With new Partner Colin Hanna, and Shikha Ahluwalia as Associate, Balderton puts down roots in Berlin

As of now, one fo the UK’s biggest and most active tech VCs has a new partner. Principal Colin Hanna has spearheaded several of Balderton’s deals in the past couple of years, and has now been appointed a Partner. But there’s a twist to this plot. He will be officially based in Berlin (where he’s lived since 2019), thus giving the VC a more powerful reach, being based, as it is, solely in London.

Hanna said: “Having been with Balderton for five years, I am humbled to now call my mentors my Partners. I look forward to strengthening Balderton’s unique approach from Berlin as we engineer serendipity for European founders with planet-scale ambition.”

Bernard Liautaud, Managing Partner of Balderton commented: “We are delighted to announce Colin’s promotion to Partner. Since he joined Balderton in 2016, Colin has had a significant impact on both Balderton and our portfolio… Colin has strengthened our position in DACH by establishing our permanent presence in Berlin and bringing in Shikha Ahluwalia, whom we are delighted to have. In addition, he was instrumental in the definition of the Balderton Sustainable Future Goals. We have no doubt Colin will be highly successful in his new role.”

The story does not end there, however. Joining him will be tech entrepreneur and founder Shikha Ahluwalia as an Associate covering the DACH region.

co-founded SBL, the D2C women’s fashion e-commerce company in India. Prior to that she was had a tech advisory boutique, and was previously with JP Morgan’s Investment Banking Division in London.

Balderton has 10 current investments across DACH including Contentful, Infarm, SOPHiA Genetics, McMakler, Demodesk, and vivenu.

Ahluwalia commented: “Over the past few years, I have seen the DACH start-up ecosystem evolve rapidly. We at Balderton believe the next European giant will be a technology company and know that the DACH ecosystem plays a significant role in helping form category-leading technology companies. As a former founder myself, I have first-hand experience with the unique challenges of running young businesses. I am excited to contribute and support founders on their own journey as part of Balderton Capital.”

Speaking to me over an interview Hanna said: “Shikha’s hiring deepens our commitment to the local Berlin ecosystem and to the DACH region more broadly. We have been actively supporting Founders in Germany for more than a decade.”

After spending his childhood in Jakarta and Hong Kong, and picking up a degree in Political Economy, Hanna has carved out a career in venture investing – at Balderton since July 4, 2016 – looking at it through the prism on the rise of urban living, grassroots-driven technologies like open source and crypto, and the political ramifications of technology.

He sits on the Board of companies like e-bikes startup VanMoof, Finoa (a crypto custodian), Rahko (quantum computing drug discovery, and helped lead on investments into Traefik and Luno and Vivenu).

One these you might pick up from all those is that they err towards the ‘purpose-driven’ side of the equation.

He told me: “I believe the next generation of Founders, particularly in Europe, care more about just their bank accounts and want to build companies that generate impact and are not afraid to take a view on how they want the world to change. Measuring this is a challenge and something we are trying to do with our SFGs at Balderton which I helped spearhead. I believe that when companies like Coinbase and others go “apolitical” they commit themselves to defending the structural status quo rather than becoming agents of deliberate change.”

“My point about purpose driven companies is that when I think when employees want to work with companies believe in their values and you try to tell them those aren’t important, that could be viewed as political. I don’t think we should be we should be muffling the employees.”

Does he think Coinbase, and also recent more recently Basecamp / 37 Signals were wrong to so-called ‘depoliticize’ their businesses?

“I think, I think every CEO is free to run their company how they see fit. But I think that that poses challenges for them on the talent side. I understand, as an American, how charged and how destructive the political climate became, and so I can really understand and empathize why certain choices were made at that time, because you get to a point where that where the conversation becomes toxic… I hope that the steps that they’ve taken, don’t strangle dialogue and conversation that’s constructive about how we want to make an impact and change the world, either as individuals or with the companies we work for,” he said.

