Mobile commerce startup Via rounds up $15 million in Series A funding

Mobile commerce is where it’s at, and rising investment in so-called conversational commerce startups underscores the opportunity.

Via, a two-year-old, Bay Area-based startup, is among those riding the wave, having identified some trends that are becoming clearer by the month. First, more e-commerce sales will be on mobile phones this year than desktops (as much as 70% by some estimates), people tend to read text messages almost immediately, and consumers spend upwards of 30 minutes a day engaging with mobile messaging apps.

Via also insists that unlike an expanding pool of startups that are focused on helping retailers and other broadcast their marketing messages in SMS, there’s room for a player to better address the many other pieces that add up to a happy consumer experience, from delivering coupon codes to starting the returns process.

Indeed, according to cofounder and CEO Tejas Konduru — a Brigham Young grad whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India and who have themselves have worked at tech startups — one of insights his now 50-person company had early on was that despite that so many of their customers now use the mobile browser to visit and shop from their stores, many retailers use website builders like Shopify or BigCommerce to “cram everything everything into mobile, leaving only enough space for, like, one picture and a Buy button.” Konduru figured there must be a way to take the shopping experience that all these customers have with brands on their website and make them happen in a quick, mobile-native way.

Via’s solution, he says, is to help those businesses interact with customers on the devices and apps they use most often. “When someone uses Shopify of BigCommerce of any of those platforms,” says Konduru, “we also connect it to Via, and it basically takes the entire shopping experience and allows [customers] to quickly swipe right through a menu or like through a catalog on, for example, Facebook Messenger. Via will also create like a native iOS Android app by taking a  website, cloning it into a native iOS Android app, then sell the push notification in-app chat layer. Essentially,” he adds, “anytime someone shops on the phone and they’re not using the browser is what Via is handling.”

The ‘message’ seems to be getting through to the right people. Via, which launched last year, says it now employs 54 people on a full-time basis, has 190 brands as customers, and just secured $15 million in funding in Series A funding led by Footwork, the new venture firm cofounded by former Stitch Fix COO Mike Smith and former Shasta Ventures investor Nikhil Basu Trivedi.

Other participants in the round include Peterson Ventures, where Konduru once interned; famed founder Josh James of Domo, where Konduru also once interned; and a long list of other notable individual investors, including Ryan Smith of Qualtrics and Lattice cofounder and CEO Jack Altman.

As for how the company charges, it doesn’t ask for a monthly or yearly fee, as per traditional SaaS companies but instead charges per interaction, whether that’s an SMS or a voice minute or video or a GIF.

It’s starting to add up, according to Konduru, who says that Via’s average customer is seeing 15 times return on its investment and that from May of 2020 — when the company’s service went live —  through December, the company generated $51 million in sales. Konduru declined to say exactly how much Via saw from those transactions but says the company is on track to reach $10 million in annual recurring revenue this year.

As for how brands get started with Via, it’s pretty simple, by the company’s telling. As long as a company is using a commerce platform — from Shopfiy to WooCommerce to Salesforce– it takes just five minutes or so to produce a mobile app with a menu featuring the types of interactions the brand can enable via Via’s platform, says Konduru.

Konduru, who dabbled in investment banking before deciding to launch Via, says he isn’t surprised by the startup’s fast traction, though he says he has been taken aback by the breadth of conversations the company sees. While he imagined Via would be a strong marketing channel for brands that use the platform to push out notifications about abandoned shopping carts and upcoming deliveries, it’s more of a two-way street than he’d imagined.

“Every month, there are maybe 15,000 people who start the returns process through Via and will get a notification from a channel that Via supports. But suddenly — let’s say the customer gets the wrong T-shirt size — people start communicating with the brand. You see everything from fan appreciation to address changes to messaging about bad discount codes to where’s-my-order type exchanges.  That’s something I didn’t expect,” says Konduru, who says that before raising its Series A round, Via raised $4.2 million in seed funding led by Peterson Ventures.

“I thought that people would just look at the notification and, like, move it into the abyss somewhere. Instead, people start interacting with the brand.”

#conversational-commerce, #mobile-commerce, #peterson-ventures, #recent-funding, #series-a, #shopify, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital, #via

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KeepTruckin raises $190 million to invest in AI products, double R&D team to 700

KeepTruckin, a hardware and software developer that helps trucking fleets manage vehicle, cargo and driver safety, has just raised $190 million in a Series E funding round, which puts the company’s valuation at $2 billion, according to CEO Shoaib Makani. 

G2 Venture Partners, which just raised a $500 million fund to help modernize existing industries, participated in the round, alongside existing backers like Greenoaks Capital, Index Ventures, IVP and Scale Venture Partners, which is managed by BlackRock. 

