Why isn’t Robinhood a verb yet?

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s VC-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Natasha MascarenhasDanny Crichton and your humble servant gathered to chat through a host of rounds and venture capital news for your enjoyment. As a programming note, I am off next week effectively, so look for Natasha to lead on Equity Monday and then both her and Danny to rock the Thursday show. I will miss everyone.

But onto the show itself, here’s what we got into:

Bon voyage for a week, please stay safe and don’t forget to register to vote.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

#chime, #equity-podcast, #fundings-exits, #recent-funding, #robinhood, #startups, #venture-capital, #willow, #zoom

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Peterson Ventures, a firm that quietly backed Allbirds and Bonobos, just closed a $65 million fund

Peterson Ventures, a 12-year-old, Salt Lake City, Ut.-based seed-stage fund, has long operated fairly quietly, but many of its bets have become known brands in the respective worlds of consumer and enterprise software investing. Among these is the shoe company Allbirds; the men’s clothing company Bonobos (acquired a few years ago by Walmart); and Lucid Software, which closed its newest, $52 million round back in April.

Thanks to a newly raised, $65 million fund — more than double the size of its $33 million second fund — Peterson has even more money now to write checks in the range of $250,000 to $1 million in a wide variety of startups.

We were in touch this week with Peterson partner Ilana Stern, whose own consumer startup, Weddington Way,  raised money from Peterson before selling to the Gap in 2016.  Stern, who joined the outfit last fall and is based in San Francisco, shared a bit more about the firm’s newest fund and where it’s looking to shop. Our exchange has been edited lightly for length.

TC: Peterson is part of a bigger platform called Peterson Partners. How many asset classes is Peterson Partners funding?

IS: Peterson Ventures is part of the Peterson Partners platform with funds that invest in lower middle market private equity and search funds. There are over 30 people firm wide, including a four-person full-time investing team [on the venture side. We’ll be looking to add one to two more members in the next year.

TC: How does the firm think about consumer versus SaaS, and is this different than in past years? For example, First Round Capital used to invest half its capital in consumer-facing startups, and that’s not the case right now, as Josh Kopelman told us a couple of weeks ago.

IS: Our first, $25 million fund, was close to a 50/50 split; in the second fund, we shifted to 65%/35%, focusing more heavily on B2B SaaS than consumer. Going forward, we expect to be investing around 60% to 70% SaaS and around 30% to 40% consumer. The bread and butter of the Utah market is SaaS, and we expect to continue to back great SaaS companies in Utah.  That said, there is a growing ecosystem of compelling e-commerce and consumer companies, including in healthcare and financial services where we see a continued ‘consumerization’ of those two sectors.

TC: What are two of the firm’s most recent bets, and what do they say about the way your team operates?

IS: Via and Tava Health are two of our new seed investments. Via connects businesses to their consumers on their favorite messaging and voice platforms. Commerce infrastructure is an area where we’ve been very active over the last five or so years, [including because it’s a] perfect cross section of SaaS companies selling into e-commerce and retail. Tava Health is a telemedicine platform for mental health for employees paid by employers, and healthcare SaaS is an area that we’ve also invested in a lot. In fact, its founder, Dallen Allred, is someone whose earlier company, Artemis Health, is another portfolio company.

TC: Out of curiosity, how did Peterson get involved with Bonobos?

IS: Co-founders Andy Dunn and Brian Spaly were students of our founding partner, Joel Peterson, at Stanford GSB. GSB is a key area of deal flow for us. Joel has been teaching there for almost 30 years. Ben [Capell, a partner with Peterson since 2010] has been involved in backing over 20 companies in the last 8 years led by Stanford GSB alumni, and I’ve been guest lecturing there for seven years.

TC: You don’t invest exclusively in Utah, but you spend much of your time with local startups. How has the Utah scene changed since Peterson swung open its doors?

IS: Peterson dates back to 1995, so we’ve been fixtures in the Utah market for 25 years as a firm. When we started Peterson Ventures in 2008 investing Joel’s personal capital — it’s now a mix of institutions, family offices and high net worth individuals — there were no seed-stage firms. Now there are three institutional seed-stage firms, several Series A firms that will also invest in seed stage startups, and active family offices and angel investors.

Also, where the firm used to have to work hard to convince coastal firms to invest in Utah we now have an abundance of mid- and late-stage investors from both coasts spending significant time and
investing meaningful dollars here.

#allbirds, #bonobos, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

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WhyLabs brings more transparancy to ML ops

WhyLabs, a new machine learning startup that was spun out of the Allen Institute, is coming out of stealth today. Founded by a group of former Amazon machine learning engineers, Alessya Visnjic, Sam Gracie and Andy Dang, together with Madrona Venture Group principal Maria Karaivanova, WhyLabs’ focus is on ML operations after models have been trained — not on building those models from the ground up.

The team also today announced that it has raised a $4 million seed funding round from Madrona Venture Group, Bezos Expeditions, Defy Partners and Ascend VC.

Visnjic, the company’s CEO, used to work on Amazon’s demand forecasting model.

“The team was all research scientists, and I was the only engineer who had kind of tier-one operating experience,” she told me. “So it was like, ”Okay, how bad could it be?’ I carried the pager for the retail website before it can be bad. But it was one of the first AI deployments that we’d done at Amazon at scale. The pager duty was extra fun because there were no real tools. So when things would go wrong — like we’d order way too many black socks out of the blue — it was a lot of manual effort to figure out why was this happening.”

Image Credits: WhyLabs

But while large companies like Amazon have built their own internal tools to help their data scientists and AI practitioners operate their AI systems, most enterprises continue to struggle with this — and a lot of AI projects simply fail and never make it into production. “We believe that one of the big reasons that happens is because of the operating process that remains super manual,” Visnjic said. “So at WhyLabs, we’re building the tools to address that — specifically to monitor and track data quality and alert — you can think of it as Datadog for AI applications.”

The team has brought ambitions, but to get started, it is focusing on observability. The team is building — and open-sourcing — a new tool for continuously logging what’s happening in the AI system, using a low-overhead agent. That platform-agnostic system, dubbed WhyLogs, is meant to help practitioners understand the data that moves through the AI/ML pipeline.

For a lot of businesses, Visnjic noted, the amount of data that flows through these systems is so large that it doesn’t make sense for them to keep “lots of big haystacks with possibly some needles in there for some investigation to come in the future.” So what they do instead is just discard all of this. With its data logging solution, WhyLabs aims to give these companies the tools to investigate their data and find issues right at the start of the pipeline.

Image Credits: WhyLabs

According to Karaivanova, the company doesn’t have paying customers yet, but it is working on a number of proofs of concepts. Among those users is Zulily, which is also a design partner for the company. The company is going after mid-size enterprises for the time being, but as Karaivanova noted, to hit the sweet spot for the company, a customer needs to have an established data science team with 10 to 15 ML practitioners. While the team is still figuring out its pricing model, it’ll likely be a volume-based approach, Karaivanova said.

“We love to invest in great founding teams who have built solutions at scale inside cutting-edge companies, who can then bring products to the broader market at the right time. The WhyLabs team are practitioners building for practitioners. They have intimate, first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing AI builders from their years at Amazon and are putting that experience and insight to work for their customers,” said Tim Porter, managing director at Madrona. “We couldn’t be more excited to invest in WhyLabs and partner with them to bring cross-platform model reliability and observability to this exploding category of MLOps.”

#amazon, #artificial-general-intelligence, #artificial-intelligence, #bezos-expeditions, #cybernetics, #datadog, #defy-partners, #engineer, #enterprise, #jeff-bezos, #machine-learning, #madrona-venture-group, #ml, #mlops, #performance-management, #recent-funding, #science-and-technology, #startups, #tc, #whylabs

0

Zoom’s earliest investors are betting millions on a better Zoom for schools

Zoom was never created to be a consumer product. Nonetheless, the video-conferencing company’s accessibility made it the answer to every social situation threatened by the pandemic, from happy hours to meetings.

Months later, we’re realizing that force-feeding social experiences into an enterprise software company isn’t a perfect solution. Zoom School is a perfect example of what’s not working: Remote education is a hot mess for students, teachers and parents. Instructors, who could once engage a classroom through whiteboard activities, mini-group presentations and one-on-one discussions, are now stuck to one screen.

Well more than six months into a global pandemic, former Blackboard CEO and former PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen is daring to dream: What if we didn’t assume Zoom was a Band-Aid fix for schools? What if someone created a Zoom experience that was designed, not just marketed, for classrooms?

“If I told you that the majority of classes being held online today, teachers couldn’t take attendance, hand out assignments, give a test or a quiz, grade anything or talk one on one with students, you would say how is teaching and learning even happening?” he told TechCrunch.

Chasen is launching a new company, ClassEDU, with a first product that isn’t too shy about its ambitions, named Class for Zoom. Although the name might convince you that it’s a third-party add-on to Zoom, it’s an entirely independently owned company. And it’s built for teachers who need to find a way to create more-engaging, live-synchronous learning.

When a teacher logs into the Zoom call, they’ll be brought to a screen that looks like this:

Image Credits: ClassEDU

As you can see, they can toggle between the classroom, assignments, tests and quizzes, or the whiteboard. Instead of unorganized tab time, the teacher can take the video call as a one-stop shop for their entire lesson, from syncing materials from the CMS system to polling students on their thoughts to grading the quiz they just took. It’s a full-suite solution, and an ambitious one at that.

The best way to break down Class for Zoom’s features is by separating them into two buckets: instruction tools and management tools.

On the instruction side, Class for Zoom helps teachers launch live assignments, quizzes, and tests, which can be completed by students in real time. Students can also be polled to motivate engagement. Instructors can be granted access to unmute a class or mute a class during appropriate times.

Image Credits: ClassEDU

The marquee feature of the instruction tools is that teachers and students can talk privately without leaving the Zoom call if there’s a question. This is key for shy students who might not want to speak up, inspired by Chasen’s daughter, who struggled to share in front of an entire classroom.

Image Credits: ClassEDU

On the management side, tools range from attendance trackers to features that allow a teacher to see how much time a student is participating in activities. Chasen, who founded Blackboard when he was in college, also gave a nod to his prior company by allowing teachers to integrate CMS systems right into the Zoom classroom.

Less popular, Chasen jokes, is Class for Zoom’s ability to give teachers intel on if a student has Zoom as the primary app in use on their screen. The attention-tracking feature is not new, but it is oversight some people might not be okay with. Students can disable the ability to track focus, but administrators can make it mandatory. The platform also allows teachers to monitor a student’s desktop during an exam to limit cheating.

Class for Zoom’s access to a student’s personal computer could make some users uncomfortable. Zoom has been banned from some school districts due to security concerns, and a wave of Zoombombing attacks, where an unwanted participant hacks into a call and streams inappropriate or offensive content. In response, the video conferencing company has put in security measures, such as verification tools and waiting rooms.

Chasen says that Class for Zoom is balancing its access to information by giving students the option to opt into tracking features versus forcing them to.

Class for Zoom isn’t the only startup trying to make Zoom a better experience. A number of tools built atop Zoom have launched in the past few months, partially because the price of Zoom’s SDK is $0. Macro raised $4.3 million to add depth and analysis to Zoom calls, with an interface that tracks metrics like speaker time and notes. It has more than 25,000 users. Mmhmm got buzz in July for its creative demo that lets users create a broadcast-style video-conferencing experience atop their videoconferencing platform of choice.

