, #federal-trade-commission, #google-play, #indie-developer, #itunes, #linkedin, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #snapchat, #social-media, #software, #spokesperson, #tc, #technology, #tiktok, #vibe, #video-hosting, #vungle

Olsam raises $165M to buy up and scale consumer and B2B Amazon Marketplace sellers

On the heels of Heroes announcing a $200 million raise earlier today, to double down on buying and scaling third-party Amazon Marketplace sellers, another startup out of London aiming to do the same is announcing some significant funding of its own. Olsam, a roll-up play that is buying up both consumer and B2B merchants selling on Amazon by way of Amazon’s FBA fulfillment program, has closed $165 million — a combination of equity and debt that it will be using to fuel its M&A strategy, as well as continue building out its tech platform and to hire more talent.

Apeiron Investment Group — an investment firm started by German entrepreneur Christian Angermayer — led the Series A equity round, with Elevat3 Capital (another Angermayer firm that has a strategic partnership with Founders Fund and Peter Thiel) also participating. North Wall Capital was behind the debt portion of the deal. We have asked and Olsam is only disclosing the full amount raised, not the amount that was raised in equity versus debt. Valuation is also not being disclosed.

Being an Amazon roll-up startup from London that happens to be announcing a fundraise today is not the only thing that Olsam has in common with Heroes. Like Heroes, Olsam is also founded by brothers.

Sam Horbye previously spent years working at Amazon, including building and managing the company’s Business Marketplace (the B2B version of the consumer Marketplace); while co-founder Ollie Horbye had years of experience in strategic consulting and financial services.

Between them, they had also built and sold previous marketplace businesses, and they believe that this collective experience gives Olsam — a portmanteau of their names, “Ollie” and “Sam” — a leg up when it comes to building relationships with merchants; identifying quality products (versus the vast seas of search results that often feel like they are selling the same inexpensive junk as each other); and understanding merchants’ challenges and opportunities, and building relationships with Amazon and understanding how the merchant ecosystem fits into the e-commerce giant’s wider strategy.

Olsam is also taking a slightly different approach when it comes to target companies, by focusing not just on the usual consumer play, but also on merchants selling to businesses. B2B selling is currently one of the fastest-growing segments in Amazon’s Marketplace, and it is also one of the more overlooked by consumers.”It’s flying under the radar,” Ollie said.

“The B2B opportunity is very exciting,” Sam added. “A growing number of merchants are selling office supplies or more random products to the B2B customer.”

Estimates vary when it comes to how many merchants there are selling on Amazon’s Marketplace globally, ranging anywhere from 6 million to nearly 10 million. Altogether those merchants generated $300 million in sales (gross merchandise value), and its growing by 50% each year at the moment.

And consolidating sellers — in order to achieve better economies of scale around supply chains, marketing tools and analytics, and more — is also big business. Olsam estimates that some $7 billion has been spent cumulatively on acquiring these businesses, and there are more out there: Olsam estimates that there are some 3,000 businesses in the UK alone making more than $1 million each in sales on Amazon’s platform.

(And to be clear, there are a number of other roll-up startups beyond Heroes also eyeing up that opportunity. Raising hundreds of millions of dollars in aggregate,  others have made moves 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 senior team behind Olsam is what makes this business truly unique,” said Angermayer in a statement. “Having all been successful in building and selling their own brands within the market and having worked for Amazon in their marketplace team – their understanding of this space is exceptional.”

#amazon, #amazon-marketplace, #artificial-intelligence, #asia, #berlin-brands-group, #business, #christian-angermayer, #co-founder, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #entrepreneur, #financial-services, #founders-fund, #funding, #latin-america, #london, #marketing, #peter-thiel, #retailers, #sales, #united-kingdom

Founders Fund backs Royal, a music marketplace planning to sell song rights as NFTs

Founders Fund and Paradigm are leading an investment in a platform that’s aiming to wed music rights with NFTs, allowing user to buy shares of songs through the company’s marketplace, earning royalties as the music they’ve invested in gains popularity.

The venture, called Royal, is led by Justin Blau, an EDM artist who performs under the name 3LAU, and JD Ross, a co-founder of home-buying startup Opendoor. Blau has been one of the more active and visible figures in the NFT community, launching a number of upstart efforts aimed at exploring how musicians can monetize their work through crypto markets. Blau says that as Covid cut off his ability to tour, he dug into NFTs full-time, aiming to find a way to flip the power dynamics on “platforms that were extracting all the value from creators.

Back in March, weeks before many would first hear about NFTs following the $69 million Beeple sale at Christies, Blau set his own record, selling a batch of custom songs and custom artwork for a collective $11.7 million worth of cryptocurrency.

Royal’s investment announcement comes just as a broader bull run for the NFT market seems to reach a fever pitch with investors dumping hundreds of million of dollars worth of cryptocurrencies into community NFT projects like CryptoPunks and Bored Apes. While visual artists interested in putting their digital works on the blockchain have seen a number of platforms spring up and mature in recent months to simplify the process of monetizing their art, there have been fewer efforts focused on musicians.

Paradigm and Founders Fund are leading a $16 million seed round in Royal, with participation from Atomic — where Ross was recently a General Partner. Ross’s fellow Opendoor co-founder Keith Rabois led the deal for Founders Fund.

The company isn’t sharing an awful lot about their launch or product plans, including when the platform will actually begin selling fractionalized assets, but it seems pretty clear the company will be heavily leveraging Blau’s music and position inside the music industry to bring early fans/investors to the platform. Users can sign-up for early access on the site currently.

As NFT startups chase more complex ownership splits that aim to help creators share their success with fans, there’s plenty of speculation taking off around how regulators will eventually treat them. While the ICO boom of 2017 led to plenty of founders receiving SEC letters alleging securities fraud, entrepreneurs in this wave seem to be working a little harder to avoid that outcome. Blau says that the startup’s team is working closely with legal counsel to ensure the startup is staying fully compliant.

The company’s bigger challenge may be ensuring that democratizing access to buying up music rights actually benefits the fans of those artists or creates new fans for them, given the wide landscape of crypto speculators looking to diversify. That said, Blau notes there’s plenty of room for improvement among the current ownership spread of music royalties, largely spread among labels, private equity groups and hedge funds.

“A true fan might want to own something way earlier than a speculator would even get wind of it,”Blau says. “Democratizing access to asset classes is a huge part of crypto’s future.”

