Airwallex raises $200M at a $4B valuation to double down on business banking

Business, now more than ever before, is going digital, and today a startup that’s building a vertically integrated solution to meet business banking needs is announcing a big round of funding to tap into the opportunity. Airwallex — which provides business banking services both directly to businesses themselves, as well as via a set of APIs that power other companies’ fintech products — has raised $200 million, a Series E round of funding that values the Australian startup at $4 billion.

Lone Pine Capital is leading the round, with new backers G Squared and Vetamer Capital Management, and previous backers 1835i Ventures (formerly ANZi), DST Global, Salesforce Ventures and Sequoia Capital China, also participating.

The funding brings the total raised by Airwallex — which has head offices in Hong Kong and Melbourne, Australia — to date to $700 million, including a $100 million injection that closed out its Series D just six months ago.

Airwallex will be using the funding both to continue investing in its product and technology, as well as to continue its geographical expansion and to focus on some larger business targets. The company has started to make some headway into Europe and the UK and that will be one big focus, along with the U.S.

The quick succession of funding, and that rising valuation, underscore Airwallex’s traction to date around what CEO and co-founder Jack Zhang describes as a vertically integrated strategy.

That involves two parts. First, Airwallex has built all the infrastructure for the business banking services that it provides directly to businesses with a focus on small and medium enterprise customers. Second, it has packaged up that infrastructure into a set of APIs that a variety of other companies use to provide financial services directly to their customers without needing to build those services themselves — the so-called “embedded finance” approach.

“We want to own the whole ecosystem,” Zhang said to me. “We want to be like the Apple of business finance.”

That seems to be working out so far for Airwallex. Revenues were up almost 150% for the first half of 2021 compared to a year before, with the company processing more than US$20 billion for a global client portfolio that has quadrupled in size. In addition to tens of thousands of SMEs, it also, via APIs, powers financial services for other companies like GOAT, Papaya Global and Stake.

Airwallex got its start like many of the strongest startups do: it was built to solve a problem that the founders encountered themselves. In the case of Airwallex, Zhang tells me he had actually been working on a previous start-up idea. He wanted to build the “Blue Bottle Coffee” of Asia out of Hong Kong, and it involved buying and importing a lot of different materials, packaging and of course coffee from all around the world.

“We found that making payments as a small business was slow and expensive,” he said, since it involved banks in different countries and different banking systems, manual efforts to transfer money between them and many days to clear the payments. “But that was also my background — payments and trading — and so I decided that it was a much more fascinating problem for me to work on and resolve.”

Eventually one of his co-founders in the coffee effort came along, with the four co-founders of Airwallex ultimately including Zhang, along with Xijing Dai, Lucy Liu and Max Li.

It was 2014, and Airwallex got attention from VCs early on in part for being in the right place at the right time. A wave of startups building financial services for SMBs were definitely gaining ground in North America and Europe, filling a long-neglected hole in the technology universe, but there was almost nothing of the sort in the Asia Pacific region, and in those earlier days solutions were highly regionalized.

From there it was a no-brainer that starting with cross-border payments, the first thing Airwallex tackled, would soon grow into a wider suite of banking services involving payments and other cross-border banking services.

“In last 6 years, we’ve built more than 50 bank integrations and now offer payments 95 countries payments through a partner network,” he added, with 43 of those offering real-time transactions. From that, it moved on the bank accounts and “other primitive stuff” with card issuance and more, he said, eventually building an end-to-end payment stack. 

Airwallex has tens of thousands of customers using its financial services directly, and they make up about 40% of its revenues today. The rest is the interesting turn the company decided to take to expand its business.

Airwallex had built all of its technology from the ground up itself, and it found that — given the wave of new companies looking for more ways to engage customers and become their one-stop shop — there was an opportunity to package that tech up in a set of APIs and sell that on to a different set of customers, those who also provided services for small businesses. That part of the business now accounts for 60% of Airwallex’s business, Zhang said, and is growing faster in terms of revenues. (The SMB business is growing faster in terms of customers, he said.)

A lot of embedded finance startups that base their business around building tech to power other businesses tend to stay arm’s length from offering financial services directly to consumers. The explanation I have heard is that they do not wish to compete against their customers. Zhang said that Airwallex takes a different approach, by being selective about the customers they partner with, so that the financial services they offer would never be the kind that would not be in direct competition. The GOAT marketplace for sneakers, or Papaya Global’s HR platform are classic examples of this.

However, as Airwallex continues to grow, you can’t help but wonder whether one of those partners might like to gobble up all of Airwallex and take on some of that service provision role itself. In that context, it’s very interesting to see Salesforce Ventures returning to invest even more in the company in this round, given how widely the company has expanded from its early roots in software for salespeople into a massive platform providing a huge range of cloud services to help people run their businesses.

For now, it’s been the combination of its unique roots in Asia Pacific, plus its vertical approach of building its tech from the ground up, plus its retail acumen that has impressed investors and may well see Airwallex stay independent and grow for some time to come.

“Airwallex has a clear competitive advantage in the digital payments market,” said David Craver, MD at Lone Pine Capital, in a statement. “Its unique Asia-Pacific roots, coupled with its innovative infrastructure, products and services, speak volumes about the business’ global growth opportunities and its impressive expansion in the competitive payment providers space. We are excited to invest in Airwallex at this dynamic time, and look forward to helping drive the company’s expansion and success worldwide.”

#airwallex, #articles, #asia, #asia-pacific, #australia, #bank, #banking, #blue-bottle-coffee, #cloud-services, #dst-global, #economy, #embedded-finance, #enterprise, #europe, #finance, #financial-services, #funding, #goat, #hr, #lone-pine-capital, #melbourne, #north-america, #papaya-global, #salesforce, #salesforce-ventures, #sequoia-capital-china, #series-d, #startup-company, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #veem

Shared micromobility can help build communities residents deserve

Twenty years ago, many of us had never heard of shared micromobility, let alone contemplated it as a tool for developing healthier, more equitable communities.

But as of 2020, more than 200 cities in North America have at least one shared micromobility system in operation with a combined 169,000 vehicles. As the industry has grown, so too has the realization that something as seemingly small as the way people get from place to place can significantly impact their quality of life.

One of the most surprising yet impactful roles that shared micromobility has filled recently is that of a supporter of racial justice initiatives and events.

According to the North American Bikeshare & Scootershare Association’s 2020 Shared Micromobility State of the Industry Report, agencies and operators provided free or discounted trips for demonstrators to get to events, while many systems donated or fundraised for racial justice nonprofits.

Importantly, the increased attention on diversity, equity and inclusion further brought to light our shortcomings and led to organizational change throughout the industry. For example, 71% of shared micromobility systems stated that diversity was part of every hiring decision in 2020, and 69% reported that women and people of color are represented at all levels of the organization.

Of course, we collectively recognize that we are not where we want or should be. However, these metrics demonstrate intention and mark progress toward improved equity, diversity and inclusion in shared micromobility.

We in the shared micromobility industry are continually adapting our policies and practices as we work to fit the needs of the communities we serve, whether providing discount programs for lower-income residents or making adaptive vehicles available for persons of different abilities, we understand that mobility is a right for everyone.

Even more than that, agencies and operators recognize the importance of providing active modes of mobility for people and communities to build healthier habits, which ultimately can have positive economic, social and environmental impacts.

In 2020, North Americans gained an additional 12.2 million hours of physical activity and offset approximately 29 million pounds of carbon dioxide by utilizing shared micromobility.

Additionally, researchers at Colorado State University calculated that in an average year, bike-share users saved the U.S. healthcare system more than $36 million, while another study concluded that scooter users accounted for $921 of unplanned spending per scooter at food and beverage establishments.

Shared micromobility must be considered a part of public transportation networks to maximize the community benefits and build truly functional cities. Multimodal commuting is becoming more commonplace and sought for by urban travelers. In 2020, 50% of riders reported using shared micromobility to connect to transit, and 16% of the 83.4 million shared micromobility trips taken in the same year were for connecting to public transit. Increased use and requirement of the General Bikeshare Feed Specification (GBFS), an open data standard for shared micromobility, clarifies the growing importance of an integrated trip planning user experience.

Shared micromobility is a powerful tool, when fully taken advantage of, that helps transform our cities for the better. As cities, states, provinces and nations face equity, social and climate challenges, now is a critical time to engage shared micromobility as a critical component of change.

#bike-sharing, #column, #diversity, #micromobility, #north-america, #opinion, #scooter-sharing, #shared-micromobility, #tc, #transportation

Seqera Labs grabs $5.5M to help sequence Covid-19 variants and other complex data problems

Bringing order and understanding to unstructured information located across disparate silos has been one of more significant breakthroughs of the big data era, and today a European startup that has built a platform to help with this challenge specifically in the area of life sciences — and has, notably, been used by labs to sequence and so far identify two major Covid-19 variants — is announcing some funding to continue building out its tools to a wider set of use cases, and to expand into North America.

Seqera Labs, a Barcelona-based data orchestration and workflow platform tailored to help scientists and engineers order and gain insights from cloud-based genomic data troves, as well as to tackle other life science applications that involve harnessing complex data from multiple locations, has raised $5.5 million in seed funding.

Talis Capital and Speedinvest co-led this round, with participation also from previous backer BoxOne Ventures and a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan’s effort to back open source software projects for science applications.

Seqera — a portmanteau of “sequence” and “era”, the age of sequencing data, basically — had previously raised less than $1 million, and quietly, it is already generating revenues, with five of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies part of its customer base, alongside biotech and other life sciences customers.

Seqera was spun out of the Centre for Genomic Regulation, a biomedical research center based out of Barcelona, where it was built as the commercial application of Nextflow, open-source workflow and data orchestration software originally created by the founders of Seqera, Evan Floden and Paolo Di Tommaso, at the CGR.

Floden, Seqera’s CEO, told TechCrunch that he and Di Tommaso were motivated to create Seqera in 2018 after seeing Nextflow gain a lot of traction in the life science community, and subsequently getting a lot of repeat requests for further customization and features. Both Nextflow and Seqera have seen a lot of usage: the Nextflow runtime has been downloaded over 2 million times, the company said, while Seqera’s commercial cloud offering has now processed more than 5 billion tasks.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a classic example of the acute challenge that Seqera (and by association Nextflow) aims to address in the scientific community. With Covid-19 outbreaks happening globally, each time a test for Covid-19 is processed in a lab, live genetic samples of the virus get collected. Taken together, these millions of tests represent a goldmine of information about the coronavirus and how it is mutating, and when and where it is doing so. For a new virus about which so little is understood and that is still persisting, that’s invaluable data.