Somewhat predictably, Zoom launched a competing feature with Mmhmm that calls into question whether the startups that layer atop incumbents look more like features instead of full-fledged platforms.

Of course, one threat to any of these products is Zoom’s mood. If Zoom tweaks its policy on SDK and API, it could completely wipe out Class for Zoom. But Chasen has reason to be optimistic that this won’t happen.

Today, Class for Zoom announced that it has raised a $16 million seed round, pre-launch, from a cohort of investors, including some of Zoom’s earliest backers such as Santi Subotovsky, a current Zoom board member from Emergence Capital; Jim Scheinman of Maven Partners, an early investor in Zoom and the person who is credited with naming Zoom; and Bill Tai, who is Zoom’s first committed backer. Other investors include Deborah Quazzo, partner from GSV Ventures, and Steve Case, co-founder of AOL and CEO of Revolution.

When asked if the Zoom investor involvement works as “insurance” to protect the startup, Chasen said he didn’t view it like that. Instead, the founder thinks that Zoom is focused more on scale than in-depth specialization. In other words, Zoom isn’t going to pull a Twitter, but instead likens the platform’s developer friendliness to that of Salesforce, which has tons of tools built atop of it. Second, Class for Zoom is a certified Zoom reseller, and makes money off of commission when a district buys Zoom through them. The informal and formal partnerships are enough glue, it seems, for Chasen to bet on stability.

As for whether the technology will stay exclusive to Zoom, Chasen says that it’s the main focus because Zoom is the “de facto industry standard in education.” If other platforms pick up speed, Chasen says they are open to experimenting with different software.

Chasen declined to share exact numbers around pricing, but said that it is a work in progress to find a price point that districts can afford. It’s unclear whether the company will charge per seat, but the founder said that it will charge some type of subscription service fee.

Accessibility in edtech solutions often relies on the medium that the technology and instruction lives on. For example, even if a product is free to use, if it needs high-speed internet and a Mac to work then it might not be accessible to the average home in America. The digital divide is why products often test usability on Chromebooks, low-cost computers that low-income students, teachers and school districts employ.

In Class for Zoom’s case, the first iteration of the product is being rolled out for teachers with Macintosh computers, which could leave out some key demographics due to expense. It’s worth noting that while students can still participate in a class being run on Class for Zoom without the software, the view, tracking and engagement software will be missing.

Thankfully, the new financing will be used to help ClassEDU build software that is usable on low-cost computers such as Chromebooks, as well as Windows, Android or iPhones. When that happens, teachers and students can both benefit from a more engaging view.

Chasen said that the idea for the startup began brewing just weeks into quarantine, when his three kids began learning from home. Months later, Class for Zoom is finally set to launch its beta version and is opening up its waitlist today. By January, Chasen hopes, it will be accessible to any school that wants it.

#classedu, #education, #michael-chasen, #online-education, #precisionhawk, #recent-funding, #santi-subotovsky, #startups, #tc, #zoom

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‘AI-powered’ fitness app Freeletics scores $25M Series B

Freeletics, the “AI-powered” fitness coaching app, has closed $25 million in Series B funding. Leading the round is U.S.-based JAZZ Venture Partners and Causeway Media Partners, with support from KKCG.

The fresh injection of capital follows $45 million in Series A funding in late 2018. It will be used by the company to develop new tech, further expand globally and launch new business verticals.

Founded in 2013 and well-established in Europe, Freeletics has been steadily trying to conquer America since its Series A (the company was impressively bootstrapped until then). The Munich, Germany-founded company’s self-described mission is to “challenge and inspire people to become the greatest version of themselves, both mentally and physically.”

The Freeletics app offers AI-powered fitness and mindset coaching, and has 48 million users in more than 160 countries, claiming to be the No. 1 fitness app in Europe with more than 600,000 paid-for subscriptions. The “personal trainer in your pocket” aims to help you train anytime, anywhere, with personalised training plans and workouts. Its algorithms learn from the app’s millions of users and the individual feedback they provide, with the goal of developing “smart” training journeys uniquely designed to suit different users in different contexts.

“While a relatively new player in the U.S., Freeletics is a clear global leader in at-home fitness and we believe they are perfectly positioned to continue leading the fitness industry into the future post-COVID-19 in the U.S. market,” said John Spinale, managing partner at JAZZ Venture Partners. “In an ocean of unpersonalized fitness streaming concepts, they offer a sophisticated and adaptive personal coach for every aspect of performance and well-being — whether mental or physical. This is a promising indication of what is still to come.”

“We want to give anyone the right plan and guidance to reach their goals, on their terms, and ultimately lead to a long-term behavior change so they can continue leading that lifestyle for the rest of their lives,” Freeletics CEO Daniel Sobhani tells TechCrunch. “Not everything the fitness industry has been telling us for the last 30 years has been setting people up for success, so we want to put an end to that and be clear and honest about the work it takes to reach your goals, while making real, sustainable results accessible to as many people as possible. And those goals don’t have to be just losing weight. Whatever the finish line looks like, we want to get people there in the most efficient, sustainable and enjoyable way.

Sobhani says Freeletics’ AI provides “hyper-personalized” fitness coaching, paired with mindset training for a more holistic experience. “The AI-powered coach curates the workouts best suited to every single user, so that they are always super efficient and effective, making it easier to work towards your goal,” he explains. “We focus so much on personalization because, in the end, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to health and fitness. We then pair this technology with our efforts in the product to reduce the everyday hurdles people face when it comes to working out regularly — time, space, equipment, knowledge, money, confidence and so on.”

The idea is that Freeletics lets you work out on your own terms, in terms of how, when and where you want. For each day of your training plan, the AI coach can draw from 3.5 million options. So, for example, you may want a quiet workout plan without equipment that fits with your small city apartment and that won’t disturb the neighbours. Or one that only requires 15 minutes. Or perhaps you want to lift weights instead. Based on these and a plethora of other criteria, Freeletics promises to adapt to your needs accordingly.

“For the finishing touch, we combine this personalized training experience with the mental component — audio coaching, which aims to educate, motivate and bring more mindfulness to the whole experience,” adds Sobhani. “This mindset coaching builds the sustainable basis for our users to make life-long improvements to their lifestyles, aiming to help them build healthy habits and better understand their journey, all while putting more emphasis on mindfulness and meditation for better long-term results across the board.”

Meanwhile, Freeletics operates a classic freemium model. The app is free to download and use to a certain extent, but for more personal coaching you’ll need to pay for a subscription. This sees the company offer different options with combinations of training, nutrition and mindset coaching for different subscription periods, from one to 12 months.

“Users can get a digital personal coach for less than a cup of coffee a week, which is the more attractive option for most if you compare that with the cost of a personal trainer at the gym,” says the Freeletics CEO. “And on top of that, the app also works to remove any other financial hurdles associated with working out, like gym memberships, equipment, etc. Over the last year we have managed to double our paying subscriber base to over 600,000, which is a real industry benchmark if you look at similar companies.”

#apps, #causeway-media-partners, #fitness-app, #freeletics, #jazz-venture-partners, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

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Uncapped picks up another $26M to offer revenue-based finance to European entrepreneurs

Uncapped, the London-headquartered and Warsaw-based startup that offers “revenue-based” finance to European businesses so that founders don’t have to give up equity stipulated by venture capital, has raised $26 million in new funding.

The round was led by Mouro Capital (the recently spun-out fund previously called Santander InnoVentures), with participation from existing investors Global Founders Capital, Seedcamp and White Star Capital. Various angel investors have also backed Uncapped, including Taavet Hinrikus (TransferWise), Christian Faes (LendInvest), David Nolan & Kevin Glynn (Butternut Box) and Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas (GoCardless).

Founded last year by “serial entrepreneur” Asher Ismail (who was most recently CEO of Midrive) and former VC Piotr Pisarz, Uncapped has set out to use various marketing, sales and accounting data to be able to offer finance for young businesses based on their current (and projected) revenue. It was born out of the pair’s own frustrations with the limited funding options available to European entrepreneurs, namely equity-based or traditional debt financing.

Framed as a third option, Uncapped provides what it terms “growth finance” in return for a flat fee as low as 6%. Businesses only repay the capital as they generate revenue, “with no set repayment date and no compounding interest, equity or personal guarantees”.

It was originally pitched as being particularly suited to revenue-generating companies wishing to invest in online marketing to grow sales more quickly, but has since widened its target to other scenarios.

“When we launched, we knew selling equity to buy Facebook and Google ads was a bad deal for founders,” says Ismail. “So this is where we focused and mainly funded companies for advertising and inventory. Since then we’ve set out to help companies get funding for any purpose including launching a new product, expanding internationally, or growing the team”.

Post-launch and through refining its technology, Uncapped has sped up the time it takes to make a lending decision from three days to a few hours. Once financing has been agreed, the startup can also now issue Visa cards so founders can start spending funds immediately.

“With this new investment round, we’ve also started funding earlier-stage companies with only six months of revenue history (previously our minimum was nine months),” says Ismail. “We’ve also doubled the amount we can advance at one time to £2 million. So now more companies can access funding for more use cases, and faster”.

Asked how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the way Uncapped evaluates risk, where past revenue performance may not be a reliable indicator going forward, Pisarz says a recession in some ways is the best time to build a credit model, “as everyone else’s models are now irrelevant”.

“Whereas other online lenders depend on personal guarantees and the founder’s own credit history as the main drivers of their risk models, we use live data about the company’s actual trading to make our decisions,” he tells me. “When the pandemic hit, we were able to access the real-time data about how our portfolio was performing, make quick decisions and continue to issue credit, where others were forced to pull back. Our number of investments and the returns have since grown exponentially”.

To boot, Pisarz says Uncapped has continued to upgrade its underwriting technology, and having now seen how different business models adjust to more challenging times, it has built more confidence in its underwriting.

“Unlike a VC, we need our whole portfolio to succeed, not just a few that make up for the losses of the others. So we need to have a lot of certainty in our decision making,” he concedes.

“Equity was the most expensive way to fund digital ad spend and repeatable growth, and as fundraising has become even harder due to the pandemic, it has only become more expensive,” adds Ismail. “So our sweet spot continues to be direct-to-consumer products and other fast-monetising startups that generate between £10,000-£2 million of monthly sales, have healthy unit economics and want to avoid diluting their founders and existing investors.

“For businesses that are still in the R&D stage or need more time to get to market, venture is still a good solution, but for businesses who are already live, have predictable customer acquisition costs, and repeatable growth, we know we are a better option”.

#finance, #mouro-capital, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #uncapped

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Papa raises $18 million to expand its business connecting older adults with virtual and in-person companions

The Miami-based startup Papa has raised an additional $18 million as it looks to expand its business connecting elderly Americans and families with physical and virtual companions, which the company calls “pals.”

The company’s services are already available in 17 states and Papa is going to expand to another four states in the next few months, according to chief executive Andrew Parker.

Parker launched the business after reaching out on Facebook to find someone who could serve as a pal for his own grandfather in Florida.

After realizing that there was a need among elderly residents across the state for companionship and assistance that differed from the kind of in-person care that would typically be provided by a caregiver, Parker launched the service. The kinds of companionship Papa’s employees offer range from helping with everyday tasks — including transportation, light household chores, advising with health benefits and doctor’s appointments, and grocery delivery — to just conversation.

With the social isolation brought on by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic there are even more reasons for the company’s service, Parker said. Roughly half of adults consider themselves lonely, and social isolation increases the risk of death by 29%, according to statistics provided by the company.