#blockchain, #business, #co-founder, #companies, #cryptocurrency, #cryptopunks, #founders-fund, #keith-rabois, #musicians, #opendoor, #paradigm, #startup-company, #tc, #u-s-securities-and-exchange-commission

LOVE unveils a modern video messaging app with a business model that puts users in control

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, the company says.

These concepts have emerged as part of bigger trends towards a sort of “web 3.0,” or next phase of internet development, where services are decentralized, user privacy is elevated, data is protected, and transactions take place on digital ledgers, like a blockchain, in a more distributed fashion.

LOVE’s founders are proponents of this new model, including serial entrepreneur Samantha Radocchia, who previously founded three companies and was an early advocate for the blockchain as the co-founder of Chronicled, an enterprise blockchain company focused on the pharmaceutical supply chain.

As someone who’s been interested in emerging technology since her days of writing her anthropology thesis on currency exchanges in “Second Life’s” virtual world, she’s now faculty at Singularity University, where she’s given talks about blockchain, A.I., Internet of Things, Future of Work, and other topics. She’s also authored an introductory guide to the blockchain with her book “Bitcoin Pizza.”

Co-founder Christopher Schlaeffer, meanwhile, held a number of roles at Deutsche Telekom, including Chief Product & Innovation Officer, Corporate Development Officer, and Chief Strategy Officer, where he along with Google execs introduced the first mobile phone to run Android. He was also Chief Digital Officer at the telecommunication services company VEON.

The two crossed paths after Schlaeffer had already begun the work of organizing a team to bring LOVE to the public, which includes co-founders Chief Technologist, Jim Reeves, also previously of VEON, and Chief Designer, Timm Kekeritz, previously an interaction designer at international design firm IDEO in San Francisco, design director at IXDS, and founder of design consultancy Raureif in Berlin, among other roles.

Explained Radocchia, what attracted her to join as CEO was the potential to create a new company that upholds more positive values than what’s often seen today —  in fact, the brand name “LOVE” is a reference to this aim. She was also interested in the potential to think through what she describes as “new business models that are not reliant on advertising or harvesting the data of our users,” she says.

To that end, LOVE plans to monetize without any advertising. While the company isn’t ready to explain its business model in full, it would involve users opting in to services through granular permissions and membership, we’re told.

“We believe our users will much rather be willing to pay for services they consciously use and grant permissions to in a given context than have their data used for an advertising model which is simply not transparent,” says Radocchia.

LOVE expects to share more about the model next year.

As for the LOVE app itself, it’s a fairly polished mobile messenger offering an interesting combination of features. Like any other video chat app, you can you video call with friends and family, either in one-on-one calls or in groups. Currently, LOVE supports up to 5 call participants, but expects to expand that as it scales. The app also supports video and audio messaging for asynchronous conversations. There are already tools that offer this sort of functionality on the market, of course — like WhatsApp, with its support for audio messages, or video messenger Marco Polo. But they don’t offer quite the same expanded feature set.

Image Credits: LOVE

For starters, LOVE limits its video messages to 60 seconds for brevity’s sake. (As anyone who’s used Marco Polo knows, videos can become a bit rambling, which makes it harder to catch up when you’re behind on group chats.) In addition, LOVE allows you to both watch the video content as well as read the real-time transcription of what’s being said — the latter which comes in handy not only for accessibility’s sake, but also for those times you want to hear someone’s messages but aren’t in a private place to listen or don’t have headphones. Conversations can also be translated into 50 different languages.

“A lot of the traditional communication or messenger products are coming from a paradigm that has always been text-based,” explains Radocchia. “We’re approaching it completely differently. So while other platforms have a lot of the features that we do, I think that…the perspective that we’ve approached it has completely flipped it on its head,” she continues. “As opposed to bolting video messages on to a primarily text-based interface, [LOVE is] actually doing it in the opposite way and adding text as a sort of a magically transcribed add-on — and something that you never, hopefully, need to be typing out on your keyboard again,” she adds.

The app’s user interface, meanwhile, has been designed to encourage eye-to-eye contact with the speaker to make conversations feel more natural. It does this by way of design elements where bubbles float around as you’re speaking and the bubble with the current speaker grows to pull your focus away from looking at yourself. The company is also working with the curator of Serpentine Gallery in London, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, to create new filters that aren’t about beautification or gimmicks, but are instead focused on introducing a new form of visual expression that makes people feel more comfortable on camera.

For the time being, this has resulted in a filter that slightly abstracts your appearance, almost in the style of animation or some other form of visual arts.

The app claims to use end-to-end encryption and the automatic deletion of its content after seven days — except for messages you yourself recorded, if you’ve chosen to save them as “memorable moments.”

“One of our commitments is to privacy and the right-to-forget,” says Radocchia. “We don’t want to be or need to be storing any of this information.”

LOVE has been soft-launched on the App Store where it’s been used with a number of testers and is working to organically grow its user base through an onboarding invite mechanism that asks users to invite at least three people to join you. This same onboarding process also carefully explains why LOVE asks for permissions — like using speech recognition to create subtitles, or

LOVE says its at valuation is around $17 million USD following pre-seed investments from a combination of traditional startup investors and strategic angel investors across a variety of industries, including tech, film, media, TV, and financial services. The company will raise a seed round this fall.

The app is currently available on iOS, but an Android version will arrive later in the year. (Note that LOVE does not currently support the iOS 15 beta software, where it has issues with speech transcription and in other areas. That should be resolved next week, following an app update now in the works.)

#a-i, #android, #animation, #app-store, #apps, #berlin, #blockchain, #ceo, #chief-digital-officer, #co-founder, #computing, #curator, #deutsche-telekom, #encryption, #facebook-messenger, #financial-services, #google, #ideo, #instant-messaging, #london, #love, #marco-polo, #messenger, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #recent-funding, #san-francisco, #serial-entrepreneur, #singularity-university, #social, #social-media, #software, #speaker, #startups, #technology, #whatsapp

Mindset, an artist-driven mental wellness audio platform, raises a $8.7M from Scooter Braun and others

Mindset, a platform featuring personal story collections from recording artists, announced today that it raised $8.7 million in seed funding.

As co-founders of the K-pop focused podcast production company DIVE Studios, brothers Brian Nam, Eric Nam and Eddie Nam noticed that the studio’s best performing content came from podcast episodes where stars discussed how they handle struggles in their personal lives. So, the Nam brothers came up with the idea for Mindset, an off-shoot of DIVE Studios.