Hanna also told me that he think VCs should be wary that the shift to remote will make it easier to invest more widely. “You have to more background checks on founders now, and things like that. But is it a ‘little bit’ more dangerous or is it ‘50% more dangerous’ the fact that people aren’t meeting up in person?”

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Interactio, a remote interpretation platform, grabs $30M after seeing 12x growth during COVID-19

Interactio, a remote interpretation platform whose customers include massive institutions like the United Nations, European Commission and Parliament along with corporates like BMW, JP Morgan and Microsoft, has closed a whopping $30 million Series A after usage of its tools grew 12x between 2019 and 2020 as demand for online meeting platforms surged during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Series A funding is led by Eight Roads Ventures and Silicon Valley-based Storm Ventures, along with participation from Practica Capital, Notion Capital, as well as notable angels such as Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype, and Young Sohn, ex-chief strategy officer of Samsung.

The Vilnius, Lithuania-based startup offers digital tools to connect meetings with certified interpreters who carry out real-time interpretation to bridge language divides between participants. It does also offer a video conferencing platform which its customers can use to run remote meetings but will happily integrate with thirty party software like Zoom, Webex etc. (Last year it says its digital tools were used alongside 43 different video streaming platforms.)

Interactio’s interpreters can be in the room where the meeting is taking place or doing the real-time interpretation entirely remotely by watching and listening to a stream of the meeting. (Or, indeed, it can support a mix of remote and on-site interpretation, if a client wishes.)

It can also supply all the interpreters for a meeting — and it touts a strict vetting procedure for onboarding certified interpreters to its platform — or else it will provide training to a customer’s interpreters on the use of its tools to ensure things run smoothly on the day.

At present, Interactio says it works with 1,000+ freelance interpreters, as well as touting “strong relations with interpretation agencies” — claiming it can easily quadruple the pool of available interpreters to step up to meet rising demand.

It offers its customers interpretation in any language — and in an unlimited number of languages per event. And last year it says it hosted 18,000+ meetings with 390,000 listeners spread across more than 70 countries.

Now, flush with a huge Series A, Interactio is gearing up for a future filled with increasing numbers of multi-lingual online meetings — as the coronavirus continues to inject friction into business travel.

“When we started, our biggest competition was simultaneous interpretation hardware for on-site interpretation. At that time, we were on the mission to fully replace it with our software that required zero additional hardware for attendees besides their phone and headphones. However, for institutions, which became our primary focus, hybrid meetings are the key, so we started partnering with simultaneous interpretation hardware manufacturers and integrators by working together on hybrid events, where participants use hardware on-site, and online participants use us,” a spokeswoman told us.

“This is how we differentiate ourselves from other platforms — by offering a fully hybrid solution, that can be integrated with hardware on-site basically via one cable.”

“Moreover, when we look at the market trends, we still see Zoom as the most used solution, so we compliment it by offering professional interpretation solutions,” she added.

A focus on customer support is another tactic that Interactio says it relies upon to stand out — and its iOS and Android apps do have high ratings on aggregate. (Albeit, there are bunch of historical complaints mixed in suggesting it’s had issues scaling its service to large audiences in the past, as well as sporadic problems with things like audio quality over the years.)

While already profitable, the 2014-founded startup says the  Series A will be used to step on the gas to continue to meet the accelerated demand and exponential growth it’s seen during the remote work boom.

Specifically, the funds will go on enhancing its tech and UX/UI — with a focus on ensuring ease of access/simplicity for those needing to access interpretation, and also on upgrading the tools it provides to interpreters (so they have “the best working conditions from their chosen place of work”).

It will also be spending to expand its client base — and is especially seeking to onboard more corporates and other types of customers. (“Last year’s focus was and still is institutions (e.g. European Commission, European Parliament, United Nations), where there is no place for an error and they need the most professional solution. The next step will be to expand our client base to corporate clients and a larger public that needs interpretation,” it told us.)

The new funding will also be used to expand the size of its team to support those goals, including growing the number of qualified interpreters it works with so it can keep pace with rising demand.