KeepTruckin intends to invest its new capital back into its AI-powered products like its GPS tracking, ELD compliance and dispatch and workflow, but it’s specifically interested in improving its smart dashcam, which instantly detects unsafe driving behaviors like cell phone distraction and close following and alerts the drivers in real time, according to Makani. 

The company says Usher Transport, one of its clients, says it has seen a 32% annual reduction in accidents after implementing the Smart Dashcam, DRIVE risk score and Safety Hub, products that the company offers to increase safety.

“KeepTruckin’s special sauce is that we can build complex models (that other edge cameras can’t yet run) and make it run on the edge with low-power, low-memory and low-bandwidth constraints,” Makani told TechCrunch. “We have developed in-house IPs to solve this problem at different environmental conditions such as low-light, extreme weather, occluded subject and distortions.”

This kind of accuracy requires billions of ground truth data points that are trained and tested on KeepTruckin’s in-house machine learning platform, a process that is very resource-intensive. The platform includes smart annotation capabilities to automatically label the different data points so the neural network can play with millions of potential situations, achieving similar performance to the edge device that’s in the field with real-world environmental conditions, according to Makani.

A 2020 McKinsey study predicted the freight industry is not likely to see the kind of YOY growth it saw last year, which was 30% up from 2019, but noted that some industries would increase at higher rates than others. For example, commodities related to e-commerce and agricultural and food products will be the first to return to growth, whereas electronics and automotive might increase at a slower rate due to declining consumer demand for nonessentials. 

Since the pandemic, the company said it experienced 70% annualized growth, in large part due to expansion into new markets like construction, oil and gas, food and beverage, field services, moving and storage and agriculture. KeepTruckin expects this demand to increase and intends to use the fresh funds to scale rapidly and recruit more talent that will help progress its AI systems, doubling its R&D team to 700 people globally with a focus on engineering, machine vision, data science and other AI areas, says Makani. 

“We think packaging these products into operator-friendly user interfaces for people who are not deeply technical is critical, so front-end and full-stack engineers with experience building incredibly intuitive mobile and web applications are also high priority,” said Makani. 

Much of KeepTruckin’s tech will eventually power autonomous vehicles to make roads safer, says Makani, something that’s also becoming increasingly relevant as the demand for trucking continues to outpace supply of drivers.

Level 4 and eventually level 5 autonomy will come to the trucking industry, but we are still many years away from broad deployment,” he said. “Our AI-powered dashcam is making drivers safer and helping prevent accidents today. While the promise of autonomy is real, we are working hard to help companies realize the value of this technology now.”

#artificial-intelligence, #g2-venture-partners, #keeptruckin, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #transportation, #trucking

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Twine raises $3.3M to add networking features to virtual events

Twine, a video chat startup that launched amid the pandemic as a sort of “Zoom for meeting new people,” shifted its focus to online events and, as a result, has now closed on $3.3 million in seed funding. To date, twine’s events customers have included names like Microsoft, Amazon, Forrester, and others, and the service is on track to do $1 million in bookings in 2021, the company says.

The new round was led by Moment Ventures, and included participation from Coelius Capital, AltaIR Capital, Mentors Fund, Rosecliff Ventures, AltaClub, and Bloom Venture Partners. Clint Chao, founding Partner at Moment, will join twine’s board of directors with the round’s close.

The shift into the online events space makes sense, given twine’s co-founders —  Lawrence Coburn, Diana Rau, and Taylor McLoughlin — hail from DoubleDutch, the mobile events technology provider acquired by Cvent in 2019.

Coburn, previously CEO of DoubleDutch, had been under a non-compete with its acquirer until December 2020, which is one reason why he didn’t first attempt a return to the events space.

The team’s original idea was to help people who were missing out on social connections under Covid lockdowns find a way to meet others and chat online. This early version of twine saw some small amount of traction, as 10% of its users were even willing to pay. But many more were nervous about being connected to random online strangers, twine found.

So the company shifted its focus to the familiar events space, with a specific focus on online events which grew in popularity due to the pandemic. While setting up live streams, text chats and Q&A has been possible, what’s been missing from many online events was the casual and unexpected networking that used to happen in-person.

“The hardest thing to bring to virtual events was the networking and the serendipity — like the conversations that used to happen in an elevator, in the bar, the lobby — these kinds of things,” explains Coburn. “So we began testing a group space version of twine — bringing twine to existing communities as opposed to trying to build our own, new community. And that showed a lot more legs,” he says.

By January 2021, the new events-focused version of twine was up-and-running, offering a set of professional networking tools for event owners. Unlike one-to-many or few-to-many video broadcasts, twine connects a small number of people for more intimate conversations.

