Cato Network snags $130M Series E on $1B valuation as cloud wide area networking thrives

Cato Networks has spent the last five years building a cloud-based wide area network that lets individuals connect to network resources regardless of where they are. When the pandemic hit, and many businesses shifted to work from home, it was the perfect moment for technology like this. Today, the company was rewarded with a $130 million Series E investment on $1 billion valuation.

Lightspeed Venture Partners led the round with participation from new investor Coatue and existing investors Greylock, Aspect Ventures/Acrew Capital, Singtel Innov8 and Shlomo Kramer (who is the co-founder and CEO of the company). The company reports it has now raised $332 million since inception.

Kramer is a serial entrepreneur. He co-founded Check Point Software, which went public in 1996 and Imperva, which went public in 2011, and was later acquired by private equity firm Thoma Bravo in 2018. He helped launch Cato in 2015. “In 2015, we identified that the wide area networks (WANs), which is a tens of billions of dollars market, was still built on the same technology stack […] that connects physical locations, and appliances that protect physical locations and was primarily sold by the telcos and MSPs for many years,” Kramer explained.

The idea with Cato was to take that technology and redesign it for a mobile and cloud world, not one that was built for the previous generation of software that lived in private data centers and was mostly accessed from an office. Today they have a cloud-based network of 60 Points of Presence (PoPs) around the world, giving customers access to networking resources and network security no matter where they happen to be

The bet they made was a good one because the world has changed, and that became even more pronounced this year when COVID hit and forced many people to work from home. Now suddenly having the ability to sign in from anywhere became more important than ever, and they have been doing well with 2x growth in ARR this year (although he wouldn’t share specific revenue numbers).

As a company getting Series E funding, Kramer doesn’t shy away from the idea of eventually going public, especially since he’s done it twice before, but neither is he ready to commit any time table. For now, he says the company is growing rapidly, with almost 700 customers — and that’s why it decided to take such a large capital influx right now.

Cato currently has 270 employees with plans to grow to 400 by the end of next year. He says that Cato is a global company with headquarters in Israel where diversity involves religion, but he is trying to build a diverse and inclusive culture regardless of the location.

“My feeling is that inclusion needs to happen in the earlier stages of the funnel. I’m personally involved in these efforts, at the educational sector level, and when students are ready to be recruited by startups, we are already competitive, and if you look at our employee base it’s very diverse,” Kramer said.

With the new funds, he plans to keep building the company and the product. “There’s a huge opportunity and we want to move as fast as possible. We are also going to make very big investments on the engineering side to take the solution and go to the next level,” he said.

#cato-networks, #cloud, #enterprise, #funding, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #wide-area-networking

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Salto raises $27M to let you configure your SaaS platforms with code

Salto, a Tel Aviv-based open-source startup that allows you to configure SaaS platforms like Salesforce, NetSuite and HubSpot with code, is coming out of stealth today and announced that it has raised a $27 million Series A round. This round was led by Bessemer Venture Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Salesforce Ventures.

The general idea here — which is similar to the ‘infrastructure-as-code’ movement — is to allow business operations teams to automate the labor-intensive and error-prone ways they currently use to manage SaaS platforms. While others in this space are betting on no-code solutions for managing these systems, Salto is going the other way and is betting on code instead.

“We realized the challenges BizOps teams face are very similar to the problems encountered by software and DevOps engineers on a daily basis,” writes Salto co-founder and CEO Rami Tamir in today’s announcement. “So we adapted software development fundamentals and best practices to the BizOps field. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel; the same techniques used to make high-quality software can also be applied to keeping control over business applications.”

Image Credits: Salto

Salto makes the core of its service available as open source. This open-source version includes the company’s NaCI language, a declarative configuration language based on the syntax of HashiCorp’s hcl, a command-line interface for deploying configuration changes (and fetching the current configuration state of an application) and a VS Code extension.

In combination with Git, business operations teams can collaborate on writing these configurations and test them in staging environments. The company is essentially taking modern software development practices and applying them to business operations.

Image Credits: Salto

“Defining a company’s business logic as code can make a fundamental change in the way business applications are delivered,” writes Tamir. “We like to think about it as ‘company-as-code,’ much in the same way as ‘infrastructure-as-code’ transformed the way we manage data centers.”

Some of the use cases here are configuring custom Salesforce CPQ fields, and syncing profiles across Salesforce environments and maintaining audio logs for NetSuite. For now, the company only supports connections to Salesforce, HubSpot and NetSuite, with others following soon.

Like other open-source companies, Salto’s business model involved selling a hosted version of its service, which the company is also announcing today.

In terms of raising this new round, it surely helped that the founding team, which includes Benny Schnaider and Gil Hoffer, in addition to Tamir, previously sold the three companies they founded. Pentacom was acquired by Cisco earlier this year; Oracle acquired Ravello Systems in 2016 and Qumranet was acquired by Red Hat in 2008.

“Business agility is more important than ever today, and the alignment of external business services to real business needs is increasing in strategic importance,” said Alex Kayyal, Partner and Head of International at Salesforce Ventures . “BizOps teams are becoming more and more crucial to the success of companies. With Salto they are empowered to meet the tasks they are charged with, equipped with modernized methodologies and a greatly enhanced toolbox.”

#bessemer-venture-partners, #cisco, #cloud-applications, #computing, #devops, #head, #hubspot, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #netsuite, #oracle, #oracle-corporation, #ravello-systems, #red-hat, #salesforce, #salesforce-ventures, #salto, #software, #software-as-a-service, #tc, #tel-aviv

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Lightspeed Venture Partners backs Theta Lake’s video conferencing security tech with $12.7 million

Theta Lake, a provider of compliance and security tools for conferencing software like Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams, RingCentral, Zoom and others, said it has raised $12.7 million in a new round of funding.

Lightspeed Venture Partners led the round with commitments from Cisco Investments, angel investors from the collaboration and security space, and previous investors, Neotribe Ventures, Firebolt Ventures and WestWave Capital, the company said.

The company’s financing comes as the COVID-19 pandemic has created a surge of demand for remote work conferencing technologies — and services that can ensure the security of those communications.

Citing a Research and Markets report, the company estimates that the market will grow from $8.9 billion in 2019 to $23 billion by the end of this year.

Theta Lake said that the funding would be used to increase its sales and marketing capabilities and for research and development on new product features, according to a statement. 

The company’s tech already uses machine learning to detect security risks in video, visual, voice, chat and document content shared over video and collaboration tools.

As a result of its investment, Arif Janmohamed, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, will join the Theta Lake Board of Directors, the company said. 

“The need for security and compliance solutions that fully cover modern collaboration tools should be obvious to everyone,” said Devin Redmond, Theta Lake’s co-founder and chief executive, in a statement. “That need pre-existed the pandemic, but now is more pressing than ever. The shift from physical work sites and employer-owned networks with tightly managed devices and applications, to a distributed workplace that lives inside your collaboration tools means organizations need new security and compliance coverage that lives inside that new workplace. 

 

#artificial-intelligence, #cisco-investments, #cisco-systems, #collaboration-tools, #companies, #computing, #lightspeed, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #machine-learning, #microsoft, #neotribe-ventures, #partner, #ringcentral, #security-tools, #tc, #telecommunications, #web-conferencing

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Discuss the unbundling of early-stage VC with Unusual Ventures’ Sarah Leary & John Vrionis

This year has been everything but business as usual for the venture and tech community. And we still have a presidential election ahead of us.