So the problem is not if the data exists for better insights (it does); it is that it’s nearly impossible to use more legacy tools to view that data as a holistic body. It’s in too many places, and there is just too much of it, and it’s growing every day (and changing every day), which means that traditional approaches of porting data to a centralized location to run analytics on it just wouldn’t be efficient, and would cost a fortune to execute.

That is where Segera comes in. The company’s technology treats each source of data across different clouds as a salient pipeline which can be merged and analyzed as a single body, without that data ever leaving the boundaries of the infrastructure where it already exists. Customised to focus on genomic troves, scientists can then query that information for more insights. Seqera was central to the discovery of both the alpha and delta variants of the virus, and work is still ongoing as Covid-19 continues to hammer the globe.

Seqera is being used in other kinds of medical applications, such as in the realm of so-called “precision medicine.” This is emerging as a very big opportunity in complex fields like oncology: cancer mutates and behaves differently depending on many factors, including genetic differences of the patients themselves, which means that treatments are less effective if they are “one size fits all.”

Increasingly, we are seeing approaches that leverage machine learning and big data analytics to better understand individual cancers and how they develop for different populations, to subsequently create more personalized treatments, and Seqera comes into play as a way to sequence that kind of data.

This also highlights something else notable about the Seqera platform: it is used directly by the people who are analyzing the data — that is, the researchers and scientists themselves, without data specialists necessarily needing to get involved. This was a practical priority for the company, Floden told me, but nonetheless, it’s an interesting detail of how the platform is inadvertently part of that bigger trend of “no-code/low-code” software, designed to make highly technical processes usable by non-technical people.

It’s both the existing opportunity, and how Seqera might be applied in the future across other kinds of data that lives in the cloud, that makes it an interesting company, and it seems an interesting investment, too.

“Advancements in machine learning, and the proliferation of volumes and types of data, are leading to increasingly more applications of computer science in life sciences and biology,” said Kirill Tasilov, principal at Talis Capital, in a statement. “While this is incredibly exciting from a humanity perspective, it’s also skyrocketing the cost of experiments to sometimes millions of dollars per project as they become computer-heavy and complex to run. Nextflow is already a ubiquitous solution in this space and Seqera is driving those capabilities at an enterprise level – and in doing so, is bringing the entire life sciences industry into the modern age. We’re thrilled to be a part of Seqera’s journey.”

“With the explosion of biological data from cheap, commercial DNA sequencing, there is a pressing need to analyse increasingly growing and complex quantities of data,” added Arnaud Bakker, principal at Speedinvest. “Seqera’s open and cloud-first framework provides an advanced tooling kit allowing organisations to scale complex deployments of data analysis and enable data-driven life sciences solutions.”

Although medicine and life sciences are perhaps Seqera’s most obvious and timely applications today, the framework originally designed for genetics and biology can be applied to are a number of other areas: AI training, image analysis and astronomy are three early use cases, Floden said. Astronomy is perhaps very apt, since it seems that the sky is the limit.

“We think we are in the century of biology,” Floden said. “It’s the center of activity and it’s becoming data-centric, and we are here to build services around that.”

Seqera is not disclosing its valuation with this round.

#alpha, #articles, #barcelona, #big-data, #bioinformatics, #ceo, #chan-zuckerberg-initiative, #computing, #data-analysis, #databases, #dna-sequencing, #enterprise, #europe, #funding, #health, #machine-learning, #mark-zuckerberg, #north-america, #pharmaceutical, #priscilla-chan, #science, #talis-capital, #tc

Meet the Spotted Skunks. They’ve Been Keeping a Secret From Us.

New research using hundreds of DNA samples showed that there are seven species of these hand-standing, stink-spraying mammals.

#dna-deoxyribonucleic-acid, #mexico, #molecular-phylogenetics-and-evolution-journal, #north-america, #reproduction-biological, #research, #skunks, #your-feed-animals, #your-feed-science

Netflix begins testing mobile games in its Android app in Poland

Netflix today announced it will begin testing mobile games inside its Android app for its members in Poland. At launch, paying subscribers will be able to try out two games, “Stranger Things: 1984” and “Stranger Things 3” — titles that have been previously available on the Apple App Store, Google Play and, in the case of the newer release, on other platforms including desktop and consoles. While the games are offered to subscribers from within the Netflix mobile app’s center tab, users will still be directed to the Google Play Store to install the game on their devices.

To then play, members will need to confirm their Netflix credentials.

Members can later return to the game at any time by clicking “Play” on the game’s page from inside the Netflix app or by launching it directly from their mobile device.

“It’s still very, very early days and we will be working hard to deliver the best possible experience in the months ahead with our no ads, no in-app purchases approach to gaming,” a Netflix spokesperson said about the launch.

The company has been expanding its investment in gaming for years, seeing the potential for a broader entertainment universe that ties in to its most popular shows. At the E3 gaming conference back in 2019, Netflix detailed a series of gaming integrations across popular platforms like Roblox and Fortnite and its plans to bring new “Stranger Things” games to the market.

On mobile, Netflix has been working with the Allen, Texas-based game studio BonusXP, whose first game for Netflix, “Stranger Things: The Game,” has now been renamed “Stranger Things: 1984” to better differentiate it from others. While that game takes place after season 1 and before season 2, in the “Stranger Things” timeline, the follow-up title, “Stranger Things 3,” is a playable version of the third season of the Netflix series. (So watch out for spoilers!)

Netflix declined to share how popular the games had been in terms of users or installs, while they were publicly available on the app stores.

With the launch of the test in Poland, Netflix says users will need to have a membership to download the titles as they’re now exclusively available to subscribers. However, existing users who already downloaded the game from Google Play in the past will not be impacted. They will be able to play the game as usual or even re-download it from their account library if they used to have it installed. But new players will only be able to get the game from the Netflix app.

The test aims to better understand how mobile gaming will resonate with Netflix members and determine what other improvements Netflix may need to make to the overall functionality, the company said. It chose Poland as the initial test market because it has an active mobile gaming audience, which made it seem like a good fit for this early feedback.

Netflix couldn’t say when it would broaden this test to other countries, beyond “the coming months.”

The streamer recently announced during its second-quarter earnings that it would add mobile games to its offerings, noting that it viewing gaming as “another new content category” for its business, similar to its “expansion into original films, animation and unscripted TV.”

The news followed what had been a sharp slowdown in new customers after the pandemic-fueled boost to streaming. In North America, Netflix in Q2 lost a sizable 430,000 subscribers — its third-ever quarterly decline in a decade. It also issued weaker guidance for the upcoming quarter, forecasting the addition of 3.5 million subscribers when analysts had been looking for 5.9 million. But Netflix downplayed the threat of competition on its slowing growth, instead blaming a lighter content slate, in part due to Covid-related production delays.

 

 

 

 

 

#android, #animation, #app-store, #apple-app-store, #apps, #computing, #gaming, #google-play, #google-play-store, #media, #mobile, #mobile-device, #mobile-game, #netflix, #north-america, #operating-systems, #poland, #roblox, #software, #spokesperson, #stranger-things, #texas

‘No code’ process automation platform, Leapwork, fires up with $62M Series B

Copenhagen-based process automation platform Leapwork has snagged Denmark’s largest ever Series B funding round, announcing a $62 million raise co-led by KKR and Salesforce Ventures, with existing investors DN Capital and Headline also participating.

Also today it’s disclosing that its post-money valuation now stands at $312M. 

The ‘no code’ 2015-founded startup last raised back in 2019, when it snagged a $10M Series A. The business was bootstrapped through earlier years — with the founders putting in their own money, garnered from prior successful exits. Their follow on bet on ‘no code’ already looks to have paid off in spades: Since launching the platform in 2017, Leapwork has seen its customer base more than double year on year and it now has a roster of 300+ customers around the world paying it to speed up their routine business processes.

Software testing is a particular focus for the tools, which Leapwork pitches at enterprises’ quality assurance and test teams.

It claims that by using its ‘no code’ tech — a label for the trend which refers to software that’s designed to be accessible to non-technical staff, greatly increasing its utility and applicability — businesses can achieve a 10x faster time to market, 97% productivity gains, and a 90% reduction in application errors. So the wider pitch is that it can support enterprises to achieve faster digital transformations with only their existing mix of in-house skills. 

Customers include the likes of PayPal, Mercedes-Benz and BNP Paribas.

Leapwork’s own business, meanwhile, has grown to a team of 170 people — working across nine offices throughout Europe, North America and Asia.

The Series B funding will be used to accelerate its global expansion, with the startup telling us it plans to expand the size of its local teams in key markets and open a series of tech hubs to support further product development.

Expanding in North America is a big priority now, with Leapwork noting it recently opened a New York office — where it plans to “significantly” increase headcount.

“In terms of our global presence, we want to ensure we are as close to our customers as possible, by continuing to build up local teams and expertise across each of our key markets, especially Europe and North America,” CEO and co-founder Christian Brink Frederiksen tells TechCrunch. “For example, we will build up more expertise and plan to really scale up the size of the team based out of our New York office over the next 12 months.

“Equally we have opened new offices across Europe, so we want to ensure our teams have the scope to work closely with customers. We also plan to invest heavily in the product and the technology that underpins it. For example, we’ll be doubling the size of our tech hubs in Copenhagen and India over the next 12 months.”

Product development set to be accelerated with the chunky Series B will focus on enhancements and functionality aimed at “breaking down the language barrier between humans and computers”, as Brink Frederiksen puts it

“Europe and the US are our two main markets. Half of our customers are US companies,” he also tells us, adding: “We are extremely popular among enterprise customers, especially those with complex compliance set-ups — 40% of our customers come from enterprises banking, insurance and financial services.

“Having said that, because our solution is no-code, it is heavily used across industries, including healthcare and life sciences, logistics and transportation, retail, manufacturing and more.”