“We created Papa with the singular goal of supporting older adults and their families throughout the aging journey,” said Parker, in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately only intensified circumstances leading to loneliness and isolation, and we’re honored to be able to offer solutions to help families during this difficult time.” 

Papa’s pals go through a stringent vetting process, according to Parker, and only about 8% of all applicants become pals.

These pals get paid an hourly rate of around $15 per hour and have the opportunity to receive bonuses and other incentives, and are now available for virtual and in-person sessions with the older adults they’re matched with.

“We have about 20,000 potential Papa pals apply a month,” said Parker. In the company’s early days it only accepted college students to work as pals, but now the company is accepting a broader range of potential employees, with assistants ranging from 18 to 45 years old. The average age, Parker said, is 29.

Papa monitors and manages all virtual interactions between the company’s employees and their charges, flagging issues that may be raised in discussions, like depression and potential problems getting access to food or medications. The monitoring is designed to ensure that meal plans, therapists or medication can be made available to the company’s charges, said Parker.

Now that there’s $18 million more in financing for the company to work with, thanks to new lead investor Comcast Ventures and other backers — including Canaan, Initialized Capital, Sound Ventures, Pivotal Ventures, the founders of Flatiron Health and their investment group Operator Partners, along with Behance founder, Scott Belsky — Papa is focused on developing new products and expanding the scope of its services.

The company has raised $31 million to date and expects to be operating in all 50 states by January 2021. The company’s companion services are available to members through health plans and as an employer benefit.

“Papa is enabling a growing number of older Americans to age at home, while reducing the cost of care for health plans and creating meaningful jobs for companion care professionals,” said Fatima Husain, principal at Comcast Ventures, in a statement. “

#comcast-ventures, #fatima-husain, #flatiron-health, #florida, #health-insurance, #initialized-capital, #investment, #miami, #operator-partners, #recent-funding, #scott-belsky, #sound-ventures, #startups, #tc, #video-on-demand

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EasySend raises $16M from Intel, more for its no-code approach to automating B2C interfaces

No-code and low-code software have become increasingly popular ways for companies — especially those that don’t count technology as part of their DNA — to bring in more updated IT processes without the heavy lifting needed to build and integrate services from the ground up.

As a mark of that trend, today, a company that has taken this approach to speeding up customer experience is announcing some funding. EasySend, an Israeli startup which has built a no-code platform for insurance companies and other regulated businesses to build out forms and other interfaces to take in customer information and subsequently use AI systems to process it more efficiently, is announcing that it has raised $16 million.

The funding has actually come in two tranches, a $5 million seed round from Vertex Ventures and Menora Insurance that it never disclosed, and another $11 million round that closed more recently, led by Hanaco with participation from Intel Capital. The company is already generating revenue, and did so from the start, enough that it was actually bootstrapped for the first three years of its life.

Tal Daskal, EasySend’s CEO and co-founder, said that the funding being announced today will be used to help it expand into more verticals: up to now its primary target has been insurance companies, although organically it’s picked up customers from a number of other verticals, such as telecoms carriers, banks and more.

The plan will be now to hone in on specifically marketing to and building solutions for the financial services sector, as well as hiring and expanding in Asia, Europe and the US.

Longer term, he said, that another area EasySend might like to look at more in the future is robotic process automation (RPA). RPA, and companies that deal in it like UIPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, is today focused on the back office, and EasySend’s focus on the “front office” integrates with leaders in that area. But over time, it would make sense for EasySend to cover this in a more holistic way, he added.

Menora was a strategic backer: it’s one of the largest insurance providers in Israel, Daskal said, and it used EasySend to build out better ways for consumers to submit data for claims and apply for insurance.

Intel, he said, is also strategic although how is still being worked out: what’s notable to mention here is that Intel has been building out a huge autonomous driving business in Israel, anchored by MobileEye, and not only will insurance (and overall risk management) play a big part in how that business develops, but longer term you can see how there will be a need for a lot of seamless customer interactions (and form filling) between would-be car owners, operators, and passengers in order for services to operate more efficiently.

“Intel Capital chose to invest in EasySend because of its intelligent and impactful approach to accelerating digital transformation to improve customer experiences,” said Nick Washburn, senior managing director, Intel Capital, in a statement. “EasySend’s no-code platform utilizes AI to digitize thousands of forms quickly and easily, reducing development time from months to days, and transforming customer journeys that have been paper-based, inefficient and frustrating. In today’s world, this is more critical than ever before.”

The rise and persistence of Covid-19 globally has had a big, multi-faceted impact how we all do business, and two of those ways have fed directly into the growth of EasySend.

First, the move to remote working has given organizations a giant fillip to work on digital transformation, refreshing and replacing legacy systems with processes that work faster and rely on newer technologies.

Second, consumers have really reassessed their use of insurance services, specifically health and home policies, respectively to make sure they are better equipped in the event of a Covid-19-precipitated scare, and to make sure that they are adequately covered for how they now use their homes all hours of the day.

EasySend’s platform for building and running interfaces for customer experience fall directly into the kinds of apps and services that are being identified and updated, precisely at a time when its initial target customers, insurers, are seeing a surge in business. It’s that “perfect storm” of circumstances that the startup wouldn’t have wished on the world, but which has definitely helped it along.

While there are a lot of companies on the market today that help organizations automate and run their customer interaction processes, the Daskal said that EasySend’s focus on using AI to process information is what makes the startup more unique, as it can be used not just to run things, but to help improve how things work.

It’s not just about taking in character recognition and organizing data, it’s “understanding the business logic,” he said. “We have a lot of data and we can understand [for example] where customers left the process [when filling out forms]. We can give insights into how to increase the conversion rates.”

It’s that balance of providing tools to do business better today, as well as to focus on how to build more business for tomorrow, that has caught the eye of investors.

“Hanaco is firmly invested in building a digital future. By bridging the gap between manual processes and digitization, EasySend is making this not only possible, but also easy, affordable, and practical,” said Hanaco founding partner Alon Lifshitz, in a statement.

#ai, #artificial-intelligence, #easysend, #enterprise, #forms, #insurance, #insurtech, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

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Morgan Beller, co-creator of the Libra digital currency, just joined the venture firm NFX

Morgan Beller, who is a co-creator of the proposed Libra digital currency, along with Facebook vice presidents David Marcus and Kevin Weil, has left the company to become a general partner with the venture firm NFX .

In a call yesterday, she said she first became acquainted with the San Francisco-based outfit five years ago when on a “tech trek” to Israel, she met its local partner, Gigi Levy-Weiss, and formed a friendship with him.

At the time, she was a young partner at Andreessen Horowitz, working on its deal team after graduating from Cornell as a statistics major.

A role working on corporate development and strategy at Medium would follow, then it was on to Facebook in 2017, where Beller began in corporate development and — intrigued by cryptocurrency tech — where she quickly began evangelizing to her bosses the importance of better understanding it.

As she half-jokingly explains it, “Crypto is a mental virus for which there is no cure. I was at a16z when they got infected with the crypto virus.” She eventually caught it herself, and by the time she joined Facebook, she says she “realized no one was thinking about that space full time, so I took it upon myself to [help the company] figure out its point of view.”

Indeed, a CNBC story about Beller last year reports that at one point, she was the sole person on a Facebook blockchain initiative —  meeting with those in the know, attending relevant events, and otherwise researching the technology. Bill Barhydt, the CEO of the digital wallet startup Abra, told the outlet of Beller:  “I give her a lot of credit for taking what seems like a very methodical, long-term approach to figuring this out.”

All that said, Beller notes that as a full-time investor with NFX, she will not be focused exclusively or even mainly on crypto. Her focus instead will be finding and helping to cultivate seed-stage startups that aim to grow so-called network effects businesses.

It’s the broad theme of NFX, a now 25-person outfit cofounded five years ago by serial entrepreneurs who have all seen their companies acquired, including Levy-Weiss (who cofounded the online travel site Lastminute.com, and the social casino game publisher Playtika); Pete Flint (cofounder of the home buyers’ site Trulia); and James Currier (of the social network Tickle).

Certainly, she will keep busy at the firm, she suggests. As part of getting to know the partners and their thinking better, she introduced them to one company that they have since funded.

The pace has generally picked up, Flint tells us, saying that during the second quarter of this year and the third, NFX has twice broken its own investing records both because of “incredible founders who are reacting to this opportunity” and growing awareness about NFX, which last year closed its second fund with $275 million.

Last month, for example, NFX led a seed round for Warmly, a nine-month-old, San Francisco-based startup whose product tracks individuals in a customer’s CRM system, then sends out a notification when one of his or her contacts changes jobs. It also led a round recently for Jupiter, a year-old, San Francisco-based grocery delivery startup.

Naturally, Beller’s new partners are full of praise for her. Flint says the firm began looking for a fourth partner two years ago and that it has “spoken with dozens of exceptional people” since then, but it “always came back to Morgan.”

As for why the 27-year-old is ready to leap back into VC, Beller says that her work across Facebook and Medium and a16z “made me realize my favorite parts of projects is that zero-to-one phase and that with investing, it’s zero-to-one all day” with a team she wanted to be part of.

Further, she adds, while at Facebook, she was helping scout out deals for the venture firm Spark Capital, so she’s already well-acquainted with the types of founders to which she gravitates. “They’re are all weird in the right ways, and they’re all maniacally obsessed with winning.”

As for how she launches her career as a general partner in a pandemic, she notes that she loves walking and that she’ll happy cover 20 miles a day if given the opportunity.

“If anyone wants to safely walk with me,” she suggests that she’d love it.  Says Beller, “I’m not worried about San Francisco longer term. I don’t think there’s a replacement for in-person meetings.”

#andreessen-horowitz, #cryptocurrencies, #facbook, #fundings-exits, #libra, #medium, #nfx, #novi, #recent-funding, #spark-capital, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

0

Pure Watercraft ramps up its electric outboard motors with a $23M series A

Electric power only started making sense for land vehicles about ten years ago, but now the technology is ready to make the jump into the water. Pure Watercraft hopes that its electric outboard motor can replace a normal gas one for most boating needs under 50 HP — and it just raised $23.4M to hit the throttle.

Pure’s outboard works much like a traditional one, but runs on a suitcase-sized battery pack and is, of course, almost silent except for the sound of the turbulence. It’s pretty much a drop-in replacement for an outboard you’d use on a 10-20 foot boat meant for fishing or puttering around the lake, though the price tag looks a little different.

Founder and CEO Andy Rebele started the company in 2011, and it turns out they had shown up a bit early to the party. “The Model S had not yet been released; the plan of making boats electric was not really fundable,” he told me.

Rebele kept the company going with his own money and a bit of low-key funding in 2016, though he admits now that it was something of a leap of faith.

“You have to bet that this small market will become a big market,” he said. “We developed our entire battery pack architecture, and it took — it’s obvious at this point — millions of dollars to get where we are. But our investors are buying into a leader in the electrification of an entirely new sector of transportation that hasn’t gotten the same attention as cars and trucks.”

A boat with an electric outboard motor cruising on a lake.

Image Credits: Pure Watercraft

They haven’t been wasting time. Pure claims an energy density — how much power is packed into every kilogram — of 166 watt-hours per kilogram, meeting industry leader Tesla and beating plenty of other automotive battery makers. Users can easily add on a second pack or swap in a fresh one. The cells themselves are sourced from Panasonic, like Tesla’s and many others are, but assembling them into an efficient, robust, and in this case waterproof pack is something a company can still do better than its competition.