So, why not listen to the aptly-named experts over at Unusual Ventures? Partners Sarah Leary (co-founder of Nextdoor) and John Vrionis, formerly of Lightspeed Ventures Partners, will join us on Tuesday, October 20 on the Extra Crunch Live virtual stage.

Thanks to all of you who have joined us for our series of live discussions that has included tech leaders like Sydney Sykes, Alexia von Tobel, Mark Cuban and many others (all recordings are still accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers to watch and learn from).

If you’re new, welcome! You’ll have a chance to participate in the live discussion if you have an Extra Crunch subscription.

Unusual Ventures’ investments span the consumer and enterprise space, including companies like Robinhood, AppDynamics, Mulesoft and Winnie.

For this chat, I plan to spend some time talking to Leary and Vrionis about how early-stage venture capital has changed with the rise of rolling funds, community funds and syndicates. Unusual Ventures claims “there’s an enormous opportunity to raise the bar on what seed-stage investors provide for early-stage founders,” so we’ll get into that opportunity as well.

And if we have time, we’ll discuss remote work, building in public and the U.S. presidential election.

So, what are you waiting for? Add the deets to your calendar (below the jump!) and join me next Tuesday.

Details

#appdynamics, #extra-crunch-live, #john-vrionis, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #sarah-leary, #startups, #tc, #unusual-ventures, #venture-capital, #wearables

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Months-old Uni raises $18.5 million seed round to expand India’s credit card market

Even as close to a billion debit cards are in use in India today, only about 58 million credit cards are in circulation in the world’s second most populous nation.

According to industry estimates, between 30 million to 35 million people in the country today have a credit card. Part of the reason why the vast majority of the population has not made the cut is because they don’t have a credit score — or if they do have an eligible credit score they don’t see any appeal in the paltry rewards most credit cards offer in the country.

The credit card industry in India appears to be stuck in a deadlock. Part of the reason why so few people in the country have a credit score is because banks and credit card companies are still relying on age-old methodologies to determine someone’s creditworthiness.

Nitin Gupta, a veteran in the financial services business, has co-founded Uni

Most banks in India are only comfortable with issuing credit cards to individuals who have a full-time employment with one of a few hundred companies listed in their spreadsheets that they last updated years ago.

Through his new startup called Uni, Nitin Gupta wants to address some of these issues. And he is one of the few individuals in the country who is positioned to do it. He co-founded PayU India, and then ran ride-hailing firm Ola’s financial services business.

During his tenure at PayU, the startup established a dominance in the payments processing business in the country. And at Ola, he launched Olamoney Postpaid, a service that allows customers to pay for their rides at a later stage. Olamoney, which was valued at $250 million last year, is now one of the largest financial services businesses in the country.

Serious VCs are now willing to bet on Gupta’s new venture.

On Tuesday, Uni announced it has raised $18.5 million in its seed financing round led by Lightspeed and Accel . The startup currently does not have a product, but it took Gupta only two months in the middle of a global pandemic to raise what is one of the largest seed financing rounds in India.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Gupta said at Uni he is joined by two more senior executives — Laxmikant Vyas and Prateek Jindal — who have stellar records in the financial services business.

He declined to reveal what exactly Uni’s product — or line of products — would look like, but suggested that Uni is building the modern age consumer credit card.

“It would seem very obvious when it comes out, and people will wonder why nobody else thought of it,” he said, adding that he is working with multiple banks on partnerships.

The adoption of digital payments has grown exponentially in the country in the last five years, but the credit card business is still struggling to make inroads, he said, adding that he sees an opportunity to expand the credit card base to 200 million over the next five years.

“Nitin and Uni’s team are passionate about unlocking the power of financial services for millions of Indian consumers using new tech-powered solutions,” Bejul Somaia​, a partner at Lightspeed India, said. “We are excited about their mission and proud to support them from day one.”

#accel, #asia, #finance, #funding, #india, #lightspeed-india, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #ola, #payu

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Rephrase.ai raises $1.5M to use synthetic media for personalized sales pitches

Bangalore-based Rephrase.ai has an ambitious vision for reshaping how movies and videos are made.

CEO Ashray Malhotra laid it out for me yesterday, saying that his co-founder Nisheeth Lahoti “came up with this concept — he wants to build an engine that can take any script as input and create a professional movie,” no filming required.

But Rephrase.ai is starting with what Malhotra said is a more “short-term, monetizable” goal: Offering technology that makes it easy to create personalized sales videos.

The startup was part of the Techstars Bangalore program in 2019 and is announcing today that it has raised $1.5 million in seed funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and AV8 Ventures.

Malhotra demonstrated the technology for me, showing me how a salesperson can select a model, a background and a voice, and enter text that the model will recite. They can then export that video for use in a variety of sales tools.

This is valuable for, he said, because sending personalized video messages in sales emails can lead to “an insane increase” in clickthrough rates. But creating all those videos can be a huge chore, if not downright impossible.

And while there are plenty of other startups working on synthetic media, Malhotra said Rephrase.ai is set apart by the 18 months the team spent developing technology that can take 10 minutes of footage and “predict how the lip movements of the person would have been if you’d shot them [saying any phrase] in an actual studio.”

You can see the results for yourself in the video above. Personally, I was impressed by the lip movements but disconcerted by the fact that Rephrase.ai customers can pair any model with any voice, leading to some strange combinations that feel more like badly dubbed movie than an effective sales pitch.

When I brought this up, Malhotra replied that some clients will want to take the time “perfecting it out, finding the right voices, the right costumes, the right personality of the actors,” while other clients might be fine spending less time to create something a little less convincing.

It’s also worth noting that Rephrase.ai has several policies designed to prevent the creation of deceptive deepfakes: Presenters can control who has the authority to create videos using their faces, the platform is only open to authorized businesses and videos are created from scratch, rather than transferring someone’s face onto an existing person.

Malhotra said Rephrase.ai is currently talking to a number of potential customers, but those discussions are in early stages. He also suggested that the technology could expand fairly quickly into areas like chatbots and education.

“I think it’s going to open a whole new world of creativity,” he said. “When you and I want to express something, we’re most likely to write a text document, but as a viewer, we want to see a video. They’ve been disconnected because video creation is really difficult.”

#av8-ventures, #funding, #fundings-exits, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #startups, #synthetic-media

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Edtech investors are panning for gold

The spotlight on edtech grows brighter and harsher: On one end, remote-learning startups are attracting millions in venture capital. On the other, many educators and parents are unimpressed with the technology that enables virtual learning and gaps remain in and out of the classroom.

It’s clear that edtech’s nebulous pain points — screen time, childcare and classroom management — require innovation. But as founders flurry to a sector recently rejuvenated with capital, the influx of interest has not fostered any breakout solutions. As a result, edtech investors must hone their skills at sorting the innovators from the opportunists amid the rush.

Lucky for us, investors shared notes during TechCrunch Disrupt and offline regarding how they are separating the gold from the dust, giving us a peek into their due diligence process (and inboxes).

Putting profitability over growth

The pandemic has broadly forced founders to get more conservative and prioritize profitability over the usual “growth at all costs” startup mentality. Growth still matters, but within edtech, the boom comes with a big focus on profitability, efficacy, outcomes and societal impact.

