Fluid Truck, the Zipcar of commercial trucks, raises $63M to take on rental giants

Fluid Truck has built an app-based platform that aims to take away the pain and cost of owning or leasing commercial vehicles, all while grabbing market share from established companies like Penske, Ryder and U-Haul. 

Now, it has the capital to help it get there. The Denver-based company said Tuesday it raised $63 million in a Series A funding round to expand its truck-sharing platform, which helps mid-mile and last-mile delivery companies remotely manage an on-demand rental fleet via web or mobile app. Private equity firm Bison Capital led the round, with participation from Ingka Investments (part of Ingka Group, the main Ikea retailer), Sumitomo Corporation of Americas and Fluid Vehicle Owners.  

The investment, its first external round, comes after rapid growth at the four-year-old company. Founder and CEO James Eberhard told TechCrunch that revenue increased 100x in the last two years. That type of growth sounds promising, but the company did not provide a baseline, so it’s hard to judge scale. 

With e-commerce expected to continue to rise at a global 9.5% compound annual growth rate from 2020 to 2025, the demand for accessible trucks for hire might see correlative growth. It’s no surprise that e-commerce is one of the industries Fluid Truck has targeted. 

Fluid Truck, which operates in 25 U.S. markets, operates like the car-sharing company Zipcar, with a commercial bent. Businesses such as moving and e-commerce delivery companies can use the platform to rent trucks. Fluid Truck’s pitch to businesses extends beyond the “you don’t need to buy or lease” argument. The platform also allows delivery companies to dispense with having a manager on staff who would manage, maintain and eventually sell the fleet. 

Businesses eager to outsource the purchasing and managing of their trucks can find fleets for hire in industrial parks and retail areas within Fluid’s service network. 

“You can hop on our platform, rent a truck and be in it in a matter of minutes, which really allows businesses to scale up and scale down,” said Eberhard. “We’re watching our user behavior go from a place where they used to own every vehicle they needed at a time to a place where they’re now grabbing spare capacity off Fluid.”

Eberhard hopes to see that type of supplementary use morph into an end state where companies don’t own a single truck and run solely on Fluid Truck’s platform. 

Fluid Truck argues that its tech stack, which is designed to smooth out the booking and renting process, gives it a competitive edge in a market dominated by the likes of U-Haul, Ryder and or other small depots. Eberhard said the process of going to a depot and waiting in line is slow and sloppy, whereas Fluid Truck’s app makes renting a van as easy as calling an Uber.

“We take all those complexities away and allow people to have a virtual fleet,” Eberhard told TechCrunch.

Fluid Truck’s fleet is made up of thousands — and soon to be tens of thousands — of cargo vans, pickup trucks, large box trucks and various other vehicles. The company also claims to have the largest medium-duty EV rental fleet in the United States, which it continues to expand as it works with OEMs to increase fleet capacity. Electric vehicles still make up less than 1% of its total portfolio due to the slower adoption of EVs on the commercial side. 

Eberhard wants Fluid to be a dominant force in the trucking industry. But Fluid Truck is not the only truck sharing app on the streets. Competitors GoShare and Bungii have similar offerings.

This sizable round could provide an advantage as it tries to become the household name in digital truck sharing. Perhaps, as importantly, the company has the attention and investment of Ikea. 

“This is another step in enabling Ikea retail to provide last mile delivery services to our customers, continue to improve on our customer promise, while also reducing our environmental footprint,” Krister Mattsson, managing director of Ingka Investments said in a statement, a comment that suggests a future partnership with Fluid Truck. 

With this latest capital round, Fluid’s goal is to (you guessed it) scale outwards, with a focus on expanding the team, adding dozens more markets in the U.S. and preparing to take Fluid into the EU and Canada. 

Fluid Truck will also be investing back into its own tech stack, which includes an internal proprietary telematics platform to predict and automate servicing and maintenance of the company’s fleet. 

#automotive, #bison-capital, #fluid-truck, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #transportation

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SpineZone is the latest health tech startup to raise millions in the musculoskeletal space

SpineZone is a startup that creates personalized exercise programs and treatment for neck and back pain. The company uses an online platform and in-person clinics to deliver a curriculum that, ideally, helps patients avoid the need for prescription drugs, injections and surgeries, and providers then avoid the cost of all of the above. Co-founded by brothers Kian Raiszadeh and Kamshad Raiszadeh, the company tells TechCrunch that it has raised $12 million in a Series A round led by Polaris Partners and Providence Ventures, with participation from Martin Ventures.

At its core, SpineZone is a virtual physical therapy platform augmented by in-person clinics. The latter bit is important because it takes a video repository, which has health outcomes baked into it, and helps get those same users some real-life support.

Patients can log onto the site, either through smartphone or laptop, and then answer a series of questions around pain and risk factors. Then, patients can go through a series of exercises. These exercises are created in tandem with professionals, and are based on peer-reviewed and evidence-based articles on musculoskeletal health.

Beyond this digital archive of videos, SpineZone offers an in-person clinic option to help patients practice these exercises. Off of this strategy, the startup claims that it has “1 million lives under management.”

SpineZone’s value proposition is that it helps payers and providers, whether that be employers, clinics or health plans such as Cigna or Aetna, avoid placing their patients in surgeries, which are expensive. By taking care of pain issues before they bubble up, SpineZone says that its current partners have been able to have a 50% reduction in surgery rate (it’s worth noting that COVID-19 could also play a role in this because it is high-risk to enter a medical facility).

Partners are happy because footing the bill of a non-operative procedure is remarkably cheaper than a non-operative procedure.

The cost saving that a medical center could endure can be in the millions. For example, the Sharp Community Medical Group saved $3.4 million in cost savings after working with SpineZone for two years.

SpineZone’s business model is a smidge more complicated than your classic SaaS fee. For example, it charges a clinic based on the number of members it serves per month, and also shares in the downside. For example, if SpineZone promises to get a clinic to $12 million in spend from $15 million, and the cost ends up being $17 million, the company will pay the clinic a portion of the difference. Alternatively, if SpineZone got the clinic to $10 million, even below estimates, it shares in the upside.

SpineZone joins a cohort of health tech startups that focus on musculoskeletal conditions. Venture-backed competitors include Peerwell, Force Therapeutics and Hinge Health, which was most recently valued at $3 billion, with plans to go public.

In order to win, many startups, SpineZone including, need value-based care to replace fee-for-service care. Value-based care is the idea that doctors are paid for outcomes instead of the number of times you enter a doctor’s office. The end goal is that this format creates monetary incentives around getting to an outcome faster: If a doctor is going to make $30,000 on fixing a knee, regardless of whether it takes two appointments or 20 appointments, they might as well do a more thorough job upon check-up instead of elongating the process. The flipside of this, of course, is that doctors might optimize for outcome volume and speed rather than the quality of the result itself.

While SpineZone’s early traction is promising, the healthcare ecosystem still has a ways to go before value-based models take precedence. Right now, Kian Raiszadeh estimates that 10 to 20% of revenue in a medical center comes from value-based care. SpineZone is projecting that it will get to 50% of revenue in the near future.

“And that’s the biggest evolution and tallest lift that we’re expecting,” he said.

#early-stage, #health, #health-tech, #polaris-partners, #providence-ventures, #recent-funding, #skeleton, #spinezone, #startups, #tc

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West Tenth’s app encourages women to start home businesses, not join MLMs

A new digital marketplace called West Tenth, now backed by $1.5 million in seed funding, wants to give women a platform to start and grow their home-based businesses. Through its mobile app, women can promote their business to others in the local community, then field inquiries and requests through the app’s integrated messaging platform, as well as finalize transactions through in-app payments.

The startup was co-founded by Lyn Johnson and Sara Sparhawk, who met when they both worked in finance. Johnson remained in finance, but Sparhawk later moved on to work at Amazon.

Johnson explains that her experience led her to better understand the economic inequality of women in the U.S., where they only own 32 cents to every dollar in financial assets than men own. A large driver of this is that women leave the workforce, often to raise children, which results in years where they don’t have earnings.

“We’re really good as a society at supporting women on the way of out of the workforce to care for their kids, but really terrible at supporting them on the way back in,” Johnson says. “Women know this, and as an alternative to employment that just seems to fail them, they’re starting businesses in droves.”

Image Credits: West Tenth

With West Tenth, the goal is to encourage this sort of entrepreneurship — and more broadly, to help women understand that the many of the talents they’ve developed at home are, in fact, potential businesses.

This includes opportunities like home-based bakers and cooks, photographers, home organizers or designers, home florists, baby sleep consultants, party planning and event services, crafting classes, fitness training, homemade goods, and more.

The company notes that the app isn’t necessarily closed to men, but the current market for U.S. home businesses favors women as they’re more often the partner who chooses to leave work to raise children. However, there are some men on its platform.

Though today many of these entrepreneurs market their home businesses on Facebook, they’re missing opportunities to reach customers if they’re not heavily involved in local groups and responding to requests for recommendations. West Tenth instead centralizes local businesses in one place to make discovery easier.

Image Credits: West Tenth

 

In the app, customers can browse and shop local businesses, filtering by category via buttons at the top of the screen. The results are sorted by distance and offer photos, description, and the starting price for the goods or services offered. Through integrated messaging, users can reach out directly for a quote or more information. Customers can also complete their purchases through the app’s Stripe payments integration. West Tenth takes a 9.5% commission on these sales.

Another key aspect to West Tenth is its education component, The Foundry.

Through a $100 per quarter subscription membership (or $350 per year), business owners will be able to attend bi-monthly events, including classes focused on the fundamentals of setting up home-based businesses, marketing, customer acquisition, and other topics. These classes will also be available à la carte at around $30 apiece, for those who want to pay per session.

In addition, attendees will hear from guest speakers who have experience in the home-based business market, and they’ll be able join mastermind networking groups to exchange ideas with their peers.

Image Credits: West Tenth

This system of combining education and networking with business ownership could potentially help more women become home-based business entrepreneurs instead of joining multi-level marketing (MLM) companies, as is common.

“When we started this, we recognized that MLMs are one of the few kind of industries that’s focused on this demographic of women who’ve left the workforce — which is a huge, untapped talent pool in the U.S.,” notes Johnson. “But they’re really predatory. Only the top 1% of sellers distributors really make money and the rest lose money. And they lose their social capital, as well. What we’re really interested in doing is becoming an alternative to MLMs in many respects,” she adds.

Not surprisingly, MLMs aren’t allowed on the West Tenth platform.

Image Credits: West Tenth

The startup, which completed Kansas City TechStars last summer, has now raised $1.5 million in seed funding to get its platform off the ground. The round was led by Better Ventures along with Stand Together Ventures Lab, Kapital Partners,The Community Fund, Backstage Capital, Wedbush Ventures, and Gaingels.

The funds will be used to develop the product and grow its user base. In time, West Tenth aims to build out product features to better highlight local businesses. This includes shopping elements that will let you see what friends are buying and video demonstrations, among other things.

Since 2019, West Tenth has grown its footprint from just 20 businesses on the app to now over 600, largely in suburban L.A. and Salt Lake City. It’s now aiming to target growth in Phoenix, Boise, and Northern California.

Image Credits: West Tenth

The timing for West Tenth’s expansion is coming on the tail end of the COVID-19 crisis, where things have only gotten worse for women’s traditional employment.

