FloBiz raises $31 million to scale its neobank for small businesses in India

FloBiz, an Indian startup that is building a neobank for small- and medium-sized businesses in the South Asian market, said on Monday it has raised $31 million in a new financing round as it works to broaden its product offerings.

Sequoia Capital India and Think Investments co-led the 18-month-old startup’s Series B financing round. Existing investors Elevation Capital and Beenext also participated in the round, which brings FloBiz‘s all-time raise to over $41 million.

The startup’s marquee offering — called myBillBook — helps small- and medium-sized businesses digitize their invoicing, streamline business accounting, and automate workflows of their enterprises.

India, the world’s second largest internet market, is home to millions of small- and medium-sized businesses. Scores of startups have launched neobanks in the country in recent years to focus on serve millennials or businesses.

“SME-focussed neobanks are building engagement with business- clients through their ability to provide solutions like automated invoicing, collections/payments, accounting, inventory and sales management, taxes and in some cases interest on current deposits as well (banks can’t pay interest). This may help to ramp- up and upfront their monetisation prospects,” analysts at Jefferies wrote in a report to clients last week.

myBillBook, which supports Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil as well as English, will add support for “at least” five more regional languages within the next six months, the startup said, adding that the app has been downloaded over 5 million times.

“The product will also see deeper use of technologies like AI & image processing to make the onboarding process for the less tech-savvy SMB owners in tier 2 and tier 3 cities of India a delightful first step to digital accounting,” the startup said.

Scores of high-profile entrepreneurs — including Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm, Kunal Shah of CRED, Jiten Gupta of Jupiter, Amrish Rau of Pine Labs, Krishnan Menon of BukuKas, and Nitin Gupta of Uni Cards — have also backed FloBiz in the new financing round.

“Small businesses are the real heroes of our economy. In order to power the SMB economy with technology, one needs deep understanding, instinct and empathy for this audience,” said Tejeshwi Sharma, Managing Director of Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.

“We are really impressed by the user centricity, product focus and experimentative approach of the FloBiz founders. There is almost a perfect founder market fit. The team is stoked to partner with FloBiz on their mission of building a neobank for the growing SMBs of India.”

Rahul Raj, co-founder and chief executive of FloBiz, said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to “accelerate projects which have been in the works up till now – building personalisable modules & features into myBillBook, diversifying core product offerings and preparing to roll out financial services. We have a slew of developments in the pipeline to further delight our SMB partners in the next 12 months.”

#asia, #beenext, #elevation-capital, #funding, #india, #sequoia-capital-india

Pakistan edtech startup Maqsad gets $2.1M pre-seed to make education more accessible

Taha Ahmed and Rooshan Aziz left their jobs in strategy consulting and investment banking in London earlier this year in order to found a mobile-only education platform startup, Maqsad, in Pakistan, with a goal “to make education more accessible to 100 million Pakistani students.”

Having grown up in Karachi, childhood friends Ahmed and Aziz are aware of the challenges about the Pakistani education system, which is notably worse for those not living in large urban areas (the nation’s student-teacher ratio is 44:1). Pakistani children are less likely to go to school for each kilometer of distance between school and their home — with girls being four times affected, Maqsad co-founder Aziz said.

Maqsad announced today its $2.1 million pre-seed round to enhance its content platform growth and invest in R&D.

The pre-seed round, which was completed in just three weeks via virtual meetings, was led by Indus Valley Capital, with participation from Alter Global, Fatima Gobi Ventures and several angel investors from Pakistan, the Middle East and Europe.

Maqsad will use the proceeds for developing in-house content, such as production studio, academics and animators, as well as bolstering R&D and engineering, Aziz told TechCrunch. The company will focus on the K-12 education in Pakistan, including 11th and 12th grade math, with plans to expand into other STEM subjects for the next one-two years, Aziz said.

Maqsad’s platform, which provides a one-stop shop for after-school academic content in a mix of English and Urdu, will be supplemented by quizzes and other gamified features that will come together to offer a personalized education to individuals. Its platform features include adaptive testing that alter a question’s level of difficulty depending on users’ responses, Aziz explained.

The word “maqsad” means purpose in Urdu.

“We believe everyone has a purpose. Maqsad’s mission is to enable Pakistani students to realize this purpose; whether you are a student from an urban centre, such as Lahore, or from a remote village in Sindh: Maqsad believes in equal opportunity for all,” Aziz said.

“We are building a mobile-first platform, given that 95% of broadband users in Pakistan are via mobile. Most other platforms are not mobile optimized,” Aziz added.

“It’s about more than just getting students to pass their exams. We want to start a revolution in the way Pakistani students learn, moving beyond rote memorization to a place of real comprehension,” said co-founder Taha Ahmed, who was a former strategy consultant at LEK.

The company ran small pilots in April and May and started full-scale operations on 26 July, Aziz said, adding that Maqsad will launch its mobile app, currently under development, in the coming months in Q4 2021 and has a waitlist for early access.

“Struggles of students during the early days of the pandemic motivated us to run a pilot. With promising initial traction and user feedback, the size of the opportunity to digitize the education sector became very clear,” Aziz said.

The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the education industry, heating up the global edtech startups that made online education more accessible for a wider population, for example in countries like India and Indonesia, Aziz mentioned.

The education market size in Pakistan is estimated at $12 billion and is projected to increase to $30 billion by 2030, according to Aziz.

It plans to build the company as a hybrid center offering online and offline courses like Byju’s and Aakash, and expand classes for adults such as MasterClass, the U.S.-based online classes for adults, as its long-term plans, Aziz said.

“Maqsad founders’ deep understanding of the problem, unique approach to solving it and passion for impact persuaded us quickly,” the founder and managing partner of Indus Valley Capital, Aatif Awan, said.

“Pakistan’s edtech opportunity is one of the largest in the world and we are excited to back Maqsad in delivering tech-powered education that levels access, quality and across Pakistan’s youth and creates lasting social change,” Ali Mukhtar, general partner of Fatima Gobi Ventures said.

#asia, #edtech, #education, #funding, #indus-valley-capital, #maqsad, #mobile, #pakistan, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

1 change that can fix the VC funding crisis for women founders

The venture capital industry as we know it is broken. At least for women, that is.

In terms of funding to women founders, 2020 was among the worst years on record. On a global level, only 9% of all funds deployed to technology startups went to founding teams that included at least one woman. Solo woman founders and all-women teams raised just 2% of all VC dollars, Crunchbase data showed.

Shockingly, this number is actually less than it was when we first started counting a decade ago, well before many high-profile diversity initiatives launched with the goal of fixing this very problem.

This funding gap isn’t just a moral crisis — it’s an economic one. The lack of investment into women-founded startups is a missed opportunity worth trillions of dollars. That’s because of overwhelming evidence that startups founded by women outperform startups founded by men: They generate more revenue, earn higher profits and exit faster at higher valuations. And they do all this while raising way less money.

What we’re doing isn’t working. Through research for my next book on women founders and funders, I kept asking myself the same question: When it comes to fixing the funding gap for women founders, what’s the one thing we can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?

I now believe that our best bet for long-term change is to focus our efforts on increasing the number of women investing partners who can write large seed checks. Here’s why.

Women investors are up to 3x more likely to fund women founders

Recently, one of the top VCs in the world told me how challenging it is to diversify his senior team. He expressed it as an accepted fact and a widespread belief. This is a common trope in Silicon Valley: Everyone wants gender diversity, but it’s so hard to find all the senior women!

In the venture capital industry, who you hire at the senior level is who you hang out with. And who you hire at the senior level determines who your fund will back.

Since studies now show that women investors are up to three times more likely to invest in women founders, it is clear that the fastest way to fund more women is to hire more women investing partners with check-writing ability. The effect to venture firms? Returns.

“When U.S. VC firms increased the proportion of female partners, they benefited with 9.7% more profitable exits and a 1.5% spike in overall fund returns annually,” explained Lisa Stone of WestRiver Group.

Data from All Raise and PitchBook reinforce the “correlation between hiring female decision-makers at the investment level and outperformance at the fund level,” adding that “69.2% of U.S. VCs that scored a top-quartile fund between 2009 and 2018 had women in decision-making roles.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that women investors are more likely to invest in women founders. That’s because humans have a propensity toward homophily the tendency for like to attract like and for similarity to breed connection.

Homophily is why a vegan VC is more likely to invest in a vegan food tech, a gamer is more likely to hang out with gaming founders, or a parent is more likely to invest in a parent marketplace. People gravitate toward what they know.

Deena Shakir, who happens to be a woman and a mother, recently led Lux Capital’s investment into women’s health unicorn Maven. Shakir had multiple high-risk pregnancies with multiple complications, emergency C-sections, NICU stays and breastfeeding challenges.

“It is no coincidence that I am joined on Maven’s board of directors by four other mothers … and a brand-new father … whose personal journeys have also informed their professional conviction,” Shakir wrote in a Medium post.

Why seed checks have the greatest impact on the ecosystem

I believe that to fix the funding gap for women founders and jump-start the virtuous cycle of venture capital investing into women, we should focus on getting more seed checks into the hands of women founders. That’s because seed investing is a leading indicator of whether we are headed in the right direction in terms of closing the funding gap for women, according to Jenny Lefcourt, a partner at Freestyle and co-founder of All Raise, the leading nonprofit focused on diversifying the VC industry.

This doesn’t discount the importance of investments made into women founders at later stages. When a women founder lands Series D capital, it boosts this year’s numbers into women founders and likely brings that particular founder closer to a liquidity event that will lead her (and her executives) to invest in more women.

That said, the greatest impact on the future ecosystem will come from widening the top of the funnel and giving more women at the seed stage the shot to one day reach a momentous Series D funding like Maven. After all, who we fund now becomes who we fund later.

Why large seed checks matter most

Finally, the size of the check is also important when thinking about how to have the biggest impact on the ecosystem.

I know first-hand that microchecks are critical to building an inclusive ecosystem. When women invest at the seed level — in any amount — they jumpstart a virtuous cycle of women funding women. That’s why when I stepped in to lend a hand at my portfolio company when the solo woman founder took a parental leave, one of my key projects was to develop Jefa House, a way for Jefa’s own executives to easily invest in other women-founded startups.