“The goal of all of education is personalized learning, when every student receives exactly the instruction in the way that they need it at the time that they need it. And that’s really, really difficult to do if you’re trying to have one person teach 180 students,” said Mercedes Bent of Lightspeed Venture Partners. “And so I’ve been excited to see more solutions that are focused on creating smaller class sizes that are also focused on allowing students to connect with people outside of their homes as well.”

During Disrupt, Reach Capital’s Jennifer Carolan brought up a recent Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” which illustrates the impact screen time can have on society. When vetting companies, Carolan said she wanted to see founders who have considered how their products may impact young users.

#cowboy-vc, #disrupt-2020, #edtech, #education, #ian-chiu, #jennifer-carolan, #jomayra-hererra, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #mercedes-bent, #owl-ventures, #reach-capital, #startups, #tc

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Outschool, newly profitable, raises a $45M Series B for virtual small group classes

Outschool, which started in 2015 as a platform for homeschooled students to bolster their extracurricular activities, has dramatically widened its customer base since the coronavirus pandemic began.The platform saw its total addressable market increase dramatically as students went home or campus to abide by COVID regulations instituted by the CDC.

Suddenly, live, small-group online learning classes became a necessity for students. Outschool’s services, which range from engineering lessons through Lego challenges to Spanish teaching by Taylor Swift songs, are now high in demand.

“When the CDC warned that school closures may be required, they talked about ‘internet-based tele-schooling,’” co-founder Amir Nathoo said. “We realized they meant classes over video chat, which is exactly what we offer.”

From August 2019 to August 2020, the online educational class service saw a more than 2,000% increase in bookings. But the surge isn’t just a crop of free users piling atop the platform. Outschool’s sales this year are around $54 million, compared to $6.5 million the year prior. It turned its first profit as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and is making more than $100 million in annual run rate.

While the profitability and growth could be a signal of the COVID-19 era, today Outschool got a vote of confidence that it isn’t just a pandemic-era boom. Today, Jennifer Carolan of Reach Capital announced at TechCrunch Disrupt that Outschool has raised a $45 million Series B round, bringing its total known capital to $55 million.

The round was led by Lightspeed Venture Partners, with participation from Reach Capital, Union Square Ventures, SV Angel, FundersClub, Y Combinator and others.

The cash gives Outschool the chance to grow its 60-person staff, which started at 25 people this year.

Founder Amir Nathoo was programming computer games from the age of five. So when it came to starting his own company, creating a platform that helped other kids do the same felt right.

In 2015, Nathoo grabbed Mikhail Seregine, who helped build Amazon Mechanical Turk and Google Consumer Surveys, and Nick Grandy, a product manager at Clever, another edtech company and YC alum. The trio drummed up a way to help students access experiences they don’t get in school.

To gauge interest, the company tried in-person classes in the SF Bay area, online content and tested across hundreds of families. Finally, they started working with homeschoolers as an early adopter audience, all to see if people would pay for non-traditional educational experiences.

“Homeschooling was interesting to us because we believed that if some new approach is going to change our education system radically for the better, it was likely that it would start outside the existing system,” Nathoo said.

He added that he observed that the homeschooling community had more flexibility around self-directed extracurricular activities. Plus, those families had a bigger stake in finding live, small-group instruction, to embed in days. The idea landed them a spot in Y Combinator in 2016, and, upon graduation, a $1.4 million seed round led by Collab+Sesame.

“We’d all been on group video calls with work, but we hadn’t seen this format of learning in K12 before,” he said. Outschool began rolling out live, interactive classes in small groups. It took off quickly. Sales grew from $500,000 in 2017 to over $6 million in 2019.

The strategy gave Outschool an opportunity to raise a Series A from Reach Capital, an edtech-focused venture capital fund, in May 2019. They began thinking outwards, past homeschooling families: what if a family with a kid in school wants extra activities, snuck in afterschool, on weekends or on holidays?

Today feels remarkably different for the startup, and edtech more broadly. Nathoo says that 87% of parents who purchase classes on Outschool have kids in school. The growth of Outschool’s total addressable market comes with a new set of challenges and goals.

When the pandemic started, Outschool had 1,000 teachers on its platform. Now, its marketplace hosts 10,000 teachers, all of whom have to get screened.

“That has been a big challenge,” he said. “We aren’t an open marketplace, so we had to rapidly scale our supply and quality team within our organization.” While that back-end work is time-consuming and challenging, the NPS score from students has remained high, Nathoo noted.

Outschool has a number of competitors in the live learning space. Juni Learning, for example, sells live small-group classes on coding and science. The company raised $7.5 million, led by Forerunner Ventures, and has around $10 million in ARR. Note earlier that Outschool is at $100 million in ARR.

“We provide a much broader range of learning options than Juni, which is focused just on coding classes,” Nathoo said. Outschool currently lists more than 50,000 classes on its website.

Varsity Tutors is another Outschool competitor, which is more similar to Outschool. Varsity Tutors sells online tutoring and large-group classes in core subjects such as Math and English. Nathoo says that Outschool’s differentiation remains in its focus of small-group teaching and a variety of topics.

As for what’s ahead for Outschool, Nathoo flirts with the idea of contradiction: what if the platform goes in schools?

“When I think about our strategy going forward, I think of new types of classes, international embedding and embedding ourselves back into school,” he said.

Outschool might use its growing consumer business as an engine to get into school districts, which are notoriously difficult to land deals with due to small budgets. But, to Nathoo, it’s important to get into schools to increase access to learning.

“Our vision is to build a global education community that supplements local school,” he said.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #disrupt-2020, #education, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #outschool, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

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Forage, formerly InsideSherpa, raises $9.3 million Series A for virtual work experiences

Tech’s coveted internships were some of the first roles to be cut as offices closed and businesses shuttered in response to the coronavirus. A number of companies across the country, including Glassdoor, StubHub, Funding Circle, Yelp, Checkr and even the National Institutes of Health, canceled their internship programs altogether.

For InsideSherpa co-founders Tom Brunskill and Pasha Rayan, the canceled internships were an opportunity. InsideSherpa, a Y Combinator graduate, hosts virtual work experience programs for college students all around the world.

College students, searching for a way to get job-ready, flocked to the platform from Northern Italy to South-East Asia, to all over the United States. Enrollments in InsideSherpa grew more than 86%, up to 1 million students.

The educational service successfully attracted student interest, and now, has landed investor interest. Today, InsideSherpa announced that it raised $9.3 million in Series A funding, led by Lightspeed Venture Partners . The startup has now raised $11.6 million in known venture funding. Other investors include FundersClub, Y Combinator and Arizona State University.

The financing will be used to grow InsideSherpa’s staff, with more engineering, product and sales roles. Along with the financing, InsideSherpa announced that it has rebranded to Forage.

Forage isn’t selling an internship replacement, but instead comes in one degree before the recruitment process. Students can go to the website and take a course from large companies such as Deloittee, Citi, BCG and GE. The course, designed in collaboration with the particular company and Forage, gives students a chance to “explore what a career would look like at their firm before the internship or entry-level application process opens,” Brunskill explains.

Forage is focused on partnering with large companies that employ upwards of 1,000 students per year via internships to help open up new pipelines. The corporate partners pay a subscription fee per year to post courses, and students can access all courses for free.

Popular courses include the KPMG Data Analytics Program, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Software Engineering Program and the Microsoft Engineering Program.