Having plenty of power is crucial for boats, since they use up so much of it to fight against the constant resistance of the water. The amount of power it takes to go a kilometer in a car is a fraction of what it takes to do so in a boat. Even boats designed for electric from the ground up, like those from Zin, face fundamental limits on their capabilities simply because of physics.

Rebele is aiming for the allure of simplicity. “The most popular outboard motor in the world is 40 horsepower,” he pointed out, and a replacement for that type of motor is exactly what Pure makes. “The mistake car companies made was saying, here’s the electric car market; it’s small, we tried it,” he said. Then Tesla came along with a great car that just happened to be electric.

It’s the same with boating, he suggested — sure, there are lots of different kinds of boats, and motors, and hull materials, and so on. But if Pure offers a motor that’s just as good or better than what powers a huge number of small boats, and just happens to be electric, it starts to sell itself.

Pure Watercraft's battery box.

Image Credits: Pure Watercraft

“We can’t count on people picking our product to save the world,” Rebele said. “The tipping point comes when you have a critical mass of people for whom a good selfish choice is to go electric.”

The benefits, after all, are easy to enumerate: It’s silent, which is great for fishing or social boating; It fills up for a buck or two at any outlet; It’s extremely low maintenance, having vastly fewer parts than a tiny gas engine; And of course it doesn’t spew fumes and particulates into the water and air like most of the depressingly dirty motors currently in use.

The only real advantage left to gas is initial cost and range. If you’re willing to spend some money for a better product, then cost isn’t as much of an issue. And if like most boaters you’re only going to ever go a few miles per trip, the range isn’t an issue. If you’re fishing or just cruising around a lake, it’ll last you all day. The people for whom electric isn’t an option will quickly realize that, while the others will find it increasingly hard to resist the idea.

Pure Watercraft's electric outboard motor lifted out of the water

Image Credits: Pure Watercraft

There’s still a good amount of sticker shock. A good new outboard in the 20-50 HP range runs a few thousand dollars to start, and marine gas costs add up quick; the Pure motor comes in a combo deal with the charger system and one battery pack for $16,500 (additional packs cost about $8,000). They’re working with some boat manufacturers to do complete boat deals for 30 grand or less, but it’s still firmly in the high end for the “outboard on a 2-6 person boat” crowd.

The $23.4 million A round, led by L37 and a number of individuals (including some Amazon execs and , is aimed squarely at spinning up production. After implementing the changes to the “beta” product they’ve been testing with, the first thousand Pure motors will be built in Seattle, where the company is based. The company has essentially finished R&D, so there’s little question of putting off customers for a few years while the product is engineered — and Rebele said they had no intent to build another for now.

“We make this product, at this power level, and that’s all,” he said. The company’s focus makes for good engineering and, hopefully, good margins. Pure should be shipping its motors in time for the 2021 boating season.

#electric-boats, #electric-vehicles, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #hardware, #pure-watercraft, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #transportation

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Satellite radar startup ICEYE raises 87 million to continue to grow its operational constellation

Finnish startup ICEYE, which has been building out and operating a constellation of Synthetic-Aperture Radar (SAR) small satellites, has raised an $87 million Series C round of financing. This round of funding was led by existing investor True Ventures, and includes participation by OTB Ventures, and it brings the total funding for ICEYE to $152 million since its founding in 2014.

ICEYE has already launched a total of five SAR satellites, and will be launching an addition four later this year, with a plan to add eight more throughout 2021. Its SAR satellites were the first ever small satellites with SAR imaging capabilities, and it designed and built the spacecraft in-house. SAR imaging is innovative because it uses relatively small actual physical antennas, combined with fast motion across a targeted imaging area, to create a much larger synthetic aperture than the physical aperture of the radar antenna itself – which in turn means it’s capable of producing very high-resolution, two- and three-dimensional images of areas and objects.

ICEYE has been able to rack up a number of achievements, including record-setting 0.25 meter resolution for a small SAR satellite, and record turnaround time in terms of capture data delivery, reaching only five minutes from when data begins its downlink connection to ground stations, to actually having processed images available for customers to use on their own systems.

The purpose of this funding is to continue and speed up the growth of the ICEYE satellite constellation, as well as providing round-the-clock customer service operations across the world. ICEYE also hopes to set up U.S.-based manufacturing operations for future spacecraft.

SAR, along with other types of Earth imaging, have actually grown in demand during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis – especially when provided by companies focused on delivering them via lower cost, small satellite operations. That’s in part due to their ability to provide services that supplement inspection and monitoring work that would’ve been done previously in person, or handled via expensive operations including aircraft observation or tasked geosynchronous satellites.

#aerospace, #capella-space, #iceye, #imaging, #recent-funding, #satellite-constellation, #satellites, #science, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #startups, #tc, #true-ventures

0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0

Impact, a YC-style accelerator for the entertainment industry, spins out from Imagine Entertainment with backing from Benchmark

Hollywood has been better known for making films and TV shows about the tech industry than it has been for being a part of it, but today a new enterprise is launching, backed by a major Silicon Valley venture firm, that hopes to hit pause on that image.

Imagine Impact, a content accelerator that launched two years ago under production powerhouse Imagine Entertainment to impart a “Y Combinator” approach to sourcing new work and connecting it with production opportunities, has raised a Series A round of funding from Benchmark, the VC firm that has backed Uber, Twitter, Dropbox, Snapchat and many more — funding that it plans to use to continue building out its accelerator model as well as launching new technology ventures, it said.

With the investment, Imagine Impact is effectively spinning out of Imagine Entertainment, and rebranding as a standalone company called Impact Creative Systems.

Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, the high profile duo that in 1985 started the film and TV production company that has been behind a string of hits, stay on as founders, but Impact (as the firm calls itself) will be run day to day by CEO Tyler Mitchell. (And all three will be talking with us on the Disrupt stage today about this and more.)

Mitchell says that the amount of the investment, the first outside money that Impact has taken, is not being disclosed but that it’s in line with a typical Benchmark Series A. That would put it between $10 million and $20 million. The investment is being led by Bill Gurley, who will join the board with the deal.

The funding will be used to help the firm spearhead new ventures that continue building out the idea of taking a new approach to networking and finding career opportunities throughout the entertainment industry, breaking down some of the barriers of how business has always been done — through networks of who you know, lots of lunches and other hobnobbing. The idea is for the projects coming out of Impact to be underpinned not just with a tech ethos, but with actual technology.

First up is the launch later this year of The Creative Network, which Imagine describes as “an online marketplace and professional networking platform designed specifically for entertainment industry professionals to help bring efficiency and access to Hollywood.” It’s a little like LinkedIn meets Behance.

Up to now, Impact has been focusing its energies on building out its accelerators and securing deals for the writers in its cohorts, with the whole set-up inspired by the famous Silicon Valley accelerator.

The YC playbook is used in two ways. The first is in the model it’s using, where it opens applications to anyone interested to applying, and then provides those selected with mentorship, time and a little financing to do their creative work. The second comes in the form of the mentors having a lot of connections in the industry and using those to help the writers connect with others to produce their work.

The accelerator model has seen an accelerating amount of interest. Impact now has built a second accelerator outside of LA, in Australia; it has started a podcast featuring interviews with famous actors, directors and others (pointing to other kinds of content that it might spin out as business projects). And its inked a deal with Netflix Films to help source and develop content globally.

And perhaps most interestingly for laying groundwork for The Creative Network, it has built up a network of 30,000 writers across 80 countries; it has helped develop 72 projects; and 25 of those are now with major studios.

Those efforts have also had some tech built around them. Mitchell said that a beta of sorts for The Creative Network was built originally to use for the accelerator. “We built it because we were just three people running the accelerator and didn’t have the human resources available to send out or read potentially thousands of scripts” — specifically 3,000 script submissions in 72 hours — “so we built a mobile app.” Features include the ability to push submissions, make watermarks and track emails in the bigger database, the said.

“We talk about ourselves as a dating app,” joked Mitchell. “You have to get four people to fall in love with one story or writer or piece of material” to advance, he said, “the producer, director, star and financier. That involves a lot of phone calls and relationships and phone tag. It can be a very long process to triangulate and build the right teams.”

While efforts so far have been focused on building ways of connecting writers with producers, the bigger picture is to build a network that can bring in the rest of the ecosystem, including directors, actors and the extensive technical and admin talent needed to get a project off the ground and on to a screen. All of these connections up to now have been firmly stuck in the analogue world, making them slow, limited in terms of inclusiveness, and obviously very ripe for technological disruption.

“It takes 500-1,000 people in total to bring a project to life,” Mitchell said. And the bigger opportunity for connecting networks is massive. Mitchell estimates that just in the US, the production business employs 2.6 million people and accounts for some $177 million in wages each year and it’s growing.

“The old way of sourcing talent in the entertainment industry is based on who you know, which presents high barriers-to-entry for the fresh voices we need to hear from,” said Gurley, in a statement. “Impact is knocking down these barriers through a marketplace model that reduces information asymmetry and levels the playing field. Ultimately this leads to more opportunities and better outcomes for everyone involved.”

Indeed, Hollywood has been between a rock and a hard place when it comes to changing up its ways.

On one side, the industry regularly faces criticism for lacking diversity in its ranks and failing to identify with the masses. Complaints include too few women in decision-making roles and the difficulty of finding work if you don’t fit into particular age and appearance types; accusations of racism (OscarsSoWhite being a recurring theme each awards season); and more.

On the other, the media industry — including how consumers watch video — is rapidly evolving. For better or worse, the TV was once the absolute epicenter of how a family came together and saw what was happening in the world outside. Those Happy Days are gone now, so to speak. People watch YouTube and TikTok, Snapchat and Netflix, and while some of that definitely is still tapping into the older Hollywood ecosystem — Netflix, of course, repurposes a lot of traditional TV and film content, and commissions its own — it also speaks to just how rapidly the mediums and their delivery are changing.

While the first efforts of Impact are addressing the first group of these issues, one follow up question — the sequel, you might say — might be how and if Impact chooses to use its networks, tech and strategy to think about the second of these.

Before coming to the entertainment industry (he was been a writer and producer for years before this) Mitchell said he had a background in finance and has “always been entrepreneurial.” The tech scene in LA has definitely been growing over the years — it’s home to Snap and others — meaning its ripe for tapping for hiring more people for the startup.

“We’re talking with data scientists to build better algorithms for the Network and yes we’re hiring engineers,” he said. “We’ve attracted some incredible talent and the majoirty of the investment is going to scaling our team.” Impact now has 11 full time technical staff, he said. 

“We could not be more thrilled to be working with Benchmark. They have an unrivaled track record in building marketplaces and companies that have changed the world,” said Grazer, in a statement. “From the moment we met Bill, it was clear that he understood and believed in our vision. Benchmark is not just an investor, but a true partner, whose expertise you can’t put a price on.” 

“With Benchmark, we are now in a better place to serve the greater creative community worldwide,” said Howard, in a statement. “Their investment enables us to go wider and deeper in bringing great storytellers to the forefront and connecting them to the entertainment industry.”