“We did a lot of research with our customers and users, and beyond five [people in a chat], it turns into a webinar,” notes Coburn, of the limitations on twine’s video chat. In twine, a small handful of people are dropped into a video chat experience– and now, they’re not random online strangers. They’re fellow event attendees. That generally keeps user behavior professional and the conversations productive.

Event owners can use the product for free on twine’s website for small events with up to 30 users, but to scale up any further requires a license. Twine charges on a per attendee basis, where customers buy packs of attendees on a software-as-a-service model.

The company’s customers can then embed twine directly in their own website or add a link that pops open the twine website in a separate browser tab.

Coburn says twine has found a sweet spot with big corporate event programs. The company has around 25 customers, but some of those have already used twine for 10 or 15 events after first testing out the product for something smaller.

“We’re working with five or six of the biggest companies in the world right now,” noted Coburn.

Image Credits: twine

Because the matches are digital, twine can offer other tools like digital “business card” exchanges and analytics and reports for the event hosts and attendees alike.

Despite the cautious return to normal in the U.S., which may see in-person events return in the year ahead, twine believes there’s still a future in online events. Due to the pandemic’s lasting impacts, organizations are likely to adopt a hybrid approach to their events going forward.

“I don’t think there’s ever been an industry that has gone through a 15 months like the events industry just went through,” Coburn says. “These companies went to zero, their revenue went to zero and some of them were coming from hundreds of millions of dollars. So what happened was a digital transformation like the world has never seen,” he adds.

Now, there are tens of thousands of event planners who have gotten really good at tech and online events. And they saw the potential in online, which would sometimes deliver 4x or 5x the attendance of virtual, Coburn points out.

“This is why you see LinkedIn drop $50 million on Hopin,” he says, referring to the recent fundraise for the virtual conference technology business. (The deal was reportedly for less than $50 million). “This is why you see the rounds of funding that are going into Hoppin and Bizzabo and Hubilo and all the others. This is the taxi market, pre-Uber.”

Of course, virtual events may end up less concerned with social features when they can offer an in-person experience. And those who want to host online events may be looking for a broader solution than Zoom + twine, for example.

But twine has ideas about what it wants to do next, including asynchronous matchmaking, which could end up being more valuable as it could lead to better matches since it wouldn’t be limited to only who’s online now.

With the funding, twine is hiring in sales and customer success, working on accessibility improvements, and expanding its platform. To date, twine has raised $4.7 million.

#altair, #amazon, #coelius-capital, #cvent, #doubledutch, #funding, #lawrence-coburn, #microsoft, #moment-ventures, #online-events, #recent-funding, #rosecliff-ventures, #social, #startups, #tc, #twine

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Internxt gets $1M to be ‘the Coinbase of decentralized storage’

Valencia-based startup Internxt has been quietly working on an ambitious plan to make decentralized cloud storage massively accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

It’s just bagged $1M in seed funding led by Angels Capital, a European VC fund owned by Juan Roig (aka Spain’s richest grocer and second wealthiest billionaire), and Miami-based The Venture City. It had previously raised around half a million dollars via a token sale to help fund early development.

The seed funds will be put towards its next phase of growth — its month-to-month growth rate is 30% and it tells us it’s confident it can at least sustain that — including planning a big boost to headcount so it can accelerate product development.

The Spanish startup has spent most of its short life to date developing a decentralized infrastructure that it argues is both inherently more secure and more private than mainstream cloud-based apps (such as those offered by tech giants like Google).

This is because files are not only encrypted in a way that means it cannot access your data but information is also stored in a highly decentralized way, split into tiny shards which are then distributed across multiple storage locations, with users of the network contributing storage space (and being recompensed for providing that capacity with — you guessed it — crypto).

“It’s a distributed architecture, we’ve got servers all over the world,” explains founder and CEO Fran Villalba Segarra. “We leverage and use the space provided by professionals and individuals. So they connect to our infrastructure and start hosting data shards and we pay them for the data they host — which is also more affordable because we are not going through the traditional route of just renting out a data center and paying them for a fixed amount of space.

“It’s like the Airbnb model or Uber model. We’ve kind of democratized storage.”

Internxt clocked up three years of R&D, beginning in 2017, before launching its first cloud-based apps: Drive (file storage), a year ago — and now Photos (a Google Photos rival).

So far it’s attracting around a million active users without paying any attention to marketing, per Villalba Segarra.

Internxt Mail is the next product in its pipeline — to compete with Gmail and also ProtonMail, a pro-privacy alternative to Google’s freemium webmail client (and for more on why it believes it can offer an edge there read on).

Internxt Send (file transfer) is another product billed as coming soon.

“We’re working on a G-Suite alternative to make sure we’re at the level of Google when it comes to competing with them,” he adds.