While Forage declined to disclose ARR, it confirmed that it was profitable heading into its fundraise, which formally closed in July.

Within edtech, flocks of companies have tried (and failed) to deliver on the promise of skills-based learning and employment opportunities as an outcome. The strategy of getting cozy with corporate partners isn’t unique to Forage, but the team views it as a competitive advantage. Of course, the effectiveness of that strategy matters more than the fact that it exists in the first place. Forage did not disclose efficacy information, but said that “some” corporate partners hired up to 52% of the cohort from their programs.

When Brunskill and Rayan first started Forage in 2017, they imagined a mentoring marketplace to connect students to young professionals. Three years later, much has changed.

“While students were interested in the product, they weren’t using it the way we intended,” he said. “Students kept saying to us ‘we just want an internship at company X, can you get me one?’ ”

While Brunskill doesn’t believe there’s any silver bullet solution to fixing education or recruitment systems, he remains optimistic in Forage’s future. After all, even if democratizing access to skills is the first step in a bigger race, it’s not an easy one.

#education, #future-of-work, #insidesherpa, #internships, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #thomas-brunskill, #upskilling

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Lightspeed announces the launch of its Southeast Asia operations

A group photo of Lightspeed Venture Capital's Southeast Asia team

Lightspeed’s Southeast Asia team: Akshay Bhushan, Marsha Sugana, Pinn Lawjindakul and Bejul Somaia

Lightspeed Venture Partners announced the launch of its Southeast Asia operations today. Based out of the firm’s new regional headquarters in Singapore, Lightspeed’s team there will invest in startups throughout Southeast Asia from the three global funds it closed earlier this year, which total about $4 billion.

The Southeast Asia team consists of partner Akshay Bhushan, who was a founding member of Flipkart’s corporate development team before joining Lightspeed five years ago; partner Bejul Somaia, who helped set up Lightspeed India; vice president Pinn Lawjindakul, a veteran of Grab and Tiger Global Management; and senior investment associate Marsha Sugana, who previously worked at L Catterton and Goldman Sachs.

Bhushan told TechCrunch that Lightspeed opened its Singapore office in January to serve as a base for its team as they met with entrepreneurs throughout the region. Obviously, the onset of COVID-19 curtailed travel, but they continued talking to startups through video calls and emails.

Lightspeed focuses on early-stage investments and has already invested in some of the most prolific startups in Southeast Asia, including Grab. Its other portfolio companies in the region are Indonesian startups Chilibeli, a social commerce platform, B2B wholesale marketplace Ula and e-commerce logistics platform Shipper, as well as Singaporean software developer NextBillion.AI.

Some of Lightspeed’s investments in other countries have also taken a keen interest in Southeast Asia as a key market for global expansion, including Indian startups OYO Rooms, Darwinbox and Yellow Messenger.

Having regional operations will allow Lightspeed to work more closely with its portfolio companies and make deeper connections with entrepreneurs, Bhushan said.

He added that the pandemic has prompted the rapid adoption of technologies, including platforms that help small businesses digitize their operations or sell online, supply chain solutions and remote working or online education-related services.

In sectors like fintech or logistics, there is also a lot of opportunity in several Southeast Asian countries to build transformative platforms and services. For example, Bhushan said, Shipper is focused on solving some of the biggest supply chain and logistics challenges facing e-commerce sellers in Indonesia, while Grab has made digital payments and other financial services like insurance easier to access.

“The big opportunity in most emerging markets, and this applies to most of the markets in Southeast Asia, is that we generally find that a lot of the fundamental infrastructure is broken, and founders can leverage technology to fill those gaps,” he said. “What excites us are founders who are solving those infrastructural problems, and a lot of our investments are to that effect.”

#asia, #lightspeed, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #tc, #venture-capital

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Hasura raises $25 million Series B and adds MySQL support to its GraphQL service

Hasura, a service that provides developers with an open-source engine that provides them a GraphQL API to access their databases, today announced that it has raised a $25 million Series B round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners. Previous investors Vertex Ventures US, Nexus Venture Partners, Strive VC and SAP.iO Fund also participated in this round.

The new round, which the team raised after the COVID-19 pandemic had already started, comes only six months after the company announced its $9.9 million Series A round. In total, Hasura has now raised $36.5 million.

“We’ve been seeing rapid enterprise traction in 2020. We’ve wanted to accelerate our efforts investing in the Hasura community and our cloud product that we recently launched and to ensure the success of our enterprise customers. Given the VC inbound interest, a fundraise made sense to help us step on the gas pedal and give us room to grow comfortably,” Hasura co-founder and CEO Tanmai Gopa told me.

In addition to the new funding, Hasura also today announced that it has added support for MySQL databases to its service. Until now, the company’s service only worked with PostgreSQL databases.

Rajoshi Ghosh, co-founder and COO (left) and Tanmai Gopal, co-founder and CEO (right).

Rajoshi Ghosh, co-founder and COO (left) and Tanmai Gopal, co-founder and CEO (right).

As the company’s CEO and co-founder Tanmai Gopal told me, MySQL support has long been at the top of the most requested features by the service’s users. Many of these users — who are often in the health care and financial services industry — are also working with legacy systems they are trying to connect to modern applications and MySQL plays an important role there, given how long it has been around.

In addition to adding MySQL support, Hasura is also adding support for SQL Server to its line-up, but for now, that’s in early access.

“For MySQL and SQL Server, we’ve seen a lot of demand from our healthcare and financial services / fin-tech users,” Gopa said. “They have a lot of existing online data, especially in these two databases, that they want to activate to build new capabilities and use while modernizing their applications.

Today’s announcement also comes only a few months after the company launched a fully-managed managed cloud service for its service, which complements its existing paid Pro service for enterprises.

“We’re very impressed by how developers have taken to Hasura and embraced the GraphQL approach to building applications,” said Gaurav Gupta, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners and Hasura board member. “Particularly for front-end developers using technologies like React, Hasura makes it easy to connect applications to existing databases where all the data is without compromising on security and performance. Hasura provides a lovely bridge for re-platforming applications to cloud-native approaches, so we see this approach being embraced by enterprise developers as well as front-end developers more and more.”

The company plans to use the new funding to add support for more databases and to tackle some of the harder technical challenges around cross-database joins and the company’s application-level data caching system. “We’re also investing deeply in company building so that we can grow our GTM and engineering in tandem and making some senior hires across these functions,” said Gopa.

#api, #board-member, #computing, #developer, #enterprise, #financial-services, #gaurav-gupta, #hasura, #healthcare, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #mysql, #nexus-venture-partners, #partner, #react, #software, #tc, #vertex-ventures, #web-development

0

Dialpad acquires video conferencing service Highfive

VoIP provider Dialpad, the company behind the popular video conferencing service UberConference, today announced that it has acquired Highfive, a well-funded video conferencing startup that focuses on providing businesses with conference room solutions. The two companies did not disclose the purchase price, but Highfive raised $77.4 million from the likes of Lightspeed Venture Partners, Andreessen Horowitz, General Catalyst and Dimension Data ahead of today’s acquisition.

Led by its CEO Craig Walker, who previously sold GrandCentral to Google and then built Google Voice, Dialpad is clearly aiming to double down on video. While UberConference does have built-in video conferencing features already, the service is mostly known for its calling features. In addition to its conference call solutions and VoiP platform for business users, Dialpad also offers a contact center solution.