#disrupt, #entertainment, #imagine-entertainment, #impact, #recent-funding, #startups, #talent, #tc

0

Connected fitness startup Tonal raises another $110 million

Connected home fitness startup Tonal announced today that it has raised an additional $110 million. The latest round of funding includes existing investor L Catterton and new names, including Delta-v Capital, Amazon’s Alexa Fund and Mousse Partners, along with athletes Stephen Curry, Paul George, Michelle Wie and Bobby Wagner. The round brings the Bay Area-based company’s total funding up to $200 million.

Image Credits: Tonal

It’s a pretty massive round for the strength training company, especially as the space have become increasingly crowded in recent years. It’s clear, however, that investors are eager to get on-board with technologies that can help approximate the gym experience at home, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down public workout facilities all over the world.

Even as some have begun to reopen, many have done so with limited capacity. And many members are practicing abundance of caution when it comes to returning to gyms. There is, after, all a high risk factor of spread. Given that fact, the home workout it likely to continue to see growth in the coming months and year. There’s also the fact that Lululemon recently acquired Mirror, arguably Tonal’s biggest name competitor for $500 million.

What sets Tonal apart from much of the competition, however, is a strength training element in addition to the reflective screen. The system utilizes resistance technologies to approximate more traditional dumbbell/barbell-based weight training.

Here’s Curry explaining why he’s a fan: “I’ve had a Tonal for almost two years. While in quarantine during COVID, I have relied heavily on it to maintain my strength training and believe it is revolutionizing how people will work out now and in the future.”

Tonal also used the occasion to note that it has begun working with the Mayo Clinic for physical therapy trials, with results expected to be posted early next near. It’s also working with a number of hotels/resorts, including Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows, the Waldorf Astoria Boca Raton Resort and Club and the JW Marriott Anaheim.

#fitness, #hardware, #health, #l-catterton, #mirror, #recent-funding, #startups, #tonal

0

Narrator raises $6.2M for a new approach to data modelling that replaces star schema

Snowflake went public this week, and in a mark of the wider ecosystem that is evolving around data warehousing, a startup that has built a completely new concept for modelling warehoused data is announcing funding. Narrator — which uses an 11-column ordering model rather than standard star schema to organise data for modelling and analysis — has picked up a Series A round of $6.2 million, money that it plans to use to help it launch and build up users for a self-serve version of its product.

The funding is being led by Initialized Capital along with continued investment from Flybridge Capital Partners and Y Combinator — where the startup was in a 2019 cohort — as well as new investors including Paul Buchheit.

Narrative has been around for three years, but its first phase was based around providing modelling and analytics directly to companies as a consultancy, helping companies bring together disparate, structured data sources from marketing, CRM, support desks and internal databases to work as a unified whole. As consultants, using an earlier build of the tool that it’s now launching, the company’s CEO Ahmed Elsamadisi said he and others each juggled queries “for eight big companies singlehandedly,” while deep-dive analyses were done by another single person.

Having validated that it works, the new self-serve version aims to give data scientists and analysts a simplified way of ordering data so that queries, described as actionable analyses in a story-like format — or “Narratives“, as the company calls them — can be made across that data quickly — hours rather than weeks — and consistently. (You can see a demo of how it works below provided by the company’s head of data, Brittany Davis.)

(And the new data-as-a-service is also priced in SaaS tiers, with a free tier for the first 5 million rows of data, and a sliding scale of pricing after that based on data rows, user numbers, and Narratives in use.)

Elsamadisi, who co-founded the startup with Matt Star, Cedric Dussud, and Michael Nason, said that data analysts have long lived with the problems with star schema modelling (and by extension the related format of snowflake schema), which can be summed up as “layers of dependencies, lack of source of truth, numbers not matching, and endless maintenance” he said.

“At its core, when you have lots of tables built from lots of complex SQL, you end up with a growing house of cards requiring the need to constantly hire more people to help make sure it doesn’t collapse.”

(We)Work Experience

It was while he was working as lead data scientist at WeWork — yes, he told me, maybe it wasn’t actually a tech company but it had “tech at its core” — that he had a breakthrough moment of realising how to restructure data to get around these issues.

Before that, things were tough on the data front. WeWork had 700 tables that his team was managing using a star schema approach, covering 85 systems and 13,000 objects. Data would include information on acquiring buildings, to the flows of customers through those buildings, how things would change and customers might churn, with marketing and activity on social networks, and so on, growing in line with the company’s own rapidly scaling empire.  All of that meant a mess at the data end.

“Data analysts wouldn’t be able to do their jobs,” he said. “It turns out we could barely even answer basic questions about sales numbers. Nothing matched up, and everything took too long.”

The team had 45 people on it, but even so it ended up having to implement a hierarchy for answering questions, as there were so many and not enough time to dig through and answer them all. “And we had every data tool there was,” he added. “My team hated everything they did.”

The single-table column model that Narrator uses, he said, “had been theorised” in the past but hadn’t been figured out.

The spark, he said, was to think of data structured in the same way the we ask questions, where — as he described it — each piece of data can be bridged together and then also used to answer multiple questions.

“The main difference is we’re using a time-series table to replace all your data modelling,” Elsamadisi explained. “This is not a new idea, but it was always considered impossible. In short, we tackle the same problem as most data companies to make it easier to get the data you want but we are the only company that solves it by innovating on the lowest-level data modelling approach. Honestly, that is why our solution works so well. We rebuilt the foundation of data instead of trying to make a faulty foundation better.”

Narrator calls the composite table, which includes all of your data reformatted to fit in its 11-column structure, the Activity Stream.

Elsamadisi said using Narrator for the first time takes about 30 minutes, and about a month to learn to use it thoroughly. “But you’re not going back to SQL after that, it’s so much faster,” he added.

Narrator’s initial market has been providing services to other tech companies, and specifically startups, but the plan is to open it up to a much wider set of verticals. And in a move that might help with that, longer term, it also plans to open source some of its core components so that third parties can data products on top of the framework more quickly.

As for competitors, he says that it’s essentially the tools that he and other data scientists have always used, although “we’re going against a ‘best practice’ approach (star schema), not a company.” Airflow, DBT, Looker’s LookML, Chartio’s Visual SQL, Tableau Prep are all ways to create and enable the use of a traditional star schema, he added. “We’re similar to these companies — trying to make it as easy and efficient as possible to generate the tables you need for BI, reporting, and analysis — but those companies are limited by the traditional star schema approach.”

So far the proof has been in the data. Narrator says that companies average around 20 transformations (the unit used to answer questions) compared to hundreds in a star schema, and that those transformations average 22 lines compared to 1000+ lines in traditional modelling. For those that learn how to use it, the average time for generating a report or running some analysis is four minutes, compared to weeks in traditional data modelling. 

“Narrator has the potential to set a new standard in data,” said Jen Wolf, ​Initialized Capital COO and partner and new Narrator board member​, in a statement. “We were amazed to see the quality and speed with which Narrator delivered analyses using their product. We’re confident once the world experiences Narrator this will be how data analysis is taught moving forward.”

#data-warehousing, #developer, #enterprise, #narrator, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #y-combinator

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Zwift, maker of a popular indoor training app, just landed a whopping $450 million in funding led by KKR

Zwift, a 350-person, Long Beach, Calif.-based online fitness platform that immerses cyclists and runners in 3D generated worlds, just raised a hefty $450 million in funding led by the investment firm KKR in exchange for a minority stake in its business.

Permira and Specialized Bicycle’s venture capital fund, Zone 5 Ventures, also joined the round alongside earlier backers True, Highland Europe, Novator and Causeway Media.

Zwift has now raised $620 million altogether and is valued at north of $1 billion.

Why such a big round? Right now, the company just makes an app, albeit a popular one.

Since its 2015 founding, 2.5 million people have signed up to enter a world that, as Outside magazine once described it, is “part social-media platform, part personal trainer, part computer game.” That particular combination makes Zwift’s app appealing to both recreational riders and pros looking to train no matter the conditions outside.

The company declined to share its active subscriber numbers with us — Zwift charges $15 per month for its service — but it seemingly has a loyal base of users. For example, 117,000 of them competed in a virtual version of the Tour de France that Zwift hosted in July after it was chosen by the official race organizer of the real tour as its partner on the event.

Which leads us back to this giant round and what it will be used for. Today, in order to use the app, Zwift’s biking adherents need to buy their own smart trainers, which can cost anywhere from $300 to $700 and are made by brands like Elite and Wahoo. Meanwhile, runners use Zwift’s app with their own treadmills.

Now, Zwift is jumping headfirst into the hardware business itself. Though a spokesman for the company said it can’t discuss any particulars — “It takes time to develop hardware properly, and COVID has placed increased pressure on production” — it is hoping to bring its first product to market “as soon as possible.”

He added that the hardware will make Zwift a “more immersive and seamless experience for users.”

Either way, the direction isn’t a surprising one for the company, and we don’t say that merely because Specialized participated in this round as a strategic backer. Cofounder and CEO Eric Min has told us in the past that the company hoped to produce its own trainers some day.

Given the runaway success of the in-home fitness company Peloton, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a treadmill follow, or even a different product entirely. Said the Zwift spokesman, “In the future, it’s possible that we could bring in other disciplines or a more gamified experience.” (It will have expert advice in this area if it does, given that Swift just brought aboard Ilkka Paananen, the co-founder and CEO of Finnish gaming company Supercell, as an investor and board member.)

In the meantime, the company tells us not to expect the kind of classes that have proven so successful for Peloton, tempting as it may be to draw parallels.

While Zwift prides itself on users’ ability to organize group rides and runs and workouts, classes, says its spokesman, are “not in the offing.”

#3d, #causeway-media, #cycling, #gaming, #hardware, #health, #highland-europe, #kkr, #mobile, #online-fitness, #permira, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital, #zone-5-ventures, #zwift

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Data virtualization service Varada raises $12M

Varada, a Tel Aviv-based startup that focuses on making it easier for businesses to query data across services, today announced that it has raised a $12 million Series A round led by Israeli early-stage fund MizMaa Ventures, with participation by Gefen Capital.

“If you look at the storage aspect for big data, there’s always innovation, but we can put a lot of data in one place,” Varada CEO and co-founder Eran Vanounou told me. “But translating data into insight? It’s so hard. It’s costly. It’s slow. It’s complicated.”

That’s a lesson he learned during his time as CTO of LivePerson, which he described as a classic big data company. And just like at LivePerson, where the team had to reinvent the wheel to solve its data problems, again and again, every company — and not just the large enterprises — now struggles with managing their data and getting insights out of it, Vanounou argued.

Image Credits: Varada

The rest of the founding team, David Krakov, Roman Vainbrand and Tal Ben-Moshe, already had a lot of experience in dealing with these problems, too, with Ben-Moshe having served at the Chief Software Architect of Dell EMC’s XtremIO flash array unit, for example. They built the system for indexing big data that’s at the core of Varada’s platform (with the open-source Presto SQL query engine being one of the other cornerstones).

Image Credits: Varada

Essentially, Varada embraces the idea of data lakes and enriches that with its indexing capabilities. And those indexing capabilities is where Varada’s smarts can be found. As Vanounou explained, the company is using a machine learning system to understand when users tend to run certain workloads and then caches the data ahead of time, making the system far faster than its competitors.

“If you think about big organizations and think about the workloads and the queries, what happens during the morning time is different from evening time. What happened yesterday is not what happened today. What happened on a rainy day is not what happened on a shiny day. […] We listen to what’s going on and we optimize. We leverage the indexing technology. We index what is needed when it is needed.”

That helps speed up queries, but it also means less data has to be replicated, which also brings down the cost. AÅs Mizmaa’s Aaron Applebaum noted, since Varada is not a SaaS solution, the buyers still get all of the discounts from their cloud providers, too.