The issue Internxt’s architecture is designed to solve is that files which are stored in just one place are vulnerable to being accessed by others. Whether that’s the storage provider itself (who may, like Google, have a privacy-hostile business model based on mining users’ data); or hackers/third parties who manage to break the provider’s security — and can thus grab and/or otherwise interfere with your files.

Security risks when networks are compromised can include ransomeware attacks — which have been on an uptick in recent years — whereby attackers that have penetrated a network and gained access to stored files then hold the information to ransom by walling off the rightful owner’s access (typically by applying their own layer of encryption and demanding payment to unlock the data).

The core conviction driving Internxt’s decentralization push is that files sitting whole on a server or hard drive are sitting ducks.

Its answer to that problem is an alternative file storage infrastructure that combines zero access encryption and decentralization — meaning files are sharded, distributed and mirrored across multiple storage locations, making them highly resilient against storage failures or indeed hack attacks and snooping.

The approach ameliorates cloud service provider-based privacy concerns because Internxt itself cannot access user data.

To make money its business model is simple, tiered subscriptions: With (currently) one plan covering all its existing and planned services — based on how much data you need. (It is also freemium, with the first 10GB being free.)

Internxt is by no means the first to see key user value in rethinking core Internet architecture.

Scotland’s MaidSafe has been trying to build an alternative decentralized Internet for well over a decade at this point — only starting alpha testing its alt network (aka, the Safe Network) back in 2016, after ten years of testing. Its long term mission to reinvent the Internet continues.

Another (slightly less veteran) competitor in the decentralized cloud storage space is Storj, which is targeting enterprise users. There’s also Filecoin and Sia — both also part of the newer wave of blockchain startups that sprung up after Bitcoin sparked entrepreneurial interest in cryptocurrencies and blockchain/decentralization.

How, then, is what Internxt’s doing different to these rival decentralized storage plays — all of which have been at this complex coal face for longer?

“We’re the only European based startup that’s doing this [except for MaidSafe, although it’s UK not EU based],” says Villalba Segarra, arguing that the European Union’s legal regime around data protection and privacy lends it an advantage vs U.S. competitors. “All the others, Storj, plus Sia, Filecoin… they’re all US-based companies as far as I’m aware.”

The other major differentiating factor he highlights is usability — arguing that the aforementioned competitors have been “built by developers for developers”. Whereas he says Internxt’s goal is be the equivalent of ‘Coinbase for decentralized storage’; aka, it wants to make a very complex technology highly accessible to non-technical Internet users.

“It’s a huge technology but in the blockchain space we see this all the time — where there’s huge potential but it’s very hard to use,” he tells TechCrunch. “That’s essentially what Coinbase is also trying to do — bringing blockchain to users, making it easier to use, easier to invest in cryptocurrency etc. So that’s what we’re trying to do at Internxt as well, bringing blockchain for cloud storage to the people. Making it easy to use with a very easy to use interface and so forth.

“It’s the only service in the distributed cloud space that’s actually usable — that’s kind of our main differentiating factor from Storj and all these other companies.”

“In terms of infrastructure it’s actually pretty similar to that of Sia or Storj,” he goes on — further likening Internxt’s ‘zero access’ encryption to Proton Drive’s architecture (aka, the file storage product from the makers of end-to-end encrypted email service ProtonMail) — which also relies on client side encryption to give users a robust technical guarantee that the service provider can’t snoop on your stuff. (So you don’t have to just trust the company not to violate your privacy.)

But while it’s also touting zero access encryption (it seems to be using off-the-shelf AES-256 encryption; it says it uses “military grade”, client-side, open source encryption that’s been audited by Spain’s S2 Grupo, a major local cybersecurity firm), Internxt takes the further step of decentralizing the encrypted bits of data too. And that means it can tout added security benefits, per Villalba Segarra.

“On top of that what we do is we fragment data and then distribute it around the world. So essentially what servers host are encrypted data shards — which is much more secure because if a hacker was ever to access one of these servers what they would find is encrypted data shards which are essentially useless. Not even we can access that data.

“So that adds a huge layer of security against hackers or third party [access] in terms of data. And then on top of that we build very nice interfaces with which the user is very used to using — pretty much similar to those of Google… and that also makes us very different from Storj and Sia.”

Storage space for Internxt users’ files is provided by users who are incentivized to offer up their unused capacity to host data shards with micropayments of crypto for doing so. This means capacity could be coming from an individual user connecting to Internxt with just their laptop — or a datacenter company with large amounts of unused storage capacity. (And Villalba Segarra notes that it has a number of data center companies, such as OVH, are connected to its network.)

“We don’t have any direct contracts [for storage provision]… Anyone can connect to our network — so datacenters with available storage space, if they want to make some money on that they can connect to our network. We don’t pay them as much as we would pay them if we went to them through the traditional route,” he says, likening this portion of the approach to how Airbnb has both hosts and guests (or Uber needs drivers and riders).