“When we did UberConference eight years ago, we were like, ‘look, 80% of, of conferences are just people on the phone. So let’s make phone, audio conferencing better,” Walker said. “And then, obviously, over time time that started changing and then COVID totally accelerated it. So with that accelerating, we realized we really want to double down on video — and not with a mindset of ‘hey, video as a standalone thing is going to be a big investment,’ but video, as part of business communications, has to be excellent and has to be part of a Unified-Communications-as-a Service (UCaaS) system.”

Image Credits: Highfive

Highfive, which was incidentally also launched by a group of ex-Google engineers, always focused exclusively on video. Both companies, Walker noted, were also born in the cloud, but served somewhat different customers until now.

“What’s truly exciting about this combination is the joint heritage — both companies are truly born in the cloud, running on hyperscale, global infrastructures,” Highfive CEO Joe Manuele told me. “Dialpad‘s conferencing, UCaaS and CCaaS offerings were only ever built on public cloud infrastructures, as was Highfive’s. While video is an important part of Diaplpad’s current portfolio, we bring the ability to connect rooms, interop with other video services with our Meeting Connector technology and legacy device support with our Room Connector. Beyond the product fit, the shared industry vision that you can meet all of your communications needs over a hyperscale public cloud environment is what I’m personally most excited about.”

Manuele noted that the company’s board had considered other options, including a new round of fundraising, but in the end, the company decided that video conferencing services now essentially have become part of the larger UCaaS stack.

Image Credits: Dialpad

“While we have developed a scalable, born in the cloud video solution set, it was becoming harder to compete with competitors who were offering inferior ‘free’ video services as part of a UCaaS stack,” he said. “Even the industry leader Zoom had to move to IP Telephony and we see that trend to be irrefutable.”

That’s a thesis Dialpad’s Walker obviously agrees with. “Whether I’m on a phone call, whether it’s my business phone system, or I need to do a video call, or I need to do a conference call, or if I need to go screenshare — if I need to do any of these things, it should all just kind of be one [tool],” he said.

One area Highfive really exceeded in was making its service work seamlessly. It did that by tightly integrating its hardware and software stack, but also by reimagining some of the overall user experience around its room systems.

Walker admitted that nobody is really using room systems right now, but he believes that as people go back to their offices over time, video and remote meetings will potentially become even more important as most companies will adopt some kind of hybrid model for their employees.

He believes this acquisition will also give Dialpad a strong position in the overall market and that this allows Dialpad to offer a complete solution to its customers.

Highfive’s brand may ultimately go away, but customers who have already bought into the company’s systems won’t see any interruptions in their service.

#andreessen-horowitz, #ceo, #conference-call, #craig-walker, #dialpad, #dimension-data, #general-catalyst, #google, #google-voice, #grandcentral, #highfive, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #ma, #tc, #telecommunications, #teleconferencing, #uberconference, #video-conferencing, #voip, #web-conferencing

0

Payments services company Finix adds $30 million to its Series B

Finix, a startup that provides payments-related services to other companies, announced it has extended its Series B financing with a $30 million investment led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and American Express Ventures. The fintech startup has now raised over $96 million in venture capital. According to CEO and co-founder Richie Serna, $90 million of that total was grabbed in the last year alone.

Finix declined to disclose its revenue, revenue growth, new valuation, current profitability, or number of customers in an interview with TechCrunch. Serna was willing to disclose that Finix’s transaction volume more than quadrupled from Q2 2019 to Q2 2020 as a comp for customer growth, but declined to be more granular on the changing data.

Finix helps other startups set up their own payment processing infrastructure systems in-house. Sometimes, businesses will go to a company like Stripe, which takes processing fees and transaction fees, to add payments to their service. Finix helps businesses bring Stripe-esque services and payment infrastructure, in-house. The idea is that companies can thus pocket the extra change that third-party payment providers would have otherwise cut away from transactions, minus the cost that Finix charges them. Thus Finix works as the plumbing inside of a startup, while a company like Stripe is more similar to a plug-and-play system.

It would be fascinating to know Finix’s customer breakdown because it would give a sense of how healthy it’s business really is. The company makes money by charging customers a software fee and a sliding fee based on the number of payments it processes. Even though it doesn’t make money on a per-transaction basis, it does benefit from customers that have high transaction volume.

Finix’s sweet spot for ideal customers was once businesses in the $50 million in transactions per year bucket. Serna would not comment on if its focus has changed. Finix recently launched Flex, a new underwriting model that is aimed at helping businesses on archaic systems reduce switching costs between payment providers.

“We want to basically be the payment provider for a company at any stage of their high growth or stabilized growth perspective,” he said.

The new cash will be used to double Finix’s team of 85 people by mid-2021.

The fintech world was unevenly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, which is still happening. Startups helping small mom-and-pop stores bring on money, like Square, likely saw dips in transactions as people stayed at home and businesses shut down. Finix sits on the other range of payments, enabling online merchants and apps to bring on payments. The boom in ecommerce amid these unprecedented times might be why a business like Finix is growing like it is 2019. As another data point, Serna said its total customers have grown monthly.

Serna, again noting Finix’s transaction volume multiple of 4.5x from Q2 2019 to Q2 2020, says that the coronavirus pandemic has not confronted the business with “many challenges.”

For now, it appears, Finix’s extension round is a story of strength versus survival.

#finix, #fintech, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #square, #startups, #stripe, #tc

0

Carta’s former marketing VP is suing over gender discrimination after spearheading report on pay inequality

Emily Kramer joined the Silicon Valley company Carta to build up the company’s brand. Now, the company’s former VP of marketing is looking to shine a light on Carta for another reason: in a new lawsuit against Carta, which makes equity management software, Kramer accuses the eight-year-old outfit of gender discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination, and of violating the California Equal Pay Act.

Carta declined an interview request today, saying through a spokesperson that it isn’t commenting because the suit is a “pending legal matter.”  But we spoke earlier this afternoon with Kramer, who has separately outlined her side of the story in detail in a Medium post, where she accuses the company of both unfair labor practices and of being disingenuous in its stated “commitment to transparency and equality in equity.”

The equality piece is certainly the bigger of the two issues, by Kramer’s own telling. She says she learned that she was underpaid when, in the summer of  2018, roughly six months after she joined Carta, it partnered with the women-led investment collective #ANGELS to produce a report that highlighted ownership of venture-backed companies’ equity by gender.

The suspicion driving the report  — and later proved out by its findings — is that as with salary, where women continue to earn less than their male peers, they are also given less equity ownership in the startups for which they work. Kramer, who says she spearheaded the effort, posted the report, which included internal analysis that showed that Carta too, was allocating less equity to women than men.

In response, says the report, 40% of the women at Carta received an equity fix, compared to 32% of the men.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was through this same report that Kramer, the only female executive at Carta at the time, says she discovered she was herself underpaid by $50,000 relative to her peers, and that her original equity grant was one-third of the same amount of shares paid to comparable employees, who she says were all men.

Indeed, at the crux of her suit against Carta is that equity grant. While on the heels of the report, the company bumped up her pay by $50,000 and provided her nearly 300,000 more stock options in addition to the 150,000 options she was originally provided, it declined to backdate or accelerate the options to account for the previous six months of her tenure.