Asked about competitors — given that the no code space has become a seething hotbed of activity over a number of years — Leapwork’s initial response is coy, trying the line that its business is a ‘truly special snowflake’. (“We truly believe we are the only solution that allows non-technical everyday business users to automate repetitive computer processes, without needing to understand how to code. Our no-code, visual language is what really sets us apart,” is how Brink Frederiksen actually phrases that.)

But on being pressed Leapwork names a raft of what it calls “legacy players” — such as Tricentis, Smartbear, Ranorex, MicroFocus, Eggplant Software, Mabl and Selenium — as (also) having “great products”, while continuing to claim they “speak to a different audience than we do”.

Certainly Leapwork’s Series B raise speaks loudly of how much value investors are seeing here.

Commenting in a statement, Patrick Devine, director at KKR, said: “Test automation has historically been very challenging at scale, and it has become a growing pain point as the pace of software development continues to accelerate. Leapwork’s primary mission since its founding has been to solve this problem, and it has impressively done so with its powerful no-code automation platform.”

“The team at Leapwork has done a fantastic job building a best-in-class corporate culture which has allowed them to continuously innovate, execute and push the boundaries of their automation platform,” added Stephen Shanley, managing director at KKR, in another statement.

In a third supporting statement, Nowi Kallen, principal at Salesforce Ventures, added: “Leapwork has tapped into a significant market opportunity with its no-code test automation software. With Christian and Claus [Rosenkrantz Topholt] at the helm and increased acceleration to digital adoption, we look forward to seeing Leapwork grow in the coming years and a successful partnership.”

The proof of the no code ‘pudding’ is in adoption and usage — getting non-developers to take to and stick with a new way of interfacing with and manipulating information. And so far, for Leapwork, the signs are looking good.

#bnp-paribas, #copenhagen, #denmark, #dn-capital, #enterprise, #europe, #fundings-exits, #leapwork, #no-code, #north-america, #process-automation, #salesforce-ventures, #software-testing, #startup-company, #tricentis

Israel’s DiA gets $14M to expand AI-driven ultrasound analysis

Israel-based AI healthtech company, DiA Imaging Analysis, which is using deep learning and machine learning to automate analysis of ultrasound scans, has closed a $14 million Series B round of funding.

Backers in the growth round, which comes three years after DiA last raised, include new investors Alchimia Ventures, Downing Ventures, ICON Fund, Philips and XTX Ventures — with existing investors also participating including CE Ventures, Connecticut Innovations, Defta Partners, Mindset Ventures, and Dr Shmuel Cabilly. In total, it’s taken in $25M to date.

The latest financing will go on expanding its product range and going after new and expanded partnerships with ultrasound vendors, PACS/Healthcare IT companies, resellers, and distributors while continuing to build out its presence across three regional markets.

The healthtech company sells AI-powered support software to clinicians and healthcare professionals to help them capture and analyze ultrasound imagery — a process which, when done manually, requires human expertise to visually interpret scan data. So DiA touts its AI technology as “taking the subjectivity out of the manual and visual estimation processes being performed today”.

It has trained AIs to assess ultrasound imagery so as to automatically hone in on key details or identify abnormalities — offering a range of products targeted at different clinical requirements associated with ultrasound analysis, including several focused on the heart (where its software can, for example, be used to measure and analyze aspects like ejection fraction; right ventricle size and function; plus perform detection assistance for coronary disease, among other offerings).

It also has a product that leverages ultrasound data to automate measurement of bladder volume.

DiA claims its AI software imitates the way the human eye detects borders and identifies motion — touting it as an advance over “subjective” human analysis that also brings speed and efficiency gains.

“Our software tools are supporting tool for clinicians needing to both acquiring the right image and interpreting ultrasound data,” says CEO and co-founder Hila Goldman-Aslan.

DiA’s AI-based analysis is being used in some 20 markets currently — including in North America and Europe (in China it also says a partner gained approval for use of its software as part of their own device) — with the company deploying a go-to-market strategy that involves working with channel partners (such as GE, Philips and Konica Minolta) which offer the software as an add on on their ultrasound or PACS systems.

Per Goldman-Aslan, some 3,000+ end-users have access to its software at this stage.

“Our technology is vendor neutral and cross platform therefore runs on any ultrasound device or healthcare IT systems. That is why you can see we have more than 10 partnerships with both device companies as well as healthcare IT/PACS companies. There is no other startup in this space I know that has these capabilities, commercial traction or many FDA/CE AI-based solutions,” she says, adding: “Up to date we have 7 FDA/CE approved solutions for cardiac and abdominal areas and more are on the way.”

An AI’s performance is of course only as good as the data-set it’s been trained on. And in the healthcare space efficacy is an especially crucial factor — given that any bias in training data could lead to a flawed model which misdiagnoses or under/over-estimates disease risks in patient groups who were not well represented in the training data.

Asked about how its AIs were trained to be able to spot key details in ultrasound imagery, Goldman-Aslan told TechCrunch: “We have access to hundreds of thousands ultrasound images through many medical facilities therefore have the ability to move fast from one automatic area to another.”

“We collect diverse population data with different pathology, as well as data from various devices,” she added.

“There is a Phrase ‘Garbage in Garbage out’. The key is not to bring garbage in,” she also told us. “Our data sets are tagged and classified by several physicians and technicians, each are experts with many years on experience.

“We also have a strong rejection system that rejects images that was taken incorrectly. This is how we overcome the subjectivity of how data was acquired.”

It’s worth noting that the FDA clearances obtained by DiA are 510(k) Class II approvals — and Goldman-Aslan confirmed to us that it has not (and does not intend) to apply for Premarket Approval (PMA) for its products from the FDA.

The 510(k) route is widely used for gaining approval for putting many types of medical devices into the US market. However it has been criticized as a light-touch regime — and certainly does not entail the same level of scrutiny as the more rigorous PMA process.

The wider point is that regulation of fast-developing AI technologies tends to lag behind developments in how they’re being applied — including as they push increasingly into the healthcare space where there’s certainly huge promise but also serious risks if they fail to live up to the glossy marketing — meaning there is still something of a gap between the promises made by device makers and how much regulatory oversight their tools actually get.

In the European Union, for example, the CE scheme — which sets out some health, safety and environmental standards for devices — can simply require a manufacturer to self declare conformity, without any independent verification they’re actually meeting the standards they claim, although some medical devices can require a degree of independent assessment of conformity under the CE scheme. But it’s not considered a rigorous regime for regulating the safety of novel technologies like AI.

Hence the EU is now working on introducing an additional layer of conformity assessments specifically for applications of AI deemed ‘high risk’ — under the incoming Artificial Intelligence Act.

Healthcare use-cases, like DiA’s AI-based ultrasound analysis, would almost certainly fall under that classification so would face some additional regulatory requirements under the AIA. For now, though, the on-the-table proposal is being debated by EU co-legislators and a dedicated regulatory regime for risky applications of AI remains years out of coming into force in the region.

#artificial-intelligence, #ce-ventures, #china, #dia, #disease, #downing-ventures, #europe, #european-union, #fda, #fundings-exits, #health, #healthcare, #israel, #konica-minolta, #machine-learning-technology, #medical-device, #medical-imaging, #mindset-ventures, #north-america, #philips, #ultrasound, #united-states, #xtx-ventures

Siga secures $8.1M Series B to prevent cyberattacks on critical infrastructure

Siga OT Solutions, an Israeli cybersecurity startup that helps organizations secure their operations by monitoring the raw electric signals of critical industrial assets, has raised $8.1 million in Series B funding.

Siga’s SigaGuard says its technology, used by Israel’s critical water facilities and the New York Power Authority, is unique in that rather than monitoring the operational network, it uses machine learning and predictive analysis to “listen” to Level 0 signals. These are typically made up of components and sensors that receive electrical signals, rather than protocols or data packets that can be manipulated by hackers.

By monitoring Level 0, which Siga describes as the “richest and most reliable level of process data within any operational environment,” the company can detect cyberattacks on the most critical and vulnerable physical assets of national infrastructures. This, it claims, ensures operational resiliency even when hackers are successful in manipulating the logic of industrial control system (ICS) controllers.

Amir Samoiloff, co-founder and CEO of Siga, says: “Level 0 is becoming the major axis in the resilience and integrity of critical national infrastructures worldwide and securing this level will become a major element in control systems in the coming years.”

The company’s latest round of funding — led by PureTerra Ventures, with investment from Israeli venture fund SIBF, Moore Capital, and Phoenix Contact — comes amid an escalation in attacks against operational infrastructure. Israel’s water infrastructure was hit by three known cyberattacks in 2020 and these were followed by an attack on the water system of a city in Florida that saw hackers briefly increase the amount of sodium hydroxide in Oldsmar’s water treatment system. 

The $8.1 million investment lands three years after the startup secured $3.5 million in Series A funding. The company said it will use the funding to accelerate its sales and strategic collaborations internationally, with a focus on North America, Europe, Asia, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Read more:

#articles, #asia, #computer-security, #cryptography, #cyberattack, #cybercrime, #cybersecurity-startup, #cyberwarfare, #data-security, #energy, #europe, #florida, #israel, #machine-learning, #north-america, #nozomi-networks, #phoenix, #ransomware, #security, #united-arab-emirates

European Investment Fund puts $30M in Fabric Ventures’ new $120M digital assets fund

Despite their rich engineering talent, Blockchain entrepreneurs in the EU often struggle to find backing due to the dearth of large funds and investment expertise in the space. But a big move takes place at an EU level today, as the European Investment Fund makes a significant investment into a blockchain and digital assets venture fund.

Fabric Ventures, a Luxembourg-based VC billed as backing the “Open Economy” has closed $120 million for its 2021 fund, $30 million of which is coming from the European Investment Fund (EIF). Other backers of the new fund include 33 founders, partners, and executives from Ethereum, (Transfer)Wise, PayPal, Square, Google, PayU, Ledger, Raisin, Ebury, PPRO, NEAR, Felix Capital, LocalGlobe, Earlybird, Accelerator Ventures, Aztec Protocol, Raisin, Aragon, Orchid, MySQL, Verifone, OpenOcean, Claret Capital, and more. 

This makes it the first EIF-backed fund mandated to invest in digital assets and blockchain technology.