School and daycare closures combined with job losses that greatly impacted women’s roles have now driven more women out of the workforce compared with men. And according to McKinsey, women accounted for nearly 56% of workforce exits since the start of the pandemic, despite making up just 48% of the workforce. This COVID-driven “shecession,” as some have dubbed it, is also disproportionately impacting women of color, studies have found.

“We’ve seen 5 million women exit the workforce — some because they were laid off or furloughed, and a huge chunk because they’re opting out because the caregiving responsibilities just became overwhelming,” says Johnson.

“The thing is when women leave the workforce for caregiving reasons — for some reason we really discount that and we make it even harder for them to return to work. So I think over the next 18 to 24 months, we’ll see a big surge in economic activity in the home with women trying to bring in additional sources of income by running a business from the home,” she says.

The West Tenth app is available on both iOS and Android.

#apps, #funding, #mobile, #recent-funding, #startups

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Instacart raises $265M at a $39B valuation

On-demand grocery delivery platform Instacart has raises a $265 million funding ground from existing investors, including Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, D1 Capital Partners and others. The new funding, which, like its past few rounds, isn’t assigned a Series alphabetical designation, pushes the company’s valuation to $39 billion – more than double its $17.7 billion valuation when it raised is last financing, a $200 million venture round in October 2020.

What’s behind the massive increase in the value investors are willing to ascribe to the business? Put simply, the pandemic. Last year, Instacart announced three separate raises, including a $225 round in June, followed by a $100 million round in July. The rapid sequence of venture capital injections were likely designed to fuel growth as demand for grocery delivery services surged while people attempted to quarantine or generally spend less time frequenting high-traffic social environments like grocery stores.

In a blog post announcing the news, Instacart doesn’t put specifics on the growth rates of usage over the course of 2020, but it does express its intent to grow headcount by 50% in 2021, and continue to scale and invest in its advertising, marketing and enterprise efforts specifically in a quote.

On the product side, Instacart broadened its offerings from groceries to also include same-day delivery of a wide range of products, including prescription medicine, electronics, home decor, sport and exercise equipment and more. It’s capitalizing on the phenomenon of increased consumer spending during the pandemic, which is a reverse from what many anticipated given the impact the ongoing crisis has had on employment.

Instacart Chief Financial Officer Nick Giovanni said in a quote that the company expects this to be “a new normal” for shopping habits, and the size and pace of the company’s recent funding, as well as its ballooning valuation, seem to suggest its investors also don’t think this is a trend that will revert post-pandemic.

#andreessen-horowitz, #chief-financial-officer, #d1-capital-partners, #electronics, #finance, #funding, #fundraising, #instacart, #investment, #money, #private-equity, #recent-funding, #sequoia-capital, #startups, #tc, #valuation, #venture-capital

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Indonesian payments infra startup Xendit raises $64.6M in Accel-led Series B

Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, digital transformation is happening all over the world. And Southeast Asia is no exception.

Indonesia’s Xendit, a startup focused on building digital payments infrastructure for the region, has just raised $64.6 million in a Series B led by Silicon Valley heavyweight Accel. The funding brings the total amount raised by the Jakarta-based company to $88 million since its 2015.

Notably, Y Combinator also participated in the financing. In fact, Xendit is the first Indonesian company to go through Y Combinator’s accelerator program. It also was ranked No. 64 on Y Combinator’s top 100 companies (by valuation and top exits) list in January 2021

Xendit works with businesses of all sizes, processing more than 65 million transactions with $6.5 billion in payment value annually. Its website promises businesses that “with a single integration,” they can accept payments in Indonesia and the Philippines. The company describes itself as building out financial services and digital payments infrastructure “in which the next generation of Southeast Asian SaaS companies can be built on top of,” or put more simply, it aspires to be the Stripe of Southeast Asia.

Xendit has been growing exponentially since its launch — with its CAGR (compound annual growth rate) increasing annually by 700%, according to COO and co-founder Tessa Wijaya. In 2020, the company saw its customer count increase by 540%. Customers include Traveloka, TransferWise, Wish and Grab, among others. Xendit declined to reveal hard revenue figures.

It also declined to reveal its current valuation but we do know that as of October 2019, it was valued at at least $150 million – a pre-requisite for appearing on this Y Combinator liston which it ranked No. 53. 

The idea for Xendit was formed when CEO Moses Lo met his co-founders while studying at University of California, Berkeley. Shortly after, they went through Y Combinator, and launched Xendit in 2015. 

One of the company’s main benefactors was Twitch co-founder Justin Kan. According to Lo, “he happened to have some family in Indonesia, and it was also about the time when Asia was becoming more interesting for YC.”

Xendit was originally launched as a P2P payments platform before evolving into its current model.

Today, the startup aims to help businesses of all sizes seamlessly process online payments, run marketplaces, distribute payroll manage finances and detect fraud via machine learning. It aims for fast and easy integrations so that businesses can more easily accept payments digitally.

The market opportunity is there. One of the world’s most populous countries that is home to more than 270 million people — an estimated 175 million of which are internet users — Indonesia’s digital economy is expected to reach $300 billion by 2025.

Add to that a complex region that is home to 17,000 different islands and a number of regulatory and technological challenges.

“Trying to build the businesses of tomorrow on yesterday’s infrastructure is holding Southeast Asia’s businesses back,” Lo said.

The global shift toward more digital transactions over the past year led to increased demand for Xendit’s infrastructure and services, according to Wijaya. To meet that demand, the company doubled its employee headcount to over 350 currently.

The pandemic also led to Xendit branching out. Prior to 2020, many of the company’s customers were large travel companies. So the first few months of the year, the startup’s business was hit hard. But increased demand paved the way for Xendit to expand into new sectors, such as retail, gaming and other digital products.

Looking ahead, the startup plans to use its new capital to scale its digital payments infrastructure “quickly” with the goal of providing millions of small and medium-sized businesses across Southeast Asia with “an on-ramp to the digital economy.” It is also eyeing other markets. Xendit recently expanded into the Philippines and also is considering other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, according to Wijaya.

Xendit is also similar in scope to San Francisco-based Finix, which aims to make every software company a payments company. Xendit acknowledges the similarities, but notes it is also “looking to tackle broader challenges related to accessibility, security and reliability that are unique to Southeast Asia,” with a deep understanding of the region’s unique geographical and cultural nuances.

To Accel partner Ryan Sweeney, Xendit has “quietly” built a modern digital payments infrastructure that’s transformed how Southeast Asian businesses transact.

“Their team’s combination of deep local expertise and global ambitions means they’re uniquely positioned to do what no other company could do in the region,” he said. “The vision of Xendit is a bold one: they are building the digital payments infrastructure for Southeast Asia, and fits squarely into Accel’s global fintech thesis.”

Other fintechs that Accel has backed include Braintree/Venmo, WorldRemit,GoFundMe and Monzo, and more recently Galileo, TradeRepublic, Lydia, Public.com and Flink.

#accel, #digital-services, #digital-transformation, #finance, #fintech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #indonesia, #jakarta, #payment-solutions, #payments, #philippines, #recent-funding, #ryan-sweeney, #southeast-asia, #startups, #venture-capital, #xendit, #y-combinator

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Humaans raises $5M seed to make it easier for companies to on-board and manage staff

Humaans, a London-based HR startup, has raised $5 million in seed funding to accelerate the development of its employee on-boarding and management platform. Backing the round is Y Combinator, Mattias Ljungman’s Moonfire, Frontline Ventures and former head of Stripe Issuing, Lachy Groom.

A number of other investors, made up of seasoned entrepreneurs and startup operators, also participated. They include LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner (via Next Play Ventures), Stripe COO Claire Johnson, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Intercom co-founder Des Traynor, former Workday CTO David Clarke, former Benchmark GP Scott Belsky, Notion COO Akshay Kothari, Qubit co-founder Emre Baran, Evervault CEO Shane Curren and Stripe head of security Gerardo Di Giacomo.

Founded by former Qubit employees Giovanni Luperti and Karolis Narkevicius, Humaans came into existence formerly in April 2020 after the pair quit the product agency they had founded together. With a soft launch the previous year while bootstrapping, and with validation from early users, Luperti and Narkevicius decided they had found enough product-market fit to focus on the startup full-time.

“We bootstrapped Humaans by reinvesting capital from the previous businesses we co-founded,” explains CEO Luperti. “After gaining initial commercial traction, we decided to raise capital and brought a number of investors and operators onboard, and joined Y Combinator”.

Pitching itself as a central hub for employee on-boarding and management — or a single source of truth for staffing — Humaans aims to play nicely by integrating with other existing SaaS used across the “HR stack”. This is because scaling companies are increasingly rejecting all-encompassing HR software and using the best modern SaaS offerings for various different functions.

“Companies are frustrated with poorly integrated HR stacks, making processes slow while exposing them to compliance risks,” says Luperti. “This is why the adoption of point solutions is increasing dramatically. Companies are adopting what’s best based on their needs and stage of growth to address their people needs”.

For example, a company may choose an applicant tracking system, a performance management system, contract management software and an employee engagement platform, and so on. “This makes the ‘all-in-one’ model antiquated, creating the opportunity for a solution like Humaans to emerge. We’re building a layer of infrastructure for all employee data”.

This is seeing Humaans attempt to bring together the full HR stack and automate processes like on-boarding, off-boarding and compensation management with fast workflows that can be set up not dissimilar to an IFTTT or Zapier-style type of interaction model.

Image Credits: Humaans

“If you ask around, most employees dislike their HR software,” says Luperti. “HR tools have historically been clunky, slow and not good at providing a good user experience. Existing players focused more on sales and acquisition than retention through product. But HR buyers today are more sophisticated than ever and have an appetite for best in class. We’re building the Slack of HR… an employee management platform that’s both delightful and very powerful”.

To that end, Humaans says it grew 3x in the past few months and is popular amongst distributed companies, such as Pleo, ChartMogul, Bombinate, HeySummit and Pento.

Adds the Humaans CEO: “There are two segments of existing players: those targeting SMEs, and those working with corporations. Serving the companies in the middle is the opportunity we’re going after”.

#europe, #frontline-ventures, #fundings-exits, #humaans, #human-resources, #lachy-groom, #moonfire-ventures, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #y-combinator

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Apple alum’s jobs app for India’s workers raises $12.5 million

A startup by an Apple alum that has become home to millions of low-skilled workers in India said on Tuesday it has raised an additional $12.5 million, just five months after securing $8 million from high-profile investors.

One-year-old Apna said Sequoia Capital India and Greenoaks Capital led the $12.5 million Series B investment in the startup. Existing investors Lightspeed India and Rocketship VC also participated in the round. The startup, whose name is Hindi for “ours,” has now raised more than $20 million.

More than 6 million low-skilled workers such as drivers, delivery personnel, electricians and beauticians have joined Apna to find jobs and upskill themselves. But there’s more to this.

An analysis of the platform showed how workers are helping one another solve problems — such as a beautician advising another beautician to perform hair dressing in a particular way that tends to make customers happier and tip more, and someone sharing how they negotiated a hike in their salary from their employer.

“The sole idea of this is to create a network for these workers,” Nirmit Parikh, Apna founder and chief executive told TechCrunch in an interview. “Network gap has been a very crucial challenge. Solving it enables people to unlock more and more opportunities,” he said. Harshjit Sethi, principal at Sequoia India, said Apna was making inroads with “building a professional social network for India.”