While major institutions like the UN are never going to be tempted to skimp on the quality of translation provided to diplomats and politicians by not using human interpreters (either on premise or working remotely), there may be a limit on how far professional real-time translation can scale given the availability of real-time machine translation technology — which offers a cheap alternative to support more basic meeting scenarios, such as between two professionals having an informal meeting.

Google, for example, offers a real-time translator mode that’s accessible to users of its smartphone platform via the Google voice assistant AI. Hardware startups are also trying to target real-time translation. The dream of a real-life AI-powered ‘Babel Fish’ remains strong.

Nonetheless, such efforts aren’t well suited to supporting meetings and conferences at scale — where having a centralized delivery service that’s also responsible for troubleshooting any audio quality or other issues which may arise looks essential.

And while machine translation has undoubtedly got a lot better over the years (albeit performance can vary, depending on the languages involved) there is still a risk that key details could be lost in translation if/when the machine gets it wrong. So offering highly scalable human translation via a digital platform looks like a safe bet as the world gets accustomed to more remote work (and less globetrotting) being the new normal.

“AI-driven translation is a great tool when you need a quick solution and are willing to sacrifice the quality,” says Interactio when we ask about this. “Our clients are large corporations and institutions, therefore, any kind of misunderstanding can be crucial. Here, the translation is not about saying a word in a different language, it’s about giving the meaning and communicating a context via interpretation.

“We strongly believe that only humans can understand the true context and meaning of conversations, where sometimes a tone of voice, an emotion and a figure speech can make a huge difference, that is unnoticed by a machine.”

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ConsenSys raises $65M from JP Morgan, Mastercard, UBS to build infrastructure for DeFi

ConsenSys, a key player in crypto and a major proponent of the Ethereum blockchain, has raised a $65 million funding round from J.P. Morgan, Mastercard, and UBS AG, as well as major blockchain companies Protocol Labs, the Maker Foundation, Fenbushi, The LAO and Alameda Research. Additional investors include CMT Digital and the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund. As well as fiat, several funds invested with Ethereum-based stablecoins, DAI and USDC, as consideration.

Sources told TechCrunch that this is an unpriced round because of the valuation risk, and the funding instrument is “full”, so the round is being closed now.

The fundraise looks like a highly strategic one, based around the idea that traditional institutions will need visibility into the increasingly influential world of ‘decentralized finance’ (DeFi) and the Web3 applications being developed on the Ethereum blockchain.

In a statement on the fundraise, ConsenSys said it has been through a “period of strategic evolution and growth”, but most outside observers would agree that this is that’s something of an understatement.

After a period of quite a lot of ‘creative disruption’ to put it mildly (at one point a couple of years ago, ConsenSys seemed to have everything from a VC fund, to an accelerator, to multiple startups under its wing), the company has restructured to form two main arms: ConsenSys, the core software business; and ConsenSys Mesh, the investment arm, incubator, and portfolio. It also acquired the Quorum product from J.P. Morgan which has given it a deeper bench into the enterprise blockchain ecosystem. This means it now has a very key product suite for the Etherum platform, including products such as Codefi, Diligence, Infura, MetaMask, Truffle, and Quorum.

This suite allows it to serve both public and private permissioned blockchain networks. It can also support Layer 2 Ethereum networks, as well as facilitate access to adjacent protocols like IPFS, Filecoin, and others. ConsenSys is also a major contributor to the Ethereum 2.0 project, for obvious reasons.

Commenting on the fundraise, Joseph Lubin, founder of ConsenSys and co-founder, Ethreum said in a statement: “When we set out to raise a round, it was important to us to patiently construct a diverse cap table, consistent with our belief that similar to how the web developed, the whole economy would join the revolutionaries on a next-generation protocol. ConsenSys’ software stack represents access to a new automated objective trust foundation enabled by decentralized protocols like Ethereum. We are proud to partner with preeminent financial firms alongside leading crypto companies to further converge the centralized and decentralized financial domains at this particularly exciting time of growth for ConsenSys and the entire industry.”

With financial institutions able to see, ‘in public’ DeFi happening on Ethereuem, because of the public chain, they can see how much of the financial system is gradually starting to merge with the blockchain world. So it’s becoming clearer what attracts these major institutions.