EIF Chief Executive Alain Godard said:  “We are very pleased to be partnering with Fabric Ventures to bring to the European market this fund specializing in Blockchain technologies… This partnership seeks to address the need [in Europe] and unlock financing opportunities for entrepreneurs active in the field of blockchain technologies – a field of particular strategic importance for the EU and our competitiveness on the global stage.”

The subtext here is that the EIF wants some exposure to these new, decentralized platforms, potentially as a bulwark against the centralized platforms coming out of the US and China.

And yes, while the price of Bitcoin has yo-yo’d, there is now $100 billion invested in the decentralized finance sector and $1.5 billion market in the NFT market. This technology is going nowhere.

Fabric hasn’t just come from nowhere, either. Various Fabric Ventures team members have been involved in Orchestream, the Honeycomb Project at Sun Microsystems, Tideway, RPX, Automic, Yoyo Wallet, and Orchid.

Richard Muirhead is Managing Partner, and is joined by partners Max Mersch and Anil Hansjee. Hansjee becomes General Partner after leaving PayPal’s Venture Fund, which he led for EMEA. The team has experience in token design, market infrastructure, and community governance.

The same team started the Firestartr fund in 2012, backing Tray.io, Verse, Railsbank, Wagestream, Bitstamp, and others.

Muirhead said: “It is now well acknowledged that there is a need for a web that is user-owned and, consequently, more human-centric. There are astonishing people crafting this digital fabric for the benefit of all. We are excited to support those people with our latest fund.”

On a call with TechCrunch Muirhead added: “The thing to note here is that there’s a recognition at European Commission level, that this area is one of geopolitical significance for the EU bloc. On the one hand, you have the ‘wild west’ approach of North America, and, arguably, on the other is the surveillance state of the Chinese Communist Party.”

He said: “The European Commission, I think, believes that there is a third way for the individual, and to use this new wave of technology for the individual. Also for businesses. So we can have networks and marketplaces of individuals sharing their data for their own benefit, and businesses in supply chains sharing data for their own mutual benefits. So that’s the driving view.”

#accelerator-ventures, #articles, #blockchains, #china, #chinese-communist-party, #computing, #cryptocurrencies, #decentralization, #earlybird, #ethereum, #europe, #european-commission, #european-investment-fund, #european-union, #fabric-ventures, #felix-capital, #google, #managing-partner, #mysql, #north-america, #paypal, #railsbank, #rpx, #sun-microsystems, #tc, #technology, #united-states, #verifone, #yoyo-wallet

Microsoft secures court order to take down malicious ‘homoglyph’ domains

Microsoft has secured a court order to take down several malicious “homoglyph” domains that were used to impersonate Office 365 customers and commit fraud. 

The technology giant filed a case earlier this month after it uncovered cybercriminal activity targeting its customers. After receiving a customer complaint about a business email compromise attack, a Microsoft investigation found that the unnamed criminal group responsible created 17 additional malicious domains, which were then used together with stolen customer credentials to unlawfully access and monitor Office 365 accounts in an attempt to defraud the customers’ contacts.

Microsoft confirmed in a blog post published Monday that a judge in the Eastern District of Virginia issued a court order requiring domain registrars to disable service on the malicious domains, which include “thegiaint.com” and “nationalsafetyconsuiting.com,” which were used to impersonate its customers.

These so-called “homoglyph” domains exploit the similarities of some letters to create deceptive domains that appear legitimate. For example, using an uppercase “I” and a lowercase “l” (e.g. MICROSOFT.COM vs. MlCROSOFT.COM). 

“These were together with stolen customer credentials to unlawfully access customer accounts, monitor customer email traffic, gather intelligence on pending financial transactions, and criminally impersonate [Office 365] customers, all in an attempt to deceive their victims into transferring funds to the cybercriminals,” Microsoft said in its complaint, adding that the cybercriminals “have caused and continue to cause irreparable injury to Microsoft, its customers, and the public.”

In one instance, for example, the criminals identified a legitimate email from the compromised account of an Office 365 customer referencing payment issues. Capitalizing on this information, the criminals sent an email from a homoglyph domain using the same sender name and nearly identical domain. They also used the same subject line and format of an email from the earlier, legitimate conversation, but falsely claimed a hold had been placed on the account by the chief financial officer and that payment needed to be received as soon as possible.

The cybercriminals then attempted to solicit a fraudulent wire transfer by sending new wire transfer information appearing to be legitimate, including using the logo of the company they were impersonating.

Microsoft notes that while these criminals will typically move their malicious infrastructure outside the Microsoft ecosystem once detected, the order — granted on Friday — eliminates defendants’ ability to move these domains to other providers. 

“The action will further allow us to diminish the criminals’ capabilities and, more importantly, obtain additional evidence to undertake further disruptions inside and outside court,” said Amy Hogan-Burney, general manager of Microsoft’s Digital Crime Unit.

The tech giant hasn’t yet disclosed the identities of the cybercriminals responsible for the BEC attacks, but said that “based on the techniques deployed, the criminals appear to be financially motivated, and we believe they are part of an extensive network that appears to be based out of West Africa.” The targets of the operation were predominantly small businesses operating in North America across several industries, according to Microsoft.

This isn’t the first time Microsoft secured a court order to step up its fight against cybercriminals and similar attacks, which research shows affected 71% of businesses in 2021. Last year, a court granted the tech giant’s request to seize and take control of malicious web domains used in a large-scale cyberattack targeting victims in 62 countries with spoofed COVID-19 emails. 

#chief-financial-officer, #judge, #north-america, #security, #virginia, #west-africa

The French and Indian War and U.S. History’s Complexities

What the French and Indian War suggests about our own history wars.

#braddock-edward-1695-1755, #christians-and-christianity, #cooper-james-fenimore, #great-lakes, #native-americans, #north-america, #religion-state-relations, #revolutionary-war-american-1775-83, #roman-catholic-church, #taylor-alan-shaw-1955, #united-states, #washington-george-1732-99

University Leaders Must Condemn Anti-Semitism on Campus

Colleges seem reluctant to condemn anti-Semitic speech and assaults.

#academic-freedom, #anti-defamation-league, #anti-semitism, #colleges-and-universities, #cyberharassment, #discrimination, #hillel-the-foundation-for-jewish-campus-life, #israel, #jews-and-judaism, #north-america, #school-discipline-students

Golden Ventures raises $100M fourth fund and $20M opportunities fund

Canadian early stage venture firm Golden Ventures has raised its fourth fund, a $100 million pool of capital that it will use to invest in between 20 to 25 companies, as well as a $20 million ‘Opportunities Fund’ that it will use to make follow-on investments in standout performers among its portfolio. This is also the 10th anniversary for Golden Ventures, and its latest fund arrives at a time when the Canadian startup ecosystem looks healthier than ever, with a proliferation of angels emerging from past success stories, a number of new funds being announced, and unicorn valuations on significant funding rounds for multiple Canadian startups.

I spoke to Golden Ventures Founder and Managing Partner Matt Golden, and General Partner Ameet Shah about its plans for this fund, and about the Canadian startup and investment landscape in general.

“Over time, we’re certainly seeing more and more interest in institutional LPs, more and more interest in the Canadian ecosystem, which I think is a net positive,” Golden said. “Whereas before, the Canadian ecosystem was largely funded by Canadian institutions, so I think that’s really positive, because you have to sort of be judged on the on the world stage. And we’re starting to meet that bar as both an ecosystem and as a fund.”

Golden said that the game plan with this Fund IV doesn’t really change in terms of their investment targets; while Golden initially set out to invest primarily in companies working on software products for mobile devices, it eventually shifted to a strategy of backing North American seed stage, mission-driven founders working on venture-scale opportunities across a range of verticals and categories.

“I would say that over time, our ratio of deals, Canada to U.S., we’ve increased the number of deals on a ratio basis that we do in Canada versus the U.S., just by virtue of the fact that the Canadian ecosystem is on a terrific, high-velocity trajectory.” Golden said. “You’ve seen it coming, but I think it’s really starting to hit its stride now, with lots of founders with ‘big swing’ vision, and an increasing interest in capital playing in the ecosystem.”

Shah added that he also thinks we’re trending towards more startups that originate in Canada setting up nodes in different geographies in ways that make most sense for their talent needs, and vice versa.

“Post-COVID, a lot of companies may start here, but with the geographical boundaries just blurring, there’s really no reason they can’t set up locations in different centers of gravity and take advantage of other ecosystems’ competitive advantages,” he said. “We had one that recently set up a location in LA, as well as Toronto, capturing some the value of LA but also leveraging all the talent in Toronto as well. I think you’re gonna start seeing more and more of that, where things are moving more towards networks, and not just cities in general.”

As for this fund raise, it’s one of three recent Canadian early stage pools of venture capital to also include an ‘Opportunities Fund,’ which in each case has been described as a way for the firms to participate in later stage deals in their star portfolio companies that they wouldn’t otherwise be set up to invest in as an early stage investment organization. Golden Ventures is also introducing another new type of investment to its roster with Fund IV, however.

“There’s this concept, we call it ‘Angel allocation,’ […] it’s the idea that we can invest smaller checks, sort of 400-to-500 thousand, into companies where maybe the structure of the opportunity or of the deal may not fit what our core checks would be,” Golden explains. “That could be, for example, a case where there’s not enough room left in the round, or the valuation is outside of our core range, or maybe we’re learning about a completely new space that’s highly experimental — but we still have a high degree of conviction in the opportunity, in the people behind that opportunity, and the returns that it could generate.”

Funds for those investments will come out of the main Fund IV pool, but the majority will still be targeting those core 20-25 larger checks. Overall, though, both Golden and Shah emphasize that the primary goal of the fund at this stage is capitalizing on the growing trend they see of more opportunity emerging in the Canadian ecosystem, and the impact that’s having in terms of startups across North America.

“When you talk about who are the the top five to ten companies in Canada, for a long time, it was really the same group,” Shah said. “Now, you’ve got this new crop of people that have come in and feel like they’re still on an upward trajectory, and I think that’s just really exciting as well.”

#business-incubators, #canada, #corporate-finance, #economy, #entrepreneurship, #finance, #golden-ventures, #louisiana, #managing-partner, #matt-golden, #mobile-devices, #money, #north-america, #ourcrowd, #private-equity, #startup-company, #tc, #toronto, #united-states, #venture-capital

Ambassador Tai to Outline Biden’s Goal of Worker-Focused Trade Policy

The U.S. trade representative will call for stronger worker protections in trade policy as the administration looks to curb the negative impact of globalization.