That said, large party rounds made up entirely of small angel checks are few and far between. Similar challenges face small checks from emerging fund managers. Although the sheer number of emerging managers has increased 9x in seven years, the reality is that most emerging managers simply don’t have much money.

Are women venture capitalists who run their own microfunds more likely to invest in amazing women founders than Tier 1 funds with few or no women investing partners? Yes. Will it take them a long time to compete with those Tier 1 funds in terms of check size? Yes.

This is why it matters so much when leading funds hire or promote women to the partner level. Not only does it give women founders a better shot at funding from high-signal shops, but the moves that top funds make are key signals to others in the ecosystem: In venture capital, women investors don’t have to sit at the kids’ table.

Why we must hire women investing partners

We all know that great returns in early-stage venture capital come from making big bets on great ideas that others aren’t betting on. That is why VC investing is contrarian by definition. Thanks to our increasingly globalized world and clear data showing the importance of diverse teams to make good decisions to get those returns, no one in 2021 truly believes that single white dudes in Palo Alto have a monopoly on billion-dollar ideas.

However, due to the nature of homophily, venture capital remains a highly homogenous industry, and the social and economic interactions and decisions of human beings remain deeply swayed by these principles. No matter how much work we do, birds of a feather really do flock — and fund — together.

This all leads to one place: The clearest path to funding different kinds of founders with different kinds of ideas is to put different kinds of investors on the investing side of the table. To get more funding to women founders, we need more women who can write checks. That’s why prioritizing the hiring of women investing partners who can write large seed checks is key to fixing the funding crisis for women founders and increasing VC returns worldwide.

#column, #deena-shakir, #funding, #jenny-lefcourt, #maven, #opinion, #private-equity, #startup-company, #tc, #venture-capital, #women-in-venture-capital

Defy Partners leads $3M round into sales intelligence platform Aircover

Aircover raised $3 million in seed funding to continue developing its real-time sales intelligence platform.

Defy Partners led the round with participation from Firebolt Ventures, Flex Capital, Ridge Ventures and a group of angel investors.

The company, headquartered in the Bay Area, aims to give sales teams insights relevant to closing the sale as they are meeting with customers. Aircover’s conversational AI software integrates with Zoom and automates parts of the sales process to lead to more effective conversations.

Aircover’s founding team of Andrew Levy, Alex Young and Andrew’s brother David Levy worked together at Apteligent, a company co-founded and led by Andrew Levy, that was sold to VMware in 2017.

Chatting about pain points on the sales process over the years, Levy said it felt like the solution was always training the sales team more. However, by the time everyone was trained, that information would largely be out-of-date.

Instead, they created Aircover to be a software tool on top of video conferencing that performs real-time transcription of the conversation and then analysis to put the right content in front of the sales person at the right time based on customer issues and questions. This means that another sales expert doesn’t need to be pulled in or an additional call scheduled to provide answers to questions.

“We are anticipating that knowledge and parsing it out at key moments to provide more leverage to subject matter experts,” Andrew Levy told TechCrunch. “It’s like a sales assistant coming in to handle any issue.”

He considers Aircover in a similar realm with other sales team solutions, like Chorus.ai, which was recently scooped up by ZoomInfo, and Gong, but sees his company carving out space in real-time meeting experiences. Other tools also record the meetings, but to be reviewed after the call is completed.

“That can’t change the outcome of the sale, which is what we are trying to do,” Levy added.

The new funding will be used for product development. Levy intends to double his small engineering team by the end of the month.

He calls what Aircover is doing a “large interesting problem we are solving that requires some difficult technology because it is real time,” which is why the company was eager to partner with Bob Rosin, partner at Defy Partners, who joins Aircover’s board of directors as part of the investment.

Rosin joined Defy in 2020 after working on the leadership teams of Stripe, LinkedIn and Skype. He said sales and customer teams need tools in the moment, and while some are useful in retrospect, people want them to be live, in front of the customer.

“In the early days, tools helped before and after, but in the moment when they need the most help, we are not seeing many doing it,” Rosin added. “Aircover has come up with the complete solution.”

 

#aircover, #andrew-levy, #apteligent, #artificial-intelligence, #bob-rosin, #customer-experience, #defy-partners, #enterprise, #firebolt-ventures, #funding, #recent-funding, #ridge-ventures, #saas, #sales, #startups, #tc, #video-conferencing, #vmware

Ketch raises another $20M as demand grows for its privacy data control platform

Six months after securing a $23 million Series A round, Ketch, a startup providing online privacy regulation and data compliance, brought in an additional $20 million in A1 funding, this time led by Acrew Capital.

Returning with Acrew for the second round are CRV, super{set} (the startup studio founded by Ketch’s co-founders CEO Tom Chavez and CTO Vivek Vaidya), Ridge Ventures and Silicon Valley Bank. The new investment gives Ketch a total of $43 million raised since the company came out of stealth earlier this year.

In 2020, Ketch introduced its data control platform for programmatic privacy, governance and security. The platform automates data control and consent management so that consumers’ privacy preferences are honored and implemented.

Enterprises are looking for a way to meet consumer needs and accommodate their rights and consents. At the same time, companies want data to fuel their growth and gain the trust of consumers, Chavez told TechCrunch.

There is also a matter of security, with much effort going into ransomware and malware, but Chavez feels a big opportunity is to bring security to the data wherever it lies. Once the infrastructure is in place for data control it needs to be at the level of individual cells and rows, he said.

“If someone wants to be deleted, there is a challenge in finding your specific row of data,” he added. “That is an exercise in data control.”

Ketch’s customer base grew by more than 300% since its March Series A announcement, and the new funding will go toward expanding its sales and go-to-market teams, Chavez said.

Ketch app. Image Credits: Ketch

This year, the company launched Ketch OTC, a free-to-use privacy tool that streamlines all aspects of privacy so that enterprise compliance programs build trust and reduce friction. Customer growth through OTC increased five times in six months. More recently, Qonsent, which developing a consent user experience, is using Ketch’s APIs and infrastructure, Chavez said.

When looking for strategic partners, Chavez and Vaidya wanted to have people around the table who have a deep context on what they were doing and could provide advice as they built out their products. They found that in Acrew founding partner Theresia Gouw, whom Chavez referred to as “the OG of privacy and security.”

Gouw has been investing in security and privacy for over 20 years and says Ketch is flipping the data privacy and security model on its head by putting it in the hands of developers. When she saw more people working from home and more data breaches, she saw an opportunity to increase and double down on Acrew’s initial investment.

She explained that Ketch is differentiating itself from competitors by taking data privacy and security and tying it to the data itself to empower software developers. With the OTC tool, similar to putting locks and cameras on a home, developers can download the API and attach rules to all of a user’s data.

“The magic of Ketch is that you can take the security and governance rules and embed them with the software and the piece of data,” Gouw added.

#acrew-capital, #advertising-tech, #api, #cloud-computing, #crv, #data-protection, #data-security, #enterprise, #funding, #ketch, #privacy, #recent-funding, #ridge-ventures, #silicon-valley-bank, #software-developers, #startups, #superset, #tc, #theresia-gouw, #tom-chavez

Fiberplane nabs € 7.5M seed to bring Google Docs-like collaboration to incident response

Fiberplane, an Amsterdam-based early stage startup that is building collaborative notebooks for SREs (site reliability engineers)  to collaborate around an incident in a similar manner to group editing in a Google Doc, announced a ​​€ 7.5M (approximately $8.8 million USD) seed round today.

The round was co-led by Crane Venture Partners and Notion Capital with participation from Northzone, System.One and Basecase Capital.

Micha Hernandez van Leuffen (known as Mies) is founder and CEO at Fiberplane. When his previous startup, Werker was sold to Oracle in 2017, Hernandez van Leuffen became part of a much larger company where he saw people struggling to deal with outages (which happen at every company).

“We were always going back and forth between metrics, logs and traces, what I always call this sort of treasure hunt, and figuring out what was the underlying root cause of an outage or downtime,” Hernandez van Leuffen told me.

He said that this experience led to a couple of key insights about incident response: First, you needed a centralized place to pull all the incident data together, and secondly that as a distributed team managing a distributed system you needed to collaborate in real time, often across different time zones.

When he left Oracle in August 2020, he began thinking about the idea of giving DevOps teams and SREs the same kind of group editing capabilities that other teams inside an organization have with tools like Google Docs or Notion and an idea for his new company began to take shape.

What he created with Fiberplane is a collaborative notebook for SRE’s to pull in the various data types and begin to work together to resolve the incident, while having a natural audit trail of what happened and how they resolved the issue. Different people can participate in this notebook, just as multiple people can edit a Google Doc, fulfilling that original vision.

Fiberplane incident response notebook with various types of data about the incident.

Fiberplane collaborative notebook example with multiple people involved. Image Credit: Fiberplane

He doesn’t plan to stop there though. The longer term vision is an operational platform for SREs and DevOps teams to deal with every aspect of an outage. “This is our starting point, but we are planning to expand from there as more I would say an SRE workbench, where you’re also able to command and control your infrastructure,” he said.

Today the company has 13 employees and is growing, and as they do, they are exploring ways to make sure they are building a diverse company, looking at concrete strategies to find more diverse candidates.

“To hire diversely, we’re re-examining our top of the funnel processes. Our efforts include posting our jobs in communities of underrepresented people, running our job descriptions through a gender decoder and facilitating a larger time frame for jobs to remain open,” Elena Boroda, marketing manager at Fiberplane said.

While Hernandez van Leuffen is based in Amsterdam, the company has been hiring people in the UK, Berlin, Copenhagen and the US, he said. The plan is to have Amsterdam as a central hub when offices reopen as the majority of employees are located there.

#cloud, #developer, #enterprise, #eu-startups, #fiberplane, #funding, #incident-response, #sres, #startups, #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

CodeSignal secures $50M for its tech hiring platform

In less than a year after raising $25 million in Series B funding, technical assessment company CodeSignal announced a $50 million in Series C funding to offer new features for its platform that helps companies make data-driven hiring decisions to find and test engineering talent.

Similar to attracting a big investor lead for its B round — Menlo Ventures — it has partnered with Index Ventures to lead the C round. Menlo participated again and was joined by Headline and A Capital. This round brings CodeSignal’s total fundraising to $87.5 million.