“We found that this was a unique selling point people really wanted more of — so we started to think about ways to really double-down on that aspect,” said CEO Brian Nam. “How do we provide more of this valuable content to Gen Z and young millennial audiences? We decided that there wasn’t really the right kind of platform out there for this type of storytelling, so we decided to develop our own mobile platform to uniquely share these stories in an audio format.”

In its current format, Mindset features four audio collections from artists like Jae, Tablo, BM, and Mindset co-founder Eric Nam, who happens to be a K-pop star himself. Each collection has ten episodes of around ten to twenty minutes long — the introductory episode is free, but to gain access to the rest of an individual artist’s collection, users need to pay $24.99. The app also has free Boosters, which are Calm-like, five-minute clips of bedtime stories and motivational mantras.

“Up until now, the primary source of income, especially for musicians, has been touring, music streams, and then maybe some endorsement deals, but we’re able to unlock this fourth one, which is monetizing your stories,” Nam said. “The pricing is similar to how they might price a ticket, or how they would sell merchandise.”

Mindset isn’t meant to be a therapy app. “We’re not licensed therapists, we don’t try to act like we are,” Nam said. Rather, it’s a way for artists to share more intimate experiences with their fans to show that behind they music, they’re people too.

Mindset launched in an MVP (minimum viable product) version in February. Nam declined to share active user or revenue numbers, but said that the app gained enough traction that by May, it raised venture funding. The $8.7 million round is led by Union Square Ventures with strategic participants like record executive Scooter Braun (of TQ Ventures), who has more recently made headlines over the Taylor Swift masters controversy. Other backers include Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, Opendoor Co-Founder Eric Wu, and more.

“Scooter Braun was a strategic investor,” Nam told TechCrunch.

Braun has also worked with artists like Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and Demi Lovato.

“He’s really opened a lot of doors for us to branch out into the Hollywood and Western space, where we traditionally came from the K-pop space,” Nam added.

Mindset is putting its seed funding toward content creation, hiring, and product development. The app is currently available on iOS and Android, but it will officially launch on September 14. After that, Mindset will release another audio collection from an artist or actor every two weeks. Nam declined to share who these artists will be. 

#android, #apps, #ariana-grande, #artist, #ceo, #co-founder, #demi-lovato, #eric-wu, #funding, #justin-bieber, #kevin-lin, #minimum-viable-product, #opendoor, #psychology, #scooter-braun, #twitch, #union-square-ventures

xentral, an ERP platform for SMBs, raises $75M Series B from Tiger Global and Meritech

Enterprise Resource Planning systems have traditionally been the preserve of larger companies, but in recent years the amount of data small medium sized businesses can generate has increased to the point where even SMEs/SMBs can get into the world of ERP. And that’s especially true for online-only businesses.

At the beginning of the year we covered the $20 million Series A funding of Xentral, a German startup that develops ERP for online small businesses, but it clearly didn’t plan to stop there.

It’s now raised a $75 million Series B funding from Tiger Global and Meritech, following up from existing investors Sequoia Capital, Visionaries Club (a B2B-focused VC out of Berlin), and Freigeist.

The cash will be used to enhance product, hire staff and expand the UK operation towards a more global ERP market, which is expected to reach $32 billion by 2023.

Speaking to me over a call, Benedikt Sauter, founder and CEO of central, said: “We hook into Shopify, eBay, Amazon, Magento, WooCommerce, and also CRM systems like Pipedrive to collect the software together in one place, and try to do it all automatically in the background so that companies can really focus. Our goal is that a business owner who decides on Friday that they need a flexible ERP can implement and configure xentral over the weekend and hand it over to their team on Monday.”

The German startup covers services like order and warehouse management, packaging, fulfillment, accounting, and sales management, and, right now, the majority of its 1,000 customers are in Germany. Customers include the likes of direct-to-consumer brands like YFood, KoRo, the Nu Company and Flyeralarm.

John Curtius, Partner at Tiger Global, said: “Our diligence has uncovered a delighted customer base at xentral and a product offering that has evolved into a true mission-critical platform for ecommerce merchants globally. We are excited to partner with such product visionaries as Benedikt and Claudia as the business scales to serve customers not only in Europe but around the globe in the future.”

Xentral was Sequoia’s first investment in Europe since officially opening for business in the region this year. Sequoia backed other European startups before, including Graphcore, Klarna, Tessian, Unity, UiPath, n8n, and Evervault — but all of those deals were done from the US. Sequoia and its new partner in Europe, Luciana Lixandru, is understood to be joining Xentral’s board along with Visionaries’ Robert Lacher.

Alex Clayton, General Partner at Meritech said: “Meritech invested in NetSuite in 2008 with the vision of bringing ERP to the cloud… We believe that xentral will bring automation to hundreds of thousands SME businesses, dramatically improving multi-channel processes and data management in an ever-growing e-commerce market.”

Sauter and his co-founder Claudia Sauter (who is also his wife) built the early prototype of central originally for their first business in computer hardware sales.

#amazon, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #berlin, #business, #business-partner, #ceo, #co-founder, #crm, #data-management, #ebay, #erp-software, #europe, #general-partner, #germany, #graphcore, #klarna, #luciana-lixandru, #magento, #meritech, #netsuite, #online-payments, #partner, #pipedrive, #sequoia-capital, #shopify, #tc, #tiger-global, #uipath, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #visionaries-club, #woocommerce, #xentral, #yfood

Affordable student passes available for TC Sessions: SaaS 2021

If you’re a current student or a recent grad with a burning passion for data, software and artificial intelligence, we want you to join us on October 27 for TC Sessions: SaaS 2021. The software-as-a-service sector keeps growing rapidly — both in size and sophistication, and it’s going to require a deep bench of thinkers, makers and technologists to create and wrangle a data-driven future.

We want to foster the next generation, and we’ve set aside discounted, budget-friendly passes especially for students. Register for your $35 student pass and get ready to meet, network with and learn from the global SaaS community’s most influential founders, makers and investors.

Your student pass provides full access to all the day’s events — main stage presentations, panel discussions, breakout sessions and networking with CrunchMatch. Video-on-demand takes care of any schedule conflicts — you don’t have to miss a single presentation.

A quick word about networking at TC Sessions: SaaS. Whether you’re hunting for internships, employment, mentorship, a co-founder or investors, you won’t find a better place or opportunity to meet the people who can help you launch your dreams.