The startup has become an attraction for several big firms, including Amazon, Flipkart, Unacademy, Byju’s, Swiggy, BigBasket, Dunzo, BlueStar and Grofers, which have joined as recruiters to hire workers. Apna offers a straightforward onboarding process — thanks to support for multiple local languages — and allows users to create a virtual business card, which is then shown to the potential recruiters.

The past six months have been all about growth at Apna, said Parikh. The app, available on Android, had 1.2 million users in August last year, for instance. During this period, there have been 60 million interactions between recruiters and potential applicants, he said. The platform, which has amassed more than 80,000 employers, has a retention rate of over 95%, said Parikh.

“Apna has taken a jobs-centric approach to upskilling that we are very excited about. Lack of accountability has been the core issue with current skill / vocational learning alternatives for grey and blue-collar workers. Apna has turned the problem on its head by creating net-positive job outcomes for anyone who chooses to upskill on the platform,” said Vaibhav Agrawal, partner at Lightspeed India, in a statement.

Image Credits: Nirmit Parikh

Parikh got the idea of building Apna after he kept hearing about the difficulty his family and friends faced in India in hiring people. This was puzzling to Parikh, as he wondered how could there be a shortage of workers in India when there are hundreds of millions of people actively looking for such jobs. The problem, Parikh realized, was that there wasn’t a scalable networking infrastructure in place to connect workers with employers.

Before creating the startup, Parikh met workers and worked with them to understand where are the core challenges they faced. That journey has not ended. The startup talks to over 15,000 users each day to understand what else Apna could do for them.

“One of the things we heard was that users were facing difficulties with interviews. So we started groups to practice them with interviews. We also started upskilling users, which has made us an edtech player. We plan to ramp up this effort in the coming months,” he said.

Parikh said the startup is overwhelmed each day with the response it is getting from its customers and the industry. Each day, he said, people share how they were able to land jobs, or increase their earnings. In recent months, several high-profile executives from companies such as Uber and BCG have joined Apna to scale the startup’s vision, he said, adding that the problem Apna is solving in India exists everywhere and the startup’s hope is to eventually serve people across the globe.

The app currently has no ads, and Parikh said he intends to not change that. “Once you get in the ad business, you start doing things you probably shouldn’t be doing,” he said. The startup instead plans to monetize its platform by charging recruiters, and offering upskill courses. But Parikh maintained that Apna will always offer its courses to users for free. The premium version will target those who need extensive assistance, he said.

As is the case elsewhere, millions of people lost their livelihood in India in the past year as coronavirus shut many businesses and workers migrated to their homes. There are over 250 million blue and grey-collar workers in India, and providing them meaningful employment opportunities is one of the biggest challenges in our country, said Sethi.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

#apna, #apps, #asia, #funding, #greenoaks-capital, #india, #lightspeed-india, #recent-funding, #rocketship-vc, #sequoia-capital-india, #startups

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BrioHR raises $1.3M ahead of Y Combinator’s demo day

As the next Y Combinator demo day approaches, more startups from the current Winter 2021 batch are showing up in our inboxes. One of the most interesting from the mix is BrioHR, which is building human resources (HR) software for Southeast Asia.

The company fits into a theme I’ve noticed amongst startups, namely a focus on taking proven software genre approaches to specific parts of the world, localizing them and building in-region winners. This theme is not new, of course, but it does feel slightly more pronounced amongst recent accelerator batches than before (TechCrunch covers Techstars, Y Combinator, 500 Startups and other accelerators as part of our startup focus). Perhaps this is the impact of so many accelerators going virtual, widening the founder pool from whom they might matriculate to include a more global group of founders.

Back to BrioHR itself, the company is announcing $1.3 million in fundraising, inclusive of its YC check. The investment was led by Global Founders Capital, and saw participation from East Ventures and angel investors.

TechCrunch caught up with Benjamin Croc, the company’s co-founder and CEO, who is located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (the city pictured in the image at the top of this post). The time zones were tricky to navigate, but the company’s vision was simple enough: A software-as-a-service (SaaS) HR software suite, tailored to fit the laws of the Southeast Asian region.

Croc and his co-founder, Nabil Oudghiri, founded the company in 2018, incorporating in the second half of the year after talking over their idea for a few months. BrioHR did not launch its product until the fourth quarter of 2019, opening for what Croc described as early adopters. The startup launched more broadly in the first quarter of 2020, right in time for COVID-19 to shake up the world.

Its fundraising came in two chunks, one in the middle of 2020 and one that came in the third quarter of the year; the first chunk of the raise was larger than the second. BrioHR raised the capital using a convertible note, with terms that Croc described as near to standard.

In our conversation, TechCrunch was curious about how prevalent SaaS as a model is in Malaysia and the other countries the startups wants to sell into. The co-founder said that while SaaS is not as well known in his part of the world as it is in the United States — not a huge surprise given that the U.S. is the largest SaaS market in the world — he praised the speed at which Southeast Asian countries adopt business trends; if Croc is right, his view could point to a very active subscription software market in the region in coming years.

BrioHR competes with local companies that are more focused on providing single solutions, like payroll management. From our discussion, it appears that Croc hopes that by going broad, in a feature sense, BrioHR will surpass legacy competitors. The startup is itself still building out its regional tooling, providing payroll support in only a handful of countries. It intends to expand that service to new countries this year, and be everywhere with its payroll product in two to three years, its co-founder said.

Notably, even though it has already raised capital, BrioHR intends to take part in Y Combinator’s demo day. Croc said it is taking part for optionality. TechCrunch read that as the company isn’t actively looking to raise more capital at the moment, but wouldn’t turn down another convertible note at a comfortable cap. Then again, what company at any demo day would?

Since launching out of its early-adopter program, Croc said that the company has grown 10x. That’s not hard from a small base, so the company’s 2021 growth will be more illustrative of its true near-term potential. Let’s see what new metrics it breaks out in a few weeks’ time.


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#briohr, #fundings-exits, #global-founders-capital, #human-resources, #recent-funding, #startups, #y-combinator

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Murmur, still in private beta, wants to help startups make private work agreements public

As building in public continues to gain popularity with early-stage startup founders, Murmur, coming out of stealth today, wants to leverage that natural transparency to a louder frequency.

Founded by Aaron Dignan, Murmur helps startups create work agreements based on the policies of other startups. “Work agreements” is an intentionally broad phrase, but encapsulates everything that a team decides about how work works, from paternal leave strategies to strategic priorities to how hiring works.

“It’s everything you’ve ever argued about [within your startup],” Dignan said.

It requires a healthy level of transparency within the ecosystem, meaning that a startup would have to be open with sharing its policies to the public in the first place. But, if Murmur works, it could help early-stage founders save time on the pain-staking process of figuring out how to build policies from scratch around hiring, OKR goals and vacation policies.

Instead, a new founder could just rely on other, seasoned founders, who have shared their policies for anyone to enjoy, and customize their own plan based around those practices.

Today, Murmur announced that it has raised $1.8 million to scale its working agreements platform in a round led by Lerer Hippeau, with participation from SemperVirens, Human Ventures and Remote First Capital. Other investors include Steve Schlafman, Mariano Suarez-Battan (the CEO of Mural), Brian Sugar (the CEO of PopSugar) and Adam Pisoni (the co-founder of Yammer).

The company, still in private beta, will be launching to the public in early summer 2021.

Murmur is a web-based platform that allows startups to author, customize and plan policies that will shape a team’s culture. The platform helps teams go from proposal to decision with features like voting, edits and feedback throughout the process of creating an agreement. Instead of pushing a copy and paste of another startup’s policy, Murmur prompts founders to use the outsourced policies as seeds, and add customization as they go.

“Anybody can Google and find some company’s years-old processes; the trick is in making an inclusive ‘agreement’ with real time all participating in the magic of keeping it and iterating it, and improving it,” Dignan said.

Image Credits: Murmur

Right now, it is free for anyone to see listed company public agreements. But it costs money to use the Murmur platform to create and customize your own agreements off of this information. With this format, you can see that Dignan thinks that the conversion power of the company lies more in its platform than the content.

Dignan tells me that the team is still testing pricing strategies, but the current plan is a free trial followed by a monthly per-seat fee of $12 to $15 per month, per user. One day, companies could charge a premium for a “kit” of tools on their platform.

Murmur’s initial target for customers are startups that are growing fast and already work in public, such as Buffer, Basecamp, Lattice and Blinkist, but in the future, big enterprises could also see it useful.

Murmur is launching amid a general trend of companies that are pitching themselves as best-practices-as-a-service. Companies in this space aren’t simply enabling other startups to use a fancy SaaS tool, they are not-so-gently pushing them to use those tools in the best possible way for the best possible outcome. Murmur, if it hits scale, could help the next generation of startups figure out the best way to start companies.

Dignan says that the startup “aims to do for working practices what GitHub did for code.”

Remote work is obviously a key catalyst for the company, since the transition has reminded teams that transparency, standards and communication is vital to a functioning organization.

While the startup currently only has Murmur working agreements on the platform, it plans to onboard the agreements of dozens of companies in the coming months. Even though the platform is what makes Murmur special, it’s clear that curating agreements from top companies plays a vital role in Murmur’s success.

It is not paying companies to publicly list their agreements, and the branding benefit of transparency is well worth the confidentiality cost of sharing due to recruitment benefits.

Dignan says connections from his book about the future of work will help land those agreements. Writing a book about a changing world of work before a global pandemic turned everything upside down is ironic, but Dignan, it appears, doesn’t view Murmur as a pandemic pivot.

“I’ve been thinking about this tool for seven years,” he said. But he didn’t think an opinionated tool would have a large enough total addressable market, and that anything that would scale would just reinforce the status quo. He didn’t build Murmur for a while because he thought that the ecosystem didn’t need “yet another customer engagement tool.”

So, he waited. And the pandemic, another peak of the Black Lives Matter movement and the election happened within one year.

“It was all signaling that the complexity is too much,” he said. “We need new ways of working, making decisions and organizing as people. And that felt like this huge moment where we plant the seed and in a few years’ time, the market will be huge.”

#early-stage, #future-of-work, #lerer-hippeau, #murmur, #recent-funding, #remote-work, #startups, #tc

0

Autonomous drone maker Skydio raises $170M led by Andreessen Horowitz

Skydio has raised $170 million in a Series D funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Growth Fund. That pushes it into unicorn territory, with $340 million in total funding and a post-money valuation north of $1 billion. Skydio’s fresh capital comes on the heels of its expansion last year into the enterprise market, and it intends to use the considerable pile of cash to help it expand globally and accelerate product development.

In July of last year, Skydio announced its $100 million Series C financing, and also debuted the X2, its first dedicated enterprise drone. The company also launched a suite of software for commercial and enterprise customers, its first departure from the consumer drone market where it had been focused prior to that raise since its founding in 2014.

Skydio’s debut drone, the R1, received a lot of accolades and praise for its autonomous capabilities. Unlike other consumer drones at the time, including from recreational drone maker DJI, the R1 could track a target and film them while avoiding obstacles without any human intervention required. Skydio then released the Skydio 2 in 2019, its second drone, cutting off more than half the price while improving on it its autonomous tracking and video capabilities.