Co-founder and CEO Tigran Sloyan got the idea for the company from an experience his co-founder and friend Aram Shatakhtsyan had while trying to find an engineering job. Both from Armenia, the two went in different paths for college, with Shatakhtsyan staying in Armenia and Sloyan coming to the U.S. to study at MIT. He then went on to work at Google.

“As companies were recruiting myself and my classmates, Aram was trying to get his resume picked up, but wasn’t getting attention because of where he went to college, even though he was the greatest programmer I had ever known,” Sloyan told TechCrunch. “Hiring talent is the No. 1 problem companies say they have, but here was the best engineer, and no one would bring him in.”

They, along with Sophia Baik, started CodeSignal in 2015 to act as a self-driving interview platform that directly measures skills regardless of a person’s background. Like people needing to take a driver’s test in order to get a license, Sloyan calls the company’s technical assessment technology a “flight simulator for developers,” that gives candidates a simulated evaluation of their skills and comes back with a score and highlighted strengths.

The need by companies to hire engineers has led to CodeSignal growing 3.5 times in revenue year over year and to gather a customer list that includes Brex, Databricks, Facebook, Instacart, Robinhood, Upwork and Zoom.

Sloyan said the company has not yet touched the money it received in its Series B, but wanted to jump at the opportunity to work with Nina Achadjian, partner at Index Ventures, whom he had known for many years since their time together at Google. To work together and for Achadjian to join the company’s board was something “I couldn’t pass up,” Sloyan said.

When Achadjian moved over to venture capital, she helped Sloyan connect to mentors and angel investors while keeping an eye on the company. Hiring engineers is “mission critical” for technology companies, but what became more obvious to her was that engineering functions have become necessary for all companies, Achadjian explained.

While performing due diligence on the space, she saw traditional engineering cultures utilizing CodeSignal, but then would also see nontraditional companies like banks and insurance companies.

“Their traction was undeniable, and many of our portfolio companies were using CodeSignal,” she added. “It is rare to see a company accelerate growth at the stage they are at.”

U.S. Department of Labor statistics estimate there is already a global talent labor shortage of 40 million workers, and that number will grow to over 85 million by 2030. Achadjian says engineering jobs are also expected to increase during that time, and with all of those roles and applicants, vetting candidates will be more important than ever, as will the ability for candidates to apply from wherever they are.

The new funding enabled the company to launch its Integrated Development Environment for candidates to interact with relevant assessment experiences like codes, files and a terminal on a machine that is familiar with them, so that they can showcase their skills, while also being able to preview their application. At the same time, employers are able to assign each candidate the same coding task based on the open position.

In addition, Sloyan intends to triple the company’s headcount over the next couple of months and expand into other use cases for skills assessment.

 

#a-capital, #artificial-intelligence, #codesignal, #developer, #engineering, #enterprise, #funding, #headline, #hiring, #hr-tech, #index-venture, #menlo-ventures, #nina-achadjian, #recent-funding, #startups, #talent, #tc, #technology, #tigran-sloyan, #upwork

Elodie Games obtains $32.5M round to make social co-op gaming better

During the darkest hours of the pandemic, millions upon millions of people turned to online gaming as a way to pass time in lockdown and connect with friends they couldn’t see in person. But a social, cooperative, fun and cross-platform gaming experience is remarkably hard to find — and Elodie Games is here to change that.

Elodie’s co-founders, Christina Norman and David Banks, are gaming industry vets who both worked on global hit League of Legends at Riot Games. The pair — also partners — left in 2019 to form their own company, announcing their intention in 2020 to build games focusing on co-op, crossplay, and “endlessly engaging experiences,” which suggests more open-ended, sandbox play.

The team already numbers 30 (and they’re hiring), and the game they’re working on is still something of a mystery; the images on its site are just general ideas, nothing from development. But what they showed behind closed doors was clearly enough to secure a $32.5 million Series A from Galaxy Interactive and a16z, with Brian Cho of Patron and Chris Ovitz from Electric Ant participating as well. The company last raised $5M in 2020 to get the ball rolling and clearly they’ve put that money to good use.

Norman explained that the main idea is to remove the barriers many gamers have come to accept as inevitable.

“At the simplest level, we’re designing our game so players have these great experiences more easily, and more frequently,” she told TechCrunch. “This starts with removing friction that stops you from playing with friends in the first place. Most social multiplayer gamers are segmented by platform, time investment, purchases or skill in a way that limits who you can play with, and how you can play with them. While there are examples of how to overcome these limitations individually (Among Us is doing some great stuff for example) progress overall here has been slow and we are excited to speed it up.”

Certainly I can speak personally to even the slightest amount of friction stopping a nascent play session in its tracks as one person had to update their app or OS, or another couldn’t get the lobby to load, an Android-iOS conflict emerged, and so on. We ended up playing the rather poor games built into video chat apps simply because they worked every time. Even then it depended on the feel of the gathering, and being able to decide collectively what sounds like fun is another aspect of the Elodie ambition.

Making a game cross-platform isn’t as difficult as it used to be thanks to shared architectures like Unreal and Unity, but it’s still no cake walk.

“Of course, modern engine tech helps immensely with making cross-play possible, but it doesn’t make it fun. Traditional approaches to cross-platform development are slow, expensive and repetitive,” said Banks. “That’s why we are building Elodie’s development practices to achieve exceptional cross-play and focusing on what we call the true cross-play experience from day one.”

“True” cross-play, one presumes, is a step above the elementary “Xbox players can play with PC players,” to the point where the game is actually equally desirable to play on platform. Whether that can really be achieved is a matter of debate, but the proof of the pudding is in the taste, so we’ll find out when Elodie puts its game out into the wild.

#a16z, #andreessen-horowitz, #funding, #fundings-exits, #galaxy-interactive, #gaming, #league-of-legends, #recent-funding, #riot-games, #startups

Outer, D2C outdoor furniture brand, secures $50M Series B funding to spur expansion and materials development 

Americans spend more than 90% of each day indoors on average. However, approximately 82% of American homeowners are more interested in renovating their outdoor living spaces than they were prior to the pandemic, based on a recent survey, Outer co-founder and CEO Jiake Liu told TechCrunch.

On top of that, about 54% of homeowners have made at least one home improvement in the backyard since the outbreak of COVID-19, while millennials, the largest house-buying group now, are willing to take less square feet inside, or even give up a bedroom, to get a little bit of outdoor space, Liu said.

COVID-19 caused a “flight from density” across the U.S., meaning millions of Americans fled from big cities to suburbs to escape the coronavirus pandemic. This trend has led to more market opportunities in the outdoor entertainment industry.

A Santa Monica-based direct-to-consumers (D2C) outdoor furniture startup company, Outer, announced today its $50 million Series B funding to help more people around the globe to bring their lives back outside. The company was founded by CEO Liu and Chief Design Officer Terry Lin in 2019. 

The Series B round was led by Capital Today’s founder Kathy Xu, with participation from Tribe Capital, C Ventures and Upfront Ventures. Existing investors, including Sequoia Capital China, Mucker Capital, Mantis VC and Reimagined Ventures, also joined in the round.

This fundraising, which comes about eight months after Outer’s $10.5 million Series A round in January, brings its total funding to $65 million.

The fresh funding will be used to cement its position in the outdoor living industry as they develop new sustainable materials, build an eco-friendly supply chain and expand their product offering and community, Liu said. Outer is currently hiring a variety of roles to enter global market this year and will announce a strategic international launch in October, Liu told TechCrunch.

“We are working on new, eco-friendly fabrics, plastics and concrete to replace the industry standards that currently pollute our environment,” Liu said. The company’s effort in sustainable materials isn’t stopping at recycled plastics but working towards carbon neutrality, and has set its goal of becoming carbon negative in the future, he explained.

“Since the beginning, the Outer team has insisted on prioritizing sustainability. Terry and his team have pioneered new fabrics and eco-friendly designs to ensure durability doesn’t come at the expense of environmental responsibility. The team is developing sustainable fabrics, plastics and concrete that will become the new industry gold standard,” said Capital Today’s founder Kathy Xu.

Its unique feature is its Neighborhood Showroom program, allowing shoppers to visit the homes of nearby Outer customers to experience Outer products in more than 1,000 locations in 49 states as of today, which has grown from 50 locations in 13 states in 2019. Outer’s direct-to-consumers (D2C) business does not require middlemen like distributors, retailers or brick-and-mortar showrooms.

The global furniture market was approximately $17.8 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow to $26.6 billion 2027, Liu said. The U.S. outdoor living market is estimated at $33.4 billion in 2021, based on a report by Freedonia.

Outer recently launched the Teak Collection, Aluminum Collection and Bug Shield Blankets.

“Outdoor products have long been an afterthought and their poor design has been a serious barrier to time spent outside. Outer’s thoughtful and sustainable products are already changing the way consumers interact with their outdoor spaces,” Xu said, adding that Outer is tackling real consumer problems, from dirty, wet outdoor cushions to pesky mosquito bites, with its solutions.

“Jiake and his team have taken a product-focused approach to establish Outer as a go-to premium furniture brand — driving rapid growth and attractive unit economics,” said Tribe Capital partner Sri Pangulur.

#capital-today, #funding, #kathy-xu, #outer, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

Mynd raises $57.3M at an $807M valuation to give people a way to invest in rental properties remotely

Mynd, a company that aims to make it easier for people to buy and manage single-family rental properties, announced today it has raised $57.3 million in funding from QED Investors.

The financing values the Oakland, California-based company at $807 million, and brings the company’s total raised to $174.9 million since its 2016 inception. Invesco Real Estate led its previous round, a $40 million raise, and committed $5 billion to purchase and rent 20,000 single-family homes through Mynd over the next three years.

Doug Brien and Colin Weil started Mynd with the goal of making real estate investing more accessible. The pair has built a platform for investors to find, finance, purchase and manage single-family rental properties — 100% remotely.

“We don’t outsource to partners. We do that all in-house,” Brien told TechCrunch. “We remove the geographical barriers to real estate investment, making it possible to invest in 25 cities from anywhere in the country — all from the comfort of home through our desktop interface and/or mobile apps.”

Currently, Mynd manages over 9,000 rental units in 25 markets across the country. The startup plans to expand to 15 additional markets over the next three years including, Indianapolis, Indiana and Memphis, Tennessee.