#canada, #china, #forced-labor, #international-trade-and-world-market, #labor-and-jobs, #mexico, #north-america, #tai-katherine-1974, #united-states, #united-states-politics-and-government, #united-states-mexico-canada-agreement

Tiger Global leads $30M investment into Briq, a fintech for the construction industry

Briq, which has developed a fintech platform used by the construction industry,  has raised $30 million dollars in a Series B funding round led by Tiger Global Management.

The financing is among the largest Series B fundraises by a construction software startup, according to the company, and brings Briq’s total raised to $43 million since its January 2018 inception. Existing backers Eniac Ventures and Blackhorn Ventures also participated in the round.

Briq CEO and co-founder Bassem Hamdy is a former executive at construction tech giant Procore (which recently went public and has a market cap of $10.4 billion) Canadian software giant CMIC. Wall Street veteran Ron Goldshmidt is co-founder and COO.

Briq describes its offering as a financial planning and workflow automation platform that “drastically reduces” the time to run critical financial processes, while increasing the accuracy of forecasts and financial plans.

Briq has developed a toolbox of proprietary technology that it says allows it to extract and manipulate financial data without the use of APIs. It also has developed construction-specific data models that allows it to build out projections and create models of how much a project might cost, and how much could conceivably be made. Currently, Briq manages or forecasts about $30 billion in construction volume.

Specifically, Briq has two main offerings: Briq’s Corporate Performance Management (CPM) platform, which models financial outcomes at the project and corporate level and BriqCash, a construction-specific banking platform for managing invoices and payments. 

Put simply, Briq aims to allow contractors “to go from plan to pay” in one platform with the goal of solving the age-old problem of construction projects (very often) going over budget. Its longer-term, ambitious mission is to “manage 80% of the money workflows in construction within 10 years.”

The company’s strategy, so far, seems to be working.

From January 2020 to today, ARR has climbed by 200%, according to Hamdy. Briq currently has about 100 employees, compared to 35 a year ago.

Briq has 150 customers, and serves general and specialty contractors from $10 million to $1 billion in revenue.  They include Cafco Construction Management, WestCor Companies and Choate Construction and Harper Construction. The company is currently focused on contractors in North America but does have long-term plans to address larger international markets, Hamdy told TechCrunch.  

Some context

Hamdy came up with the idea for Santa Barbara, California-based Briq after realizing the vast amount of inefficiencies on the financial side of the construction industry. His goal was to do for construction financials what Procore did to document management, and PlanGrid to construction drawing. He started Briq with his own cash, amassed through secondary sales as Procore climbed the ranks of startups to become a construction industry unicorn.

Briq CEO and co-founder Bassem Hamdy

“I wanted to figure out how to bring the best of fintech into a construction industry that really guesses every month what the financial outcomes are for projects,” Hamdy told me at the time of the company’s last raise – a $10 million Series A led by Blackhorn Ventures announced in May of 2020. “Getting a handle on financial outcomes is really hard. The vast majority of the time, the forecasted cost to completion is plain wrong. By a lot.”

In fact, according to McKinsey, an astounding 80 percent of projects run over budget, resulting in significant waste and profit loss.

So at the end of a project, contractors often find themselves having doled out more money and resources than originally planned. This can lead to negative cash flow and profit loss. Briq’s platform aims to help contractors identify outliers, and which projects are more at risk.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Briq has proven to be “extremely valuable” to contractors, Hamdy said.

“In an industry where margins are so thin, we have given contractors the ability to truly understand where they stand on cash, profit and labor,” he added.

#articles, #blackhorn-ventures, #briq, #california, #construction, #construction-software, #construction-tech, #economy, #eniac-ventures, #executive, #finance, #financial-technology, #fintech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #mckinsey, #north-america, #plangrid, #procore, #recent-funding, #saas, #startups, #tiger-global-management, #venture-capital

Microsoft uses GPT-3 to let you code in natural language

Unlike in other years, this year’s Microsoft Build developer conference is not packed with huge surprises — but there’s one announcement that will surely make developers’ ears perk up: The company is now using OpenAI’s massive GPT-3 natural language model in its no-code/low-code Power Apps service to translate spoken text into code in its recently announced Power Fx language.

Now don’t get carried away. You’re not going to develop the next TikTok while only using natural language. Instead, what Microsoft is doing here is taking some of the low-code aspects of a tool like Power Apps and using AI to essentially turn those into no-code experiences, too. For now, the focus here is on Power Apps formulas, which despite the low-code nature of the service, is something you’ll have to write sooner or later if you want to build an app of any sophistication.

“Using an advanced AI model like this can help our low-code tools become even more widely available to an even bigger audience by truly becoming what we call no code,” said Charles Lamanna, corporate vice president for Microsoft’s low-code application platform.

In practice, this looks like the citizen programmer writing “find products where the name starts with ‘kids’ ” — and Power Apps then rendering that as “Filter(‘BC Orders’ Left(‘Product Name’,4)=”Kids”)”.

Because Microsoft is an investor in OpenAI, it’s no surprise the company chose its model to power this experience.

Image Credits: Microsoft

It’s important to note that while this makes programming easier, Microsoft itself stresses that users still have to understand the logic of the application they are building. “The features don’t replace the need for a person to understand the code they are implementing but are designed to assist people who are learning the Power Fx programming language and help them choose the right formulas to get the result they need. That can dramatically expand access to more advanced app building and more rapidly train people to use low code tools,” the company explains in today’s announcement.

To some degree, this isn’t all that different from using the natural language query functions that are now available in tools like Excel, PowerBI or Google Sheets. These, too, translate natural language into a formula, after all. GPT-3 is probably a bit more sophisticated than this and capable of understanding more complex queries, but translating natural language into formulas isn’t all that new.

The long-term promise here, though, is for tools like this to become smarter over time and be able to handle more complicated programming tasks. But that’s a big step up from what is essentially a translation problem, though. More complex queries require more of an understanding of a program as a whole. A formula, for the most part, is a pretty self-contained statement but a similar model that could generate “real” code would have to contend with a lot more context.

These new features will go live in public preview in English to users in North America by the end of June.

read

#artificial-intelligence, #developer, #elon-musk, #google, #microsoft, #microsoft-build-2021, #microsoft-excel, #microsoft-power-platform, #north-america, #openai, #programmer, #programming-languages, #software-development, #software-engineering

Security startup Tessian, which uses AI to fight social engineering, trousers $65M

In the latest chunky funding round out of Europe, UK-based email security startup, Tessian, has closed $65 million in Series C funding. The startup applies machine learning to build individual behavior models for enterprise email use that aims to combat human error by flagging problematic patterns which could signify risky stuff is happening — such as phishing or data exfiltration.

The Series C round was led by March Capital. Existing investors Accel, Balderton Capital, Latitude and Sequoia Capital also participated, along with new investor Schroder Adveq.

The latest financing brings Tessian’s total raised to-date to $120M+, and values the company at $500M, it said today.

The 2013 founded startup last raised back in January 2019 when it closed a $40M Series B (news that was scooped by former TCer, Steve O’Hear). Prior to that it grabbed a $13M Series A in mid 2018.

Tessian has around 350 global customers at this stage, across the legal, financial services, healthcare and technology sectors — name-checking the likes of Affirm, Arm, Investec and RealPagem among them.

Over the past year there has been much coverage of the security risks associated with the pandemic-sparked remote working boom, as scores of white collars workers started logging on from home — expanding the attack surface area which enterprises needed to manage.

It’s a risk that’s been good for Tessian’s business: The startup says it tripled its Fortune 500-level customer base last year — “as enterprises required a solution that could protect them against human layer security threats”, as it puts it.

It says the new funding will go on expanding its platform’s capabilities; helping companies replace their secure email gateways and legacy data loss prevention solutions; and on growing its team (it plans to triple headcount in short order with a particular focus on growing its sales team in North America).

The Series C funds will also support a plan to expand beyond email to offer security protections for other interfaces such as messaging, web and collaboration platforms — which it says is on the cards “soon”.

Commenting on the round in a statement, Jamie Montgomery, co-founder and managing partner at March Capital said: “Human activity — whether inadvertent or malicious — is the leading cause of data breaches. In Tessian, we found a best-in-class solution that automatically stops threats in real-time, without disrupting the normal flow of business. It is rare to hear such overwhelmingly positive feedback from CISOs and business users alike. We came to the same conclusion; Tessian is rapidly emerging as the leader in human layer security for the enterprise.”

A number of UK-based AI security startups have been building momentum in recent years, with others like Red Shift and Senseon also getting traction by applying machine learning to tackle risks.

In April, Cambridge-based Darktrace — a category pioneer — led the pack by floating on the London Stock Exchange where it saw its shares pop 32% in the IPO debut.

While, last year, the UK government pledged to ramp up R&D spending on AI as part of a major defense spending hike.

#artificial-intelligence, #balderton-capital, #computer-security, #darktrace, #data-security, #europe, #fundings-exits, #information-technology, #machine-learning, #march-capital, #north-america, #recent-funding, #schroder-adveq, #security, #sequoia-capital, #startup-company, #startups, #tessian, #united-kingdom

White Star Capital launches new $50M crypto/blockchain fund backed by Bpifrance, Ubisoft

White Star Capital, better known as a VC which, in its time, has backed the likes of Digg, launchrock, Meero, Summly, and Tier, among others, is moving into the hot world of crypto and blockchain with a new $50M Digital Asset Fund.

The special-vehicle fund will specialize in investing in crypto-networks and blockchain-enabled businesses and was previously going to be $30 million before raising more backing. Both Bpifrance and Ubisoft are among those institutions backing the new fund.

The fund will be run by New York-based General Partner Sep Alavi and supported by Principals Thomas Klocanas in New York and Sanjay Zimmerman in Toronto. The will deploy between $500,000 and $3.0 million in initial investments into 15-20 companies with a focus on North America and Europe.

Alavi said: “We are hyper-focused on this space and we expect to see further innovative use cases such as crypto credit, DeFi, NFTs, metaverses and more manifesting at an accelerated pace… With this fund, We are actively investing in crypto protocols, infrastructure, privacy, financial, gaming, and social use cases.”