In addition, the system can allocate resources intelligently to that different users can tap into different amounts of bandwidth. You can tell it to give customers more bandwidth than your financial analysts, for example.

“Data is growing like crazy: in volume, in scale, in complexity, in who requires it and what the business intelligence uses are, what the API uses are,” Applebaum said when I asked him why he decided to invest. “And compute is getting slightly cheaper, but not really, and storage is getting cheaper. So if you can make the trade-off to store more stuff, and access things more intelligently, more quickly, more agile — that was the basis of our thesis, as long as you can do it without compromising performance.”

Varada, with its team of experienced executives, architects and engineers, ticked a lot of the company’s boxes in this regard, but he also noted that unlike some other Israeli startups, the team understood that it had to listen to customers and understand their needs, too.

“In Israel, you have a history — and it’s become less and less the case — but historically, there’s a joke that it’s ‘ready, fire, aim.’ You build a technology, you’ve got this beautiful thing and you’re like, ‘alright, we did it,’ but without listening to the needs of the customer,” he explained.

The Varada team is not afraid to compare itself to Snowflake, which at least at first glance seems to make similar promises. Vananou praised the company for opening up the data warehousing market and proving that people are willing to pay for good analytics. But he argues that Varada’s approach is fundamentally different.

“We embrace the data lake. So if you are Mr. Customer, your data is your data. We’re not going to take it, move it, copy it. This is your single source of truth,” he said. And in addition, the data can stay in the company’s virtual private cloud. He also argues that Varada isn’t so much focused on the business users but the technologists inside a company.

 

#big-data, #business-intelligence, #cloud, #computing, #cto, #data, #data-management, #dell-emc, #developer, #enterprise, #flash, #information, #israel, #liveperson, #mizmaa-ventures, #recent-funding, #sql, #startups, #tc, #tel-aviv

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Firehawk Aerospace aims to revolutionize rocketry with safe, cost-effective hybrid engines

While SpaceX and its ilk in the commercial rocket launch market have changed the economics of space and ushered in an era of small satellite entrepreneurship, the actual rocket engine technology they use isn’t that different from what was in use 50 years ago when NASA was making its first forays into outer space.

Firehawk Aerospace, a new startup founded by CEO Will Edwards and Chairman and Chief Scientists Ron Jones, wants to change that with a stable, cost-effective hybrid rocket fuel that employs additive manufacturing (industrial-scale 3D printing) to overcome the hurdles and limitations of previous hybrid fuel engine designs.

Hybrid rockets themselves – ones that use a combination of solid fuel and liquid oxidizer – aren’t new, but they have always faced significant limitations in terms of their performance metrics and maximum thrust power. Jones, a longtime rocket propulsion researcher and aerospace structures and advanced composite engineer, has been fascinated with engine technology and how to overcome the limits of past hybrid engine designs, while also retaining the benefits – including safety and cost.

Jones had been very interested in physics and engineering through high school and college, but ultimately joined the Navy and became an aviator before later coming back around to working in the aerospace industry. Meanwhile, he took advantage of the advent of the internet in its early days to begin diving deeper into his early love of rocketry, specifically researching hybrid engine technology and trading notes with experts all around the world.

“Ultimately, I came up with two concepts together,” Jones told me in an interview. “One is that they were using the wrong fuel – the fuel they were using was too elastic. Once you put it under pressure, it’s going to reverberate, and it’s not very strong so as it gets thinner, it will essentially break off chunks, and you lose a lot of fuel. So I switched that to a structurally very hard polymer. And second, I could see that they’re molding in casting just wasn’t a good idea. I switched that out to additive manufacturing.”

With additive manufacturing, which builds up a structure over time by extruding material, instead of pouring a liquid into a form and allowing it to harden, you can do things that are impossible with molding, including building up intentional, very structured internals. If you’ve ever seen at-home consumer 3D printing, it’s like the criss-cross patter you see in larger solids to provide rigidity or support to the external surfaces. That turned out to unlock a lot of potential for solid rocket fuel pellets.

“With additive manufacturing, I was able to do something no one else had done before. And that is to create a highly engineered internal structure that you can’t do with molding,” he said. “With those internal structures, we’ve been able to greatly improve the performance of the rocket engine, making it very reliable and also very safe, and these were the primary attributes that I was going after.”

Firehawk now holds five patents related to its 3D printing of rocket fuel, and it has already conducted 32 engine hot fire tests at both 200 lbs and 500 lbs of thrust to verify that its design actually works. The startup is also working on an engine capable of 5,000 lbs of thrust (roughly equivalent to Rocket Lab Electron’s second stage), which it plans to begin testing later this year at a new facility it’s building for the purpose.

As mentioned, current launch companies are already operating using much older, but still effective, rocket technology. So why bother with a new type of hybrid engine design? For a number of reasons, but efficiency and safety are chief among them.

Firehawk’s fuel can be stored, transported and handled much more safely, since it’s not susceptible to accidental detonation when the fuel and oxidizer are separate. It’s also non-toxic, and only produces exhaust that Firehawk says is “environmentally benign.” Safe handling of existing rocket fuel options for large launch vehicles requires a lot of special care and safety, as well as training, all of which adds up to time and expense.

Firehawk can also provide custom engine designs in between 4 to 6 months, it says, whereas typical new rocket engine development based on existing technology usually takes between 5 to 7 years. That time savings also adds up to significant budget savings – on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars – meaning new and better rockets can be iterated more quickly, without long useful lifetimes required between generations to recoup initial R&D costs.

The fuel can also be stored and transported over long durations, and even potentially stopped and restarted mid-flight, all of which means that longer and more complex missions can be accomplished at far lower costs than ever before. Obviously, the potential has sparked a lot of interest from both potential commercial and government customers, according to CEO Edwards.

Earlier this year, Firehawk Aerospace closed a $2 million seed round, from investors including Victorum Capital, Achieve Capital, and Harlow Capital Management, and they’re currently looking to grow the team, particular with driven engineers looking to work on the future of rocket propulsion. It’s also in process with a number of potential partners and letters of intent for commercialization of its technology.

#3d-printing, #additive-manufacturing, #aerospace, #battlefield, #disrupt-2020, #navy, #recent-funding, #rocket, #rocket-lab, #rocket-propulsion, #rocketry, #science, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex, #startups, #tc

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Courier raises $10.1M Series A to help developers integrate multi-channel notifications

Courier is an API platform with a no-code twist that helps developers add multi-channel user notifications to their applications. The company today announced that it has raised a $10.1 million Series A funding round led by Bessemer Venture Partners. Matrix Partners, Twilio and Slack Fund also participated in this round.

Previously, the company raised a $2.3 million seed round led by Matrix Partners, with participation from Y Combinator. That round, which closed in April 2019, was previously unreported. Bessemer Venture Partners’ Byron Deeter and Matrix Partners’ Patrick Malatack, the previous VP of Product at Twilio, will join Courier’s Board of Directors.

“While at Twilio, I saw developers wrestling with integrating multiple channels together into a single experience,” says Malatack in today’s announcement. “Courier’s vision of a single platform for connecting and managing multiple channels really compliments the channel explosion I was seeing customers struggle with.”

Image Credits: Courier

Courier founder and CEO Troy Goode previously led an engineering group at marketing automation firm Eloqua, which was acquired by Oracle in 2012, and as the CTO and Head of Product at logistics software provider Winmore. Eloqua is clearly where he drew his inspiration for Courier from, though, which he built out during his time at Y Combinator.

“And one of the things that I noticed and became very frustrated by was that with Eloqua, Marketo, HubSpot, there were a ton of different tools for marketing teams to use to communicate with prospects and our leads,” Goode told me. “But as soon as somebody became a customer, as soon as somebody became a user, we weren’t using those platforms. All of a sudden, we were manually plugging in infrastructure level systems like SendGrid and Twilio.”

The idea behind Courier is to provide development teams with a one-stop service for all their notification and communication infrastructure needs without having to build it from scratch. As Goode noted, large companies like Airbnb and LinkedIn can afford to build and maintain these systems to send out transactional emails to their users, often with teams that have dozens of engineers on them. Small teams can build less sophisticated solutions, but there’s really no need for every company to reinvent the wheel.

Today, Courier integrates with the likes of Slack, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, SendGrid, Postmark, Mailgun, MessageBird, Twilio and Nexmo, among others.

One thing that makes the service stand out is that it offers both a no-code system for users to build their massaging flows and templates, as well as the APIs for developers to integrate these into their applications. That means anybody within a company can, for example, build rules to route messages through specific channels and providers based on their needs, on top of managing the content and the branding of the messages that are being sent.

Image Credits: Courier

“You’ve got this broad array of potential providers,” Good said. “And what you need to do is figure out, okay, which provider am I going to use? And sometimes, especially at large organizations, the answer is multiple providers. And or email, you might need a backup email service in case your primary goes down, or you need to warm up an IP pool for SMS . You might have different providers per geography for both deliverability and price reasons. That’s really hard stuff to build yourself.”

But in addition, different recipients also have different preferences, too, and while users can build rules around that today, the company is looking at how to automate this process over time so that it can, for example, automatically ping users on the channel where they are most likely to respond (or purchase something) at a given time of the day.

Goode noted that it may be hard to convert big businesses to move to its platform given that they have already invested a lot into their own systems. But like Stripe, which faced a similar problem given that most potential users weren’t waiting to rip out their existing payment infrastructure, he believes that partnering with companies early and having patience will pay off in the long run.

#airbnb, #api, #bessemer-venture-partners, #byron-deeter, #ceo, #computing, #courier, #eloqua, #facebook, #hubspot, #mailgun, #marketo, #matrix-partners, #messenger, #microsoft, #microsoft-teams, #operating-systems, #oracle, #recent-funding, #sendgrid, #slack, #slack-fund, #sms, #software, #startups, #twilio, #whatsapp

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Airtable raises $185M and launches new low-code and automation features

The spreadsheet-centric database and no-code platform Airtable today announced that it has raised a $185 million Series D funding round, putting the company at a $2.585 billion post-money valuation.

Thrive Capital led the round, with additional funding by existing investors Benchmark, Coatue, Caffeinated Capital and CRV, as well as new investor D1 Capital. With this, Airtable, which says it now has 200,000 companies using its service, has raised a total of about $350 million. Current customers include Netflix, HBO, Condé Nast Entertainment, TIME, City of Los Angeles, MIT Media Lab and IBM.

In addition, the company is also launching one of its largest feature updates today, which start to execute on the company’s overall platform vision that goes beyond its current no-code capabilities and bring more low-code features, as well new automation (think IFTTT for Airtable) and data management tools to the service.

As Airtable founder and CEO Howie Liu told me, a number of investors approached the company since it raised its Series C round in 2018, in part because the market clearly realized the potential size of the low-code/no-code market.

“I think there’s this increasing market recognition that the space is real, and the spaces is very large […],” he told me. “While we didn’t strictly need the funding, it allowed us to continue to invest aggressively into furthering our platform, vision and really executing aggressively, […] without having to worry about, ‘well, what happens with COVID?’ There’s a lot of uncertainty, right? And I think even today there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what the next year will bear.”

The company started opening the round a couple of months after the first shelter in place orders in California and for most investors, this was a purely digital process.