That might not seem like such a big deal. But given Carta’s ever-soaring valuation — it was marked at half a billion dollars when Kramer joined the company and it was more recently assigned a $3 billion valuation by its investors — that’s tantamount to a “significant” amount money, Kramer tells us. And she wasn’t about to leave it on the table.

The disparity wasn’t a complete shock to Kramer, who’d previously worked in marketing at Ticketfly, Asana, and Astro Technology (acquired by Slack) . According to her lawsuit, filed by attorney Sharon Vinick, Kramer emailed Carta’s founder and CEO, Henry Ward, when she was initially offered the job, noting that the equity offered was “lower than my expectations.”

According to Kramer, Ward told her that any more equity would be “unfair,” as compensation at her level was uniform for all employees. He also said Carta planned a company-wide review of its salaries and stock options later in the year, and that if it revealed that she was being underpaid, her compensation would be adjusted.

Clearly, Ward and Kramer have different views on whether or not that ultimately happened.

In our call with Kramer, she said still believes in the company’s mission to make equity more understandable for its users and that “therefore I believe it’s a solid product.”

She declined to say whether she has exercised any of her shares, but she said that Carta gives its employees a longer window to do this than many other startups. (How much time is is based in part on their tenure with the company, she’d added.)

Kramer also said that she hopes the company can “live up to”  how it markets itself externally, as an ally of women who are paid less for the same amount of work.

Kramer says her experience inside of Carta — which still has an exclusively male board of directors —  was not of a company that values women as much as men. She alleges that not only was she the only woman who reported directly to Ward during her tenure,  but that two other VP-level execs who joined at roughly the same that she did were promoted to C-level positions despite having “less, and less relevant” work experience in their respective fields whereas her efforts to be promoted went nowhere. (Asked if there were other VP-level male colleagues who were also not promoted during the same period, Vinick said that no one at the time had a comparable role to Kramer, who grew to oversee 27 other people.)

Kramer adds that she stopped being included in meetings where a marketing head would normally be included, fundraising meetings among them, and believes that her efforts to remedy what she perceived as a “sexist culture” within the male-dominated company were at the root of all of these developments.

Eventually, Kramer says, she felt she was forced to resign after a meeting with Ward turned heated and he said Kramer was in violation of the company’s “no asshole policy.” When she wrote him two days later to resign, he wrote back within eight minutes, accepting her resignation and suggesting that both might learn from their experience working together.

Vinick, Kramer’s attorney, tells us Carta is being sued for emotional, punitive, and economic distress and says that now that her law firm has filed the suit, Carta will be served officially with the complaint within another week or two, at which point the discovery process can begin.

Carta does not ask its employees to sign arbitration clauses in their employment agreements, so unless it settles with Kramer or a judge finds some reason to dismiss the case, which seems unlikely, it could eventually head to trial.

In the meantime, the decision to sue is a big gamble for Kramer, but Vinick says she is proud of her client. “Standing up to these situations is an extraordinarily difficult and potentially career-limiting move to take,” but will ultimately help “shine a light on the problem of this equity gap.”

Carta has raised more than $600 million from investors to date, including Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed Ventures, and Goldman Sachs.

In April, as it was sealing it up its newest round of funding, it also conducted its first major layoff, parting ways with 161 employees. At the time, Business Insider spoke with eight former employees and one investor who described Carta as a “quickly changing company with huge vision but little focus, where hiring and hypergrowth” had become its core priorities.

#andreessen-horowitz, #asana, #carta, #diversity, #drama, #goldman-sachs, #henry-ward, #lawsuit, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #personnel, #secondaries, #tc, #venture-capital

0

7 VCs discuss how COVID-19 is changing the media startup landscape

The world has changed dramatically since May 2019 when we last surveyed venture capitalists about the trends they were seeing in media, entertainment and gaming.

Since then, COVID-19 and the resulting physical distancing measures have created plenty of demand for companies helping to inform and entertain us as we’re stuck at home. At the same time, there’s a dramatic reduction in ad spending, making it harder to monetize that consumer attention.

So we checked in a variety of top VCs about the new landscape, where they’re investing and what kind of advice they’re giving their portfolio companies.

Not all of them invest directly in what (paraphrasing Betaworks’ Matt Hartman) we might call media media — the companies whose business models revolve around content creation and advertising — but each of these investors are backing startups looking to change the way we stay connected and entertained.

Here’s who we surveyed:

  • Kevin Zhang (Partner, Upfront Ventures)
  • Pär-Jörgen (PJ) Pärson (General Partner, Northzone)
  • Vasu Kulkarn (Partner, Courtside Ventures)
  • MG Siegler (General Partner, GV)
  • Jana Messerschmidt (Partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners)
  • Matthew Hartman (Partner, Betaworks Ventures)
  • Gigi Levy-Weiss (Managing Partner, NFX)

The consensus? You can’t count on the ad business to recover in the next few months, but there are still opportunities for startups exploring new formats and new business models. And there’s still plenty of excitement about gaming and esports.

You can read their full responses, lightly edited, below.

Kevin Zhang, Upfront Ventures

What (if any) media trends are still exciting you from an investing perspective?

Live and interactive formats, especially shorter form, continue to be very exciting, made even more evident in this time of shelter-in-place. What has worked in China and broader Asia has not yet translated into explosive success in the West. As interesting as celebrity live broadcasts are from their homes, the lack of real interaction and participation features hampers long-term engagement and doesn’t make up for the lack of production quality.

Modern content production technology is needed to push both production and live ops cost down while enabling more interactive and engaging formats. Game engines are one example, there’s of course the Travis Scott concert that just happened in Fortnite built on the Unreal engine, but that 15-minute, pre-rendered show took months to create, we’re only just scratching the surface of what’s possible.

One of our investments in this space is Tellie for live-action formats, another is The Wave for rendered, live formats, and we continue to look for great combinations of tech and media talent innovating on new formats.

Speaking of gaming, multiplayer games continue to grow and grow exponentially, there is a lot to unpack in popular titles from new favorite Animal Crossing to classics like World of Warcraft to indie hits like For the King. They all have social cooperation as a core part of the game loop and design. I’d love to see more teams working on cooperative play and just overall a broader diversity in multiplayer experiences beyond purely competitive ones.

#betaworks-ventures, #coronavirus, #courtside-ventures, #covid-19, #events, #extra-crunch, #funding, #gv, #investor-surveys, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #market-analysis, #matthew-hartman, #media, #mg-siegler, #nfx, #northzone, #par-jorgen-parson, #startups, #upfront-ventures, #venture-capital

0

Investors, startup founders in India pool $13M to fund projects that fight coronavirus

More than 150 investors and entrepreneurs in India are funding dozens of projects in a bid to help millions better combat the COVID-19 epidemic and help the nation’s booming startup ecosystem withstand the economic devastation it has caused.

The investors said they have contributed 1 billion Indian rupees — or $13 million — of their own money to the ACT Grants initiative, which was unveiled late last month.

The group — which includes several prominent industry figures including Nandan Nilekani, Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Flipkart’s Kalyan Krishnamurthy, Oyo’s Ritesh Agarwal, Udaan’s Sujeet Kumar, Freshworks’ Girish Mathrubootham, CRED’s Kunal Shah, and Times Internet’s Miten Sampat — has funded 32 projects to date.

These projects span six themes, including solutions that could help curtail the spread of the Covid-19 disease, development of testing and detection kits, building medical equipment such as ventilators, and taking care of mental health.