Mynd’s tech product is complemented by “boots on the ground” people in local markets, improving the speed and clarity of communications that the company can provide to Mynd residents, Brien said. 

“Plus it provides total visibility and transparency for our owners around the health of their investments,” he said “Unlike other companies we have our own purpose-built system called OTTO. It’s almost like a ‘Snowflake meets Zendesk’ — but custom-built for real estate investing and property management.”

Image Credits: Mynd

Last year, Mynd added 1,846 homes to the platform. This year, it’s on track to add roughly 8,500 across both retail and institutional — enough to nearly double the total homes managed by Mynd year over year, according to Brien. Invesco is its largest institutional client. On the retail side of its business, it has roughly 4,000 investors using Mynd.

“We believe that investing in the single-family residential asset class is the best path for building long-term, generational wealth,” he told TechCrunch. “Mynd is committed to democratizing real estate — making it accessible to a whole new crop of investors who were previously too intimidated and/or were constrained by geography.”

The pandemic underscored the urgency of what the company was building, he said, as people sought more space to live and work. Renting also became more common as more people wanted increased flexibility. 

Mynd plans to use its new capital to continue upgrading its digital platform, which it says is powered by “an extensive proprietary data set.” It also plans to enhance its automated workflow engine, underwriting, mobile applications and omnichannel communications. The startup also plans to keep hiring and expanding into new markets.

Presently, Mynd has 568 employees, up from 366 a year ago today.

QED partner Chuckie Reddy said the Mynd team was “one of the best” his firm had seen in the single-family rental market with a “purpose-built” tech stack designed specifically for such properties.

“They have a customized offering that is superior to anything else on the market today,” he said. 

Generally, QED believes the single-family rental asset class is one of the fastest-growing in the country, “because of how big the housing market is, the need and desire for the product and the tremendous amount of capital formation we have seen since the last financial crisis,” according to Reddy.

“There is a shortage of quality, affordable single-family rental housing, and Mynd has technology to manage this asset class,” he said.

#finance, #funding, #fundings-exits, #mynd, #qed-investors, #real-estate, #recent-funding, #startups, #venture-capital

Self Financial raises $50M to help the subprime consumer build credit and savings at the same time

Self Financial, a fintech company that aims to help consumers build credit and savings at the same time, announced today it has raised $50 million in Series E funding.

Altos Ventures led the financing, which also included participation from Meritech Capital and Conductive Ventures and brings the Austin-based startup’s total raised to $127 million since its 2015 inception.

The company, as many fintechs these days, aims to make building credit and savings more accessible, regardless of a person’s financial history. It requires no hard credit check to get started. 

“We’ve been focused on delivering high-quality, low-cost products that help with mainstream credit access,” said Self founder and CEO James Garvey.

Today, Self Financial has 200 employees, up from about 80 at the beginning of this year. The startup, which was initially founded in California but relocated to Austin after participating in the Techstars program in the city, plans to do more hiring with its new capital.

Garvey declined to reveal hard revenue figures, saying only that Self is going to do “nine figures” of revenue this year, about 2x compared to 2020. Self’s active customer base has more than doubled in the past 12 months to about 1 million today. Over time, it has served more than 2 million customers.

The fintech’s flagship product, he said, is basically secured installment loans, or small-dollar loans with a deposit account that has a CD (certificate of deposit) connected to it.

After using that product successfully customers can then get access to Self’s Visa credit card.

Image Credits: Self Financial

Self’s Credit Builder products are issued via its three bank partners. But the company has built its own proprietary core technology platform that Garvey says “powers everything behind the scenes.” The company’s products are available via iOS and Android, as well as through a desktop application.

Beginning this month, Self will allow people who hold an H-1B or L 1 work visa or student visa to open Credit Builder accounts, a move Garvey said “opens the door for more people to participate who are new to the U.S. credit system.”

“We believe everyone should have the opportunity to improve their financial future,” he added.

Part of Self’s longer-term goals include entering the insurance market, as well as the planned launch of another product designed to help give its customers access to credit.

“Credit score is used for a lot of things, and in many states it’s an important factor in determining the cost of auto insurance,” he said. “We’re going to be helping our customers to get access to auto insurance as one of the benefits of a higher credit score.”

The company plans to use its new capital to hire about 50 to 100 people over the next 12 months, Garvey said. Recently it named Kathleen Leonik to serve as its chief compliance officer. She has previously held leadership positions at Juniper Bank, Barclaycard and, most recently, Mercury Financial. She also worked in compliance at First USA, Bank One and Chase.

Altos Ventures Managing Director Anthony Lee described Self as a pioneer in the increasingly crowded space. This week, TomoCredit, which has the similar goal of helping underrepresented consumers build a credit history, announced it has raised $10 million. And last week, Varo Bank — the first  U.S. neobank to be granted a national bank charter — raised a massive $510 million in a Series E funding round at a $2.5 billion valuation.

“James and his team at Self have had a clear mission from day one: to build credit and savings for millions of Americans who are marginalized by the mainstream financial system,” said Lee. “It’s a mission that is going to take decades to realize and we are happy to be there for the journey.”

For Silverton Partners’ Managing Director Morgan Flager, who participated in Self’s Series A-D rounds, Garvey’s passion has been key to its repeated investments in the company.

When you have a founder with a clear and noble vision for solving a critical problem this massive, it is hard to say no as an investor,” he told TechCrunch.

The firm was also drawn to Self’s mission to “lift up” subprime consumers.

“Many of the offers that target subprime consumers are expensive and restrictive,” he said. “Self Financial is unique in that it intends to break this cycle, rather than just profit from it in a different way.”

#altos-ventures, #apps, #austin, #credit-history, #finance, #fintech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #recent-funding, #self-financial, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

OnLoop launches with $2M to inject some fun into performance reviews

Performance reviews eat up a lot of a manager’s time and are often the most dreaded part of work. OnLoop aims to bring some joy into the process by enabling information-gathering to happen behind the scenes and be easier for hybrid workforces.

The Singapore-based company designed a mobile-first product that consistently gathers employee feedback and goals so that the company has better insights into how both individuals and teams are doing. The feedback is also captured and converted into auto-generated reviews that lay out all of the content collected for managers to then quickly put together a finished product.

The platform was in private beta since January 2021, and after a successful run with 25 companies, OnLoop raised $2 million from Square Peg Capital and Hustle Fund and a group of angel investors including XA Network, BCG’s Aliza Knox, Uber’s Andrew Macdonald, Ready’s Allen Penn, Google’s Bambos Kaisharis, Ripple’s Brooks Entwistle, Robert Hoyt, Nordstar’s Eddie Lee, Nas Academy’s Alex Dwek and hedge fund managers John Candeto and Keshav Lall.

OnLoop co-founder and CEO Projjal Ghatak spent over three years at Uber and said he saw his fair share of productivity tools, but still struggled to develop his own team as tasks and communication were done differently by each employee.

“This is the one problem that companies consistently complain about — not having the right tool to develop teams,” he added.

As someone who began spending more and more time on his phone, Ghatak wanted his product to be mobile-native and eliminate the need for managers to start from scratch on performance reviews each time. Rather than spend days gathering the information, as the name suggests, OnLoop continuously and automatically captures the data and converts it into a well-written summary.

OnLoop app. Image Credits: OnLoop

Having that continuous loop of information is good for morale, he said. He points to data that shows regular self-reflection and feedback increased productivity by 20%, and a Gallup study where only 14% of employees thought their performance reviews inspired them to improve.

“A lot of company culture is set by the leaders, so as they want to drive this culture in their organizations, we are the tool that drives this,” Ghatak said. “Our job is to help educate the teams on how to do that well. We hear time and time again to make it fun and convenient. Teams don’t realize that if you are helping colleagues understand, showing them a light they didn’t have before, it will drive impact.”

The new funding will be mainly invested into product development and R&D, including expanding product, data and engineering teams. The company will also look at its sales and marketing framework. The company currently has 22 employees.

OnLoop was able to convert some of its early adopters into paying customers and is now focusing on figuring out a scalable way to get the product into the hands of more teams.

Piruze Sabuncu, partner at Square Peg Capital, experienced the pain of performance reviews when she was working in Stripe’s Southeast Asia and Hong Kong region. One of the challenges she faced working with regional teams was that an employee’s direct manager could be located elsewhere, yet work closely with a manager in their respective office.

Square Peg itself uses OnLoop, and Sabuncu said she liked that it is mobile-first and was designed in a way that people didn’t open it up and dread using it.

“Who your manager is, is a big question, but it shouldn’t matter,” she added. “It would still be my duty to be capturing and developing the person even if they were not my direct person. Everyone is talking about remote and hybrid work, and it is not going anywhere — it is here to stay. We believe this is a huge opportunity, a $400 billion market to disrupt, and OnLoop is providing better ways to communicate and give feedback.”

 

#apps, #enterprise, #funding, #human-resource-management, #hustle-fund, #labor, #onloop, #piruze-sabuncu, #productivity-tools, #projjal-ghatak, #recent-funding, #square-peg-capital, #startups, #tc, #uber, #workplace

Tile secures $40 million to take on Apple AirTag with new products

Tile, the maker of Bluetooth-powered lost item finder beacons and, more recently, a staunch Apple critic, announced today it has raised $40 million in non-dilutive debt financing from Capital IP. The funding will be put towards investment in Tile’s finding technologies, ahead of the company’s plan to unveil a new slate of products and features that the company believes will help it to better compete with Apple’s AirTags and further expand its market.

The company has been a longtime leader in the lost item finder space, offering consumers small devices they can attach to items — like handbags, luggage, bikes, wallets, keys, and more — which can then be tracked using the Tile smartphone app for iOS or Android. When items go missing, the Tile app leverages Bluetooth to find the items and can make them play a sound. If the items are further afield, Tile taps into its broader finding network consisting of everyone who has the app installed on their phone and other access points. Through this network, Tile is able to automatically and anonymously communicate the lost item’s location back to its owner through their own Tile app.

Image Credits: Tile

Tile has also formed partnerships focused on integrating its finding network into over 40 different third-party devices, including those across audio, travel, wearables, and PC categories. Notable brand partners include HP, Dell, Fitbit, Skullcandy, Away, Xfinity, Plantronics, Sennheiser, Bose, Intel, and others. Tile says it’s seen 200% year-over-year growth on activations of these devices with its service embedded.