Liu has always been open about the fact that he wants to build this company for the long haul — especially after he sold his last company to Salesforce at an early stage. As a founder, that likely means he is trying to keep his stake in the company high, even as Airtable continues to raise more money. He argues, though, that more so than the legal and structural controls, being aligned with his investors is what matters most.

“I think actually, what’s more important in my view, is having philosophical alignment and expectations alignment with the investors,” he said. “Because I don’t want to be in a position where it comes down to a legal right or structural debate over the future of the company. That almost feels to me like the last resort where it’s already gotten to a place where things are ugly. I’d much rather be in a position where all the investors around the table, whether they have legal say or not, are fully aligned with what we’re trying to do with this business.”

Just as important as the new funding though, are the various new features the company is launching today. Maybe the most important of these is Airtable Apps. Previously, Airtable users could use pre-built blocks to add maps, Gantt charts and other features to their tables. But while being a no-code service surely helped Airtable’s users get started, there’s always an inevitable point where the pre-built functionality just isn’t enough and users need more custom tools (Liu calls this an escape valve). So with Airtable Apps, more sophisticated users can now build additional functionality in JavaScript — and if they choose to do so, they can then share those new capabilities with other users in the new Airtable Marketplace.

Image Credits: Airtable

“You may or may not need an escape valve and obviously, we’ve gotten this far with 200,000 organizations using Airtable without that kind of escape valve,” he noted. “But I think that we open up a lot more use cases when you can say, well, Airtable by itself is 99% there, but that last 1% is make or break. You need it. And then, just having that outlet and making it much more leveraged to build that use case on Airtable with 1% effort, rather than building the full-stack application as a custom built application is all the difference.”

Image Credits: Airtable

The other major new feature is Airtable Automations. With this, you can build custom, automated workflows to generate reports or perform other repetitive steps. You can do a lot of that through the service’s graphical interface or use JavaScript to build you own custom flows and integrations, too. For now, this feature is available for free, but the team is looking into how to charge for it over time, given that these automated flows may become costly if you run them often.

The last new feature is Airtable Sync. With this, teams can more easily share data across an organization, while also providing controls for who can see what. “The goal is to enable people who built software with Airtable to make that software interconnected and to be able to share a source of truth table between different instances of our tables,” Liu explained.

Image Credits: Airtable

#airtable, #c, #caffeinated-capital, #california, #ceo, #cloud, #computing, #enterprise, #gantt, #howie-liu, #javascript, #recent-funding, #salesforce, #series-c, #software, #spreadsheet, #startups, #tc, #thrive-capital

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DCM has already made nearly $1 billion off its $26 million bet on Bill.com

David Chao, the cofounder of the cross-border venture firm DCM, speaks English, Japanese, and Mandarin. But he also knows how to talk to founders.

It’s worth a lot. Consider that DCM should see more than $1 billion from the $26.4 million it invested across 14 years in the cloud-based business-to-business payments company Bill.com, starting with its A round. Indeed, by the time Bill.com went public last December, when its shares priced at $22 apiece, DCM’s stake — which was 16% sailing into the IPO — was worth a not-so-small fortune.

Since then Wall Street’s lust for both digital payments and subscription-based revenue models has driven Bill.com’s shares to roughly $90 each. Little wonder that in recent weeks, DCM has sold roughly 70 percent of its stake for nearly $900 million. (It still owns 30 percent of its position.)

We talked with Chao earlier today about Bill.com, on whose board he sits and whose founder, René Lacerte, is someone Chao backed previously. We also talked about another very lucrative stake DCM holds right now, about DCM’s newest fund, and about how Chao navigates between the U.S. and China as relations between the two countries worsen. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: I’m seeing you owned about 33% of Bill.com after the first round. How did that initial check come to pass? Had you invested before in Lacerte?

DC: That’s right. Renee started [an online payroll] company called PayCycle and we’d backed him and it sold to Intuit [in 2009] and Renee made good money and we made money. And when he wanted to start this next thing, he said, ‘Look, I want to do something that’s a bigger outcome. I don’t want to sell the company along the way. I just want this time to do a big public company.’

TC: Why did he sell PayCycle if that was his ambition?

DC: It was largely because when you’re a first-time CEO and entrepreneur and a large company offers you the chance to make millions and millions of dollars, you’re a bit more tempted to sell the company. And it was a good price. For where the company was, it was a decent price.

Bill.com was a little bit different. We had good offers before going public. We even had an offer right before we went public.  But Renee said, ‘No, this time, I want to go all the way.’ And he fulfilled that promise he’d made to himself. It’s a 14-year success story.

TC: You’ve sold most of your stake in recent weeks for $900 million; how does that outcome compare with other recent exits for DCM? 

DC: We actually have another recent one that’s phenomenal. We invested in a company called Kuaishou in China. It’s the largest competitor to Bytedance’s TikTok in China. We’ve invested $49.3 million altogether and now that stake is worth $3.8 billion. The company is still private held, but we actually cashed out around 15% of our holdings. and with just that sale alone we’ve already [seen 10 times] that $30 million.

TC: How do you think about selling off your holdings, particularly once a company has gone public?

DC: It’s really case by case. In general, once a company goes public, we probably spend somewhere between 18 months to three years [unwinding our position]. We had two big IPOs in Japan last year. One company [had] a $1 billion market cap; the other was a $2 billion company. There are some [cases] that are 12 months and there are some [where we own some shares] for four or five years.

TC: What types of businesses are these newly public companies in Japan?

DC: They’re both B2B. One is pretty much the Bill.com of Japan. The other makes contact management software

TC: Isn’t DCM also an investor in Blued, the LGBTQ dating app that went public in the U.S. in July?

DC: Yes, our stake wasn’t  very big,  but we were probably the first major VC to jump in because it was controversial.

TC: I also saw that you closed a new $880 million early stage fund this summer.

DC: Yes, that’s right. It was largely driven by the fact that many of our funds have done well. We’re now on fund nine, but our fund seven is on paper today 9x, and even the fund that Bill.com is in, fund four, is now more than 3x. So is fund five. So we’re in a good spot.

TC: As a cross-border fund, what does the growing tension between the U.S and China mean for your team and how it operates?

DC: It’s not a huge impact. If we were currently investing in semiconductor companies, for example, I think it would be a pretty rough period, because [the U.S.] restricts all the money coming from any foreign sources. At least, you’d be under strong scrutiny. And if we invested in a semiconductor company in China, you might not be able to go public in the U.S.

But the kinds of deals that we do, which are largely B2B and B2C — more on the software and services side — they aren’t as impacted. I’d say 90% of our deals in China focus on the domestic market. And so it doesn’t really impact us as much.

I think some of the Western institutions putting money into the Chinese market — that might be decreasing, or at least they’re a little bit more on the sidelines, trying to figure out whether they should be continuing to invest in China. And maybe for Chinese companies, less companies will go public in the U.S., etcetera. But some of these companies can go public in Hong Kong.

TC: How you feel about U.S. administration’s policies?  Do you understand them? Are you frustrated by them?

DC: I think it requires patience, because what [is announced and] goes on the news, versus what is really implemented and how it truly affects the industry, there’s a huge gap.

#bill-com, #china, #cross-border, #david-chao, #dcm, #exit, #ipo, #kuaishou, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

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StackRox nabs $26.5M for a platform that secures containers in Kubernetes

Containers have become a ubiquitous cornerstone in how companies manage their data, a trend that has only accelerated in the last eight months with the larger shift to cloud services and more frequent remote working due to the coronavirus pandemic. Alongside that, startups building services to enable containers to be used better are also getting a boost.

StackRox, which develops Kubernetes-native security solutions, says that its business grew by 240% in the first half of this year, and on the back of that, it is announcing today that it has raised $26.5 million to expand its business into international markets, and to continue investing in its R&D.

The funding, which appears to be a Series C, has an impressive list of backers. It is being led by Menlo Ventures, with Highland Capital Partners, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, Sequoia Capital and Redpoint Ventures all also participating. Sequoia and Redpoint are previous investors, and the company has raised around $60 million to date.

HPE is a strategic backer in this round:

“At HPE, we are working with our customers to help them accelerate their digital transformations,” said Paul Glaser, VP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Head of Pathfinder. “Security is a critical priority as they look to modernize their applications with containers. We’re excited to invest in StackRox and see it as a great fit with our new software HPE Ezmeral to help HPE customers secure their Kubernetes environments across their full application life cycle. By directly integrating with Kubernetes, StackRox enables a level of simplicity and unification for DevOps and Security teams to apply the needed controls effectively.”

Kamal Shah, the CEO, said that StackRox is not disclosing its valuation, but he confirmed it has definitely gone up. For some context, according to PitchBook data, the company was valued at $145 million in its last funding round, a Series B in 2018. Its customers today include the likes of Priceline, Brex, Reddit, Zendesk and Splunk, as well as government and other enterprise customers, in a container security market that analysts project will be worth some $2.2 billion by 2024, up from $568 million last year.

StackRox first got its start in 2014, when containers were starting to pick up momentum in the market. At the time, its focus was a little more fragmented, not unlike the container market itself: it provided solutions that could be used with Docker containers as well as others. Over time, Shah said that the company chose to hone its focus just on Kubernetes, originally developed by Google and open-sourced, and now essentially the de-facto standard in containerisation.

“We made a bet on Kubernetes at a time when there were multiple orchestrators, including Mesosphere, Docker and others,” he said. “Over the last two years Kubernetes has won the war and become the default choice, the Linux of the cloud and the biggest open source cloud application. We are all Kubernetes all the time because what we see in the market are that a majority of our customers are moving to it. It has over 35,000 contributors to the open source project alone, it’s not just Red Hat (IBM) and Google.” Research from CNCF estimates that nearly 80% of organizations that it surveyed are running Kubernetes in production.

That is not all good news, however, with the interest underscoring a bigger need for Kubernetes-focused security solutions for enterprises that opt to use it.

Shah says that some of the typical pitfalls in container architecture arise when they are misconfigured, leading to breaches; as well as around how applications are monitored; how developers use open-source libraries; and how companies implement regulatory compliance. Other security vulnerabilities that have been highlighted by others include the use of insecure container images; how containers interact with each other; the use of containers that have been infected with rogue processes; and having containers not isolated properly from their hosts.

But Shah noted, “Containers in Kubernetes are inherently more secure if you can deploy correctly.” And to that end that is where StackRox’s solutions attempt to help: the company has built a multi-purposes toolkit that provides developers and security engineers with risk visibility, threat detection, compliance tools, segmentation tools and more. “Kubernetes was built for scale and flexibility, but it has lots of controls so if you misconfigure it it can lead to breaches. So you need a security solution to make sure you configure it all correctly,” said Shah.

He added that there has been a definite shift over the years from companies considering security solutions as a optional element into one that forms part of the consideration at the very core of the IT budget — another reason why StackRox and competitors like TwistLock (acquired by Palo Alto Networks) and Aqua Security have all seen their businesses really grow.

“We’ve seen the innovation companies are enabling by building applications in containers and Kubernetes. The need to protect those applications, at the scale and pace of DevOps, is crucial to realizing the business benefits of that innovation,” said Venky Ganesan, partner, Menlo Ventures, in a statement. “While lots of companies have focused on securing the container, only StackRox saw the need to focus on Kubernetes as the control plane for security as well as infrastructure. We’re thrilled to help fuel the company’s growth as it dominates this dynamic market.”