Mike Dargan, Head of Group Technology at UBS said: “Our investment in ConsenSys adds proven expertise in distributed ledger technology to our UBS Next portfolio.”

For MasterCard this appears to be not just a pure investment – Consensys has been working with it on a private permissioned network.

Raj Dhamodharan, executive vice president of digital asset and blockchain products and partnerships at Mastercard said: “Enterprise Ethereum is a key infrastructure on which we and our partners are building payment and non-payment applications to power the future of commerce… Our investment and partnership with ConsenSys helps us bring secure and performant Enterprise Ethereum capabilities to our customers.”

Colleen Sullivan, Co-Founder and CEO of CMT Digital said: “ConsenSys is the pioneer in bridging the gaps across traditional finance, centralized crypto, and DeFi, and more broadly, between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. We are proud to participate in this funding round as the ConsenSys team continues to pave the way for global users  — retail and institutional — to easily access the crypto ecosystem.”

TechCrunch understands that the fundraise was started around the time of the Quorum acquisition, last June. The $65 million round is in majority fiat currency as opposed to cryptocurrency and is an adjunct to the round done with JP Morgan last summer.

The presence of significant crypto players such as Maker Protocol Labs shows the significance of the fund-raise, beyond the simple transaction. The announcement also comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO, which makes for interesting timing.

ConsenSys’ products have become highly significant in the world where developers, enterprises, and consumers meet blockchain and crypto. In its statement, the company claims MetaMask now has over three million monthly active users across mobile and desktop, a 3x increase in the last five or six months, it says. This is roughly the same amount of monthly active customers as Coinbase.

The ConsenSys announcement comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO. While Coinbase is acting as an exchange to turn fiat into crypto and vice versa, it has also been getting into DeFi of late. Where there are also resemblances with ConsenSys, is that Coinbase, with 3 million users, is used as a wallet, and MetMask, which also has 3 million users, can also be used as a wallet. The comparison ends there, but it’s certainly interesting, given Coinbase’s $100 billion valuation.

As Jeremy Millar, Chief Development Officer, told me: “Coinbase has pioneered an exchange, in one of the world’s most regulated financial markets, the US. And it has helped drive significant interest in the space. We enjoy a very positive relationship with Coinbase, trying to further enable the ecosystem and adoption of the technology.”

The background to this raise is that a lot of early-stage blockchain and crypto companies have been raising a lot of money recently, but much of this has been through crypto investment firms. Only a handful of Silicon Valley VCs are backing blockchain, such as Andreessen Horowitz.

What’s interesting about this announcement is that these incumbent financial giants are not only taking an interest, but working alongside ConsenSys to both invest and build products on Ethereum.

It’s ConsenSys’ view that every payment service provider, banks will need this financial infrastructure in the future, especially for DeFI.

Given there is roughly $43 billion collateralized in DeFi, it’s increasingly the case that major investors are involved, and there are increasingly higher returns than traditional yield and bond or bond yields.

The moves by Central Banks into digital currencies is also forcing companies and governments to realize digital currency, and the ‘blockchain rails’ on which it runs, is here to stay. This is what is suggested by the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund’s (a Shenzhen / Hong Kong joint partnership) decision to get involved.

Another aspect of this story is that ConsenSys is sitting on some extremely powerful products. Consensys has six products that serve three different types of people.

Service developers who are building on Ethereum are using Truffle to develop smart contracts. Users joining the NFT hype are using MetaMask underneath it all.

The MetaMask wallet allows users to swap one token for another. This has proved quite lucrative for ConsenSys, which says it has resulted in $1.8 billion in volume in decentralized exchange use. ConsenSys takes a 0.875 percent cut on every swap that it serves.

And institutions are using Consensys’ products. The company says more than 150,000 developers use Infura’s APIs, and 4.5 million developers create and deploy smart contracts using Truffle, while its Protocols group — developer of Hyperledger Besu and ConsenSys Quorum — are building Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) for six central banks, says Consensys.