“We are the platform that connects both parties but we don’t host any data ourselves.”

Internxt uses a reputation system to manage storage providers — to ensure network uptime and quality of service — and also applies blockchain ‘proof of work’ challenges to node operators to make sure they’re actually storing the data they claim.

“Because of the decentralized nature of our architecture we really need to make sure that it hits a certain level of reliability,” he says. “So for that we use blockchain technology… When you’re storing data in your own data center it’s easier in terms of making sure it’s reliable but when you’re storing it in a decentralized architecture it brings a lot of benefits — such as more privacy or it’s also more affordable — but the downside is you need to make sure that for example they’re actually storing data.”

Payments to storage capacity providers are also made via blockchain tech — which Villalba Segarra says is the only way to scale and automate so many micropayments to ~10,000 node operators all over the world.

Discussing the issue of energy costs — given that ‘proof of work’ blockchain-based technologies are facing increased scrutiny over the energy consumption involved in carrying out the calculations — he suggests that Internxt’s decentralized architecture can be more energy efficient than traditional data centers because data shards are more likely to be located nearer to the requesting user — shrinking the energy required to retrieve packets vs always having to do so from a few centralized global locations.

“What we’ve seen in terms of energy consumption is that we’re actually much more energy efficient than a traditional cloud storage service. Why? Think about it, we mirror files and we store them all over the world… It’s actually impossible to access a file from Dropbox that is sent out from [a specific location]. Essentially when you access Dropbox or Google Drive and you download a file they’re going to be sending it out from their data center in Texas or wherever. So there’s a huge data transfer energy consumption there — and people don’t think about it,” he argues.

“Data center energy consumption is already 2%* of the whole world’s energy consumption if I’m not mistaken. So being able to use latency and being able to send your files from [somewhere near the user] — which is also going to be faster, which is all factored into our reputation system — so our algorithms are going to be sending you the files that are closer to you so that we save a lot of energy from that. So if you multiple that by millions of users and millions of terabytes that actually saves a lot of energy consumption and also costs for us.”

What about latency from the user’s point of view? Is there a noticeable lag when they try to upload or retrieve and access files stored on Internxt vs — for example — Google Drive?

Villalba Segarra says being able to store file fragments closer to the user also helps compensate for any lag. But he also confirms there is a bit of a speed difference vs mainstream cloud storage services.

“In terms of upload and download speed we’re pretty close to Google Drive and Dropbox,” he suggests. “Again these companies have been around for over ten years and their services are very well optimized and they’ve got a traditional cloud architecture which is also relatively simpler, easier to build and they’ve got thousands of [employees] so their services are obviously much better than our service in terms of speed and all that. But we’re getting really close to them and we’re working really fast towards bringing our speed [to that level] and also as many features as possible to our architecture and to our services.”

“Essentially how we see it is we’re at the level of Proton Drive or Tresorit in terms of usability,” he adds on the latency point. “And we’re getting really close to Google Drive. But an average user shouldn’t really see much of a difference and, as I said, we’re literally working as hard as possible to make our services as useable as those of Google. But we’re ages ahead of Storj, Sia, MaidSafe and so forth — that’s for sure.”

Internxt is doing all this complex networking with a team of just 20 people currently. But with the new seed funding tucked in its back pocket the plan now is to ramp up hiring over the next few months — so that it can accelerate product development, sustain its growth and keep pushing its competitive edge.

“By the time we do a Series A we should be around 100 people at Internxt,” says Villalba Segarra. “We are already preparing our Series A. We just closed our seed round but because of how fast we’re growing we are already being reached out to by a few other lead VC funds from the US and London.

“It will be a pretty big Series A. Potentially the biggest in Spain… We plan on growing until the Series A at at least a 30% month-to-month rate which is what we’ve been growing up until now.”

He also tells TechCrunch that the intention for the Series A is to do the funding at a $50M valuation.

“We were planning on doing it a year from now because we literally just closed our [seed] round but because of how many VCs are reaching out to us we may actually do it by the end of this year,” he says, adding: “But timeframe isn’t an issue for us. What matters most is being able to reach that minimum valuation.”

*Per the IEA, data centres and data transmission networks each accounted for around 1% of global electricity use in 2019

#angels-capital, #blockchain, #cloud-computing, #cloud-storage, #coinbase, #cryptocurrencies, #decentralization, #dropbox, #encryption, #energy-consumption, #europe, #european-union, #fundings-exits, #gmail, #internxt, #privacy, #recent-funding, #spain, #startups, #storage, #tc, #the-venture-city, #valencia

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Unit raises $51M in Accel-led Series B to grow its banking-as-a-service platform

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Every company is a fintech.” 

But these days, that’s becoming more and more true as an increasing number of companies that are not even in the financial services space seek to add a fintech component to their offering.