Late last year, Skydio brought on additional senior talent to help it address enterprise and government customers, including a software development lead who had experience at Tesla and 3D printing company Carbon. Skydio also hired two Samsara executives at the same time to work on product and engineering. Samsara provides a platform for managing cloud-based fleet operations for large enterprises.

The applications of Skydio’s technology for commercial, public sector and enterprise organizations are many and varied. Already, the company works with public utilities, fire departments, construction firms and more to do work including remote inspection, emergency response, urban planning and more. Skydio’s U.S. pedigree also puts it in prime position to capitalize on the growing interest in applications from the defense sector.

a16z previously led Skydio’s Series A round. Other investors who participated in this Series D include Lines Capital, Next47, IVP and UP.Partners.

#3d-robotics, #aerospace, #aircraft, #andreessen-horowitz, #defense, #dji, #drone, #funding, #precisionhawk, #recent-funding, #robotics, #samsara, #science-and-technology, #skydio, #startups, #tc, #technology, #tesla, #wireless

0

Space startup Gitai raises $17.1M to help build the robotic workforce of commercial space

Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.

Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.

“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”

Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.

Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.

Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.

Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.

This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).

#aerospace, #blue-origin, #ceo, #funding, #gitai, #international-space-station, #nanoracks, #nasa, #outer-space, #recent-funding, #robot, #robotics, #science, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex, #startups, #tc, #united-states

0

With $62.5M in debt financing, Road Runner Media puts digital ads behind commercial vehicles

If Southern California-based Road Runner Media succeeds, you’ll start seeing a lot more ads while you’re driving.

That’s because the startup is placing digital screens on the back of technicians’ vans, delivery vehicles, buses and other commercial vehicles. Those screens can show both ads and serve as a brake light — according to founder and chairman Randall Lanham, the brake light functionality is required if you’re putting a sign on the back of a vehicle.

“The way we look at it, we are a digital brake light,” Lanham said. Yes, the brake light is showing ads, but “the driver touching the brakes interrupts the ad.” (The sign can also indicate turns, reversing and emergency flashers. You can see a mock-up ad in the image above, and real footage in the video below.)

To pursue this idea, Lanham (who described himself as a “recovering attorney”) enlisted Chris Riley as CEO — Riley’s experience includes several years as CEO of PepsiCo Australia and New Zealand. And the company announced this week that it has secured $62.5 million in debt financing from Baseline Growth Capital.

The idea of putting ads on moving vehicles isn’t new. There are, of course, ads on the tops of taxis, and startups like Firefly are also putting digital signage on top of Ubers and Lyfts. But Riley said Road Runner’s ruggedized, high-resolution LCD screens are very different, due to their size, quality and placement.

“[Taxi-top ads] don’t have the color, the brilliance, the clarity,” he said. “We can run a true video ad on the screen.”

Riley also said the ads can be targeted based on GPS and time of day, and that the company eventually plans to add sensors to collect data on who’s actually seeing the ads.

As for concerns that these big, bright screens might distract drivers, Lanham argued they’re actually attracting driver’s eyes to exactly where they should be, and creating a brake light that’s much harder to ignore.

“Your eyes are affixed on the horizon, which is what the [Department of Transportation] wants — as opposed to on the floor or the radio or directly off to the left or right,” he said. “That’s where your safest driving occurs, when your eyes are up above the dashboard.”

In fact, Lanham said he’s “very passionate” about the company’s mission, which in his view will make roads safer, and is creating a platform that could also be used to spread public service messages.

“We have the ability to retrofit any vehicle and make it safer on the highways,” he added. “I really, truly believe that we will save lives, if we already haven’t.”

The company says it already has 150 screens live in Atlanta, Boulder, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, with plans to launch screens in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. in March.

 

#adtech, #advertising-tech, #baseline-growth-capital, #funding, #fundings-exits, #recent-funding, #road-runner-media, #startups, #tc

0

First Boulevard raises $5M for its digital bank aimed at Black America

The murder of George Floyd last May ignited many things in the United States last year — one of which that was perhaps unexpected: a rise in the number of digital banks targeting the Black community.

Some members of the Black community took their belief that big banks are not meeting their needs and turned them into startup concepts.

One of those startups, First Boulevard (formerly called Theme), has just raised $5 million in seed funding from Barclays, Anthemis and a group of angel investors such as actress Gabrielle Union, Union Square Ventures John Buttrick and AutoZone CFO Jamere Jackson.

For co-founder and CEO Donald Hawkins, the genesis for the Overland, Kansas-bank came after Floyd’s murder, when he and friend Asya Bradley were talking about what they felt Black America “really needed to get out of a vicious cycle” of dealing with the same issues with no real solutions in sight.

CEO Donald Hawkins

COO Asya Bradley

“After viewing yet another tragedy engulf the Black community, and the all-too-familiar protests against persisting issues,” Hawkins said. “it was beyond clear to me that the solutions Black America needs must be financially-focused and developed within our community.”

The pair both had fintech experience. Hawkins had founded Griffin Technologies, a company focused on providing real-time, contextual intelligence to community banks and credit unions. And Bradley most recently was a founding team member and head of revenue at Synapse, a platform that built banking-as-a-service APIs to help bank the unbanked of America by connecting fintech platforms to banking institutions.

They discovered that there were only about 19 Black banks in the U.S., collectively holding about $5 billion in assets.

“And their technology was really behind the times,” Hawkins said. “We also took a hard look at some of the existing digital banks to really see who was really going about it  in the same way that we felt like America needed, and it was pretty clear at that point, that no one was really attacking the issue of helping Black America build some level of financial stability through the form of wealth-building play.”

The pair formed First Boulevard last August under the premise that Black Americans are “massively underserved consumers” of financial products and services despite having a collective spending power of $1.4 trillion annually. The startup’s mission is to empower Black Americans “ to take control of their finances, build wealth and reinvest in the Black economy” via a digitally-native platform.

Part of its goal with the new capital involves building out a Black business marketplace, which will give its members Cash Back for Buying Black™. It also plans to use the money to expand its team, increase its customer base and grow its platform to offer fee-free debit cards, financial education and on developing technology to help members automate their saving and wealth building goals.

History has proven that oppressed communities can succeed when their finances are centralized, and when it comes to financial services for the Black community, a centralizing force is long overdue,” Hawkins said.

The bank’s Cash Back for Buying Black™ program helps members earn up to 15% cashback when they spend money at black-owned businesses. 

“I believe the most recent stat but that also was that 41% of black owned businesses have closed since COVID-19 started,” Hawkins said. “We want to support them as much as we can.”

First Boulevard also is focused on passively building wealth for its communities.

“Black America as a whole has been blocked from learning how money works. We want to connect our members to wealth-building assets such as micro investments like money market accounts, high yield savings and cryptocurrency — things that Black America has largely been blocked from,” Hawkins said.

Bradley, who serves as First Boulevard’s COO, believes the current financial industry was not built to serve the needs of melanated people. Its goal is to take their understanding of the unique needs of the Black community to provide things such as early access to wages, round up savings features, targeted financial education and budgeting tools.

The pair aims to have a “fully inclusive” team that represents the community it’s trying to serve. Currently, its 20-person staff is 60% black, and 85% BIPOC. Two-thirds of its leadership team are women and 100% is BIPOC.

“We are very proud of that considering that in the fintech space, those are not normal numbers from a leadership perspective,” Bradley said.

For Katie Palencsar, an investor at the Female Innovators Lab by Barclays and Anthemis, said that her firm has always recognized “that access to financial services has long remained a challenge despite the digital evolution.”

“This is especially true for Black Americans who often reside in financial deserts and struggle to find platforms that truly look to serve them,” she said. “First Boulevard deeply understands the challenge.”

Palencsar believes that First Boulevard’s mission of helping Black Americans not just bank, but actually build wealth, is unique in the market.

First Boulevard sees the wealth gap that continues to grow within the U.S. and wants to build a digital banking platform that addresses the systemic and structural challenges that face this population while enabling Black Americans and allies to invest in the community,” she said.

The company also recently announced a partnership with Visa, under which First Boulevard will be first to pilot Visa’s new suite of crypto APIs. First Boulevard will also launch a First Boulevard Visa Debit card.

First Boulevard is one of several digital banks geared toward Black Americans that have emerged in recent months. Paybby, a digital bank for the black and brown communities, recently acquired Wicket, a neobank that uses AI and biometric technology to create a personalized experience for users. Hassan Miah, the CEO and founder of Paybby, said the bank’s goal is to be “the leading smart, digital bank for the Black and Brown communities.”

Paybby, which started by offering a bank account and a way to expedite PPP loans, will soon be adding a cryptocurrency savings account for the Black and Brown communities.   

“Black buying power is projected to grow to $1.8 trillion by 2024,” Miah said. “Brown buying power is over $2 trillion. Paybby wants to take a good portion of this multi-trillion dollar market and give it back to these communities.”

Last October, Greenwood raised $3 million in seed funding from private investors to build what it describes as “the first digital banking platform for Black and Latinx people and business owners.”

At the time, co-founder Ryan Glover, founder of Bounce TV network, said it was “no secret that traditional banks have failed the Black and Latinx community.”

#anthemis, #bank, #banking, #barclays, #finance, #financial-services, #financial-technology, #funding, #fundings-exits, #george-floyd, #greenwood, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

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Newsela, the replacement for textbooks, raises $100M and becomes a unicorn

Newsela, a SaaS platform for K-12 instructional material backed by the likes of TCV, Kleiner Perkins, Reach Capital, and Owl Ventures, announced today that it has raised $100 million in a Series D round. The financing was led by new investor Franklin Templeton, and brings Newsela’s valuation to $1 billion. The new round is larger than the aggregate of Newsela’s prior capital raised to-date.

“Hitting $1 billion [in valuation] doesn’t change a thing,” Newsela CEO Matthew Gross told TechCrunch. But the startup is joining Quizlet, Applyboard, and CourseHero as companies within the sector that have hit the unicorn mark as remote education continues to gain traction.

Newsela has created a platform that strings together a number of different third-party content, such as primary source documents or the latest National Geographic articles. Gross defines it as “material that isn’t purpose-built for education, [but] purpose-built for being interesting and informative.” If Newsela is doing its job right, the content can replace textbooks within a classroom altogether, while helping teachers give fresh, personalized material.

“Textbooks are dead in classrooms, but are well-and-live in district purchasing,” Gross said. The startup is on a mission to distribute its product better, and the money will be used to get it into more classrooms. Part of this, Gross explains, is telling teachers what else it can provide along with textbooks. Analytics has become a big part of Newsela’s business, as remote learning hurts student engagement.

The startup’s paid product is between $6 to $14 per student, which contrasts with textbooks that can cost a school $20 to $40 per student “even on an annualized basis.”

Like other edtech companies, Newsela offered its product for free in the beginning of the pandemic, which gave it a healthy bump of new users.

Newsela estimates that gross bookings have grown 115% over the pandemic, and that revenue grew 81%. It declined to share revenue numbers or if it has hit profitability. There will be over 11 million students using Newsela licensing by the end of 2021, Gross said.

Newsela estimates that two-thirds of public schools in the United States are using their platform, likely aided by school district flexibility that has grown amid the pandemic.