The fund has already made six investments including; dfuse, Multis, Paraswap, Rally, Safello, a European crypto brokerage that went public on the Nasdaq First North stock exchange on May 12, and Ledn, a global digital asset savings, and credit platform.

Yoann Caujolle, managing director of Bpifrance said: “It’s critical that emerging crypto and blockchain-enabled startups receive investment from firms and professionals who have the experience and knowledge to help drive their businesses forward,” said “We’re pleased to partner with the Digital Asset Fund team for bringing their support and vision into the French and European blockchain and digital asset ecosystem.”

Over a call, Alavi told me: “White Star is investing across three funds, obviously our fund one, fund two, and in this new specialized Digital Asset Fund. Historically we’ve invested in enterprise and consumer businesses, we’ve not done any, any blockchain, but for two years ago we’ve been looking at this sector. And we believe that this merits its own dedicated vehicle. I’ve been personally been investing in blockchain the blockchain ecosystem since 2015 and bring your five-plus years of domain expertise and then I was able to build a team around this new fund.”

“We are, we’re looking at the three main verticals in this sector. The protocol layer, the infrastructure layer, and the application layer. That’s the kind of high-level thesis. The protocol layer is where we invest in tokens, because it’s important to mention that the fund will also hold tokens as investments as well as equity. On top of that, we’re pretty much agnostic and opportunistic. We see great use cases in decentralized finance. We see some great use cases in the NFT space and have made investments there as well. As long as we’re true to those three verticals that I mentioned, we will capture great value there.”

#articles, #blockchain, #bpifrance, #cryptocurrencies, #decentralized-finance, #europe, #finance, #new-york, #north-america, #partner, #tc, #technology, #toronto, #ubisoft, #white-star-capital

Construction tech upstart Assignar adds a Fifth Wall with $20M Series B

Construction technology may not be the sexiest of industries, but it is one where tremendous opportunity lies — considering it has historically lagged in productivity. And, lags in productivity means project delays, which typically costs everyone involved more time and more money.

There are a number of larger players in the space (think Procore, PlanGrid and Autodesk) that are tackling the problems from the perspective of the general contractor. But when it comes to the subcontractors that are hired by the general contractor to do 95% of the work, the pickings are few and far between.

Enter Assignar, a cloud-based construction tech startup that was originally born in Australia and is now based in Denver, Colorado. Co-founder and CEO Sean McCreanor was a contractor himself for many years, and grew frustrated with the lack of offerings available to him. So, as in the case of many founders, he set out to create the technology he wished existed.

And today, Assignar has raised $20 million in a Series B funding round led by real estate tech-focused venture firm Fifth Wall. 

Existing backer Tola Capital and new investor Ironspring Ventures also put money in the round, which brings Assignar’s total raised since its 2014 inception to $31 million.

“I had 100 crews and workers out in the field, lots of heavy equipment and project work, and was running the entire business on spreadsheets and whiteboards,” McCreanor recalls. “With Assignar, we essentially help the office connect to the field and vice versa.”

In a nutshell, Assignar’s operations platform is designed for use by “self-perform general and subcontractors” on public and private infrastructure projects. The company’s goal is to make the whole process smoother for large general contractors, developers and real estate owner-operators by providing a “real-time snapshot of granular field activity.”

Specifically, Assignar aims to streamline operations and schedules, track crews and equipment, and improve quality and safety, as well as measure and monitor productivity and progress with data on all projects. For example, it claims to be able to help match up the best crews and equipment for a specific job “more efficiently.”

The startup says it has hundreds of international customers working on multibillion-dollar projects in infrastructure, road, rail, heavy civil, utilities and other construction disciplines. Those customers range from specialist contractors with as few as five crews to multi-national, multibillion-dollar companies. Projects include things such as bridges and roads, for example.

Image Credits: Assignar

Assignar historically has “more than doubled” its revenue every year since inception and in 2020, saw revenue increase by 75%.

“We could have grown faster but wanted to manage cash flow,” McCreanor told TechCrunch.

Assignar’s focus is particularly significant these days considering that the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Bill is nearing agreement, likely signaling an investment in infrastructure for communities across the U.S. 

The heavy civil and horizontal construction industry has long lacked a well-designed and ubiquitous operations platform, according to Fifth Wall Partner Vik Chawla.

“Assignar’s cloud-based software offers a detailed view on when and where different types of field activities are being performed,” he said. “It streamlines communications between headquarters and the field, allows for a reduction in paperwork, and brings time and cost savings to an industry where much of the planning, tracking and reporting are still done by hand, in Excel or on white boards.”

Assignar plans to use its new capital to grow its business in North America (which currently makes up about 25% of its revenue) and double its 65-person team by hiring for roles across all departments. The company also plans to invest in R&D and product development to further build out its core platform. Among the features it’s planning to develop is a contractor hub and a schedule recommendation engine that McCreanor says will leverage data, AI and machine learning “to support planning and execution processes.”

#architecture, #artificial-intelligence, #assignar, #australia, #autodesk, #biden-administration, #cloud, #cloud-based-software, #cloud-computing, #colorado, #construction, #construction-software, #construction-tech, #contractor, #denver, #fifth-wall, #funding, #fundings-exits, #heavy-equipment, #ironspring-ventures, #machine-learning, #north-america, #plangrid, #procore, #recent-funding, #startup, #startups, #tc, #tola-capital, #united-states, #venture-capital, #vik-chawla

Grand Canyon Bison Hunt Draws 45,000 Applicants to Kill 12 Animals

National Park Service officials want to reduce the size of a herd that they say has damaged vegetation, archaeological sites and the water supply.

#arizona, #bison, #forests-and-forestry, #grand-canyon-national-park, #national-park-service, #national-parks-monuments-and-seashores, #north-america

From bootstrapped to a $2.1B valuation, ReCharge raises $227M for subscription management platform

ReCharge, a provider of subscription management software for e-commerce, announced today that it has raised $227 million in a Series B growth round at a $2.1 billion valuation. 

Summit Partners, ICONIQ Growth and Bain Capital Ventures provided the capital.

Notably, Santa Monica, California-based ReCharge was bootstrapped for several years before raising $50 million in a previously undisclosed Series A from Summit Partners in January of 2020. And, it’s currently cash flow positive, according to company execs. With this round, ReCharge has raised a total of $277 million in funding.

Over the years, the company’s SaaS platform has evolved from a subscription billing/payments platform to include a broader set of offerings aimed at helping e-commerce businesses boost revenues and cut operating costs.

Specifically, ReCharge’s cloud-based software is designed to give e-commerce merchants a way to offer and manage subscriptions for physical products. It also aims to help these brands, primarily direct to consumer companies, grow by providing them with ways to “easily” add subscription offerings to their business with the goal of turning one-time purchasers “into loyal, repeat customers.”

The company has some impressive growth metrics, no doubt in part driven by the COVID-19 pandemic’s push to all things digital. ReCharge’s ARR grew 146% in 2020, while revenue grew over 136% over the same period, according to co-founder and CEO Oisin O’Connor, although he declined to reveal hard numbers. The startup has 15,000 customers and 20 million subscribers across 180 countries on its platform. Customers include Harry’s, Oatly, Fiji Water, Billie and Native. But even prior to the pandemic, it had doubled its processing volume each year for the past five years and has processed over $5.3 billion in transactions since its 2014 inception.

ReCharge also has 328 employees, up from 140 in January of 2020.

“We saw many brick and mortar stores, such as Oatly, offer their products through subscriptions as a result of the pandemic in 2020,” O’Connor told TechCrunch. “Certain categories such as food & beverage and pet foods were some of the fastest growing segments in total subscriber count, with 100% and 147% increases, respectively, as non-discretionary spending shifted online.”

He was surprised to see that growth also extend beyond the most obvious categories. For example, ReCharge saw beauty care products subscribers grow by 120% last year.

“Overall, we saw a 91% subscriber growth in 2020 across the board in all categories of subscriptions,” O’Connor told TechCrunch. “We believe there is a combination of factors at play: the pandemic, the rise of physical subscriptions and the rise of direct-to-consumer buying.”

ReCharge plans to use its fresh capital to accelerate hiring in both R&D (engineering and product) and go-to-market functions such as sales, marketing and customer success. It plans to continue its expansion into other e-commerce platforms such as BigCommerce, Salesforce Commerce Cloud and Magento, and outside of North America into other geographic markets, starting with Europe. ReCharge also plans to “broaden” its acquisition scope so that it can “accelerate” its time-to-market in certain domains, according to O’Connor, and of course build upon its products and services.

Yoonkee Sull, partner at ICONIQ Growth, said his firm has been watching the rapid rise of subscription commerce for several years “as more merchants have looked for ways to deepen relationships with loyal customers and consumers increasingly have sought out more convenient and flexible ways to buy from their favorite brands.”

Ultimately, ICONIQ is betting on its belief that ReCharge “will continue to take significant share in a fast-growing market,” he told TechCrunch.

Sull believes the ReCharge team identified the subscription e-commerce opportunity early on and addresses the numerous nuanced needs of the market with “a fully-featured product that uniquely enables both the smallest merchants and largest brands to easily adopt and scale with their platform.”

Andrew Collins, managing director at Summit Partners, was impressed that the company saw so much growth without external capital for years, due to its “efficiency and discipline.”

The ReCharge team identified a true product-market fit and built a product that customers love — which has fueled strong organic growth as the business has scaled,” Collins added.

#bain-capital-ventures, #bigcommerce, #california, #cloud, #cloud-based-software, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #europe, #food, #free-software, #funding, #fundings-exits, #iconiq-growth, #magento, #north-america, #oatly, #payments, #recent-funding, #recharge, #saas, #salesforce, #santa-monica, #software, #startup, #startups, #summit-partners, #tc, #venture-capital

What Doomed the Great City of Cahokia? Not Ecological Hubris, Study Says.

Excavations at the city, famous for its pre-Columbian mounds, challenge the idea that residents destroyed the city through wood clearing.