The group came together last month when India had just begun to see cases of the coronavirus disease.

“As governments across the globe started to take measures to combat this pandemic, one thing that came up in our conversations with other investors, startup founders, and startup employees was this urgency to not sit and watch what the government does but help and pitch in as an industry,” said Dev Khare, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, in an interview with TechCrunch.

There have been 29,435 known cases of coronavirus in India, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. As of Tuesday evening, at least 886 people had died.

Investors from dozens of venture capital and private equity firms including Accel, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, Matrix Partners India, Kalaari Capital, Eight Roads Ventures, 3One4Capital, Sequoia Capital India, and Tiger Global have personally participated in the initiative.

VCs in India moved quickly last month to warn startups in the country to be aware of the effect the pandemic might have on their businesses — despite the record $14.5 billion Indian startups raised in the past year.

In a joint letter earlier this month, several prominent tech investment funds told startup founders that they may find it especially challenging to raise fresh capital in the next few months as they enter the “worst period.” (They have also requested the government to provide a relief package.)

Several trade bodies including Nasscom and TIE Global that count American tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon among their members are also supporting ACT Grants. Amazon’s AWS additionally is helping these projects with infrastructure services.

On left, some of the startup founders and other industry figures who have contributed to ACT Grants. On right, names of VC and PE funds whose partners have contributed in their personal capacity

One of the projects to receive the grant has been developed by Pune-based MyLab, a startup that has emerged as one of the biggest manufacturers of test kits in India.

“They manufactured between 20,000 to 25,000 test kits last year. In the past few weeks, the number has ballooned to 300,000,” said Abhiraj Singh Bhal, co-founder and chief executive of Urban Company, which runs an online marketplace for freelance labor.

“We offered them the grant money, but also our expertise in scaling their operation,” said Bhal. ACT Grants also went to another six testing projects, he said.

Grants aren’t going solely to testing projects. StepOne, another grant-winning project, has built a cloud infrastructure to handle over 30,000 calls a day and offer telemedicine services to complement helpline numbers run by state governments that are struggling to keep up with high traffic.

And some of the projects that have received grants are developing masks and other items to supply enough protective gears to the healthcare workers. (A full list of the funded projects and the grant amounts they have received is here.)

There are no strings attached to these grants. Funding a project does not give investors any equity in the developer’s startup, said Prashanth Prakash, a partner at Accel in an interview. And there is a large team that screens and selects projects for providing grants, he said. They have received more than 1,500 applications to date.

An investor, who is not part of ACT Grants, said though the initiative is commendable, he believed this group could have made a bigger impact if they chose to help put food in front of hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t know where their next meal would come from. “There are better ways to be resourceful,” he said, requesting anonymity as he did not want to upset the community.

“That said, the fact that all of these people, many of whom aggressively compete for deals, have come together at all and contributed their own money — and not of their LPs — is unprecedented and they deserve all the praise and support,” he said.

The group’s influence and connection in the industry also means that these projects have better odds of seeing deployment at scale. The group is already engaging with various state governments and the federal government to explore ways to work together — and have started to make inroads, said Accel’s Prakash.

But as the projects scale, the group is seeking for more individuals from across the globe to contribute. “Anyone who wants to help India, one sixth of the world’s population, fight Covid-19 is welcome to contribute,” said Lightspeed’s Khare.

There’s even an international component for people outside of India to contribute. ACT Grants has partnered with United Way, a Virginia-based nonprofit that enables people outside of India to make charitable, tax-deductible donations.

#amazon, #asia, #aws, #bessemer-venture-partners, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #covid19, #eight-roads-ventures, #flipkart, #google, #india, #kalaari-capital, #lightspeed, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #matrix-partners-india, #nandan-nilekani, #nasscom, #paytm, #ritesh-agarwal, #sequoia-capital, #sequoia-capital-india, #startups, #telemedicine, #tie-global, #tiger-global, #times-internet, #venture-capital, #vijay-shekhar-sharma

0

The Station: Pony.ai turns to delivery, Kodiak cuts, Lime snaps up Boosted’s IP

Hi and welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the future (and present) of transportation. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

What you’re reading here is an abbreviated version of The Station. To get the complete newsletter, which comes out every weekend, go here and click The Station.

Here’s a friendly reminder to reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Let’s go.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

There wasn’t a ton of news in micromobility this week, but I came across an interesting read over at City Lab about whether or not cities should financially support micromobility services. Shared bikes and scooters provide transportation options to city-dwellers during a time when some cities are deciding to scale back public transportation operations in order to keep its employees and residents safe.

In Portland, City Lab pointed to how the city agreed to temporarily waive e-scooter fees as long as Spin passed those savings onto riders. Now, Spin rides cost about 50% less in Portland.

But, as the authors write, “While we believe that waiving e-scooter fees and offering public funding may be necessary, we harbor no illusions that it would be easy to do so in the current fiscal environment.”

— Megan Rose Dickey

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear things. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

Layoffs are nothing new in this COVID-19 world. More than 260 startups have laid off 25,010 workers, according Layoffs.fyi, a website that is attempting to track cuts in the startup ecosystem amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not all of these layoffs are directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, the pandemic has merely augmented pre-existing problems. One such example is Kodiak Robotics, an autonomous trucking startup, that laid off 20% of its staff on Wednesday (about 15 of its 85-person staff). The Information was the first to report the layoffs and TechCrunch has since confirmed those numbers. The official line is that Kodiak reduced its headcount due to the dramatic impact COVID-19 has had on the economy. The move was couched as the best way to position Kodiak for the future.

We’ve learned from several people that the company was already facing considerable headwinds on the fundraising front.

Kodiak Robotics came out of stealth in August 2018 with $40 million in a Series A funding round led by Battery Ventures. CRV, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Tusk Ventures also participated in the round. The company likely attracted interest and investment because of its founders. CEO Don Burnette was part of the Google self-driving project before leaving and co-founding Otto in early 2016, along with Anthony Levandowski, Lior Ron and Claire Delaunay. Uber then acquired Otto (and its co-founders). Burnette left Uber to launch Kodiak in April 2018 with Paz Eshel, a former venture capitalist and now the startup’s COO.

The pair scaled up quickly. The company, headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., went on a hiring spree in 2019 and opened a new facility in North Texas to support commercial deliveries using its fleet of eight trucks. Autonomous vehicle technology startups are already capitally intensive. But Kodiak was also trying to launch a carrier service — not just developing the self-driving truck stack.

Fundraising efforts started late last year and Kodiak was hoping to raise a $100 million round on a $300 million pre-money valuation, according to two sources. It was suggested that Kodiak already had a lead. However, the company has had trouble closing a Series B round with attractive terms, according to several sources who spoke to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity. When COVID-19 erupted it put more pressure on the startup.

Kodiak is hardly alone. Autonomous vehicle technology startups have had a more tepid reception from investors since spring 2019. It’s still possible to raise funds. But it’s harder now — particularly those seeking larger raises — and the terms are less desirable.

Another autonomous delivery pivot

the station autonomous vehicles1

Pony .ai is the latest autonomous vehicle startup to turn its efforts to delivery — at least temporarily. The company announced this week it will partner with e-commerce platform Yamibuy to provide autonomous last-mile delivery service to customers in Irvine, Calif.

The new delivery service was launched to provide additional capacity to address the surge of online orders triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pony.ai said.