#edtech, #education, #franklin-templeton, #media, #newsela, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #teaching, #textbook

0

Stoke Space wants to take reusable rockets to new heights with $9M seed

Many launch providers think reusability is the best way to lower the cost and delay involved in getting to space. SpaceX and Rocket Lab have shown reusable first stages, which take a payload to the edge of space — and now Stoke Space Technologies says it is making a reusable second stage, which will take that payload to orbit and beyond, and has raised a $9.1M seed round to realize it.

Designing a first stage that can return to Earth safely is no small task, but the fact that it only reaches a certain height and speed, and doesn’t actually climb into orbit at an even higher velocity, means that it is simpler to try. The second stage takes over when the first is spent, accelerating and guiding the payload to its destination orbit, which generally means it will have traveled a lot farther and will be going a lot faster when it tries to come back down.

Stoke thinks that it’s not just possible to create a second stage that’s reusable, but crucial to building the low-cost space economy that will enable decades of growth in the industry. The team previously worked on the New Glenn and New Shepard vehicles and engines at Blue Origin, the Merlin 1C for the Falcon 9 at SpaceX, and others.

“Our design philosophy is to design hardware that not only can be reused, but is operationally reusable. That means fast turnaround times with low refurbishment effort. Reusability of that type has to be designed in from the beginning,” said Andy Lapsa, co-founder and CEO of Stoke.

 

A rocket does a test fire in an industrial environment.

Image Credits: Stoke Space Technologies

Beyond the fact that the vehicle will employ a ballistic reentry and powered landing, Stoke did not comment on the engineering or method by which it would accomplish the Herculean feat of bring down a few tons of precision equipment safely from 400 kilometers up and traveling some 28,000 km/h. (Though Lapsa did mention to GeekWire that a “good, high-performing stable injector” is the core of their engine and therefore of the system around it.)

At speeds like that reentry can be deadly, so one hopes they save a little fuel not just for landing but for deceleration. That would increase the mass and complexity of the vehicle before payload, lowering its carrying capacity.

“It’s true that any reusable system will be inherently more complex than its expendable counterpart,” Lapsa said. “However, when one optimizes on mission cost and availability, that complexity is well worth it.”

As other launch companies have pointed out, you burn up a lot of money on reentry, but so far the safest move has been to keep the first stage alive. The second stage is by no means cheap, and any company would prefer to recycle it as well — and indeed it could lower the cost of launch enormously if they did so successfully.

The promise Stoke makes is not just to bring the upper stage home, but to bring it home and have it ready for reuse just a day later. “All launch hardware is reused time after time with aircraft-like regularity – zero refurbishment with 24-hour turnaround,” claims Lapsa.

Considering the amount of wear and tear a rocket goes through in ascent and landing, “zero refurbishment” may sound to many like an impossible dream. SpaceX’s reusable first stages can be turned around pretty quickly, but they can’t just fuel them up where they landed and press the button again.

Not only that, but Stoke aims to provide reusable-rocket service beyond low-Earth orbit, where the majority of small, lower-cost satellites go. Geosynchronous orbit and translunar or interplanetary trajectories are also planned.

“Missions to GTO, GEO direct, TLI, and earth escape will initially be done with partially reusable or expendable vehicles, depending on mission requirements, however those vehicles will be the same ones that may have been used on previous fully reusable missions to LEO. The design is extensible to full reuse for these missions (and/or extraplanetary landers) in future variants,” said Lapsa.

These are ambitious claims — even, given the state of rocketry right now, ones people may with good reason call unrealistic. But the industry has advanced more quickly than many would have predicted a decade ago and seemingly unrealistic ambition drove those changes as well.

The $9.1M seed round raised by Stoke will enable it to meet the next few milestones, but anyone who follows the industry will know that far more cash will be needed to cover the cost of development and testing in time.

The round was led by NFX and MaC Ventures, along with YC, Seven Seven Six (Alexis Ohanian), Liquid2 (Joe Montana), Trevor Blackwell, Kyle Vogt, and Charlie Songhurst, among others.

#aerospace, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #launch-vehicle, #launch-vehicles, #recent-funding, #rocketry, #rockets, #space, #startups, #stoke-space

0

Docyt raises $1.5M for its ML-based accounting automation platform

Accounting isn’t a topic that most people can get excited about — probably not even most accountants. But if you’re running any kind of business, there’s just no way around it. Santa Clara-based Docyt wants to make the life of small and medium business owners (and their accounting firms) a bit easier by using machine learning to handle a lot of the routine tasks around collecting financial data, digitizing receipts, categorization and — maybe most importantly — reconciliation.

The company today announced that it has raised a $1.5 million seed-extension round led by First Rays Venture Partners with participation from Morado Ventures and a group of angel investors. Docyt (pronounced “docket”) had previously raised a $2.2 million seed round from Morado Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Westwave Capital, Xplorer Capital, Tuesday and angel investors. The company plans to use the new investment to accelerate its customer growth.

At first glance, it may seem like Docyt competes with the likes of QuickBooks, which is pretty much the de facto standard for small business accounting. But Docyt co-founder and CTO Sugam Pandey tells me that he thinks of the service as a partner to the likes of QuickBooks.

Image Credits: Docyt

“Docyt is a product for the small business owners who find accounting very complex, who are very experienced on how to run and grow their business, but not really an expert in accounting. At the same time, businesses who are graduating out of QuickBooks — small business owners sometimes become midsized enterprises as well — [ … ] they start growing out of their accounting systems like QuickBooks and looking for more sophisticated systems like NetSuite and Sage. And Docyt fits in in that space as well, extending the life of QuickBooks for such business owners so they don’t have to change their systems.”

In its earliest days, Docyt was a secure document sharing platform with a focus on mobile. Some of this is still in the company’s DNA, with its focus on being able to pull in financial documents and then reconciling that with a business’ bank transactions. While other systems may put the emphasis on transaction data, Docyt’s emphasis is on documents. That means you can forward an emailed receipt to the service, for example, and it can automatically attach this to a financial transaction from your credit card or bank statement (the service uses Plaid to pull in this data).

Image Credits: Docyt

For new transactions, you sometimes have to train the system by entering some of this information by hand, but over time, Docyt should be able to do most of this automatically and then sync your data with QuickBooks.

“Docyt is the first company to apply AI across the entire accounting stack,” said Amit Sridharan, founding general partner at First Rays Venture Partners. “Docyt software’s AI-powered data extraction, auto categorization and auto reconciliation is unparalleled. It’s an enterprise-level, powerful solution that’s affordable and accessible to small and medium businesses.”

#accounting, #accounting-software, #ame-cloud-ventures, #artificial-intelligence, #finance, #machine-learning, #netsuite, #quickbooks, #recent-funding, #startups, #xplorer-capital

0

Stori raises $32.5M in a Lightspeed-led Series B to build Mexico’s credit card for the masses

While credit cards are commonplace in the United States, they are far less ubiquitous in many other countries, particularly those in Latin America. In Mexico in particular, cash remains the dominant method of payment with an estimated 86% of all payments being in the form of cash.

But card usage is growing as more people are shopping online than ever before. According to one recent study, Mexico topped the list of the world’s fastest growing e-commerce markets. Meanwhile, only 37% of Mexicans over 15 years old have a bank account, according to recent World Bank stats.

All these factors clearly make the country ripe for fintech innovation. 

And for the founders of Mexico City-based startup Stori, they spell opportunity.

From left to right, Stori founding team Juan Villaseñor, Marlene Garayzar, Bin Chen, Camila Burne

Stori launched its credit card product in Mexico in January 2020 and has so far had more than 1 million customers apply for a card. 

Several members of the founding team spent years at Capital One honing their skills in underwriting underserved populations while others worked at the likes of Mastercard, Morgan Stanley, GE Money, HSBC and Intel in Mexico and the U.S.

Now the company has raised a $32.5 million Series B round with the goal of “becoming Mexico’s leading credit card issuer for the rising middle class.”

Lightspeed Venture Partners led the company’s financing, which brings Stori’s total raised since its early 2018 inception to $50 million. According to Lightspeed Partner Mercedes Bent, the investment marked her firm’s first large investment in the Latin American region “with more to come.”

Existing backers Vision Plus Capital, BAI Capital and Source Code Capital also participated in the round.

Stori provides credit cards with “a 100% mobile app-based experience” to the rising middle income population in Mexico. The team spent its first two years building out the startup’s infrastructure and platform. 

In January 2021, the fintech’s monthly new customer growth was 14 times than what it saw in January 2020 and 6 times the company’s monthly average for 2020, according to co-founder Bin Chen. He declined to reveal its current total of customers.

Because the Mexican market is so huge (the country has a population of nearly 130 million), Stori is currently only focused on serving the country.

Just as in other parts of the world, Stori saw tailwinds in the COVID-19 pandemic in that it fueled customer demand for a way to pay digitally. 

“Consumers in Mexico are increasingly using e-commerce and app-based services like ride hailing and delivery and credit cards are the preferred payment methods in those channels,” Chen said. “They’re experiencing more cash flow fluctuation and irregular expenses and need access to flexible credit that can meet short term needs.”

And of course, during pandemic-related lockdowns, more people are turning to digital financial offerings to avoid visiting bank branches in person.

One commonality among all of Stori’s co-founders, according to Chen, is that each “comes from a modest background.”

“We all experienced the feeling of being excluded from the traditional financial service world. As an international student pursuing my master’s degree in Illinois more than twenty years ago, I was relying solely on teaching assistantship to cover my study and living expenses,” Chen recalled. “I often ran out of money, and had a hard time to make ends meet – I received many rejections before I got my first credit card.”

Similar to TomoCredit’s mission in the U.S., Stori’s founders are working to give middle and low-income customers that are “new to the formal financial system” an opportunity to access credit.

The company plans to use its new capital to grow its customer base, boost headcount and invest in product design, technology infrastructure and underwriting, said Chen, who previously worked at Capital One and Mastercard in both U.S. and emerging markets. Today, Stori has 80 employees spread across offices in Mexico, U.S. and China, up from 40 a year ago.

“Our goal is to become a leading digital bank for the underserved population in the region,” he said.

For its part, Lightspeed first met the company’s founders over a year ago.

“We were struck by the depth of their experience. They navigated the pitfalls of Covid masterfully — without the benefit of a US style stimulus — and showed that their underwriting models were strong and improving,” Bent said. “That is a reflection of the quality of the team.”

Yiran Liu, a partner at China-based Vision Plus Capital, says the firm led Stori’s Series A round and “continues to be super pro rata in this round.”

“We have a structural thesis on digital fintech models and are investing in these models globally, particularly in emerging markets,” Liu said in a written statement. “We are impressed by the team’s execution and excited by the local market opportunity as evidenced by the rapid growth.”

 

 

#credit-cards, #finance, #funding, #latin-america, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #mercedes-bent, #mexico, #mexico-city, #payments, #recent-funding, #startups, #stori, #venture-capital

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DataJoy raises $6M seed to help SaaS companies track key business metrics

Every business needs to track fundamental financial information, but the data typically lives in a variety of silos making it a constant challenge to understand a company’s overall financial health. DataJoy, an early stage startup, wants to solve that issue. The company announced a $6 million seed round today led by Foundation Capital with help from Quarry VC, Partech Partners, IGSB, Bow Capital and SVB.

Like many startup founders, CEO Jon Lee has experienced the frustration first hand of trying to gather this financial data, and he decided to start a company to deal with it once and for all. “The reason why I started this company was that I was really frustrated at Copper, my last company because it was really hard just to find the answers to simple business questions in my data,” he told me.