Deal Sweetener: Your pass includes a free, one-month subscription to Extra Crunch, our members-only program featuring exclusive daily articles for founders and startup teams.

While we’re not quite ready to reveal the full agenda, we can share some of the speakers we have lined up. And (not-so-humble-brag) what a group it is so far.

We’re talking folks like investors Casey Aylward (Costanoa Ventures) and Sarah Guo (Greylock), Databricks’ Ali Ghodsi, Javier Soltero, Google’s head of Workspace, UiPath’s Daniel Dines, Puppet’s Abby Kearns and Monte Carlo co-founder, CEO and data junkie extraordinaire, Barr Moses.

Who would you love to hear from at TC Sessions: SaaS? The TechCrunch editorial team is accepting recommendations for speakers. Submit your recommendations here no later than 11:59 pm (PT) on September 29.

Register here for updates and keep your fingers on the pulse of this event as we announce new speakers, events and ticket discounts.

TC Sessions: SaaS 2021 takes place on October 27. Jump on this student discount, join the global SaaS community and take advantage of every opportunity.

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

#abby-kearns, #ali-ghodsi, #business-models, #casey-aylward, #co-founder, #computing, #costanoa-ventures, #daniel-dines, #databricks, #head, #javier-soltero, #monte-carlo, #olo, #saas, #sarah-guo, #software, #software-as-a-service, #tc, #tc-sessions-saas-2021, #uipath

Contact, a platform for creatives backed by Maisie Williams, raises $1.9M Seed led by Founders Fund

With the pandemic digitizing every aspect of our lives, the Creator Economy has taken off like never before, with some estimates saying it’s now a $100Bn+ market. And yet, managing your professional life as a model, actor, writer or designer remains a mish-mash of emails, manual booking processes, and dreaded PDFs. Creatives face late payments, often opaque industry practices, even as top talent agencies have collectively achieved a valuation of $20Bn in value. But while modeling talent can be charged as much as a 20-40% commission fee, social media has been gradually displacing traditional agencies by reducing the barriers to entry and making talent more accessible. However, as everyone knows, social media is nowhere near a place anyone can manage their career.

Late last year the Contact platform launched, initially offering models a way to take bookings and manage some aspects of their work. It’s now looking to address the wider problems referred to above, with a new round of funding involving some key players in the creative industries.

It’s backed and supported by Maisie Williams, best known for her work on Game of Thrones, who has become Creative Strategist and Advisor to the startup after becoming a passionate advocate for better conditions for creatives in the industry.

Contact has now raised a $1.9 million (£1.4 million) Seed round of funding led by Founders Fund. Also participating is LAUNCH (the fund led by investors Jason Calacanis), Sweet Capital (via Pippa Lamb), Rogue VC (via Alice Lloyd George) and Angel investors Simon Beckerman (co-founder of Depop), Eric Wahlforss (co-founder of SoundCloud and now Dance), Abe Burns and Joe White.

Although Contact’s initial incarnation is addressing the modeling world, its vision is far bigger. Contact co-founder and CEO Reuben Selby — a fashion designer who was formerly of William’s founding team, when she started her career — has worked with Nike, Thom Browne, and JW Anderson. He says the platform aims to become a scalable back-end solution across the $104.2 Billion Creator Economy, “democratizing” access to the world’s best creative talent.

Reuben Selby

Reuben Selby

Selby, who recently spoke about being a founder with autism is also the founder and creative director of his own label Reuben Selby, and co-founder of Cortex a creative agency and community. Selby is joined by CTO Josh McMillan previously of Deliveroo, Daisie, the Government Digital Service, and among others.

While its competitors might, broadly speaking, include Patreon, Creatively, and The Dots, it’s fair to say that Contact’s vision to bring many aspects of these platforms under one roof could be described as ambitious, it is also tantalising.

In a radical move for what is an industry dominated by agencies, individuals and businesses can discover and book creators and creative services directly, without going through an agency.

Contact initially launched its platform in October 2020 with the ability to discover and book fashion models, but post-fundraising plans to roll out other creative verticals such as photographers, stylists, videographers, and more.

Selby says the idea for Contact has been informed by his own personal experiences trying to break into the creative industry as a model, photographer, and creative director. After finding scant methods for secure and safe ways to get paid – while booking companies lacked basic technological tools – he realized that ‘middle-men’ and agencies were there main ones that benefitted, taking cuts on both sides and often still delivering a sub-par-product.

So how does Contact work?

When a Creator joins, they are able to showcase their portfolio across different creative services and take direct bookings.

A business can then browse and discover talent using filters, shortlist creative talent, providing details about the job, and book creators directly. Creatives can accept or reject jobs via the web platform or, soon, via a smartphone app. Once the job has been completed, the talent gets paid out via Contact.

Since soft-launching within the modeling vertical, Contact says it has onboarded almost 600 creatives and over 1,400 clients including Depop, Farfetch, Nike, Vivienne Westwood, and Vogue. Users of the platform have increased 100% YoY, says the startup.

Selby says Contact intends to remain in the background and allow the talent to brand itself independently across different verticals. Crucially, Contact does not take money from creators, only booking companies, from which it will levy a 20% fee on transactions.

Commenting, Trae Stephens, Partner at Founders Fund, said: “We are always excited when we find founders who seem to have been born to build a specific company. Reuben definitely seems like one of those founders. We are really excited to watch the company scale and expand into new creative verticals.”

Pippa Lamb, Partner at Sweet Capital, added: “The team at Contact have been pushing frontiers in the creator economy long before ‘the creator economy’ became a buzzword. Contact possesses a rare combination of world-class technical talent with the raw innovation of today’s most creative minds. We are excited about this next chapter.”

Williams, best known for playing Arya Stark on Game of Thrones, is no stranger to working on startups. She previously contributed to the Daisie platform, which continues to connect creators with one another to work on each others’ projects, helping creators find collaborators for their art.

But clearly her desire to disrupt the creative world largely controlled by ‘middle men’ was not sated by the experience.

Speaking to me in an exclusive interview, Williams and Selby outlined their vision:

Selby said the existing marketplace for models is just the start: “The vision has always been about creatives, and getting creatives paid for their work. We basically started out in one vertical, the modeling industry… and we’re in the process of rolling out new verticals so bringing on photographers, makeup artists, stylists, etc. But that’s a very very small part of the overall vision.”

He said the focus now is “on the distribution of work, how that relationship works with that audience, how they can monetize it. So it’s basically giving them a toolkit to monetize their creativity rather than just the physical constraints. That’s what we’re exploring right now. We have this marketplace but we see that as being a very small part, but the larger piece.”