Pony.ai, which recently raised $400 million from Toyota Motor Corporation, has focused on shuttling people, not packages. The company has launched ride-sharing and commuter pilots in Fremont and Irvine, California and Guangzhou, China.

Pony.ai now said it will use its Irvine robotaxi fleet of 10 electric Hyundai Kona vehicles for delivery through at least mid-summer. It’s not clear how, or if, Pony.ai can generate revenue with this new delivery service. The company is in talks with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that issues AV testing permits, about this issue. The DMV doesn’t allow AV testing fleets to charge money by delivering goods or rides. However, a deployment permit, which Pony.ai has for its Irvine service, does allow for commercial use, just not a delivery fee.

Pronto.ai makes a move

the station semi truck

Pronto.ai, a startup co-founded by controversial star engineer Anthony Levandowski, is not pursuing Level 4 autonomous vehicle technology, Instead, the company is developing an advanced driver assistance system product for trucks called Copilot. Pronto AI was originally called Kache.ai, according to paperwork discovered at the time by TechCrunch, and was registered as a corporation with the California Secretary of State.

The startup has maintained a low profile since August 2019 when Levandowski was indicted by a federal grand jury on theft of trade secrets, forcing him to step down as CEO. Levandowski has since reached a plea deal. Now, it seems that the company is making some moves.

Pronto.ai recently applied for a five-year exemption from the federal government that would let drivers in trucks with Pronto’s CoPilot technology to stay on the road longer than current rules allow. The request to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which was first reported by Freight Waves, would let drivers to drive up to 13 hours within a 15-consecutive hour driving window after coming on duty, following 10 consecutive hours off duty.

Drivers are typically allowed to drive up to 11 hours in a 14-hour window, after being off duty for 10 or more consecutive hours.

Lime swoops up Boosted IP

Boosted, startup behind the Boosted Boards and, more recently, the Boosted Rev electric scooter, would typically fall into micromobbin’. But it deserves it’s own segment this week.

Five weeks ago, Boosted laid off “a significant portion” of its team and began actively seeking a buyer. It seems that a sale never materialized and Lime swooped in and bought up Boosted’s core patents, according to a report from The Verge.  Lime was apparently working on acquiring Boosted’s intellectual property since the end of 2019. The shared scooter company snapped up the IP after a proposed acquisition from Yamaha fell through for Boosted.

Boosted cofounder and former CEO Sanjay Dastoor, who left the board 18 months ago, posted a message to the Boosted subreddit shortly after The Verge story published that suggests Lime’s acquisition was broader than originally thought.

Dastoor wrote that the company is closed and will likely enter into some form of bankruptcy protection. He also wrote that Lime had purchased all the assets and IP of the company and appears to be in possession of everything at Boosted’s headquarters in Mountain View, including access to the building. Here’s one important nugget:

“As far as I can tell, this includes design files, software and code, diagnostics, parts, and test equipment I’m not sure if this includes the responsibility for warranty coverage for boards and scooters sold before. I do know that a handful of former engineers at Boosted, most senior is Michael Hillman who joined as VP Engineering last year, are now at Lime and may be able to help. Regardless of how this is structured, if we want our products to continue being supported, including parts for boards or any software diagnostic tests and debugging, their cooperation and help will be needed.”

He added that some Boosted employees have been trying unsuccessfully to service and send boards back to customers for weeks.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect that those boards should rightfully get back to their owners and should be safe to ride, and I’m trying to find a way to help with this,” Dastoor wrote. “In the meantime, I’d recommend folks who are looking to get in touch more urgently should reach out to Lime directly.”

#anthony-levandowski, #artificial-intelligence, #automotive, #av, #battery-ventures, #bird, #california, #ceo, #china, #claire-delaunay, #coo, #covid-19, #don-burnette, #driver, #emerging-technologies, #federal-government, #fremont, #google, #hyundai, #kirsten-korosec, #kodiak-robotics, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #lime, #lior-ron, #michael-hillman, #otto, #pony, #portland, #self-driving-cars, #sharing-economy, #technology, #toyota-motor-corporation, #transportation, #tusk-ventures, #uber, #unmanned-ground-vehicles

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Venture capitalists chat edtech’s new normal after COVID-19 

There’s no doubt that the coronavirus has had a monumental impact on the way we view technology’s relationship with education. For now, students are learning from home. But what happens when they return to school?

Picking up where we left off in last week’s survey, we asked top investors in the space for their predictions on what is ahead once life resumes to its new normal. One investor mentioned how in March, they spent a third of their time in edtech. Now, they’re spending almost all their time vetting startups there. Another said that the sector has always been underfunded. Time will tell if venture capitalists become more bullish on the sector, and more importantly, if adoption from schools with strict budgets becomes more lenient.

A harsh statistic sums the dynamic of adoption and investment pretty well: according to Tetyana Astashkina and Jean Hammond of Learn Launch, less than 5% of the $1.6 trillion spent on education in the U.S. is attributed to edtech. Let’s see if other investors think that percentage will shift forward after the pandemic ceases.

Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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Divesting from one facial recognition startup, Microsoft ends outside investments in the tech

Microsoft is pulling out of an investment in an Israeli facial recognition technology developer as part of a broader policy shift to halt any minority investments in facial recognition startups, the company announced late last week.

The decision to withdraw its investment from AnyVision, an Israeli company developing facial recognition software, came as a result of an investigation into reports that AnyVision’s technology was being used by the Israeli government to surveil residents in the West Bank.

The investigation, conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his team at Covington & Burling, confirmed that AnyVision’s technology was used to monitor border crossings between the West Bank and Israel, but did not “power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank.”

Microsoft’s venture capital arm, M12 Ventures, backed AnyVision as part of the company’s $74 million financing round which closed in June 2019. Investors who continue to back the company include DFJ Growth and OG Technology Partners, LightSpeed Venture Partners, Robert Bosch GmbH, Qualcomm Ventures, and Eldridge Industries.

Microsoft first staked out its position on how the company would approach facial recognition technologies in 2018, when President Brad Smith issued a statement calling on government to come up with clear regulations around facial recognition in the U.S.

Smith’s calls for more regulation and oversight became more strident by the end of the year, when Microsoft issued a statement on its approach to facial recognition.

Smith wrote:

We and other tech companies need to start creating safeguards to address facial recognition technology. We believe this technology can serve our customers in important and broad ways, and increasingly we’re not just encouraged, but inspired by many of the facial recognition applications our customers are deploying. But more than with many other technologies, this technology needs to be developed and used carefully. After substantial discussion and review, we have decided to adopt six principles to manage these issues at Microsoft. We are sharing these principles now, with a commitment and plans to implement them by the end of the first quarter in 2019.

The principles that Microsoft laid out included privileging: fairness, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance.

Critics took the company to task for its investment in AnyVision, saying that the decision to back a company working with the Israeli government on wide-scale surveillance ran counter to the principles it had set out for itself.

Now, after determining that controlling how facial recognition technologies are deployed by its minority investments is too difficult, the company is suspending its outside investments in the technology.

“For Microsoft, the audit process reinforced the challenges of being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology, since such investments do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology,” the company wrote in a statement on its M12 Ventures website. “Microsoft’s focus has shifted to commercial relationships that afford Microsoft greater oversight and control over the use of sensitive technologies.”

 

 

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