These include basic questions like how the business is doing this quarter, if there are any surprises that could throw the company off track and where are the best places to invest in the business to accelerate more quickly.

The company has decided to concentrate its efforts for starters on SaaS companies and their requirements. “We basically focus on taking the work out of revenue intelligence, and just give you the insights that successful companies in the SaaS vertical depend on to be the largest and fastest growing in the market,” Lee explained.

The idea is to build a product with a way to connect to key business systems, pull the data and answer a very specific set of business questions, while using machine learning to provide more proactive advice.

While the company is still in the process of building the product and is pre-revenue, it has begun developing the pieces to ultimately help companies answer these questions. Eventually it will have a set of connectors to various key systems like Salesforce for CRM, HubSpot and Marketo for marketing, Netsuite for ERP, Gainsight for customer experience and Amplitude for product intelligence.

Lee says the set of connectors will be as specific as the questions themselves and based on their research with potential customers and what they are using to track this information. Ashu Garg, general partner at lead investor Foundation Capital says that he was attracted to the founding team’s experience, but also to the fact they were solving a problem he sees all the time sitting on the boards of various SaaS startups.

“I spend my life in the board meetings. It’s what I do, and every CEO, every board is looking for straight answers for what should be obvious questions, but they require this intersection of data,” Garg said. He says to an extent, it’s only possible now due to the evolution of technology to pull this all together in a way that simplifies this process.

The company currently has 11 employees with plans to double that by the middle of this year. As a long-time entrepreneur, Lee says that he has found that building a diverse workforce is essential to building a successful company. “People have found diversity usually [results in a company that is] more productive, more creative and works faster,” Lee said. He said that that’s why it’s important to focus on diversity from the earliest days of the company, while being proactive to make that happen. For example, ensuring you have a diverse set of candidates to choose from when you are reviewing resumes.

For now, the company is 100% remote. In fact, Lee and his co-founder Chief Product Officer Ken Lee, who was previously at Tableau, have yet to meet in person, but they are hoping that changes soon. The company will eventually have a presence in Vancouver and San Mateo whenever offices start to open.

#data, #datajoy, #enterprise, #funding, #machine-learning, #recent-funding, #saas, #startups, #tc

0

Connected pet collar company Fi raises a $30M Series B

Pet tech company Fi today announced that it has raised a $30 million Series B. The round, led by Chuck Murphy of Longview Asset Management, follows a $7 million Series A raised back in 2019. The round values the startup at north of $200 million.

The New York-based startup specializes in connected dog collars, releasing its Series 2 device late last year. The second-gen version of the product brings some key hardware improvements to the pet tracking device, including battery optimization that gives up to three months of life on a charge (with an average of around 1.5, according to the company).

The device relies on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, sending users a notification when a dog has traveled outside an AI-determined geofenced area.

The company has experienced solid growth since launching in March 2019, and says demand for its product continued to grow in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s still a fairly small operation, but Fi is working on growing its availability in the U.S. The product was made available on the mega-pet online retailer Chewy in Q4 of last year.

“There’s such a huge market in the U.S. that we’re just scratching the surface,” founder and CEO Jonathan Bensamoun tells TechCrunch. “We want to stay focused here. And really make this a household product. The number one limitation to growth is that people just don’t know we exist or that the category exists.”

The company says discussions with large brick and mortar pet retailers are currently “up in the air.” In addition to research, the funding round will go toward marketing and exploring additional retail partnerships to help grow the product’s footprint.

“We’ve been tracking Jonathan and the team at Fi for over a year now and have been incredibly impressed with their execution and rapid growth rate,” AVP partner Courtney Robinson says in a statement offered to TechCrunch. They have established themselves as the clear leader in the emerging category of connected collars, with a device that blows away the competition in terms of design, battery life, and accuracy.”

#fi, #funding, #hardware, #longview-asset-management, #pet, #pets, #recent-funding, #startups, #tracking

0

TreeCard raises $5.1M seed to plant trees as you spend

TreeCard, a U.K. yet-to-launch fintech offering a spending card made out of wood and the promise to fund reforesting via the interchange fees generated, has raised $5.1 million in seed funding. The round is led by EQT Ventures, with participation from Seedcamp and Episode 1.

Angel investors also backing the startup include Matt Robinson (founder of GoCardless), Paul Forester (founder of Indeed) and Charlie Delingpole (founder of ComplyAdvantage). TreeCard says the funding will be used to hire talent, support the roll-out of its product across the U.K. and to expand into the U.S. and “key European markets”.

Aiming to become a “leading green finance brand”, TreeCard was founded in August 2020 by Thiel fellow Jamie Cox (who previously co-founded Cashew), Gary Wu and James Dugan. The team hit onto the idea of swapping loyalty points or cash back for tree planting, in a bid to create a fintech proposition with more societal impact.

Once signed up, you link the TreeCard app to your current bank accounts so you can begin routing your spending through the Mastercard-powered TreeCard. Purchases you then make — or, specifically, a portion of the card transaction fees your spending generates — is then put toward tree planting projects run by green search engine Ecosia, which is also a pre-seed investor in TreeCard.

“[At a] high level, the climate crisis is the biggest existential risk that humanity has faced in the last 200,000 years; we believe directing the flow of consumer finances is the most powerful way to affect change,” CEO Cox tells me. “We’re building a finance company that allows consumers to not just to do less damage with their spending, but to actively improve the world.

“We are building a free spending card that allows consumers to spend more responsibly. The card uses interchange to reforest as they spend and sophisticated analytics to help them identify healthy spending as well as destructive ones”.

Of course, consumer card interchange fees in the U.K./EU are very low compared to the U.S. Offering a spending card and account isn’t without overhead, so it isn’t clear how sustainable TreeCard could be on interchange revenue alone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S., where generated fees are higher, is seen as a key launch market for the startup.

“Interchange fees in the U.S. are significantly higher than in the EU so this presents a sufficient revenue opportunity for us to perform our reforestation investments and cover marketing and management costs,” explains Cox. “In the EU we’re going to be partnering with an existing retail bank who will provide all our banking infrastructure for free. This will mean that, even though our interchange fee cut is lower, it will be sufficient to cover our costs in the EU. We will announce the name of the bank shortly”.

Meanwhile, early backer Ecosia is described by the TreeCard founder as its “mother” company. “They’re our closest partner and we’ll be working very closely with them as we grow,” Cox says. “They invested the first cheque into the company and will be doing all our tree planting for us. Ecosia’s marketing team is extremely experienced and they will be helping us use their search engine as a core channel for user acquisition over the next few years”.

Comments Tom Mendoza, deal partner at EQT Ventures: “TreeCard has the potential to become a leading green finance brand, going where no brand has gone before in creating a de facto platform for impactful financial management. At EQT Ventures, we’re increasingly aware of the environment and the impact that our investments have on the world around us, so we’re really excited to support the TreeCard team, who are actively working with the financial system to create a better future for the planet”.

#ecosia, #eqt-ventures, #europe, #fintech-startup, #fundings-exits, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #treecard

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Stitch emerges from stealth with $4M for its API fintech play in Africa

Over the years, there has been a growing trend of fintech infrastructure players around the world. In Africa, a handful of startups have launched in the past three years to provide such services. Stitch, a South African fintech startup, is one of them and today, it is coming out of stealth and announcing its seed round of $4 million. This makes it the largest round raised by any API fintech startup in Africa at the moment.

Founded by Kiaan Pillay, Natalie Cuthbert, and Priyen Pillay, Stitch wants to provide full API access to financial accounts across Africa starting from its first market, South Africa. With its API, developers can connect apps to financial accounts. This allows users to share their transaction history and balances, confirm their identities, and initiate payments.

We’ve seen a wave of API-led financial services companies proliferating around the globe. Plaid leads the way in the U.S. Sweden-based fintech Tink has also been dominant across Europe, while Truelayer and Belvo are holding the forte in the UK and Latin America.

These companies provide engineering and developer tools that reduce the technical and operational effort needed for apps to connect to their users’ financial accounts. By way of APIs, they make it possible for other companies to integrate what are otherwise complex services to build from the ground up simply by adding in a few lines of code.

Like other financial infrastructure company, Stitch services allows companies and developers to innovate around other services like personal finance, lending, insurance, payments and wealth management.

The founders draw on prior experience building API products for local markets in the past. In 2017, Kiaan Pillay worked as the head of operations for South African insurance API platform Root. He left a year to Smile Identity, a San Fransisco-based identity API company. There, he worked with fintechs across Africa and discovered they faced infrastructural issues around compliance and identity.

The Stitch team

At the same time, Pillay, Cuthbert — who was the CTO at Root — and Priyen were looking to build a Venmo for Africa, but after eight months, they soon discovered the solution was crappy. However, one feature on the platform seemed to work for the fintechs with infrastructural issues

“We got to the point where we could build any payouts for our clients so users could link and cash out their bank accounts,” Pillay tells TechCrunch. “We decided to automate this process using screen scraping. I must admit, it didn’t look good but we took it in our stride because we thought it served its purpose and was super cool.”

This set the team up to work on Stitch — Pillay as CEO, Cuthbert as CTO and Priyen as CPO. After working on building better functionality and technology, Stitch beta launched in September 2019 and secured a pre-seed round a month later. While in stealth, Stitch says it has gotten a handful of clients, which include Intelligent Debt Management, Momentum Velocity Club, Paystack, Flexclub, and two of South Africa’s biggest insurance players. The company is also beginning to attract some attention from corporate companies around consumer-facing products.

As of now, Stitch has a data and identity API product, and this month, a payment product will be added to its offerings. Like most API fintech startups, Stitch charges developers and companies per API call. However, for some products like budgeting or personal finance management apps, it also charges a fixed fee.

With wide and deep investor backing, Stitch will use the funding to consolidate growth in South Africa. There are plans to also launch operations in West and East Africa; the company’s statement reads.

Africa’s financial infrastructure space is heating up

These markets already have players, mainly Nigerian startups, in the API fintech space. They have raised sizeable rounds with enviable backings as well. Mono, a startup that only launched six months ago, is backed by YC; For Okra, it is Pan-African VC firm TLcom Capital; OnePipe has Techstars, and US-based but Africa-focused Pngme has attracted investment from Pan African VC firms EchoVC and Lateral Capital.

For now, these startups don’t operate in more than two countries. For instance, Mono, Okra and OnePipe are only live in Nigeria. Pngme says it’s operating in Nigeria and Kenya, while Stitch is only in South Africa. It will be interesting to see how competition and collaboration play out when they expand outside their markets. We might not wait long as Okra is currently in beta in Kenya and South Africa, and Mono is planning an expansion into Ghana and Kenya before the end of the year.

This doesn’t bother Pillay and his team at Stitch, though. He, alongside founders of these startups who I’ve talked to in the past year, believe competition is healthy for the market, and more founders should actually build similar companies. That said, Pillay adds that what might play out is each company creating a niche functionality at which they’re best.

“Unlike the U.S. where Plaid is dominant, I think the African market needs many players because the market is large. Europe is a good example; many sizeable companies are providing similar banking API services. For us, I think what we would start to see happen is that some companies will be known to do a particular functionality well like payments, data enrichment, or merchant identification.”