He said the marketplace model can connect brands directly to creators or creatives, but, he said, brands continue to have a great deal of power: “The creators are just sitting there waiting for somebody to give them something. So we’re now working out how they can just distribute by their own work and monetize it in their own ways, with the back end of how all of the logistics work, and the operational side handled by the product that we’ve built, handling the payments and the licensing and insurance.”

Despite being a major Hollywood star, Williams told me the creative and entertainment industry she’s familiar with and works in remains stuck in an old world of emails and links, rather than the kinds of platforms the tech industry is used to building and using: “Being someone who has been represented by talent agencies for my career, that whole interaction online is emails. At no point are any of the assets digitised. There’s no ‘vault’ where all of my scripts go. There’s no place where I can upload all of my audition tapes. It’s always just a link in an email. There’s not really an industry standard. From an agency perspective, none of the work that they is very streamlined or directional.”

She says that need to change: “There’s a casting process and at the moment, and it’s a hugely dated way of doing things between the casting directors and the actors, the writers etc. We want to build a very streamlined process.”

Speaking about the investors he’s assembled to back Contact, Selby said the team chose Founders Fund to be their lead investor because of their approach: “The way that they work with founders… I found that personally very empowering. [They] give you a lot of freedom and space to think creatively. So there was a clear alignment.”

Talking about the other Angel investors in the round he said: “People like Eric and Simon are majorly connected in fashion and music culture in general.”

Speaking about how the entertainment industry might react to Contact, Williams said: “Actors have many other things that they do. Being able to have a platform that they can monetize all those other things is really important, especially because, as an actor you spend a lot of time unemployed.” But said the system is constructed in such as a way that “you’re only valuable as the auditions your agent puts you up for. It’s not very inspiring or rewarding. So a lot of actors make their own shows on streaming platforms or create their own documentaries or sell their work in other ways.”

She said Contact wants to be able to facilitate that through the platform, and for creatives to have more independence: “The film industry and the music industry is full of incredibly talented people who are multi-talented across many different industries. But they are still, kind of held by representatives and agencies and record labels or managers who have a lot of power in, sort of, keeping them ‘small’. Being able to introduce something which can offer so many other tools, I think, is really important.”

It’s clear that the vision Selby, his co-founders, and Williams have, is very big. The question is, will they be able to pull it off?

It has to be said, however, that the combination of a passionate Gen-Z-influential team (with added star power), a full-blown technology platform, heavyweight US investors, and Angels pulled from creative industries certainly points to the potential for success.

#abe-burns, #co-founder, #cortex, #cto, #deliveroo, #depop, #designer, #digital-media, #eric-wahlforss, #europe, #farfetch, #fashion-designer, #finance, #founders-fund, #jason-calacanis, #joe-white, #maisie-williams, #nike, #partner, #smartphone, #social-media, #soundcloud, #tc, #technology, #thom-browne, #united-states

zeroheight raises $10M round led by Tribe Capital to scale DesignOps for UX teams

High quality UX for websites and apps is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have if a company is to succeed. But scaling the impact of UX teams is not simple, and in recent years teams have turned to what’s know as DesignOps platforms to help them.

Now, a new startup hopes to become a key DesignOps platform for UX teams, and has raised money to help it, in turn, scale-up.

zeroheight has now raised a $10 million Series A funding round led by Tribe Capital, with participation from Adobe, Y Combinator, FundersClub, and Expa, as well as angel investors including Tom Preston-Werner (co-founder of GitHub), Bradley Horrowitz (VP Product at Google), Irene Au (built and ran UX design for Google) and Nick Caldwell (VP Engineering at Twitter).

London-based zeroheight will now expand to the San Francisco/Bay Area, and grow the team across the board. Its focus so far has been on UX documentation but it will now also explore other areas such as closing the gap between design and development.

Co-founder Jerome de Lafargue said: “zeroheight does for UX what DevOps platforms like GitHub do for building and shipping code, providing a central place to document and manage UX components, coupled with design APIs that allow teams to skip the design hand-off stage entirely and speed up the UX delivery process.”

He said the company addresses the scaling problem for UX teams: “Problems have emerged because UX teams have grown dramatically in the past few years, because UX is now so important for most companies to just compete. And so because of this you now need centralization, you need components that are reusable so that teams can be efficient and not lose quality as it keeps shipping.”

zeroheight counts several Fortune 500 companies like Adobe and United Airlines as customers among its 1,300+ customer base.

#co-founder, #europe, #fundersclub, #github, #google, #london, #san-francisco, #tc, #tom-preston-werner, #touchwiz, #united-airlines, #y-combinator

European refurbished electronics marketplace Refurbed raises $54M Series B

Refurbed, a European marketplace for refurbished electronics which raised a $17 million Series A round of funding last year has now raised a $54 million Series B funding led by Evli Growth Partners and Almaz Capital.

They are joined by existing investors such as Speedinvest, Bonsai Partners and All Iron Ventures, as well as a group of new backers — Hermes GPE, C4 Ventures, SevenVentures, Alpha Associates, Monkfish Equity (Trivago Founders), Kreos, Expon Capital, Isomer Capital and Creas Impact Fund.

Refurbed is an online marketplace for refurbished electronics that are tested and renewed. These then tend to be 40% cheaper than new, and come with a 12-month warranty included. The company claims that in 2020, it grew by 3x and reached more than €100M in GMV.

Operating in Germany, Austria, Ireland, France, Italy and Poland, the startup plans three other countries by the end of 2021.

Riku Asikainen at Evli Growth Partners said: “We see the huge potential behind the way refurbed contributes to a sustainable, circular economy.”

Peter Windischhofer, co-founder of refurbed, told me: “We are cheaper and have a wider product range, with an emphasis on quality. We focus on selling products that look new, so we end up with happy customers who then recommend us to others. It makes people proud to buy refurbished products.”

The startup has 130 refurbishers selling through its marketplace.

Other Players in this space include Back Market (raised €48M), Swappa (US) and Amazon Renew. Refurbed also competes with Rebuy in Germany, Swapbee in Finland.

#almaz-capital, #amazon, #austria, #c4-ventures, #co-founder, #electronics, #europe, #evli-growth-partners, #finland, #france, #germany, #hermes-gpe, #ireland, #isomer-capital, #italy, #online-marketplace, #poland, #tc, #trivago, #united-states

Substack doubles down on uncensored ‘free speech’ with acquisition of Letter

Substack announced last week that it acquired Letter, a platform that encourages written dialogue and debate. The financials of the deal weren’t disclosed, but this acquisition follows Substack’s recent $65 million raise.