#agriculture-and-farming, #archaeology-and-anthropology, #cahokia-mounds-state-historic-site-ill, #forests-and-forestry, #geoarcheology-journal, #native-americans, #north-america, #research, #st-louis-mo, #sustainable-living, #your-feed-science

Google Fi turns 6 and gets a new unlimited plan

Google Fi, Google’s cell network, is turning six today and to celebrate, the team is launching a new pricing plan, dubbed ‘Simply Unlimited’ starting at $60 per month for a single line (down to $30 per line for 3 lines or more). The new plan features unlimited calls and texts in the U.S., plus unlimited data and texting in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Image Credits: Google

You may recall that Fi’s original promise was a single, affordable pay-as-you-go plan where you would pay a fixed price per month for the basic call and texting service and then pay an extra $10 per GB of data you used per billing cycle, capped at $80 per month. In 2019, Google then turned this into what is essentially an unlimited plan, dubbed Fi Unlimited, starting at $70 per month for a single line, with discounts for additional lines.

The new ‘Simply Unlimited’ plan is a pared-down version of the original Unlimited plan, which is now called the Unlimited Plus plan (yeah, that’s a lot of names). Now, that plan has still a lot of extra features that power users aren’t likely willing to give up for a slightly lower price. In addition to everything in the new Simply Unlimited plan, this plan still features free international calls to more than 50 countries and international data in more than 200 destinations, plus full-speed hotspot tethering and 100GB of Google One cloud storage.

The Flexible plan is also still an option, with its base fee of $20 per month for texting and calling for a single line (down to $17 per month for three lines) and $10 per GB of data, no matter whether you use if abroad or at home — or for hotspot tethering. Google says that’s the plan to choose if you’re mostly on WiFi — as most of us are right now.

Basically, if you’re not planning to use your phone outside of North America, the new Simply Unlimited plan looks like a good deal that, depending on your use case, compares favorably with similarly priced plans from other carriers — especially if international data is important to you.

Image Credits: Google

#canada, #free, #google, #google-fi, #mexico, #mobile, #north-america, #telecommunications, #tethering, #text-messaging, #united-states, #wireless

Andela begins global expansion in 37 countries months after going remote across Africa

More than a year after the pandemic began, remote work shows no signs of going away. While it has its cons, it remains top of mind for potential employees around the world before joining a new company.

But while most people in Africa still go to physical offices, despite the pandemic, a few companies have nevertheless embraced this concept. Andela, a New York-based startup that helps tech companies build remote engineering teams from Africa, was one of the first to publicly announce it was going remote on the continent.

Today, it is doubling down on this effort by announcing the global expansion of its engineering talent. Over the past six months, the company has seen a 750% increase in applicants outside Africa. More than 30% of Andela’s inbound engineer applications also came from outside the continent in March alone. Half this number came from Latin America while Africa saw a 500% increase in applications, as well.

When Andela launched in 2014, it built hubs in Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda to source, vet and train engineers to be part of remote teams for international companies. It also tested satellite models in Egypt and Ghana as substitutes to physical hubs.

The company would issue a call for applications, select a few (less than 1%), pay them a salary for the first six months and provide them with housing and food. It also helped developers improve their skills via training and mentorship. Over 100,000 engineers have taken part in the company’s learning network and community, and, as of 2019, Andela had more than 1,500 engineers on its payroll.

However, after noticing that this model wasn’t sustainable, it began to make changes.

In September 2019, it let go of 420 junior engineers across Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. Nine months later, citing the pandemic, it laid off 135 employees while introducing salary cuts for senior staff. But despite the layoffs, the pandemic provided some form of clarity to how Andela wanted to operate — which was remote, judging by the success of the satellite models.

“In the very beginning, a developer had to be in Lagos to work with Andela. Then it became living in Nigeria. Then Kenya. Then Uganda, Rwanda,” CEO Jeremy Johnson told TechCrunch. “Before the pandemic, Andela was opening applications in country after country. The pandemic came and changed that as we opened up to the entire continent.”

Shutting down its existing physical campuses and going remote also helped the company focus on getting engineers with more experience to meet its clients’ requirements. That experiment, which the company conducted in less than a year, is also part of its mission to be a global company.

“That went so well and we thought ‘what if we accelerated it now that we’re remote and just enable applicants from anywhere?’ because it was always the plan to become a global company. That was clear, but the timing was the question. We did that and it’s been an amazing experiment,” Johnson added.

Now with its global expansion, its clients can tap into regional expertise to support international growth.

According to a statement released by the firm, it currently has engineers from 37 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe.

Johnson didn’t go into details about how many of these engineers are getting jobs from Andela, or even its total developer count. He’s more interested in helping its clients solve the diversity issues that have plagued many Western corporations.

Andela is currently working with eight companies that have hired its engineers in Latin America and Africa. In addition to the diversity play, the CEO says that means Andela engineers get to prove themselves on a global playing field in a way the company has “always wanted to see.”

Andela serves more than 200 customers, including GitHub, ViacomCBS, Pluralsight, Seismic, Cloudflare, Coursera and InVision. GitHub is one company that seems to be benefitting from Andela’s new offerings. The company’s VP of Engineering, Dana Lawson, in a statement said, “As a business in the developer tool space, a lot of us are trying to enter those areas of the world (Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa) where the emergent developers are coming so we can better understand their needs. Having a local presence there with amazing talent is super valuable to building a global product.”

Andela

Image Credits: Andela

In its quest to become a global company, going up against competition is unavoidable for the seven-year-old company. But since most of these companies are horizontal marketplaces (providing a wide range of expertise), whereas Andela is vertical, Johson believes there’s enough market share to be acquired by the company.

“We are focused on building digital products, and because of that, we’re able to do more, essentially, for our customers… That’s where our focus is — [building long-term relationships] and around building great digital products.”

The company was founded by Jeremy Johnson, Christina Sass, Nadayar Enegesi, Ian Carnevale, Brice Nkengsa and Iyinoluwa Aboyeji. It has raised more than $180 million (up to Series D) from firms like Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Generation Investment Management, Google Ventures and Spark Capital, at a valuation of about $700 million.

While announcing the layoffs last year, Andela said it was on an annual revenue run rate of $50 million. But when asked how this number has changed over the past year, Johnson said the company is “growing at a healthier pace as we’ve ever had.”

The future of remote work is global and Johnson believes Andela provides the vital link to talent wherever it is found. The company’s head of talent operations, Martin Chikilian, echoes similar sentiments.

“We’ve seen exponential growth and interest from engineers from across Africa who want to work with some of the world’s most exciting technology-focused companies,” he said. “Growing our network of talent from Africa to include more markets is a unique proposition and we continue to match talent with opportunity beyond geographical boundaries.”

#africa, #andela, #asia, #egypt, #engineer, #europe, #ghana, #jeremy-johnson, #kenya, #lagos, #latin-america, #new-york, #north-america, #software-engineering, #southeast-asia, #startups, #talent, #tc, #technology, #uganda

How Many Tyrannosaurus Rexes Ever Lived on Earth? Here’s a New Clue.

An estimation of the iconic predator’s total population can teach us things about dinosaurs that fossils cannot.

#dinosaurs, #endangered-and-extinct-species, #north-america, #paleontology, #research, #science-journal, #your-feed-animals, #your-feed-science

Norwegian corporate training startup Attensi raises $26M from NYC’s Lugard Road, DX Ventures

Corporate training startup Attensi — which originally emerged out of Oslo, Norway — has raised $26 million from New York-based Lugard Road Capital, DX Ventures (a VC fund backed by Delivery Hero), and existing shareholder Viking Venture. The new funding will be used to expand in North America and Europe.

Attensi uses a ‘gamified approach to corporate training, putting employees into 3D simulations of their workplace and work processes. Its competitors include companies like GoSkills, Mindflash SAP Litmos Skilljar.

With the pandemic shifting all office work to remote, digital training platforms like this stand to benefit.

This is also yet another recent example of how US VCs are ‘going hunting’ for startups in Europe, putting pressure on local VCs.

Attensi co-founder and co-CEO, Trond Aas said in a statement: “With gamified simulation training, we have combined the best of workplace psychology with our expertise in simulations and gamification to create a new category of training solutions.”

The company claims it’s experienced a 63% CAGR in annual recurring revenue. Its clients include Daimler Mercedes Benz, Circle K, Equinor, BCG, and ASDA.

Doug Friedman, a partner at Lugard Road Capital, said: “We could not be more excited to be investing in the Attensi team as they work to forever change and improve corporate learning and development through their Attensi solutions.”

#articles, #business, #companies, #daimler, #delivery-hero, #europe, #gamification, #gaming, #lugard-road-capital, #new-york, #north-america, #norway, #oslo, #partner, #sap, #simulation, #startup-company, #tc

European branded payments startup Recharge raises $11.8M debt round led by Kreos Capital

Online branded payments now run the gamut of anything from Spotify vouchers, Netflix vouchers, Neosurf, PaySafe cards, and everything in between. Consumers use them to pay for a variety of things. In Europe, they are an increasingly big business. Now, European branded payments company Recharge.com has raised €10m ($11.8m) in a debt funding round led by London-based Kreos Capital, a growth debt provider for high-growth companies. In 2019 the Dutch fintech Creative Group, which owns the Recharge.com and Rapido.com brands, took investment of €22m from Prime Ventures.

Recharge has also appointed Michael Kent – who previously founded payments companies Small World and Azimo, along with UK neobank Tandem – as its non-executive chairman.

Recharge.com says it plans to use the funding to extend its mobile offering, product range, and expand in regions such as North America, Latin America and the GCC. It’s also aiming for sales of €450m in 2021.

Günther Vogelpoel CEO of Recharge.com said in a statement: “We live in a world of instant wish fulfillment, from taxis that appear on demand to same-day delivery of consumer goods. Recharge.com gives customers a fast, safe and simple way to fulfill their wishes, whether that’s an essential remittance or access to digital goods and services.”

Commenting, Kent said: “The era of supermarket gift cards and mobile top-ups is drawing to a close. Branded payments have exploded during the global lockdown as consumers seek digital alternatives to the high street. People are now aware that online branded payments are safe, fast, and convenient.”

Through a range of digital vouchers from brands including Apple, Google, Spotify, Xbox and PlayStation as well as cross-border remittances of call, data credits etc Recharge is attacking the market from the consumer angle.

The biggest company in this space is Blackhawk networks which is owned by private equity group Silverlake. It’s considered a large player in Europe which has a direct-to-consumer model.