Image Credits: Stitch

Stitch has an impressive lineup of investors for this seed round led by London-based VC firm, firstminute Capital and SA-based investment firm, The Raba Partnership. Other investors who took part include both funds and angels.

The funds include CRE and Village Global, Norrsken (a fund by Klarna co-founder Niklas Adalberth), Future Africa (a fund by Flutterwave co-founder Iyinoluwa Aboyeji) and 500 Fintech. The angel cohort includes Venmo co-founder Iqram Magdon Ismail, some founding members at Plaid, executives at Coinbase, Revolut, Fast, and Paystack.

On how the startup still in stealth managed to get these investors on board, Pillay says it’s down to the company’s network in the US and the belief each investor have in the product.

“Spending a lot of time in San Francisco when working with Smile has helped us to get in touch with these globally world-class founders and investors. There’s an opportunity for us to provide a new generation of financial services in markets across Africa, and we’re really fortunate to have them back us.” 

For Brent Hoberman, co-founder and executive chairman of firstminute capital, the firm decided to back Stitch because it believes most online business in Africa will embed fintech capabilities in their applications — facilitating online payments, increasing lending capacity and streamlining KYC and identity checks — through Stitch.

“As a fellow South African, I’m excited to be partnering with a team of exceptionally talented local engineers with pan-African ambitions,” he added.

That said, Africa’s fintech sector is beginning to heat up after a slow January which saw agritech and cleantech sectors dominate funding rounds. This week, South African digital bank TymeBank raised a whopping $109 million to expand across the country and into Asia, extending the sort of large rounds we’ve seen in the past from a sector that attracted more than 30% of VC funding.

For Stitch, its seed round is the latest in a series of notable deals in the African API fintech space over the last two years, where other major players have raised between $500,000 to $5 million.

#africa, #financial-services, #funding, #recent-funding, #startups, #stitch, #tc

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Plant-based food startup Next Gen lands $10M seed round from investors including Temasek

Singapore is quickly turning into a hub for food-tech startups, partly because of government initiatives supporting the development of meat alternatives. One of the newest entrants is Next Gen, which will launch its plant-based “chicken” brand, called TiNDLE, in Singaporean restaurants next month. The company announced today that it has raised $10 million in seed funding from investors including Temasek, K3 Ventures, EDB New Ventures (an investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board), NX-Food, FEBE Ventures and Blue Horizon.

Next Gen claims this is the largest seed round ever raised by a plant-based food tech company, based on data from PitchBook. This is the first time the startup has taken external investment, and the funding exceeded its original target of $7 million. Next Gen was launched last October by Timo Recker and Andre Menezes, with $2.2 million of founder capital.

Next Gen’s first product is called TiNDLE Thy, an alternative to chicken thighs. Its ingredients include water, soy, wheat, oat fiber, coconut oil and methylcellulose, a culinary binder, but the key to its chicken-like flavor is a proprietary blend of plant-based fats, like sunflower oil, and natural flavors that allows it to cook like chicken meat.

Menezes, Next Gen’s chief operating officer, told TechCrunch that the company’s goal is to be the global leader in plant-based chicken, the way Impossible and Beyond are known for their burgers.

“Consumers and chefs want texture in chicken, the taste and aroma, and that is largely related to chicken fat, which is why we started with thighs instead of breasts,” said Menezes. “We created a chicken fat made from a blend, called Lipi, to emulate the smell, aroma and browning when you cook.”

Both Recker and Menezes have years of experience in the food industry. Recker founded German-based LikeMeat, a plant-based meat producer acquired by the LIVEKINDLY Collective last year. Menezes’ food career started in Brazil at one of the world’s largest poultry exporters. He began working with plant-based meat after serving as general manager of Country Foods, a Singaporean importer and distributor that focuses on innovative, sustainable products.

“It was clear to me after I was inside the meat industry for so long that it was not going to be a sustainable business in the long run,” Menezes said.

Over the past few years, more consumers have started to feel the same way, and began looking for alternatives to animal products. UBS expects the global plant-based protein market to increase at a compounded annual growth rate of more than 30%, reaching about $50 billion by 2025, as more people, even those who aren’t vegans or vegetarians, seek healthier, humane sources of protein.

Millennial and Gen Z consumers, in particular, are willing to reduce their consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products as they become more aware of the environmental impact of industrial livestock production, said Menezes. “They understand the sustainability angle of it, and the health aspect, like the cholesterol or nutritional values, depending on what product you are talking about.”

Low in sodium and saturated fat, TiNDLE Thy has received the Healthier Choice Symbol, which is administered by Singapore’s Health Promotion Board. Next Gen’s new funding will be used to launch TiNDLE Thy, starting in popular Singaporean restaurants like Three Buns Quayside, the Prive Group, 28 HongKong Street, Bayswater Kitchen and The Goodburger.

Over the next year or two, Next Gen plans to raise its Series A round, launch more brands and products, and expand in its target markets: the United States (where it is currently recruiting a growth director to build a distribution network), China, Brazil and Europe. After working with restaurant partners, Next Gen also plans to make its products available to home cooks.

“The reason we started with chefs is because they are very hard to crack, and if chefs are happy with the product, then we’re very sure customers will be, too,” said Menezes.

#asia, #food, #foodtech, #fundings-exits, #next-gen, #plant-based-food, #plant-based-meat, #recent-funding, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #temasek, #tindle

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Spain’s Wallapop raises $191M at an $840M valuation for its classifieds marketplace

Through all of the last year’s lockdowns, venue closures, and other social distancing measures that governments have enacted and people have followed to slow the spread of Covid-19, shopping — and specifically e-commerce — has remained a consistent and hugely important service. It’s not just something that we had to do; it’s been an important lifeline for many of us at a time when so little else has felt normal. Today, one of the startups that saw a big lift in its service as a result of that trend is announcing a major fundraise to fuel its growth.

Wallapop, a virtual marketplace based out of Barcelona, Spain that lets people resell their used items, or sell items like crafts that they make themselves, has raised €157 million ($191 million at current rates), money that it will use to continue growing the infrastructure that underpins its service, so that it can expand the number of people that use it.

Wallapop has confirmed that the funding is coming at a valuation of €690 million ($840 million) — a significant jump on the $570 million valuations sources close to the company gave us in 2016.

The funding is being led by Korelya Capital, a French VC fund backed by Korea’s Naver, with Accel, Insight Partners, 14W, GP Bullhound and Northzone — all previous backers of Wallapop — also participating.

The company currently has 15 million users — about half of Spain’s internet population, CEO Rob Cassedy pointed out to us in an interview earlier today, and has maintained a decent number-four ranking among Spain’s shopping apps, according to figures from App Annie.

The startup has also recently been building out shipping services, called Envios, to help people get the items they are selling to the buyers, which has expanded the range from local sales to those that can be made across the country. About 20% of goods go through Envios now, Cassedy said, and the plan is to continue doubling down on that and related services.

Naver itself is a strong player in e-commerce and apps — it’s the company behind Asian messaging giant Line, among other digital properties — and so this is in part a strategic investment. Wallapop will be leaning on Naver and its technology in its own R&D, and on Naver’s side it will give the company a foothold in the European market at a time when it has been sharpening its strategy in e-commerce.

The funding is an interesting turn for a company that has seen some notable fits and starts. Founded in 2013 in Spain, it quickly shot to the top of the charts in a market that has traditionally been slow to embrace e-commerce over more traditional brick-and-mortar retail.

By 2016, Wallapop was merging with a rival, LetGo, as part of a bigger strategy to crack the U.S. market (with more capital in tow).

But by 2018, that plan was quietly shelved, with Wallapop quietly selling its stake in the LetGo venture for $189 million. (LetGo raised $500 million more on its own around that time, but its fate was not to remain independent: it was eventually acquired by yet another competitor in the virtual classifieds space, OfferUp, in 2020, for an undisclosed sum.)

Wallapop has for the last two years focused mainly on growing in Spain rather than running after business further afield, and rather than growing the range of goods that it might sell on its platform — it doesn’t sell food, nor work with retailers in an Amazon-style marketplace play, nor does it have plans to do anything like move into video or selling other kinds of digital services — it has honed in specifically on trying to improve the experience that it does offer to users.

“I spent 12 years at eBay and saw that transition it made to new goods from used goods,” said Cassedy. “Let’s just say it wasn’t the direction I thought we should take for Wallapop. We are laser focused on unique goods, with the vast majority of that second hand with some artisan products. It is very different from big box.”

Wallapop’s growth in the past year isare the result of some specific trends in the market that were in part fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic.

People spending more time in their homes have been focused on clearing out space and getting rid of things. Others are keen to buy new items now that they are spending more time at home, but want to spend less on them. In both cases, there has been a push for more sustainability, with people putting less waste into the world by recycling and upcycling goods instead.

At the same time, Facebook hasn’t really made big inroads with its Marketplace in the country, and Amazon has also not appeared as a threat to Wallapop, Cassedy noted.

All of these have had a huge impact on Wallapop’s business, but it wasn’t always this way. Cassedy said that the first lockdown in Spain saw business plummet, as people were restricted to leave their homes.

“It was a rollercoaster for us,” he said. “We entered the year with incredible momentum, very strong.”

He noted that the drop started in March, when “not only did it become not okay to leave house and trade locally but the post office stopped delivering parcels. Our business went off a cliff in March and April.”

Then when the restrictions were lifted in May, things started to bounce back than ever before, nearly overnight, he said. “The economic uncertainty caused people to seek out more value, better deals, spending less money, and yes they were clearing out closets. We saw numbers bounce back 40-50% growth year-on-year in June.”

The big question was whether that growth was a blip or there to say. He said it has continued into 2021 so far. “It’s a validation of what we see as long term trends driving the business.”

“The global demand for C2C and resale platforms is growing with renewed commitment in sustainable consumption, especially by younger millennials and Gen Z,” noted Seong-sook HAN, CEO of NAVER Corp., in a statement. “We agree with Wallapop’s philosophy of conscious consumption and are enthused to support their growth with our technology and develop international synergies.”

“Our economies are switching towards a more sustainable development model; after investing in Vestiaire Collective last year, wallapop is Korelya’s second investment in the circular economy, while COVID-19 is only strengthening that trend. It is Korelya’s mission to back tomorrow’s European tech champions and we believe that NAVER has a proven tech and product edge that will help the company reinforce its leading position in Europe,” added Fleur Pellerin, CEO of Korelya Capital.

#korelya-capital, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #wallapop

0

MealMe raises $900,000 for its food search engine

This morning MealMe.ai, a food search engine, announced that it has closed a $900,000 pre-seed round. Palm Drive Capital led the round, with participation from Slow Ventures and CP Ventures.

TechCrunch first became familiar with MealMe when it presented as part of the Techstars Atlanta demo day last October, mentioning it in a roundup of favorite startups from a group of the accelerator’s startup cohorts.

The company’s product allows users to search for food, or a restaurant. It then displays price points from various food-delivery apps for what the user wants to eat and have delivered. And, notably, MealMe allows for in-app checkout, regardless of the selected provider.

The service could boost pricing and delivery-speed transparency amongst the different apps that help folks eat, like DoorDash and Uber Eats. But Mealme didn’t start out looking to build a search engine. Instead it took a few changes in direction to get there.

From social network to search engine

MealMe is an example of a startup whose first idea proved only directionally correct. The company began life as a food-focused social network, co-founder Matthew Bouchner told TechCrunch. That iteration of the service allowed users to view posted food pictures, and then find ordering options for what they saw.