To date, Tile has sold over 40 million devices and has over 425,000 paying customers — a metric it’s revealing for the first time. It doesn’t disclose its total number of users, both free and paid combined, however. During the first half of 2021, Tile says revenues increased by over 50%, but didn’t provide hard numbers.

While Tile admits that the Covid-19 pandemic had some impacts on international expansions, as some markets have been slower to rebound, it has still seen strong performance outside the U.S., and considers that a continued focus.

The pandemic, however, hasn’t been Tile’s only speed bump.

When Apple announced its plans to compete with the launch of AirTags, Tile went on record to call it unfair competition. Unlike Tile devices, Apple’s products could tap into the iPhone’s U1 chip to allow for more accurate finding through the use of ultra-wideband technologies available on newer iPhone models. Tile, meanwhile, has plans for its own ultra-wideband powered device, but hadn’t been provided the same access. In other words, Apple gave its own lost item finder early, exclusive access to a feature that would allow it to differentiate itself from the competition. (Apple has since announced it’s making ultra-wideband APIs available to third-party developers, but this access wasn’t available from day one of AirTag’s arrival.)

Image Credits: Tile internal concept art

Tile has been vocal on the matter of Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, having testified in multiple Congressional hearings alongside other Apple critics, like Spotify and Match. As a result of increased regulatory pressure, Apple later opened up its Find My network to third-party devices, in an effort to placate Tile and the other rivals its AirTags would disadvantage.

But Tile doesn’t want to route its customers to Apple’s first-party app — it intends to use its own app in order to compete based on its proprietary features and services. Among other things, this includes Tile’s subscriptions. A base plan is $29.99 per year, offering features like free battery replacement, smart alerts, and location history. A $99.99 per year plan also adds insurance of sorts — it pays up to $1,000 per year for items it can’t find. (AirTag doesn’t do that.)

Despite its many differentiators, Tile faces steep competition from the ultra-wideband capable AirTags, which have the advantage of tapping into Apple’s own finding network of potentially hundreds of millions of iPhone owners.

However, Tile CEO CJ Prober — who joined the company in 2018 — claims AirTag hasn’t impacted the company’s revenue or device sales.

“But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re making things harder for us,” he says of Apple. “We’re a growing business. We’re winning the hearts and minds of consumers… and they’re competing unfairly.”

“When you own the platform, you shouldn’t be able to identify a category that you want to enter, disadvantage the incumbents in that category, and then advantage yourself — like they did in our case,” he adds.

Tile is preparing to announce an upcoming product refresh that may allow it to better take on the AirTag. Presumably, this will include the pre-announced ultra-wideband version of Tile, but the company says full details will be shared next week. Tile may also expand its lineup in other ways that will allow it to better compete based on look and feel, size and shape, and functionality.

Tile’s last round of funding was $45 million in growth equity in 2019. Now it’s shifted to debt. In addition to new debt financing, Tile is also refinancing some of its existing debt with this fundraise, it says.

“My philosophy is it’s always good to have a mix of debt and equity. So some amount of debt on the balance sheet is good. And it doesn’t incur dilution to our shareholders,” Prober says. “We felt this was the right mix of capital choice for us.”

The company chose to work with Capital IP, a group it’s had a relationship with over the last three years, and who Tile had considered bringing on as an investor. The group has remained interested in Tile and excited about its trajectory, Prober notes.

“We are excited to partner with the Tile team as they continue to define and lead the finding category through hardware and software-based innovations,” said Capital IP’s Managing Partner Riyad Shahjahan, in a statement. “The impressive revenue growth and fast-climbing subscriber trends underline the value proposition that Tile delivers in a platform-agnostic manner, and were a critical driver in our decision to invest. The Tile team has an ambitious roadmap ahead and we look forward to supporting their entry into new markets and applications to further cement their market leadership,” he added.

#airtag, #airtags, #android, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #bluetooth, #ceo, #computing, #dell, #find-my, #fitbit, #funding, #gadgets, #hardware, #intel, #iphone, #mobile, #plantronics, #recent-funding, #sennheiser, #skullcandy, #smartphone, #startups, #tc, #technology, #tile, #u1-chip, #ultra-wideband, #united-states

AI startup Sorcero secures $10M for language intelligence platform

Sorcero announced Thursday a $10 million Series A round of funding to continue scaling its medical and technical language intelligence platform.

The latest funding round comes as the company, headquartered in Washington, D.C. and Cambridge, Massachusetts, sees increased demand for its advanced analytics from life sciences and technical companies. Sorcero’s natural language processing platform makes it easier for subject-matter experts to find answers to their questions to aid in better decision making.

CityRock Venture Partners, the growth fund of H/L Ventures, led the round and was joined by new investors Harmonix Fund, Rackhouse, Mighty Capital and Leawood VC, as well as existing investors, Castor Ventures and WorldQuant Ventures. The new investment gives Sorcero a total of $15.7 million in funding since it was founded in 2018.

Prior to starting Sorcero, Dipanwita Das, co-founder and CEO, told TechCrunch she was working in public policy, a place where scientific content is useful, but often a source of confusion and burden. She thought there had to be a more effective way to make better decisions across the healthcare value chain. That’s when she met co-founders Walter Bender and Richard Graves and started the company.

“Everything is in service of subject-matter experts being faster, better and less prone to errors,” Das said. “Advances of deep learning with accuracy add a lot of transparency. We are used by science affairs and regulatory teams whose jobs it is to collect scientific data and effectively communicate it to a variety of stakeholders.”

The total addressable market for language intelligence is big — Das estimated it to be $42 billion just for the life sciences sector. Due to the demand, the co-founders have seen the company grow at 324% year over year since 2020, she added.

Raising a Series A enables the company to serve more customers across the life sciences sector. The company will invest in talent in both engineering and on the commercial side. It will also put some funds into Sorcero’s go-to-market strategy to go after other use cases.

In the next 12 to 18 months, a big focus for the company will be scaling into product market fit in the medical affairs and regulatory space and closing new partnerships.

Oliver Libby, partner at CityRock Venture Partners, said Sorcero’s platform “provides the rails for AI solutions for companies” that have traditionally found issues with AI technologies as they try to integrate data sets that are already in existence in order to run analysis effectively on top of that.

Rather than have to build custom technology and connectors, Sorcero is “revolutionizing it, reducing time and increasing accuracy,” and if AI is to have a future, it needs a universal translator that plugs into everything, he said.

“One of the hallmarks in the response to COVID was how quickly the scientific community had to do revolutionary things,” Libby added. “The time to vaccine was almost a miracle of modern science. One of the first things they did was track medical resources and turn them into a hook for pharmaceutical companies. There couldn’t have been a better use case for Sorcero than COVID.”

 

#artificial-intelligence, #biotech, #castor-ventures, #cityrock-venture-partners, #dipanwita-das, #enterprise, #funding, #h-l-ventures, #harmonix-fund, #health, #leawood-vc, #mighty-capital, #natural-language-processing, #oliver-libby, #pharmaceutical, #rackhouse-venture-capital, #recent-funding, #richard-graves, #sorcero, #startups, #tc, #walter-bender, #worldquant-ventures

Concreit closes on $6M to allow more people to invest in the global private real estate market

Concreit, a company that wants to open real estate investing to a broader group of people, announced today that it has closed $6 million in a seed funding round led by Matrix Partners. 

Hyphen Capital also participated in the round, in addition to individual investors such as Betterment founder and CEO Jon Stein; Andy Liu, partner at Unlock Venture Partners; and investor and advisor Ben Elowitz. Concreit raised the capital at a $22.5 million post-money valuation.

The Seattle-based startup also today launched its app, which it claims allows “anyone” to invest in the global private real estate market for as little as $1. 

It’s a lofty claim. But first let’s start with some background.

Concreit is not the first time that co-founders Sean Hsieh and Jordan Levy have worked together. The pair previously founded and bootstrapped VoIP communications platform Flowroute before selling it to West Corp. in 2018. Upon the sale of that company, Hsieh and Levy set out to build a company that, in their words, “could help everyday people become more financially secure.”

Hsieh, a second-generation immigrant, worked in his family’s restaurant where they shared the dream of achieving financial freedom through real estate. Similarly, Levy says he grew up watching his parents build a small construction business from scratch. He was intrigued by the idea of passive income through single-family rental homes but became disillusioned with the overhead, risk and hassle of managing one’s own single-family rental investments. 

So the duo worked together to design a mobile-first offering that could enable small investors to benefit from real estate “without the burden of making repairs at 2 a.m. on a Saturday.” Enter Concreit. 

Today, most investors can open a Concreit account and make their first investment in just minutes on their mobile device, the company claims. The company’s free mobile app allows consumers to invest as little as $1 into a fund managed by a team of investment professionals. Withdrawals can be requested at any time through the app and sent upon approval.

The platform facilitates weekly earned payouts, automated investments and on-demand withdrawals while compounding earned payouts weekly.

After selling Flowroute, Hsieh says he “saw the opportunity to earn a great APR through private real estate investing while gaining less correlation with traditional public stocks or bonds markets,” Hsieh said. “But they were only for the already wealthy or required multiyear commitments of capital. Concreit gives everyone access to a real estate portfolio and the ability to have access to withdrawals when they need them.”

Put simply, the startup wants to make it easy for anyone — not just the wealthy — to invest in real estate.

Concreit, Hsieh said, offers “regular people” the ability to access real estate strategies typically used by large hedge funds and private equity. 

“We’re seeing a surge of retail demand for alternatives and other ways to invest outside of the public markets and the crypto space for those that value diversification,” Hsieh told TechCrunch. Most other competitors are focused on marketing and selling securities, but we knew in order to be an innovator in this space we had to produce a truly unique experience for our investors.”

Concreit’s platform is designed to be a more connected investment experience.

“We knew early on that digital natives deserved a whole new real estate investing experience and that it had to be 100x better than just taking traditional real estate investment opportunities and offering them digitally,” Hsieh said. 

So on the platform side, Concreit has built a cloud-based proprietary securities accounting engine that allows the company to process fractional calculations and pull in a lot of mutual fund practices, applying them toward the “more labor-intensive” private equity markets, with a focus on real estate.