As Kent told me over a Zoom call: “Nobody actually owns the consumer side of this business globally so that’s the big opportunity.”

#apple, #articles, #azimo, #ceo, #corporate-finance, #digital-currencies, #europe, #finance, #google, #kreos-capital, #latin-america, #london, #netflix, #north-america, #prime-ventures, #private-equity, #silverlake, #spotify, #tc

Hopper raises $170M and partners with Capital One on a new cardholder travel booking portal

Canadian travel startup Hopper has raised a $170 million Series F round, led by Capital One. The U.S. banks and credit card company is also coming on board as a strategic partner, to launch Capital One Travel, which is the first instantiation of Hopper’s new B2B platform, Hopper Cloud.

This is Hopper’s second raise in a year that has been marked by turmoil for the travel industry, owing to the disruptions caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Last March, Hopper raised $70 million, in a round that saw Inovia Capital actually make its first investment in the startup — essentially at the very moment that things looked most bleak for the travel industry in general, and in particular for airfare-focused Hopper.

I asked Inovia partner Patrick Pichette about his decision to back Hopper at a moment when a lot of investors where essentially on pause pending the fallout of the just-declared pandemic, and about their renewed support with a contribution to this latest round.

“What we had seen in the prior six months, nine months ti a year at Hopper was a transformation of a company before COVID,” Pichette said. “And second is our thesis at Inovia — we invest in companies with the mindset of, ‘Does this company have a shot at being a global company?’ If it’s gonna be a Canadian company, it might be fine, but it’s just not for us. Also, does it really leverage tech in a way that is differentiated? And so if it has these attributes, then we’re interested.”

That pre-COVID transformation that Pichette is referring to is Hopper’s shift from being essentially a machine learning-powered lowest fare finder, to what co-founder and CEO Fred Lalonde says is really much more of a fintech company. That characterization mostly comes from Hopper’s ability to offer customers financial flexibility around their travel bookings.

“The real fundamental sea change is that Hopper moved away from being a predominantly air travel company to a true fintech,” Lalonde explained in an interview. “Price freeze is a good example. We allow you to come in and hold the price of a booking for between two hours and 14 days. If the price goes up you pay what you froze, and if it goes down and you pay the lower price. We have flexible date plans, cancellation plans, where you can take a non-refundable, non-changeable ticket and for a nominal fee, make it changeable. And one that’s working really surprisingly well is the disruption insurance.”

Hopper’s disruption insurance is basically a rebooking service for missed connections. Whatever the reason, if you happen to miss a connection on a multiple-leg flight and you have opted for the disruption insurance service, you’ll be presented with every flight leaving that particular airport, regardless of airline, to your destination and you can select an available option at no additional cost.

Understandably, Hopper’s overall business took a hit during the pandemic, and that had a steep cost: The company laid off around 45% of its staff last year as a result of the dip in demand. But for the bookings that were being made, Lalonde says the company was seeing very high attach rates for its products that provide more peace-of-mind around booking stability. Now, with the U.S. travel industry in particular taking its first steps towards recovery, Lalonde says behavior is not changing as much as his company had anticipated.

Image Credits: Hopper

“What is interesting is as demand has recovered, originally we thought since we had very, very high attach rates, we thought those would never come back,” he said. “But we’ve actually outgrown our pandemic attach rate. So people are adding more of these services, and we credit that to the product innovation.”

Lalonde also credits the pandemic for proving out the validity of its fintech approach, since Hopper “had a lot of liabilities” in place prior to the global shutdowns, and so a lot of investors and observers were watching and thinking that though this was a novel and interesting approach, carrying those liabilities appeared to incur a lot of additional risk, as well. The pandemic was “the mother of all black swan events,” however, he notes, which means that now, it doesn’t have to talk about the theoretical resilience of its model — it can point to the actual experience.

“Three months later, [it turns out] we lost money for about 30 days,” Lalonde said. “Now we’re back on the other side of this, every color is profitable. The fact is the way that the future travel credits kicked in, and how the refunding work, we ended up with a pretty stable revenue stream.”

Hopper customers may not have felt so optimistic about the company’s performance during the pandemic, however. The startup’s app reviews, Better Business Bureau (BBB) profile and social media accounts were inundated with negative comments and reports of poor experiences. Most centered around either a lack of customer ability to secure their refund, or a failure of communication on Hopper’s part. Lalonde says that Hopper definitely failed at the communication part, and it’s still in the process of hiring hundreds of additional call center employees to improve that part of the business, but fundamentally, it opted to take a hit on that front in order to focus on building a technical solution to handle the unprecedented volume of flight credits coming from airlines.

“The part that is misunderstood is that all of a sudden, the airlines gave out these future travel credits,” he said. “These vouchers, we had to key them in all by hand. And I swear, this is a green screen – you have to go in and do commands. It takes about 20 minutes to do one, so we counted how much time with all of our staff, it would take us to do them by hand. And the answer was we’d be done in 2070, and then even if you double the number of people doing it, it was 2050.”

No existing automation for this process existed because prior to the pandemic, credits for non-refundable airline tickets just didn’t really exist, and particularly not at scale. At that point, Lalonde says Hopper “made a decision to put everybody on the automation, [and] just get murdered publicly.”

He says that gamble has worked out, since once the automation was up and running, they’ve been able to clear out the backlog pretty much entirely. And the company has also been focused on new product developments, including shifting its roadmap to prioritize the addition of car rental and hotel/holiday home booking to better suit the needs of pandemic travel, which has largely been overland in North America. That has meant deprioritizing other areas, including international expansion, but Lalonde says that’s one focus for use of the new funds the company raised.

The other big focus is Hopper Cloud, a B2B offering that provides the benefits of Hopper’s machine-learning power price prediction, as well as its fintech travel insurance and disruption prevention products, but tied to another businesses’ unique offerings. In the case of Capital One, that means all the rewards the company offers its cardholders in terms of earning and redeeming travel credits, for instance. I asked Lalonde whether that approach was made more appealing by the fact that it somewhat intermediates the customer experience, but he pointed out that the initiative is a co-branded one, so Hopper still has its name on the product and the accountability. Plus, he added, the real advantage of these kinds of partnerships are the network effects, and Hopper’s goal remains becoming the top booking destination for customers directly.

“One of the reasons I never want to drop the marketplace — it’s growing really quickly and making money, but even if it didn’t, losing that would just put us further away from the end customer,” Lalonde said. “I like the proximity of knowing exactly what happens, and feeling the pain when we screw up and feeling the joy when we get something right.”

#air-travel, #airline, #articles, #better-business-bureau, #car-rental, #economy, #financial-technology, #hopper, #inovia-capital, #machine-learning, #north-america, #patrick-pichette, #startup-funding, #tc, #travel-bookings, #travel-industry, #united-states

A newly-wormable Windows botnet is ballooning in size

Researchers say a botnet targeting Windows devices is rapidly growing in size, thanks to a new infection technique that allows the malware to spread from computer to computer.

The Purple Fox malware was first spotted in 2018 spreading through phishing emails and exploit kits, a way for threat groups to infect machines using existing security flaws.

But researchers Amit Serper and Ophir Harpaz at security firm Guardicore, which discovered and revealed the new infection effort in a new blog post, say the malware now targets internet-facing Windows computers with weak passwords, giving the malware a foothold to spread more rapidly.

The malware does this by trying to guess weak Windows user account passwords by targeting the server message block, or SMB — a component that lets Windows talk with other devices, like printers and file servers. Once the malware gains access to a vulnerable computer, it pulls a malicious payload from a network of close to 2,000 older and compromised Windows web servers and quietly installs a rootkit, keeping the malware persistently anchored to the computer while also making it much harder to be detected or removed.

Once infected, the malware then closes the ports in the firewall it used to infect the computer to begin with, likely to prevent reinfection or other threat groups hijacking the already-hacked computer, the researchers said.

The malware then generates a list of internet addresses and scans the internet for vulnerable devices with weak passwords to infect further, creating a growing network of ensnared devices.

Botnets are formed when hundreds or thousands of hacked devices are enlisted into a network run by criminal operators, which are often then used to launch denial-of-network attacks to pummel organizations with junk traffic with the aim of knocking them offline. But with control of these devices, criminal operators can also use botnets to spread malware and spam, or to deploy file-encrypting ransomware on the infected computers.

But this kind of wormable botnet presents a greater risk as it spreads largely on its own.

Serper, Guardicore’s vice president of security research for North America, said the wormable infection technique is “cheaper” to run than its earlier phishing and exploit kit effort.

“The fact that it’s an opportunistic attack that constantly scans the internet and looks for more vulnerable machines means that the attackers can sort of ‘set it and forget it’,” he said.

It appears to be working. Purple Fox infections have rocketed by 600% since May 2020, according to data from Guardicore’s own network of internet sensors. The actual number of infections is likely to be far higher, amounting to more than 90,000 infections in the past year.

Guardicore published indicators of compromise to help networks identify if they have been infected. The researchers do not know what the botnet will be used for but warned that its growing size presents a risk to organizations.

“We assume that this is laying the groundwork for something in the future,” said Serper.

#botnets, #computing, #cybercrime, #cyberwarfare, #firewall, #malware, #microsoft-windows, #mirai, #north-america, #ransomware, #rootkit, #security, #security-breaches, #web-servers

US to Send Millions of Covid-19 Vaccine Doses to Mexico and Canada

The announcement came at a time when the Biden administration has been quietly pressing Mexico to ramp up its efforts to limit the flow of migrants.

#biden-joseph-r-jr, #border-patrol-us, #central-america, #chihuahua-mexico, #ciudad-juarez-mexico, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #guatemala, #honduras, #illegal-immigration, #immigration-and-emigration, #latin-america, #lopez-obrador-andres-manuel, #mexico, #north-america, #united-states, #vaccination-and-immunization

Biden Urges Mexico to Do More to Stop Migration

The Biden administration has been quietly pressing Mexico to ramp up its efforts to limit the flow of migrants, clinging to a Trump policy of relying on southern neighbors to enforce America’s immigration agenda.

#biden-joseph-r-jr, #border-patrol-us, #central-america, #chihuahua-mexico, #ciudad-juarez-mexico, #guatemala, #honduras, #illegal-immigration, #immigration-and-emigration, #latin-america, #lopez-obrador-andres-manuel, #mexi