A group of startups poised to benefit from this shift are those offering banking as a service. One such startup, Unit, has raised $51 million in a Series B round to further its goal of making it possible for companies and fintechs alike to build banking products “in minutes.”

Silicon Valley-based Accel led the round for Unit, bringing the company’s total raised since its 2019 inception to nearly $70 million. Existing backers Better Tomorrow Ventures, Aleph, Flourish Ventures and TLV Partners also participated in the latest financing

Founders Itai Damti and Doron Somech are no strangers to growing companies. The pair previously co-founded — and bootstrapped — Leverate, a Tel Aviv-based B2B trading tech provider. Unit has dual headquarters in Tel Aviv and New York City.

Damti and Somech founded Unit in late 2019 and spent the first year stealthily building out the platform with the mission of empowering companies to embed financial services into their product, accelerating their time to market. Unit officially launched its platform in late 2020, and over the last three months, it has seen deposit volume grow by more than 300% and new end users by 600% (albeit from a small base).

With its platform, Unit touts, companies in a variety of industries — such as freelance or creator economy and personal financial management, for example — can build financial products directly into their software. This gives them the ability to build and launch next-gen bank accounts, cards, payment and lending products. Customers include Wethos, Lance, Benepass, Moves and Tribevest, among others.

“Our mission is to expand financial access for all and we do it by empowering the next generation of fintech builders,” Damti said. Only about 20% of its customers are what might be considered true fintechs, he said. The remaining 80% are companies that are not but rather want to embed banking as a service into their offering.

Unit, Damti claims, takes what was once “a very expensive and complex process of 18 months” that includes finding and managing a bank relationship, building a compliance team and building a tech stack “that gets you to a competitive banking offering, and turns it into one API and one dashboard that helps companies launch accounts cards, payments and lending within five weeks.”

In conjunction with the funding, Unit is also announcing today a new offering, Unit Go, which it says allows companies to create live bank accounts and issue physical and virtual cards in minutes. Founders and developers can try it out by creating a free account, building in Unit’s live environment and testing their products using real funds. Unit Go is currently in beta and will be available to the public in the fall of 2021. 

The company plans to use its new capital to grow its headcount of 26 and fast-track its Unit Go offering. It also wants to expand its platform into additional financial products, software development kits (SDKs) and integrations. (It’s already integrated with Plaid, for example).

Of course, Unit is not the only startup in the burgeoning banking-as-a-service (BaaS) space. It competes with the likes of Railbank, Treasury Prime and Stripe. Damti believes there are a few things that help differentiate Unit in the increasingly crowded space.

For one, according to Damti, Unit intentionally “put compliance at the front and center of what we do.” As evidence of that, earlier this year, it tapped Amanda Swoverland to serve as its chief compliance officer. 

Secondly, Damti emphasizes that Unit is not a matchmaker or marketplace along the lines of Synctera.

“We are acting as a company that connects banks to the tech ecosystem and banks are critical vendors and partners to us, but we see them as a built-in element within Unit, because we believe that the most excellent experience in this ecosystem can only come from software companies,” Damti told TechCrunch. 

And finally, he notes, Unit is technically distinct in that it is actually building a ledger, which Damti describes as “the most critical and sensitive part of the ecosystem.”

By owning the ledger and not delegating, he said, Unit is “able to offer a radically better experience.”

“As far as the transaction environment, the cleanliness of the data that we provide and the fees that our customers are able to control and tweak, owning that ledger piece is super critical for the experience,” Damti said.  

Accel partner Amit Kumar notes that in recent years, the landscape has shifted from hundreds of fintech startups “trying to beat incumbents with slightly better products” to thousands of tech companies trying to launch fintech businesses in their verticals.

“Unit’s strong emphasis on managing compliance addresses the risk typically associated with offering banking services and allows customers to bring these products to market much faster than previously possible,” he told TechCrunch. “Unit is building the platform to power the next generation of fintech.”

#accel, #finance, #fintech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #payments, #recent-funding, #startups, #unit, #venture-capital

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Kenyan foodtech startup Kune raises $1M pre-seed for its ready-to-eat meals service

While there has been a wave of innovation in food tech worldwide, it’s still in early days for Africa. There are only a handful of African food-tech startups, and a year and a half’s worth of global pandemic has added a couple to that list.

Kune is one of the most recent food-tech startups, and today, the six-month-old Kenyan-based company is announcing that it has closed a $1 million pre-seed round to launch its on-demand food service in August.

Pan-African venture capital firm Launch Africa Ventures led the pre-seed round. Other investors that took part include Century Oak Capital GmbH and Consonance, with a contribution from ecosystem management firm Pariti

Founded by CEO Robin Reecht in December 2020, Kune delivers freshly made, ready-to-eat meals at arguably affordable prices. When Reetch first came to Kenya from France in November 2020, it wasn’t easy to get affordable ready-to-eat meals.