“We’ve taken a lot of the cloud-architectural work that we’ve pioneered in the telecommunications space and applied it towards a back-office accounting solution that gives us a competitive edge around what we offer to our investors,” Hsieh said. “This affords the ability to run accounting at a higher frequency, which is how we are able to run weekly dividends, process fractional redemptions and ultimately a more real-time experience for our users.”

Concreit’s first private REIT fund, focused on passive income, consists of lower-risk fixed-income private market residential and commercial real estate first-lien mortgages. The fund, which the company says has an annualized return of 5.47%, is managed by a team of industry professionals. The startup has added over 18,000 customers to its platform since it was qualified by the SEC (slightly over a year ago), and doubled its user base in the month of August.

“Our current users can invest with any dollar amount, no lock-ups, weekly payouts, and an experience that’s as easy & familiar as a savings account,” Hsieh said.

Matrix’s Dana Stalder, who joined Concreit’s board as part of the financing,  believes Concreit has leveled the playing field for real estate investing by making it more accessible. 

“What Concreit has built is incredibly hard to do from both a technology and regulatory standpoint,” he told TechCrunch. “Alternative asset classes, in particular, have been notoriously closed off to the average consumer, leaving high yield returns exclusively to wealthy investors. “

#apps, #concreit, #dana-stalder, #funding, #fundings-exits, #matrix-partners, #real-estate, #real-estate-tech, #recent-funding, #seattle, #startup, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

Asian merchant commerce platform Pine Labs raises $100 million

Pine Labs said on Thursday it has raised an additional $100 million, just weeks after securing $600 million in a financing round, as the Asian merchant commerce platform begins to explore the public markets.

The U.S.-based investment management company Invesco Developing Markets Fund made the $100 million investment, the startup said in a statement. Pine Labs, which started its journey in India, was valued at $3 billion in its July financing round.

Pine Labs, which counts Sequoia Capital India, Temasek, PayPal and Mastercard among its early backers, offers hundreds of thousands of merchants payments terminals, invoicing tools and working capital.

Its payments terminal — also known as point-of-sale machines — are connected to the cloud, and offer a range of additional services such as working capital — to the merchants. Pine Labs’s payments terminal has integration with over two dozen banks and financial and technology partners.

This differentiates Pine Labs from the competition, whose terminals typically have integration with just one bank. Each time a rival firm strikes a new partnership with a bank, they need to deploy new machines into the market. This makes the whole deployment expensive for both the fintech and the bank. (This is why you also often see a restaurant has multiple terminals at the check out.) The startup says it processes tens of billions of payment transactions.

“Over the last 18 months we have scaled our Prepaid Issuing stack, Online Payments, and also the Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) offering. We continue to make progress in the larger Asian markets with our BNPL platform. Very excited to have a marquee investor like Invesco join us in the journey,” said B. Amrish Rau (pictured above), chief executive of Pine Labs, in a statement.

The startup is looking to file for an initial public offering within two years, Rau said in July. Indian newspaper Economic Times reported on Thursday that the company had hired Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to advise the firm on the IPO.

“The Invesco Developing Markets Fund is pleased to invest in Pine Labs, a leading fintech services company in India that fits our strategy of seeking high quality companies that have durable long-term growth potential,” said Justin Leverenz, CIO of Developing Markets Equities at Invesco, in a statement.

#asia, #funding, #india, #pine-labs

African genomics startup 54gene raises $25M to expand precision medicine capabilities

Less than 3% of genetic material used in global pharmaceutical research is from Africa. The staggering gap is quite surprising because Africans and people of African descent are reported to be more genetically diverse than any other population.

Since launching in 2019, African genomics startup 54gene has been at the forefront of bridging this divide in the global genomics market. Today, the company has secured $25 million in Series B funding to bolster its efforts.

This round comes a year after the company, founded by Dr Abasi Ene-Obong, raised $15 million in Series A and two years after closing a $4.5 million seed round.

In total, 54gene has raised more than $45 million since its inception.

With the world’s analyzed genomes coming mostly from anywhere that isn’t Africa, the continent remains a valuable source of new genetic information for health and drug discovery research.

This is where 54gene’s work is relevant. The company conducts and leverages this research to ensure Africans are recipients of upcoming drug and medical discoveries.

Last year when we covered the company last year, CEO Ene-Obong disclosed that for 54gene to conduct this research, it recruits voluntary participants who donate genetic samples via swab or blood tests.

It still very much works this way. However, instead of depending on third-party health centres like hospitals and sending the samples abroad for analysis, 54gene launched its own genetics sequencing and microarray lab in Lagos last September. The company did this in partnership with U.S.-based biotech company Illumina.

Speaking with TechCrunch, Ene-Obong says in addition to the genotyping capabilities offered, the lab also provides whole-genome sequencing (WGS) and whole-exome sequencing (WES).

Not to bore you with the jargon but here’s why this is important. Genotyping tends to show only 0.02% of an individual’s DNA; however, WGS can show almost 100% of the same person’s DNA.

For WES, although it represents only 1.5% of the human genome, it shows approximately 85% of known disease-related variants.

With these three in place, the company can advance genomics research and expand its ability to help scientists and researchers in Africa.

Unlike fintech and other fast-moving sectors like e-commerce, innovation in healthtech takes some time to take shape finally. 54gene is one of the few startups in the sector and even in Africa to have moved from seed stage to Series B in under two years.

It’s this sort of frightening speed that makes one wonder what the company is doing right. So I ask the CEO whether the company is indeed seeing significant progress in advancing African genomics; he answers in the affirmative.

“Though the arc of conducting early research through drug approval can be long in biotech, we have taken the approach to building the backbone that is needed for short-term successes to long-term gains that provide better healthcare delivery and treatment outcomes from diseases,” he added.

In addition to setting its first lab, the CEO says the company increasing its biobanking capacity by 5x and is counts that as a major success.

During its last raise, 54gene had a biobank capacity for 60,000 samples. If Ene-Obong comments are anything to go by, the two-year-old company currently has a biobank with over 300,000 samples, close to its longer-term aim to manage up to 500,000.

Another one is the recruitment and training of talent to generate and process data needed to produce insights for the company’s drug discovery efforts.

Nigeria has a dearth of experienced clinicians and with the remaining few leaving in droves, it is not hard to see why it is a win for the company. Knowing this, 54gene plans to use part of the new funding to recruit and train more professionals

Other use of funding will expand its capabilities in sequencing, target identification and validation, and precision medicine clinical trials. Also of great importance is its expansion across the African continent.

To aid this expansion, 54gene will have to carry out partnerships. A recent one occurred between the company and the Tanzania Human Genetics Organization and Ene-Obong says 54gene is in varying stages of conversations with more partners. However, he was tight-lipped on who they might be.

“We are excited about our Africa-first approach which will see us expand to countries within East and West Africa in the coming year,” he added.

54gene made some hires to this end: Michelle Ephraim, Colm O’Dushlaine, Peter Fekkes, Teresia Bost, Jude Uzonwanne — all of who have decades of experience working with companies like Leica Biosystems, Regeneron Genetic Center, Novartis, Celgene, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Pan-African venture capital firm Cathay AfricInvest Innovation Fund led this round. Lead investor from the company’s Series A funding, Adjuvant Capital invested once again with participation from other VCs including KdT Ventures, Plexo Capital, Endeavor Capital, and Ingressive Capital.

#54gene, #africa, #biotech, #drug-discovery, #funding, #genomics, #precision-medicine, #science, #tc, #whole-genome-sequencing

A16z in talks to back CoinSwitch Kuber in first India investment

A16z is inching closer to making its first investment in a startup in India, the world’s second largest internet market that has produced over two dozen unicorns this year.

The Menlo Park-headquartered firm is in final stages of conversations to invest in Indian crypto trading startup CoinSwitch Kuber, three sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The proposed deal values the Bangalore-based firm at $1.9 billion, two sources said. Coinbase is also investing in the new round, one of the sources said.

CoinSwitch Kuber was valued at over $500 million in a round in April this year when it raised $25 million from Tiger Global. If the deal with A16z materializes, it will be CoinSwitch Kuber’s third financing round this year.

TechCrunch reported last week that CoinSwitch Kuber was in talks to raise its Series C funding at up to $2 billion valuation. The report, which didn’t identify a lead investor, noted that the Indian startup had engaged with Andreessen Horowitz and Coinbase in recent weeks.

Usual caveats apply: terms of the proposed deal may change or the talks may not result in a deal. The author reported some details about the deal on Wednesday.

The startup declined to comment. Coinbase and A16z as well as existing investors Tiger Global and Sequoia Capital India did not respond to requests for comment.

The investment talks come at a time when CoinSwitch Kuber has more than doubled its user base in recent months — even as local authorities push back against crypto assets. Its eponymous app had over 10 million users in India last month, up from about 4 million in April this year, the startup said in a newspaper advertisement over the weekend.

A handful of crypto startups in India have demonstrated fast-pace growth in recent years — while impressively keeping their CAC very low — as millions of millennials in the South Asian nation kickstart their investment journeys. Several funds including those with big presence in India such as Accel, Lightspeed, WEH and Kalaari recently began working on their thesis to back crypto startups, TechCrunch reported earlier.

B Capital backed CoinDCX, a rival of CoinSwitch Kuber that has amassed 3.5 million users, last month in a $90 million round that valued CoinDCX at about $1.1 billion.

Policymakers in India have been debating on the status of digital currencies in the South Asian market for several years. India’s central bank, Reserve Bank of India, has expressed concerns about private virtual currencies though it is planning to run trial programs of its first digital currency as soon as December.

About 27 Indian startups have become a unicorn this year, up from 11 last year, as several high-profile investors — and global peers of Andreessen Horowitz — such as Tiger Global and Coatue have increased the pace of their investments in the South Asian market. Apna announced earlier on Thursday that it had raised $100 million in a round led by Tiger Global at $1.1 billion valuation, becoming the youngest Indian firm to attain the unicorn status.

Groww, an investment app for millennials, is in talks to raise a new financing round that would value it at $3 billion, TechCrunch reported on Wednesday. The startup has engaged with Coatue in recent days, the report said.