Newsletters are all the rage — Facebook launched its exclusive, celeb-studded Bulletin platform last month, and Twitter acquired the newsletter startup Revue earlier this year. Letter doesn’t publish email newsletters like Substack, but rather, it allows writers to engage in epistolary exchanges about fraught topics like Brexit, dating and the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. The idea behind Letter makes sense. Complicated conversations require nuance, yet these online debates too often happen on platforms like Twitter, where short-form tweets make it harder to have nuanced conversations.

“We could see that Letter, like Substack, was working in opposition to the ad-driven attention economy, attempting to change the rules of engagement for online discourse,” Substack wrote in its acquisition announcement.

But this acquisition may be cause for concern among those already troubled by the controversy Substack faced earlier this year, when news came out that the platform offered some writers up to six-figure advances as part of its Substack Pro program. The problem wasn’t that Substack was incentivizing writers to join the platform, but rather, who Substack had hand-picked to pay an advance. Plus, Substack says that it’s up to the writer to disclose whether or not they’re part of Substack Pro, which creates a lack of editorial transparency.

As Substack grew, writers left jobs at Buzzfeed and the New York Times, lured by pay raises and cautious optimism. But as more writers came forward as part of the Substack Pro program, Substack was criticized for subsidizing anti-trans rhetoric, since some of these writers used their newsletters to share such views. Substack admits it’s not entirely apolitical, but the choices of which writers to subsidize, and its decision to use only lightweight moderation tactics, are a strong political choice in an era of the internet when content moderation has a tangible effect on global politics. Some writers even chose to leave the platform.

Annalee Newitz, a non-binary writer who since left the platform, wrote on Substack, “Their leadership are deciding what kinds of writing and writers are worthy of financial compensation. […] Substack is taking an editorial stance, paying writers who fit that stance, and refusing to be transparent about who those people are.”

So, when Substack described its new acquisition Letter as a platform that encourages people to “argue in good faith instead of dropping bombs for retweets,” it made the acquisition worthy of a deeper examination. Statements like this sound agreeable, yet this kind of language often appears in arguments that deem social justice a threat to free speech. But free speech shouldn’t mean endorsing hate speech.

Substack wants to position itself as a neutral platform, and for many writers, it’s a valuable way to make money, especially in an unstable journalism industry. But given that some users have already become skeptical of who Substack chooses to financially incentivize, it’s worth examining the implications of buying Letter, a platform that includes writers associated with the so-called intellectual dark web in its group of twenty “featured writers.” On Letter, some of these writers question the validity of childhood transgender identity and refer to the statement “trans women are women” as propaganda, for example. Substack has already lost the trust of some trans and gender non-conforming writers, and the content on its newly acquired Letter won’t help rebuild that trust.

In addition, Letter co-founder Clyde Rathbone wrote in support of a controversial letter published in Harper’s Magazine, which called for the “concerted repudiation of cancel culture.” But critics of the letter point out that free speech isn’t really at stake here.

The open letter had been signed by over 150 prominent writers — like Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky (a Letter author), and Malcolm Gladwell (a Bulletin author). It argued: “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” These “professional consequences” echoed the predicament that J.K. Rowling — who also signed the letter — had put herself in. After denying that trans women are women, her reputation suffered. Some might call that “cancel culture,” but others might call it the refusal to continue to platform people who perpetuate harmful beliefs.

“The panic over ‘cancel culture’ is, at its core, a reactionary backlash,” wrote journalist Michael Hobbes. “Conservative elites, threatened by changing social norms and an accelerating generational handover, are attempting to amplify their feelings of aggrievement into a national crisis.”

Substack says it plans to use the acquisition of Letter to help writers collaborate, and that it won’t integrate Letter into its platform. Rather, the Letter team will relocate from Australia to San Francisco to “bring their expertise to help build more of the infrastructure and support.”

TechCrunch asked Substack if the anti-trans content on Letter is cause for concern within the company, given the recent backlash against the platform.

“We think that open debate and disagreement are absolutely part of having free press, and that includes views that you or I may not like,” a representative from Substack said. “Anyone could browse Substack and find things they agree with and things they don’t agree with. Substack has no ad-driven feeds pushing content based on virality and outrage, and there is a direct relationship between writers and readers who can opt out of that anytime. So the bar for us to intervene in that relationship and tell writers what they should be saying is really high, and the fact that Letter allowed writers to openly debate and discuss is consistent with that philosophy.”
We don’t know yet how or if Letter will change Substack — but given the existing discourse around the kind of content Substack pays for, Substack isn’t demonstrating “good faith” with this acquisition.

#apps, #australia, #bulletin, #buzzfeed, #co-founder, #facebook, #j-k-rowling, #journalist, #letter, #malcolm-gladwell, #operating-systems, #presidential-election, #revue, #san-francisco, #social-media, #software, #substack, #the-new-york-times, #twitter, #united-states, #world-wide-web

Independent retailer platform Creoate raises $5M Seed led by Fuel Ventures

Creoate is a startup, which lets independent retailers buy sustainable products from brands and wholesalers, has raised a $5m Seed round led by Fuel Ventures with participation from Vinted founder, Justas Janauskas. 

Its competitors include traditional wholesalers who’ve supplied independent retailers for decades, and other startups such as Faire (US, raised $696M) and Ankorstore (FR, raised €115M).


Founders Ashley Horn and Fahad Khan say the company aims at helping independent businesses and “reclaims the supply chain from global giants”. Khan says ‘Mom and Pop’ are “faced with poor information, discriminatory pricing and unpredictable cash flows.”

Creoate, which doesn’t own inventory, says it helps retailers forecast which products will sell well so that they can buy and manage inventory levels more easily. It says its cataloging software allows retailers to deal with fewer middlemen.

Launched in January 2020 the platform now claims 25,000 retailers across the UK, France, and Netherlands.

Creoate co-founder Horn said: “Sourcing brands as an independent retailer is close to impossible… We could see that this system was not sustainable and there had to be a better way”. 

Mark Pearson, founder and managing partner at Fuel Ventures said: “Unless you’re in the world of retail, it can be difficult to truly grasp just how broken the system is for the 2.5 million retailers and 30 million emerging brands that Creoate serves. We are captivated by Creoate’s technology which is inspired by the founding team’s real-world experience and empathy.”