“After three days of coming into Kenya, I asked where I can get great food at a cheap price, and everybody tell me it’s impossible,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s impossible because either you go to the street and you eat street food, which is really cheap but with not-so-good quality, or you order on Uber Eats, Glovo or Jumia, where you get quality but you have to pay at least $10.”

Reetch noticed a gap in the market and sought to fill it. The next month, he decided to start Kune. The goal? To provide affordable, convenient and tasty meals. It took a week to develop a pilot, and with a ready waitlist of 50 customers in a particular office space, his plans were in motion. Kune sold more than 500 meals ($4 average) and tripled its customer base from 50 to 150.

Customers were particularly excited about the product and Kune raised $50,000 from them to continue operations, Reetch said. After that, however, the orders became too large for the small team that they couldn’t keep up; at one point, it received 50 orders per day. Thus, instead of advancing with a momentum that could break down, the team took a hiatus.

“We had started to mess up the order because, you know, it’s complicated to get food right when you’re just in a small kitchen setting. So I said okay, that there is no point doing that, and the demand is so high and better to do things right.”

The next months were spent restructuring the company, making hires and building a factory to produce 5,000 meals per day. Then, when the company was ready to raise, Reetch said he saw the same enthusiasm from customers and investors. In two months, Kune closed this round, one of the largest in East Africa, and is one of the few non-fintechs to have raised a seven-figure pre-seed round on the continent.

In a fast-growing and crowded restaurant and food delivery marketplace in Kenya, Kune wants to offer a new way for busy people in Nairobi to access meals by finding a balance between Kibanda pricing (usually referred to as the typical local roadside food shop) and on-demand food delivery prices from global companies.

Kune applies a hybrid model, combining both cloud and dark kitchen concepts. Kune meals are cooked and packaged in its factory and delivered directly to online, retail and corporate customers.

The hybrid model speaks to why Launch Africa cut a check for Kune. And according to the director of the firm, Baljinder Sharma, “leveraging the cloud kitchen model and owning the entire supply chain provides a massive growth and scaling opportunity for Kune Africa.” He added: “We are looking forward to seeing the business take off and grow.”

Kune plans to fully launch in August after its new factory is completed. Per details on its site, the company is promising customers that delivery will be done on an average of 30 minutes daily.

To achieve this, Kune ensures that it owns the entire supply chain, from cooking to packaging to delivery with its own drivers and motorbikes. “Our strategy is to internalize all production and human resources capacities,” he stated. That’s where Kune will put most of the funds to use going forward. In addition to the factory, which costs about 10% of the total investment, Kune will be looking to build a huge team. Reetch tells me that judging by how operations-heavy Kune is, the team size will reach 100 come December.

Once launched, the company will build its own fleet of 100 electric motorcycles by early 2022. In addition, there are plans to hire 100 female drivers.

Currently, Kune showcases three different meals daily: two continental dishes and one foreign meal. In the coming months and quarters, Kune’s offerings will cut across microwavable meals, weight reduction meals and retail meals to target European and U.S. clients. For the latter, Reetch is enthusiastic about exporting the African food culture to Western countries. As someone who travels a lot, the CEO thinks Kenya, unlike other countries, doesn’t have a strong food culture. He references food media like TV shows where various meals and cuisines and tutorings on how to cook food are showcased. Reetch wants Kune to be the go-to for such programs in Kenya.

“In Kenya, we don’t have any culinary show. So we are going to take that position as the culinary major of Kenya, and how do you create this? By creating amazing content, which we plan to do by creating videos and writing articles on how to cook or maybe just food business in general.”

#africa, #east-africa, #food, #food-delivery, #food-tech, #funding, #glovo, #kenya, #kune, #launch-africa, #online-food-ordering, #pariti, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc

0

Apna raises $70 million to help workers in India secure jobs

Indian cities are home to hundreds of millions of low-skilled workers who hail from villages in search of work. Many of them have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic that has slowed several economic activities in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Apna, a startup by an Apple alum, is helping millions of such blue and gray-collar workers upskill themselves, find communities and land jobs. On Wednesday it announced its acceptance by the market has helped it raise $70 million in a new financing round as the startup prepares to scale the 16-month-old app across India.

Insight Partners and Tiger Global co-led Apna’s $70 million Series B round, which valued the startup at $570 million. Existing investors Lightspeed India, Sequoia Capital India, Greenoaks Capital and Rocketship VC also participated in the round, which brings Apna’s to-date raise to over $90 million.