#a16z, #apps, #asia, #coinbase, #coinswitch-kuber, #funding, #india, #sequoia-capital-india, #tc, #tiger-global

Vietnam-based CoderSchool gets $2.6M pre-Series A to scale online course platform

CoderSchool, a Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam-based online coding school startup, announced today $2.6 million in pre-Series A funding to scale up its online coding school platform.

This round was led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, with participation from returning seed investors Iterative, XA Network and iSeed Ventures. CoderSchool raised a seed round led by TRIVE Ventures in 2018.

CoderSchool will use the funding to accelerate its online teaching platform growth and technology infrastructure expansion for the company’s technical education programs that guarantee employment upon graduation.

The company, founded in 2015 by Charles Lee and Harley Trung, who previously worked as software engineers, pivoted from offline to online in early 2020 to bring high-quality technical training to everyone, everywhere. After switching to a fully online learning program, the company recorded 100% quarter-over-quarter (QoQ) growth in fully online enrollment, it said in a statement.

“Coding is the future. At CoderSchool, we believe everyone in Southeast Asia deserves a chance to be part of that future,” the company co-founder and CEO Lee said.

In Vietnam, the demand for IT talent is dramatically increasing by 47% a year, while supply is only increasing by 8% year-on-year.

“The need for strong engineers and developers in Southeast Asia has never been as pertinent as it is today with the growth of tech companies and digital businesses,” said Michele Daoud, partner of Monk’s Hill Ventures. “We have been impressed by the team’s focus on setting the standard for coding education in the region. We are excited to partner with CoderSchool to provide both opportunity and access to the millions of aspiring students in Vietnam.”

Given the strong engineer demand in Vietnam, the domestic market size is estimated between $100 million – $200 million, and still increasing every year, according to Lee. CoderSchool has been focusing on Vietnam for the last six years, but plans to enter the global market following the next round, Lee said, without providing exact timetable.

CoderSchool, which offers full-stack web development, machine learning and data sciences courses at a lower cost, has trained more than 2,000 alumni up to date, and recorded over 80% job placement rate for full-time graduates, getting jobs at companies such as BOSCHE, Microsoft, Lazada, Shopee, FE Credit, FPT Software, Sendo, Tiki and Momo.

“After having taught over 2,000 students, we’ve been able to refine our [coding education] content. We rewrote our full-stack web development course — from Ruby, Phyton to JavaScript — in two years, and added new machine learning and data science courses to our program,” Lee told TechCrunch.

CorderSchool’s online program enables students to interact with instructors and classmates before, during and after scheduled class sessions with its human-driven learning strategy. CoderSchool currently has 15 instructional staff, and plans to hire 35 additional instructors by Q4 2022.

CoderSchool’s data analytics has improved individual student performance while also allowing CoderSchool to increase its classroom size at scale, reaching a peak of 107 enrollments in a data science class.

#asia, #coderschool, #coding, #coding-school, #education, #funding, #monks-hill-venture, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #vietnam

Tiger Global-led $100M investment makes Apna India’s fastest unicorn

A 22-month old startup that is helping millions of blue- and gray-collar workers in India learn new skills and find jobs has become the youngest firm to join the coveted unicorn status in the world’s second largest internet market.

Apna announced on Thursday that it has raised $100 million in a round led by Tiger Global. The new round — a Series C — valued Apna at a valuation of $1.1 billion. TechCrunch reported last month that Tiger Global, an existing investor in Apna, was in talks to lead a $100 million financing round in the startup at the unicorn valuation.

Owl Ventures, Insight Partners, Sequoia Capital India, Maverick Ventures and GSV Ventures also participated in the new round, which is the third investment secured by Apna this year. Apna was valued at $570 million in its Series B round in June this year.

The investors’ excitement comes as Apna has demonstrated an impressive growth in recent months. The startup has amassed over 16 million users on its eponymous Android app, up from 10 million in June this year.

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

Apna has built a platform that provides a community to these workers. In the community, they engage with each other, exchange notes to perform better at interviews, and share tips to negotiate better compensation.

On top of this, Apna connects these workers to potential employers. In an interview with TechCrunch, Apna founder and chief executive Nirmit Parikh said more than 150,000 employers — including Zomato, Bharti AXA, Urban Company, BYJU’S, PhonePe, Burger King, Delhivery, Teamlease and G4S Global — are on the platform and over 5 million jobs are active.

The startup, whose name is inspired from a cheerful 2019 Bollywood song, has facilitated over 18 million job interviews in the past 30 days, he said. Apna is currently operational in 28 Indian cities.

The idea for Apna came, Parikh has said, after he was puzzled to find that even as there are hundreds of millions of blue- and gray-collar workers in India, locating them when you need assistance with a task often proves very difficult.

Prior to starting Apna, Parikh, who previously worked at Apple, met these workers and went undercover as electrician and floor manager to understand the problems they were facing. The problem, he found, was the disconnect. Workers had no means to find who needed them for jobs, and they were also not connected with one another. The community aspect of Apna, which now has over 70 such groups, is aimed at addressing this challenge.

The Apna app allows these workers to learn new skills to become eligible for more work opportunities. Apna has emerged as one of the fastest growing upskilling platforms — and that would explain why GSV Ventures and Owl Ventures, two high-profile firms known to back edtech startups, are investing in the Bangalore-based firm.

“Apna’s viral adoption is driven by a novel social and interactive approach to connecting employers with job seekers. We expect job seekers in search of meaningful connections and vetted opportunities to drive Apna’s continued explosive growth across India — and the world,” said Griffin Schroeder, Partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

Now the startup, which has started to monetize the platform, is ready to aggressively expand. Parikh said Apna will continue to expand to more cities in India and by early next year, Apna will begin its global expansion. Parikh said the startup is eyeing expansion in the USA, South East Asia, and Middle East and Africa.

“We have already created a dent. Now we want to impact the lives of 2.3 billion,” he said. “We will require crazy amounts of resources to world class team to deliver. It’s a herculean task, and is going to take a village. But somebody has to solve it.”

#apna, #apps, #asia, #funding, #india, #tiger-global

News aggregator SmartNews raises $230 million, valuing its business at $2 billion

SmartNews, a Tokyo-headquartered news aggregation website and app that’s grown in popularity despite hefty competition from built-in aggregators like Apple News, today announced it has closed on $230 million in Series F funding. The round brings SmartNews’ total raise to date to over $400 million and values the business at $2 billion — or as the company touts in its press release, a “double unicorn.” (Ha!)

The funding included new U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment, and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan. Existing investors participating in this round included ACA Investments and SMBC Venture Capital.

Founded in 2012 in Japan, the company launched to the U.S. in 2014 and expanded its local news footprint early last year. While the app’s content team includes former journalists, machine learning is used to pick which articles are shown to readers to personalize their experience. However, one of the app’s key differentiators is how it works to pop users’ “filter bubbles” through its “News From All Sides” feature, which allows its users to access news from across a range of political perspectives.

It has also developed new products, like its Covid-19 vaccine dashboard and U.S. election dashboard, that provide critical information at a glance. With the additional funds, the company says it plans to develop more features for its U.S. audience — one of its largest, in addition to Japan —  that will focus on consumer health and safety. These will roll out in the next few months and will include features for tracking wildfires and crime and safety reports. It also recently launched a hurricane tracker.

The aggregator’s business model is largely focused on advertising, as the company has said before that 85-80% of Americans aren’t paying to subscribe to news. But SmartNews’ belief is that these news consumers still have a right to access quality information.

In total, SmartNews has relationships with over 3,000 global publishing partners whose content is available through its service on the web and mobile devices.

To generate revenue, the company sells inline ads and video ads, where revenue is shared with publishers. Over 75% of its publishing partners also take advantage of its “SmartView” feature. This is the app’s quick-reading mode, and alternative to something like Google AMP. Here, users can quickly load an article to read, even if they’re offline. The company promises publishers that these mobile-friendly stories, which are marked with a lightning bolt icon in the app, deliver higher engagement — and its algorithm rewards that type of content, bringing them more readers. Among SmartView partners are well-known brands like USA Today, ABC, HuffPost, and others. Currently, over 70% of all SmartNews’ pageviews are coming from SmartView first.

SmartNews’ app has proven to be very sticky, in terms of attracting and keeping users’ attention. The company tells us, citing App Annie July 2021 data, that it sees an average time spent per user per month on U.S. mobile devices that’s higher than Google News or Apple News combined.

Image Credits: App Annie data provided by SmartNews

The company declined to share its monthly active users (MAUs), but had said in 2019 it had grown to 20 million in the U.S. and Japan. Today, it says its U.S. MAUs doubled over the last year.

According to data provided to us by Apptopia, the SmartNews app has seen around 85 million downloads since its October 2014 launch, and 14 million of those took place in the past 365 days. Japan is the largest market for installs, accounting for 59% of lifetime downloads, the firm noted.

“This latest round of funding further affirms the strength of our mission, and fuels our drive to expand our presence and launch features that specifically appeal to users and publishers in the United States,” said SmartNews co-founder and CEO Ken Zuzuki. “Our investors both in the U.S. and globally acknowledge the tremendous growth potential and value of SmartNews’s efforts to democratize access to information and create an ecosystem that benefits consumers, publishers, and advertisers,” he added.

The company says the new funds will be used to invest in further U.S. growth and expanding the company’s team. Since its last fundraise in 2019, where it became a unicorn, the company more than doubled its headcount to approximately 500 people globally. it now plans to double its headcount of 100 in the U.S., with additions across engineering, product, and leadership roles.

The Wall Street Journal reports SmartNews is exploring an IPO, but the company declined to comment on this.

The SmartNews app is available on iOS and Android across more than 150 countries worldwide.

#aca-investments, #aggregation, #ai, #android, #apple-news, #apps, #funding, #google, #google-news, #japan, #machine-learning, #media, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #mobile-devices, #mobile-software, #new-aggregator, #news, #news-aggregation, #news-reading, #recent-funding, #smartnews, #software, #startups, #tokyo, #united-states

Relyance AI scores $25M Series A to ensure privacy compliance at the code level

Relyance AI, an early stage startup that is helping companies stay in compliance with privacy laws at the code level, announced a $25 million Series A today. At the same time, they revealed a previously unannounced $5 million seed round.