“Kubernetes represents one of the most important paradigm shifts in the world of enterprise software in years,” said Corey Mulloy, General Partner, Highland Capital Partners, in a statement. “StackRox sits at the forefront of Kubernetes security, and as enterprises continue their shift to the cloud, Kubernetes is the ubiquitous platform that Linux was for the Internet era. In enabling Kubernetes-native security, StackRox has become the security platform of choice for these cloud-native app dev environments.”

#containers, #enterprise, #kubernetes, #recent-funding, #security, #startups, #tc

0

Orchard real estate platform raises $69 million Series C led by Revolution Growth

Orchard, the tech-forward residential real estate platform, has today announced the close of a $69 million Series C funding led by Revolution Growth. Existing investors FirstMark Capital, Navitas, Accomplice and Juxtapose also participated in the round, which brings the company’s total funding to $138 million.

Orchard (formerly Perch) launched in 2017 on a mission to digitize the entire experience of buying or selling a home. They focused initially (and still) on ‘dual trackers’, which essentially means that they are home buyers who are also in the process of selling their existing home.

As you might expect, the process of doing both at the same time can be incredibly tedious and, at times, costly. Orchard makes an offer on the buyers’ home with a price that’s guaranteed for 90 days — the company says the vast majority of those homes sell at market price before that 90-day period is over.

Orchard’s product suite also includes tools for searching for homes, title and mortgage.

The search products, in particular, stand out among a crowded space of property search tools. For example, Orchard users can search homes by the room that’s most important to them, putting the Kitchen or the Backyard as the lead image on their listings. Orchard also uses machine learning to suggest more personalized listings.

Orchard cofounder and CEO Court Cunningham had this to say in a prepared statement:

In the same way Amazon has fundamentally changed retail, and Carvana has innovated the car buying experience, Orchard is putting the customer first and modernizing the home buying and selling transaction. We’re thrilled to have a partner in Revolution Growth who has extensive experience working with transformative growth stage consumer businesses that are upending traditional industries. In the year ahead, we’ll be launching an exciting suite of new products and services that further modernize the home purchase experience, while also offering our services to new markets throughout the country.

In the release, the company said it would be using the investment to further expand the product portfolio and grow the team in markets like New York, Texas, Colorado and Georgia, as well as move into new states.

#orchard, #real-estate, #recent-funding, #revolution-growth, #startups, #tc

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Groww, an investment app for millennials in India, raises $30M led by YC Continuity

Even as more than 150 million people are using digital payment apps each month in India, only about 20 million of them invest in mutual funds and stocks. A startup that is attempting to change that by courting millennials has just received a big backing.

Bangalore-headquartered Groww said on Thursday it had raised $30 million in its Series C financing round. YC Continuity, the growth-stage investment fund of Y Combinator, led the round, while existing investors Sequoia India, Ribbit Capital and Propel Ventures participated in it. The new round brings three-year-old startup Groww’s total raise-to-date to $59 million.

Groww allows users to invest in mutual funds, including systematic investment planning (SIP) and equity-linked savings. The app maintains a very simplified user interface to make it easier for its largely millennial customer base to comprehend the investment world. It offers every fund that is currently available in India.

In recent months, the startup has expanded its offerings to allow users to buy stocks of Indian firms and digital gold, said Lalit Keshre, co-founder and chief executive of Groww, in an interview with TechCrunch. Keshre and other three co-founders of Groww worked at Flipkart before launching their own startup.

Groww has amassed over 8 million registered users for its mutual fund offering, and over 200,000 users have bought stocks from the platform, said Keshre. The new fund will allow Groww to further expand its reach in the country and also introduce new products, he said.

One of those products is the ability to allow users to buy stocks of U.S.-listed firms and derivatives, he said. The startup is already testing this with select users, he said.

“We believe Groww is building the largest retail brokerage in India. At YC, we have known the founders since the company was just an idea and they are some of the best product people you will meet anywhere in the world. We are grateful to be partners with Groww as they build one of the largest retail financial platforms in the world,” said Anu Hariharan, partner at YC Continuity, in a statement.

More than 60% of Groww users come from smaller cities and towns of India and 60% of these have never made such investments before, said Keshre. The startup is conducting workshops in several small cities to educate people about the investment world. And that’s where the growth opportunities lie.

“India is seeing increased participation of retail investors in financial markets — with 2 million new stock market investors added in the last quarter alone,” said Ashish Agrawal, principal at Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.

Scores of startups such as Zerodha, INDWealth and Cube Wealth have emerged and expanded in India in recent years to offer wealth management platforms to the country’s growing internet population. Many established financial firms such as Paytm have also expanded their offerings to include investments in mutual funds. Amazon, which has aggressively expanded its financial services catalog in India in recent months, also sells digital gold in the country.

#apps, #asia, #finance, #funding, #groww, #india, #recent-funding, #sequoia-capital, #sequoia-capital-india, #startups, #yc-continuity

0

Iron Ox raises $20 million for its robotic farms

Bay Area-based Iron Ox today announced a $20 million Series B. The funding, led by Pathbreaker Venture and family office firms, brings the robotics company’s total funding up to $45 million to date. A number of other investors also took part in the round, including Crosslink Capital, Amplify Partners, ENIAC Ventures, R7 Partners, Tuesday Ventures, At One Ventures and Y Combinator.

Founded in 2015, Iron Ox has become one of the more prominent names in the world of agricultural robotics. In 2018, the company announced its first indoor farm, growing a slew of leafy green vegetables in hydroponic boxes.

Today they announced the addition of a Gilroy, California-based farm with 10,000 square feet of growing area. The location has already begun delivering vegetables to a number of retailers and restaurants across the state, including some big names like Whole Foods and smaller operations like Bianchini’s Market, which operates two locations in California. Today’s plans entail a nation-wide expansion in delivery for next year.

Image Credits: Iron Ox

“We have made it our mission to address food security by developing autonomous greenhouses that grow a variety of local and consistently delicious food for everyone,” co-founder and CEO Brandon Alexander said in a release. “Today, we’re thrilled to announce the successful operation of our Gilroy farm as well as our consumer brand, and our plans to complete additional sunlight-enabled, out-of-state facilities in 2021.”

The appeal of robotic farming is pretty straightforward, addressing labor shortages and supply chain issues. In the era of COVID-19, some of those problems have become even more pressing, with additional concerns surrounding the potential for transmission. It’s no surprise, then, that the company was able to nearly double previous raises in an era when investors are eyeing any and all robotics and automation.

That the company has a proven model makes things all the more appealing.

#agriculture, #farming, #iron-ox, #pathbreaker-ventures, #recent-funding, #robotics, #startups

0

Xometry raises $75M Series E to expand custom manufacturing marketplace

When companies need to find manufacturers to build custom parts, it’s not always an easy process, especially during a pandemic. Xometry, a 7-year old startup based in Maryland has built an online marketplace where companies can find manufacturers across the world with excess capacity to build whatever they need. Today, the company announced a $75 million Series E investment to keep expanding the platform.

T. Rowe Price Associates led the investment with participation from new firms Durable Capital Partners LP and ArrowMark Partners. Previous investors also joined the round including BMW i Ventures, Greenspring Associates, Dell Technologies Capital, Robert Bosch Venture Capital, Foundry Group, Highland Capital Partners and Almaz Capital. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $193 million, according to the company.

Company CEO and co-founder Randy Altschuler says Xometry fills a need by providing a digital way of putting buyers and manufacturers together with a dash of artificial intelligence to put the right combination together. “We’ve created a marketplace using artificial intelligence to power it, and provide an e-commerce experience for buyers of custom manufacturing and for suppliers to deliver that manufacturing,” Altschuler told TechCrunch.

The kind of custom pieces that are facilitated by this platform include mechanical parts for aerospace, defense, automotive, robotics and medical devices — what Altschuler calls mission critical parts. Being able to put companies together in this fashion is particularly useful during COVID when certain regions might have been shut down.

“COVID has reinforced the need for distributed manufacturing and our platform enables that by empowering these local manufacturers, and because we’re using technology to do it, as COVID has unfolded […] and as continents have shut down, and even specific states in the United States have shut down, our platform has allowed customers to autocorrect and shift work to other locations,” he explained

What’s more, companies could take advantage of the platform to manufacture critical personal protective equipment. “One of the beauties of our platform was when COVID hit customers could come to our platform and suddenly access this tremendous amount of manufacturing capacity to produce this much-needed PPP,” he said.

Xometry makes money by facilitating the sale between the buyer and producer. They help set the price and then make money on the difference between the cost to produce and how much the buyer was willing to pay to have it done.

They have relationships with 5000 manufacturers located throughout the world and 30,000 customers using the platform to build the parts they need. The company currently has around 350 employees with plans to use the money to add more to keep enhancing the platform.

Altschuler says from a human perspective, he wants his company to have a diverse workforce because he never wants to see people being discriminated against for whatever reason, but he also says as a company with an international market having a diverse workforce is also critical to his business. “The more diversity that we have within Xometry, the more we’re able to effectively market to those folks, sell to those folks and understand how they utilize technology. We’re just going to better understand our customer set as we [build a more diverse workforce],” he said.

As a Series E-stage company, Altschuler does not shy away from the IPO question. In fact, he recently brought in new CFO Jim Rallo, who has experience taking a company public. “The market that we operate in is so large, and there’s so many opportunities for us to serve both our customers and our suppliers, and we have to be great for both of them. We need capital to do that, and the public markets can be an efficient way to access that capital and to grow our business, and in the end that’s what we want to do,” he said.

#artificial-intelligence, #cloud, #enterprise, #funding, #manufacturing, #recent-funding, #startups, #t-rowe-price, #tc, #xometry

0

Snyk bags another $200M at $2.6B valuation 9 months after last raise

When we last reported on Snyk in January, eons ago in COVID time, the company announced $150 million investment on a valuation of over $1 billion. Today, barely nine months later, it announced another $200 million and its valuation has expanded to $2.6 billion.

The company is obviously drawing some serious investor attention and even a pandemic is not diminishing that interest. Addition led today’s round, bringing the total raised to $450 million with $350 million coming this year alone.

Snyk has a unique approach to security, building it into the development process instead of offloading it to a separate security team. If you want to build a secure product, you need to think about it as you’re developing the product and that’s what Snyk’s product set is designed to do — check for security as you’re committing your build to your git repository.

With an open source product at the top of funnel to drive interest in the platform, CEO Peter McKay says the pandemic has only accelerated the appeal of the company. In fact, the startup’s annual recurring revenue (ARR) is growing at a remarkable 275% year over year.

McKay says, even with the pandemic, his company has been accelerating adding 100 employees in the last 12 months to take advantage of the increasing revenue. “When others were kind of scaling back we invested and it worked out well because our business never slowed down. In fact, in a lot of the industries it really picked up,” he said.

That’s because as many other founders have pointed out, COVID is speeding up the rate at which many companies are moving to the cloud, and that’s working Snyk’s favor. “We’ve just capitalized on this accelerated shift to the cloud and modern cloud native applications,” he said.

The company currently has 375 employees with plans to add 100 more in the next year. As it grows, McKay says that he is looking to build a diverse and inclusive culture, something he learned about as he moved through his career at VMware and Veeam.

He says one of the keys at Snyk is putting every employee through unconscious bias training to help limit bias in the hiring process, and the executive team has taken a pledge to make the company’s hiring practices more diverse. Still, he recognizes it takes work to achieve these goals, and it’s always easy for an experienced team to go back to the network instead of digging deeper for a more diverse candidate pool.

“I think w