#ankorstore, #co-founder, #europe, #france, #fuel-ventures, #inventory, #managing-partner, #mark-pearson, #netherlands, #supply-chain-management, #tc, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #vinted

German startup Aleph Alpha raises $27M Series A round to build ‘Europe’s OpenAI’

With Microsoft now being an investor in OpenAI the field now more open for new insurgents into the open-source AI arena. Now a German company hopes to take on the next AI mantle and produce something akin to the success of the GPT-3 AI model.

German AI startup Aleph Alpha has now raised €23 million / $27 million in a Series A funding co-led by Earlybird VC, Lakestar, and UVC Partners. Following a seed round of €5.3 million from LEA Partners, 468 Capital, and Cavalry Ventures in November 2020, Aleph Alpha has now raised a total of €28.3 million (people in $33.3 million).

Headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, Aleph Alpha was founded in 2019 by Jonas Andrulis and co-founder Samuel Weinbach.

The idea behind Aleph Alpha is that it researches, develops, and “operationalizes” large AI systems towards generalizable AI, offering GPT-3-like text, vision and strategy AI models. The platform will run a public API enabling public and private sectors to run their own AI experiments and develop new business models.

The team says it will have a strong commitment to open-source communities (such as Eleuther.AI), academic partnerships, and will be pushing “European values and ethical standards,” it says, “supporting fairer access to modern AI research – aimed at counteracting ongoing ‘de-democratization’, monopolization, and loss of control or transparency.” The move is clearly meant to be a stake in the ground in the international world of AI development.

It’s also quite clear that there is a “European Union” angle going on here.

One of Aleph Alpha’s key messages is that it will aim to be a “sovereign EU-based compute infrastructure” for Europe’s private and public sectors. In other words, they want to firmly center themselves in the EU under EU law, GDPR and regulation. They may well prove a useful “Fortress Europe” for the company.

Jonas Andrulis, CEO and founder of Aleph Alpha said: “Aleph Alpha’s mission is to enable the accessibility, usability and integration of large, European multilanguage and multimodal AI models following the likes of GPT-3 and DALL-E, driving innovation for the explainability, alignment and integration. The funds significantly accelerate the process of bringing the latest generation of AI technology into application and secure the digital sovereignty for public and private sector partners in Europe and beyond”.

Dr. Hendrik Brandis, Co-Founder, and Partner at Earlybird: “We’re excited to partner with the exceptional team around Jonas and Samuel on their vision to develop one of the most transformative platform technologies of our time and bring Artificial General Intelligence into reality – made in Europe. They are uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between cutting-edge research and real-world applications, unlocking incredible potential across industries.”

Dr. Klaus Hommels from Lakestar commented: “The latest advances towards artificial general intelligence – non-domain specific autonomous systems delivering task performance beyond human capabilities – especially in the domain of large language models, provides us with glimpses of AI’s tremendous promise for the future. We believe Europe has to step up its game to secure access to technologies with such vast and profound transformational potential. We are impressed by the results Aleph Alpha has delivered to date. We believe Aleph Alpha has the right people and ambition to deliver generalizing AI models that are as innovative as their US and Chinese counterparts.”

#aleph, #api, #articles, #artificial-general-intelligence, #artificial-intelligence, #cavalry-ventures, #co-founder, #europe, #european-union, #germany, #gpt-3, #klaus-hommels, #lakestar, #microsoft, #openai, #tc, #united-states, #unsupervised-learning, #uvc-partners

Peppy, a B2B health platform for menopause, fertility, raises $10M Series A led by Felix Capital

When it comes to health issues like menopause, fertility, pregnancy, and even early parenthood, the data tells us that people typically turn to search engines and social media for advice to ask about symptoms or concerns they have. They tend not to go to a medical practitioner, in the first instance. The suggestion, therefore, is that there is plenty of room for startups to fill that gap This is effectively the verticalisation of the model first pioneered by startups like KRY, Babylon Health, and Ada Health.

Peppy, a B2B digital health platform addressing just these concerns, has now raised a £6.6M/$10M Series A funding round led by Felix Capital, with previous investors including Outward VC, Seedcamp, and Hambro Perks, also participating.

Peppy is a little like a ‘Babylon Health before you need Babylon Health’. The company says it provides expert-led support to individuals before they need to see a doctor.

Founded in London in 2018 by co-founders Evan Harris, Max Landry, and Mridula Pore, the startup address major life and family moments: menopause, fertility, pregnancy, and early parenthood. 

It offers its services to a corporate customer base, which then incorporates Peppy into its employee health programs, enabling it to acquire some large employers in the UK and grow – it says – by 20 percent month-on-month for the past 12-months. Customers include BNP Paribas, Santander, DFS, Wickes, NHS trusts, the University of Sheffield.

The startup is pushing at an open door: Women of menopausal age are the fastest-growing demographic in the UK, and most say their work is negatively impacted, but – and here’s the crucial bit, they’d rather not talk about it to their line manager. Peppy says this is one of their biggest selling points into companies, which can now address the problem and help employees back to work more easily.

Just as with other telemedicine products, there are features such as access experts via a secure mobile app, with instant messaging, group chat, video consultations, live events, evidence-based articles, videos and programs. Furthermore, users can join a community of people who are experiencing similar challenges.

Mridula Pore, Co-Founder of Peppy, said: “The pandemic has shown us that employers can’t just talk about supporting their employees’ health and wellbeing anymore, they have to take action. More and more leading businesses are turning to us to provide the support their people really need – not a one-size-fits all solution, but support that is trustworthy, personalized, and delivered by experts. We’re still at the surface of what is possible for Peppy.”

Susan Lin, Investor at Felix Capital, said: “Since Felix started, ‘aspiration for a better life’ has been a core theme and we believe in the strong opportunity for digital health and wellness solutions to improve this. Peppy is at the forefront of three huge market trends and we believe is positioned to become a category-defining brand. First, massive growth in targeted employee benefits, driven by increasing awareness of the importance these have in boosting morale, productivity, and retention. Second, demand for much more convenient ways to access healthcare, which has been further accelerated by COVID-19. And finally, a need for much more personalized solutions, especially in critical life stages such as menopause and early parenthood.”