Menlo Ventures and Unusual Ventures led the A round, while Unusual was sole lead on the seed. Serial entrepreneur Jyoti Bansal from Unusual will join the board under the terms of the deal. His partner John Vrionis had previously joined after the seed round. Matt Murphy from Menlo is coming on as a board observer. The company has now raised $30 million.

Relyance takes an unusual approach to verifying that data stays in compliance working at the code level, while ingesting contracts and existing legal requirements as code to ensure that a company is in compliance. Company co-CEO and co-founder Abhi Sharma says that code-level check is key to the solution. “For the first time, we are building the legal compliance and regulation into the source code,” Sharma told me.

He added, “Relayance is actually embedded within the DevOps pipeline of our customers infrastructure. So every time a new ETL pipeline is built or a machine learning model is receiving new source code, we do a compiler-like analysis of how personal sensitive data is flowing between internal microservices, data lakes and data warehouses, and then get a metadata analysis back to the privacy and compliance professionals [inside an organization].”

Leila R. Golchehreh, the other founder and co-CEO brings a strong compliance background to the equation and has experienced the challenge of keeping companies in compliance first-hand. She said that Relayance also enables companies to define policy and contracts as code.

“Our approach is specifically to ingest contracts. We’ve actually created an algorithm around how [you] actually write a good data protection agreement. We’ve extracted those relevant provisions and we will compare that against [your] operational reality. So if there’s a disconnect, we will be able to raise that as an intelligent insight of a data misalignment,” she said.

With 32 employees, the co-founders hope to double or perhaps even triple that number in the next 12-18 months. Golchehreh and Sharma are a diverse co-founder team and they are attempting to build a company that reflects that. They believe being remote first gives them a leg up in this regard, but they also have internal policies to drive it.

“The recruiters we work with have a mandate internally to say, ‘Hey, we really want to hire good people and diverse people.’ Reliance as a company is the genesis of two individuals from two completely different ends of the spectrum coming together. And I think hopefully, we can do our job of relaying that into the company as we scale,” Sharma said.

The two founders have been friends for several years and began talking about forming a company together in 2019 over a pizza dinner. The idea began to gel and they launched the company in February 2020. They spent some time talking to compliance pros to understand their requirements better, then began building the solution they have today in July 2020. They released a beta in February and began quietly selling it in March.

Today they have a number of early customers working with their software including Dialpad, Patreon, Samsara and True.

#compliance, #data-protection, #developer, #enterprise, #funding, #gdpr, #jyoti-bansal, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #unusual-ventures

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

Ascend raises $5.5M to provide a BNPL option for commercial insurance

Ascend on Wednesday announced a $5.5 million seed round to further its insurance payments platform that combines financing, collections and payables.

First Round Capital led the round and was joined by Susa Ventures, FirstMark Capital, Box Group and a group of angel investors, including Coalition CEO Joshua Motta, Newfront Insurance executives Spike Lipkin and Gordon Wintrob, Vouch Insurance CEO Sam Hodges, Layr Insurance CEO Phillip Hodges, Anzen Insurance CEO Max Bruner, Counterpart Insurance CEO Tanner Hackett, former Bunker Insurance CEO Chad Nitschke, SageSure executive Paul VanderMarck, Instacart co-founders Max Mullen and Brandon Leonardo and Houseparty co-founder Ben Rubin.

This is the first funding for the company that is live in 20 states. It developed payments APIs to automate end-to-end insurance payments and to offer a buy now, pay later financing option for distribution of commissions and carrier payables, something co-founder and co-CEO Andrew Wynn, said was rather unique to commercial insurance.

Wynn started the company in January 2021 with his co-founder Praveen Chekuri after working together at Instacart. They originally started Sheltr, which connected customers with trained maintenance professionals and was acquired by Hippo in 2019. While working with insurance companies they recognized how fast the insurance industry was modernizing, yet insurance sellers still struggled with customer experiences due to outdated payments processes. They started Ascend to solve that payments pain point.

The insurance industry is largely still operating on pen-and-paper — some 600 million paper checks are processed each year, Wynn said. He referred to insurance as a “spaghetti web of money movement” where payments can take up to 100 days to get to the insurance carrier from the customer as it makes its way through intermediaries. In addition, one of the only ways insurance companies can make a profit is by taking those hundreds of millions of dollars in payments and investing it.

Home and auto insurance can be broken up into payments, but the commercial side is not as customer friendly, Wynn said. Insurance is often paid in one lump sum annually, though, paying tens of thousands of dollars in one payment is not something every business customer can manage. Ascend is offering point-of-sale financing to enable insurance brokers to break up those commercial payments into monthly installments.

“Insurance carries continue to focus on annual payments because they don’t have a choice,” he added. “They want all of their money up front so they can invest it. Our platform not only reduces the friction with payments by enabling customers to pay how they want to pay, but also helps carriers sell more insurance.”

Ascend app

Startups like Ascend aiming to disrupt the insurance industry are also attracting venture capital, with recent examples including Vouch and Marshmallow, which raised close to $100 million, while Insurify raised $100 million.

Wynn sees other companies doing verticalized payment software for other industries, like healthcare insurance, which he says is a “good sign for where the market is going.” This is where Wynn believes Ascend is competing, though some incumbents are offering premium financing, but not in the digital way Ascend is.

He intends to deploy the new funds into product development, go-to-market initiatives and new hires for its locations in New York and Palo Alto. He said the raise attracted a group of angel investors in the industry, who were looking for a product like this to help them sell more insurance versus building it from scratch.

Having only been around eight months, it is a bit early for Ascend to have some growth to discuss, but Wynn said the company signed its first customer in July and six more in the past month. The customers are big digital insurance brokerages and represent, together, $2.5 billion in premiums. He also expects to get licensed to operate as a full payment in processors in all states so the company can be in all 50 states by the end of the year.

The ultimate goal of the company is not to replace brokers, but to offer them the technology to be more efficient with their operations, Wynn said.

“Brokers are here to stay,” he added. “What will happen is that brokers who are tech-enabled will be able to serve customers nationally and run their business, collect payments, finance premiums and reduce backend operation friction.”

Bill Trenchard, partner at First Round Capital, met Wynn while he was still with Sheltr. He believes insurtech and fintech are following a similar story arc where disruptive companies are going to market with lower friction and better products and, being digital-first, are able to meet customers where they are.

By moving digital payments over to insurance, Ascend and others will lead the market, which is so big that there will be many opportunities for companies to be successful. The global commercial insurance market was valued at $692.33 billion in 2020, and expected to top $1 trillion by 2028.

Like other firms, First Round looks for team, product and market when it evaluates a potential investment and Trenchard said Ascend checked off those boxes. Not only did he like how quickly the team was moving to create momentum around themselves in terms of securing early pilots with customers, but also getting well known digital-first companies on board.

“The magic is in how to automate the underwriting, how to create a data moat and be a first mover — if you can do all three, that is great,” Trenchard said. “Instant approvals and using data to do a better job than others is a key advantage and is going to change how insurance is bought and sold.”

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SmarterTravel sheds HopJump name, begins a new journey with $9.5M round

Travel startups continue to rake in venture capital dollars as more people become comfortable traveling amid the global pandemic. The latest is SmarterTravel, which brought in $9.5 million in Series B funding co-led by Link Ventures and Second Alpha, with existing investors also participating.

In addition to the fundraise, the company, a provider of personalized travel recommendations and targeted travel content, announced its name change from HopJump, which reflects the company’s renewed vision of providing an informative online travel experience, CEO Jordan Staab told TechCrunch.

Jordan Staab, CEO of SmarterTravel. Image Credits: SmarterTravel

SmarterTravel has 7 million email newsletter subscribers and uses proprietary artificial intelligence fixes to give customers travel information and discounts. The company writes articles on every facet of travel to inform customers, especially now with airlines, hotels and countries placing certain restrictions on travel.

“The travel consumer is changing how they absorb information,” Staab said. “The consumer is coming to us instead of visiting 20 websites before they book. Before, you might have combed through reviews, but now you just want an expert to tell you, and that is what we are.”

HopJump was started in 2018 by Staab as a digital marketing agency helping big brands with user acquisition campaigns. As it was building up to an initial public offering, Staab said the company wanted to move into building its own brand and saw an opportunity in travel, which accounts for a big market — 10% of global gross domestic product, he added.

The company went on to provide hotel discount travel prices to consumers but found it to be challenging. There are a lot of nuances and different approaches for offering four-star hotel rooms for two-star prices and bundling tactics, Staab explained.

“We fell in love with uncomplicating the process,” he said. “Consumers just want a good price from a company they trust, and that is what we set out to solve.”

In January 2020, the company launched its first product and had 60 members join in the first few months, but then the global pandemic hit. Suddenly, HopJump went from managing rapid growth to managing how the company might shut down.

Still eager to stay in travel, the company pivoted back to marketing so it could continue examining the travel industry, he said. While the company was figuring out its next move, Staab said folks at SmarterTravel were helpful to them, and when he heard that its parent company, TripAdvisor, was needing to make layoffs, and that division was going to be let go, he decided to purchase that asset along with seven others, including Airfarewatchdog, Family Vacation Critic and Oyster. The deal closed in 2020.

Lisa Dolan, managing director at Link Ventures, said that SmarterTravel’s growth was one of the drivers of her firm’s investment. When no one was traveling due to COVID, the company acquired travel companies and made it through the pandemic while other startups in the space were struggling.

She also cited its strong revenue-generating business on the email side and that it capitalized on the fact that even in the pandemic, people were conducting web searches for car rentals, things to do in certain cities and looking for vacation inspiration.

SmarterTravel is going after a U.S. travel and tourism industry valued at $580.7 billion in 2019. It is also not the only one to gain investor attention recently. For example, just over the past month companies like Thatch raised $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper brought in $175 million, Wheel the World grabbed $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner and Elude raised $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry.

Meanwhile, the funding will drive SmarterTravel’s aim to grow rapidly in terms of getting its name out there, building new travel products and hiring key staff. The company already has 50 people, but needs more, Staab said.

“Travel has had a tough couple of years, but some pockets of it are back, and we are seeing that,” he added. “In a year that should have been a bad year, our growth has been good. We were up eight times in revenue in the past 12 months. We are growing, profitable and have extra funding to lean into the growth. It is not going to be easy growth, but we are well-positioned to understand how to do it.”

 

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