Consensys is also making hay with the NFT boom. Developers are using Consensys products for the nodes and infrastructure on Ethereum which stores the NFT files.

Consensys is also riding two waves. One is the developer eave and the other is the financial system wave.

As a spokesperson said: “Where the interest in money and invention started happening was on public networks like Ethereum. So we really believe that these are converging and they will continue to, and every one of our products offers public main net compatibility because we think this is the future.”

Millar added: “If we want to help the world adopt the technology we need to meet it at its adoption point, which for many large enterprises means inside the firewall first. But similarly, we think, just like the public Internet, the real value – the disruptive value – changes the ability to do this on a broader permissionless basis, especially when you have sufficient privacy and authentication available.”

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Mercado Libre taps Pachama to monitor and manage its $8 million investment in Latin American rainforest restoration

Mercado Libre, one of the largest e-commerce and financial services company from Latin America by market cap, has selected the startup and Y Combinator alumni Pachama as its strategic partner in developing projects to restore ecosystems in Latin America.

The selection of Pachama is part of a program initiated by Mercado Libre, Latin America’s answer to Amazon, which is called Regenera America. The $8 million that Mercado Libre is investing will be in two reforestation projects: the “Mantiqueira Conservation Project”, organized under the auspices of The Nature Conservancy and the “Corridors of Live Project”, designed and implemented by the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecologicas.

Both projects will focus on the reforestation of over three thosuand hectares, through natural regeneration and planting over 1 million trees, restoring biodiversity corridors and protecting hydrological basins in the Atlantic Forest region of Brazil, the two companies said in a statement.

Pachama will provide satellite and machine learning technologies to verify and monitor the carbon sequestration produced by the sweeping reforestation efforts in a deal which leapfrogs Mercado Libre ahead of Microsoft as the young startup’s largest customer.

Software tools provided by Pachama will also increase the efficiency and transparency of the actual reforestation efforts on the ground, the companies said in a joint statement.

The deal between the two companies, and Mercado Libre’s big buy was announced earlier today at a press conference in Argentina and the agreement marks the first time Mercado Libre has tapped money from a recently issued $400 million Sustainability Bond that was designed to finance projects of what the e-commerce giant called “triple impact” in the Latin American region. The bond was issued by JP Morgan and BNP Paribas.

“We’re taking our first steps. We have always tried to do things the hard way and go to the core of problems. We have had a very interesting debate internally about when is the right time to start buying carbon offsets and carbon credits but we also realize that the … getting up and running of projects that generate carbon credits in Latin America was potentially even more of a challenging situation and more of a longterm solution,” said Mercado Libre chief financial officer Pedro Arnt.

“This is a building block of a longer term strategy thinking through not just what we can do for the next two or three years,” Arnt said. 

The Regenera America project has four pieces, Arnt said: measuring and reporting emissions internally for the company; buying clean energy for the company’s operations; providing electric vehicles for its own fleet and assisting its last mile and logistics partners in electrifying their own transportation; and the development of reforestation efforts across Latin America.

“This is setting up an example for more traditional industries across Latin America,” said Diego Saez-Gil, the co-founder and chief executive of Pachama. MercadoLibre is the largest company by market cap in Latin America and serves as a standard bearer for the forward thinking businesses in the region, he said. “Latin America is one of the biggest holders of biodiversity and carbon stocks in the world, and should be playing a more active role in climate mitigation.”

It’s a big step for Pachama as well. The deal marks the first time the young company has involved itself in project origination and provide a new revenue stream to compliment its existing lines of business.

“We are incredibly excited to start helping new reforestation projects get off the ground that have the capabilities to plant millions of trees and remove millions tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. If we are to solve climate change we need more projects like these to start as soon as possible,” said Saez-Gil in a statement. “We are confident that technologies such as AI and satellite imagery are key to scaling these efforts with high integrity, efficiency and transparency. Partnering with world-class organizations such as Mercado Libre, The Nature Conservancy and IPE for our first projects represents an incredible opportunity for us.” 

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