Speaking to TechCrunch, Pore expanded on the problem: “Today, people’s alternative is to go to their GP/MP. They may be lucky, have a GP who knows a lot about the issues to offer the support the patient needs. We know that a lot of women aren’t getting the support they need, they suffer, they struggle, they’re embarrassed to talk to their manager about what’s going on. They muddle through and they’re worried about being fired because for ‘women’s problems’. Some women quit. All the surveys suggest that people either switch their working arrangements, make different decisions or quit. It’s a big headache for employers, and we know the same thing happens for new parents.”

She added: “We’ve seen a real tidal change, especially in the last two years and I think COVID has massively accelerated companies putting menopause policy into line manager training. But none of those really address what the individual needs are because ultimately they still go to their GP and they’re back at square one. And so what we’re doing with Pepe is giving them access to our nurses and counselors on our programs, so they can get informed, educated on what their options are, medical and nonmedical, have the information they need to be able to go and seek out the right options for them, try them and they get that support over months, because we know that it will go up and down over time and you know everyone’s health journey evolves.”

She told me that the tech solution means Peppy allows people to connect to human experts “through the way that suits them in a personalized way and convenience so they can get child support, they can get video consultations, they’ll get content that’s tailored for them, they can join in live sessions on topics that are relevant for them. That can be anything from the basics of menopause, to your sex life. You can do it on your own time, in short bursts, or if you need it, for a 45-minute phone consultation.”

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Mark Cuban-backed Eterneva raises $10M to turn your loved one’s ashes into diamonds

The loss of a loved one is perhaps one of the most traumatic things a person can experience.

When it comes to memorializing someone after their death, most people think of planning funerals and/or picking out caskets or tombstones. And those things are typically done with the help of a funeral home.

Enter Austin-based Eterneva, which is building a rare direct to consumer brand in the end-of life-space. The four-year-old startup creates diamonds from the cremated ashes or hair of people and pets. It’s a highly unusual business but one that seems to be resonating with people seeking a way to keep a piece of their loved ones close to them after their death.

Since its inception, Eterneva has seen triple-digit growth in sales — including in 2020, when it more than doubled its revenue, according to CEO and co-founder Adelle Archer. And today, the company is announcing an “oversubscribed” $10M Series A led funding round led by Tiger Management with participation from Goodwater Capital, Capstar Ventures, NextCoast Ventures and Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban. (For the unacquainted, Tiger Management is the hedge fund and family office of Julian Robertson from which Tiger Global Management descended.)

“It was an extremely competitive round,” Archer told TechCrunch. “We received three term sheets and were able to put together an all-star investment group.” That investment group included Capstar Managing DIrector Kathryn Cavanaugh, who also joined Eterneva’s board; Lydia Jett – one of the top female partners at Softbank overseeing their $100B Vision Fund and Kara Nortman, managing partner at Upfront Capital, one of the first women to make managing partner at a VC fund and co-founder of Angel City with actress Natalie Portman.

Archer and co-founder Garrett Ozar launched Eterneva in the first quarter of 2017 after working together at BigCommerce. The company’s origin story is a very personal one for Archer. Her close friend and business mentor, Tracey Kaufman, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and ended up passing away at the age of 47. With no next of kin, Kaufman left her cremated ashes to her aunt, best friend and Archer.

“We started looking into different options but all the websites we landed on were so lackluster, somber and overwhelming,” Archer recalls. “Tracey was the most amazing person, and I felt like when you lose remarkable people, you needed better options to honor and memorialize them.”

At the time, Archer was working on a lab-grown diamond startup. Over dinner with a diamond scientist during which she was discussing her mentor’s death, the scientist said, “Well, you know Adele, there is carbon in ashes, so we could get the carbon out of Tracey’s ashes and make a diamond.”

The thought blew Archer’s mind.

“I knew that I had to do that, 100%. Tracy was such a vibrant person, it suited her so perfectly,” she said. “And I’d have a part of her with me all the time.”

Image Credits: Eterneva; Co-founders Garrett Ozar and Adelle Archer

It was the first diamond ever created by Eterneva, and it gave Archer a chance to be a customer of her own product, which she believes has helped in building an experience for her other customers. Soon, she became “fully focused” on the idea, which she viewed as a way to give grieving people “brightness and healing and a beautiful way to honor their loved ones.”

Since inception, Eterneva has created nearly 1,500 diamonds for over 1,000 customers. It can do colorless or nearly any color including black, yellow, blue, orange and green. The entry price for an Eterneva diamond is $2,999 and that goes up based on the size and color. Pets make up about 40% of Eterneva’s business.

“We view ourselves as the complete opposite tone of everything else in this space,” Archer said. “A lot of people are trying to solve planning and logistics around the end of life. We’re about helping people move forward, and building a platform for the celebration of life.”

The process to create the diamond is intricate, according to Archer, taking 7 to 9 months. The intent is to bring the customer along the journey by sharing the process with them at each stage through videos and pictures.

“We do it in parallel with their processing grief, which is super isolating,” Archer said. “They are usually in a different place with their grief than when they first started.”

One of the plans with the new capital is to enable more people to participate in person with the process such as, starting the machine work, or telling the jeweler stories about their loved one and coming up with a custom design that might have little details that represent aspects of their loved one’s life.

The company also plans to use the money to scale their funeral home channel program nationwide via Enterprise partnerships and scaling its operations and capacity in Austin so it can keep up with demand.

Eterneva is banking on the fact that more and more “people don’t want traditional funerals anymore.”

“They want personalization and meaning,” said Archer. “We plan to evolve the platform with different products and services down the road.”

The startup also wants to continue to build awareness around its brand. Recently, it’s seen more than a dozen videos on TikTok about its diamonds go viral, according to Archer.

Prior to the Series A, Eterneva has raised a total of $6.7 million from angels and institutions. Its seed round was a $3 million financing led by Austin-based Springdale Ventures in 2020. Mark Cuban first became an investor in the company when Archer and Ozar appeared on Shark Tank. Cuban took a 9% stake in the company in exchange for a $600,000 investment. Despite claims that the company was a scam, Cuban has stood by the science behind it and put money in the latest round as well.

Via email, he told TechCrunch he views an Eterneva diamond as “a unique, socially responsible way to stay connected to loved ones.”

 “There is still so much upside and growth in their future,” Cuban wrote. “So I doubled down.”  

He went on to describe the creation of diamond from the hair or ashes of a loved one as “such an intense personal commitment.”

“Eternava takes a very emotional and difficult and helps people walk through their journey in a trusted way that I don’t think anyone else can come close to,” Cuban added.

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