While still operating as a social network, MealMe applied to both Y Combinator and Techstars, but wasn’t accepted at either.

The startup discovered that some of its users were posting food pics simply to get the service to tell them which delivery services would be able to bring them what they wanted. From that learning the company focused on building a food search engine, allowing users to search for restaurants, and then vet various delivery options and prices. That iteration of the product got the company into Techstars Atlanta, eventually leading to the demo day that TechCrunch reviewed.

During its time in Techstars, the company adjusted its model to not merely link to DoorDash and others, but to handle checkout inside of its own application. This captures more gross merchandize value (GMV) inside of MealMe, Bouchner explained in an interview. The capability was rolled out in September of 2020.

Since then the company has seen rapid growth, which it measures at around 20% week-on-week. During TechCrunch’s interview with MealMe, the company said that it had reached a GMV run rate of more than $500,000, and was scaling toward the $1 million mark. In the intervening weeks the company passed the $1 million GMV run-rate threshold.

MealMe was slightly coy on its business model, but it appears to make margin between what it charges users for orders and the total revenue it passes along to food delivery apps.

TechCrunch was curious about platform risk at MealMe; could the company get away with offering price comparison and ordering across multiple third-party delivery services without raising the ire of the companies behind those apps? At the time of our interview, Bouchner said that his company had not seen pushback from the services it sends users to. His company’s goal is to grow quickly, become a useful revenue source for the DoorDashes of the world, and then reach out for some of formal agreement, he explained.

“We continue to be a powerful revenue generator and drive thousands of orders to food delivery services per week,” the co-founder said in a written statement. Certainly MealMe found investors more excited by its growth than concerned about Uber Eats or other apps cutting the startup off from their service.

What first caught my eye about MealMe was the realization of how much I would have used it in my early 20s. Perhaps the company can find enough users like my younger self to help it scale to sufficient size that it can go to the major food ordering companies and demand a cut, not merely avoid being cut off.

#fundings-exits, #mealme-ai, #palm-drive-capital, #recent-funding, #slow-ventures, #startups, #techstars

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Lifestyle benefits startup Fringe gets a pandemic boost, raises seed round

Employers today often use perks to attract new talent in the form of discounts and deals, commuter funds, gym memberships, childcare, free lunches and more. But the pandemic has impacted what sort of in-office or other in-person perks employees can access. That’s led to booming growth — and now, a fundraise — for a startup called Fringe, which offers companies a personalized marketplace of perks that people really want, like Netflix, Uber, Airbnb, DoorDash, Headspace, Talkspace and over 100 other apps.

The idea for Fringe came about from the co-founders’ work as financial advisors where they regularly found themselves consulting people who were weighing new job options and their associated benefits.

“Companies are spending a lot money on traditional benefits…$800, $1,000 a month per person. But the perceived value for most employees is relatively small, given the cost,” explains Fringe CEO Jordan Peace. “I started thinking about what could [companies] offer employees that would be a pretty low actual cost, but a really high perceived value?”

He landed on the idea of subscription services — things people use all the time in their daily lives, but sometimes feel just out of reach from a budgetary standpoint.

That’s where Fringe comes in.

Employers sign up for access to Fringe’s platform at a starting cost of $5 per employee per month. (The rate may decrease for larger organizations.) They then place the dollars they would normally spend on lifestyle benefits into the Fringe accounts of their employees, where they’re converted to “points” that can be spent on any of the apps and services.

Fringe Platform Walkthrough from Fringe on Vimeo.

Today, the marketplace offers a range of benefits, including streaming services like Netflix, Spotify, Disney+, and Audible, as well as virtual fitness, virtual coaching and wellness, online therapy like Talkspace, food and grocery delivery, like Grubhub, Uber Eats, Instacart, and Shipt, prepackaged meals, childcare like UrbanSitter, and more.

In the U.S., there are 135 services partners to choose from, with another couple hundred that are available overseas.

The startup’s business model involves negotiating a discount of anywhere from 10% to up to 60% off these services, which it passes along to the employees through its points back (rebate) system. Initially, it only allowed employees to spend their employer-provided lifestyle benefits dollars on Fringe. But due to user demand, it later opened up to allow employees to spend their own money, too — a feature they wanted specifically because of the points back.

Fringe first launched in 2019 — well ahead of the pandemic — and saw some slow but steady growth. It ended the year with 15 clients, representing a couple of hundred employees in total.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which sent a number of employees to work from home in a radical change to business culture that appears to have lasting impacts.

“After the dust settled from the first few months of COVID, we started getting 10…20 times more inbound interest,” Peace says, as companies realized Fringe could be a way to support their employees working from home.

“We were just in the right place at the right time to begin to profit from this changed workplace. And it’s not just a ‘pandemic perk.’ We’re going to get past COVID, and we’re still going to have two-thirds of people working from home. The workplace has changed,” he adds.

Image Credits: Fringe CEO Jordan Peace

By the end of 2020, Fringe had grown its client base to over 70 employers, representing now over 12,000 users on its platform. Today, its pipeline includes companies with between 200 and 2,000 employees — a sweet spot that allows them to move relatively quickly. This client base often includes tech companies, like car-sharing startup Turo or talent management system Cornerstone OnDemand, for example.

This year, Fringe expects to grow to well over 100,000 users on its platform, and increase its own team’s headcount, which is today around 20. It also plans to update its marketplace website to include things like automatic point gifting, charitable giving, new Slack integrations, improved navigation, and more.

As a result of the recent growth, Fringe has raised $2.2 million in new funding, in a round led by Sovereign’s Capital, with participation from Felton Group, Manchester Story, the Center for Innovative Technology, and angel investors, including Jaffray Woodriff. As part of this investment, the company also added longtime advisor William Boland, Senior Director of Corporate Development and Strategy at Mission Lane, to its Board of Directors.

With the addition of the new funds, the startup’s total raise to date is $4 million.

Fringe believes the advantage of its marketplace is that it can be personalized to the user. Typically, employers determine what benefits to offer by running employee surveys, where the majority wins. That’s why many companies today provide perks like backup child care or discounted gym access. But this system discounts the minority’s needs — people who may not have kids or don’t want to work out. People who wish they could use their benefits dollars in a different way.

In addition to employee perks, Fringe believes that having so many subscriptions under one roof could present other opportunities further down the line.

Woodriff, for example, sees Fringe’s potential as a big data play, in terms of who is signing up for what subscriptions and why.

“But if you think about the fact that you’ve got a subscription service marketplace…there’s more applications to that than just employee benefits,” Peace explains. “I’d like our Series A to be to be predicated upon the much greater total addressable market. And so I think we’re going to spend the next year to 18 months laying down concrete plans and building the tech to be ready to roll out a couple of different use cases,” he says.

#benefits, #employees, #employers, #fringe, #funding, #perks, #recent-funding, #startups, #subscription-services, #tc

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Aquarium scores $2.6M seed to refine machine learning model data

Aquarium, a startup from two former Cruise employees, wants to help companies refine their machine learning model data more easily and move the models into production faster. Today the company announced a $2.6 million seed led by Sequoia with participation from Y Combinator and a bunch of angel investors including Cruise co-founders Kyle Vogt and Dan Kan.

When the two co-founders CEO Peter Gao and head of engineering Quinn Johnson, were at Cruise they learned that finding areas of weakness in the model data was often the problem that prevented it from getting into production. Aquarium aims to solve this issue.

“Aquarium is a machine learning data management system that helps people improve model performance by improving the data that it’s trained on, which is usually the most important part of making the model work in production,” Gao told me.

He says that they are seeing a lot of different models being built across a variety of industries, but teams are getting stuck because iterating on the data set and continually finding relevant data is a hard problem to solve. That’s why Aquarium’s founders decided to focus on this.

“It turns out that most of the improvement to your model, and most of the work that it takes to get it into production is about deciding, ‘Here’s what I need to go and collect next. Here’s what I need to go label. Here’s what I need to go and retrain my model on and analyze it for errors and repeat that iteration cycle,” Gao explained.

The idea is to get a model into production that outperforms humans. One customer Sterblue offers a good example. They provide drone inspection services for wind turbines. Their customers used to send out humans to inspect the turbines for damage, but with a set of drone data, they were able to train a machine learning model to find issues. Using Aquarium, they refined their model and improved accuracy by 13%, while cutting the cost of human reviews in half, Gao said.

The 7 person Aquarium startup team.

The Aquarium team. Image: Aquarium

Aquarium currently has 7 employees including the founders, of which three are women. Gao says that they are being diverse by design. He understands the issues of bias inherent in machine learning model creation, and creating a diverse team for this kind of tooling is one way to help mitigate that bias.

The company launched last February and spent part of the year participating in the Y Combinator Summer 2020 cohort. They worked on refining the product throughout 2020, and recently opened it up from beta to generally available.

#aquarium, #artificial-intelligence, #enterprise, #funding, #machine-learning, #recent-funding, #sequoia-capital, #startups, #y-combinator

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Metal 3D printing startup Mantle launches out of stealth with $13M in funding

Additive manufacturing has been a popular buzz phrase for decades now. With a smattering of notable exceptions, however, 3D printing has largely been focused on rapid prototyping and limited-run, personal products. Metal 3D printing companies like Mantle represent an intriguing use case on the road to truly scaling the tech to mass manufacturing.

Arriving out of stealth today, the Bay Area-based company is not focused on replacing traditional manufacturing methods, as much as augmenting and improving them. Specifically, the startup is focusing its technology in helping creating better molds and dies for manufacturers.

There are, of course, a number of companies currently competing in the printable metal category. Notable names include Desktop Metal, ExOne and Markforged. Armed with $13 million in funding from Foundation Capital, Hypertherm Ventures, Future Shape, 11.2 capital, Plug and Play Ventures and Corazon Capital, Mantle seeks to differentiate itself with a machine capable of removing some steps from the process.

“The main difference, having interacted with 3D printing for close to three decades, is really around the focus on these use cases that are production oriented,” Foundational Capital General Partner Steve Vassallo tells TechCrunch. “The vast majority of 3D printing is to make a prototype as quickly as possible. To actually make something that can be used in production environments — real parts that you can use — has never been done before.”

Built on the familiar binder jetting, the company’s machine (roughly “The size of two standing desks” its says) builds part finishing into the process.

“Ours is the first sintering-based hybrid technology that does shape refinement prior to going into the furnace,” CEO Ted Sorom tells TechCrunch. “We do it with a unique material that’s designed not only to be deposited into a very dense body but to also be cut with high-speed cutting tools. That allows us to get a totally different level of surface detail than anyone’s able to get today.”

The company has thus far announced L’Oréal as its first partner. The cosmetics giant will be using Mantle’s printers to create precision molds for products and packaging.

Tony Fadell, of Future Shape Mantle, added in a comment offered to TechCunch, “Mantle gives you the superpowers to make Apple-quality mechanical parts in days not months and lowers your cost by orders of magnitude. That speed and affordability lets you iterate to get your parts to perfection and still lets you launch much earlier.”

#11-2-capital, #3d-printing, #corazon-capital, #foundation-capital, #funding, #future-shape, #hardware, #hypertherm-ventures, #mantle, #metal-printing, #plug-and-play-ventures, #recent-funding, #startups