The startup, whose name is inspired from a 2019 Bollywood song, at its core is solving the network gap issue for workers. “Someone born in a privileged family goes to the best school, best college and makes acquaintance with influential people. Many born just a few kilometres away are dealt with a whole different kind of life and never see such opportunities,” said Nirmit Parikh, founder and chief executive of Apna, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Apna is building a scalable networking infrastructure, something that doesn’t currently exist in the market, so that these workers can connect to the right employers and secure jobs. “Apna’s focus on digitizing the process of job discovery, application and employer candidate interaction has the potential to revolutionize the hiring process,” said Griffin Schroeder, a partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

The workers in India “already have a champion them, we are just helping them find opportunities,” said Nirmit Parikh, founder and chief executive of Apna. (Apna)

The startup’s eponymous Android app, available in multiple languages, features more than 70 communities today for skilled professionals such as carpenters, painters, field sales agents and many others.

On the app, users connect to each other and help with leads and share tips to improve at their jobs. The app also offers people the opportunity to upskill themselves, practice with their interview performance, and become eligible for even more jobs. The startup said it’s building Masterclass-like skilling modules, outcome or job based skilling, and also enabling peer-to-peer learning via its vertical communities. It plans to launch career counselling and resume building feature.

And that bet is working. The startup has amassed over 10 million users and just last month it facilitated more than 15 million job interviews, said Parikh. All jobs listed on the Apna platform are verified by the startup and free of cost for the candidates.

Apna has partnered with some of India’s leading public and private organizations and is providing support to the Ministry of Minority Affairs of India, National Skill Development Corporation and UNICEF YuWaah to provide better skilling and job opportunities to candidates.

Apna app (Apna)

More than 100,000 recruiters — including Byju’s, Unacademy, Flipkart, Zomato, Licious, Burger King, Dunzo, Bharti-AXA, Delhivery, Teamlease, G4S Global and Shadowfax — in the country today use Apna’s platform, where they have to spend less than five minutes to post job posts and are connect to hyperlocal candidates with relevant skills in within two days.

Apna has built the “market leading platform for India’s workforce to establish digital professional identity, network, access skills training, and find high quality jobs,” said Nikhil Sachdev, managing director, Insight Partners, in a statement.

“Employers are engaging with Apna at a rapid pace to help find high quality talent with low friction which is leading to best in class customer satisfaction scores. We believe that our investment will enable Apna to continue their steep growth trajectory, scale up their operations, and improve access to opportunities for India’s workforce.”

The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to scale across India and eventually take the app to international markets, said Parikh. Apna, which has recently seen high-profile individuals from firms such as Uber, BCG  and Swiggy join the firm, is also actively hiring for several tech roles in the South Asian market.

“Our first goal is to restart India’s economy in the next couple of months and do whatever we can to help,” said Parikh, who was part of the iPhone product-operations team at Apple.

#apna, #apps, #asia, #funding, #india, #insight-partners, #recent-funding, #startups, #talent, #tiger-global

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FamPay, a fintech aimed at teens in India, raises $38 million

How big is the market in India for a neobank aimed at teenagers? Scores of high-profile investors are backing a startup to find out.

Bangalore-based FamPay said on Wednesday it has raised $38 million in its Series A round led by Elevation Capital. General Catalyst, Rocketship VC, Greenoaks Capital and existing investors Sequoia Capital India, Y Combinator, Global Founders Capital and Venture Highway also participated in the new round, which brings FamPay’s to-date raise to $42.7 million.

TechCrunch reported early this month that FamPay was in talks with Elevation Capital to raise a new round.

Founded by Sambhav Jain and Kush Taneja (pictured above) — both of whom graduated from Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee in 2019 — FamPay enables teenagers to make online and offline payments.

The thesis behind the startup, said Jain in an interview with TechCrunch, is to provide financial literacy to teenagers, who additionally have limited options to open a bank account in India at a young age. Through gamification, the startup said it’s making lessons about money fun for youngsters.

Unlike in the U.S., where it’s common for teenagers to get jobs at restaurants and other places and understand how to handle money at a young age, a similar tradition doesn’t exist in India.

After gathering the consent from parents, FamPay provides teenagers with an app to make online purchases, as well as plastic cards — the only numberless card of its kind in the country — for offline transactions. Parents credit money to their children’s FamPay accounts and get to keep track of high-ticket spendings.

In other markets, including the U.S., a number of startups including Greenlight, Step and Till Financial are chasing to serve the teenagers, but in India, there currently is no startup looking to solve the financial access problem for teenagers, said Mridul Arora, a partner at Elevation Capital, in an interview with TechCrunch.

It could prove to be a good issue to solve — India has the largest adolescent population in the world.

“If you’re able to serve them at a young age, over a course of time, you stand to become their go-to product for a lot of things,” Arora said. “FamPay is serving a population that is very attractive and at the same time underserved.”

The current offerings of FamPay are just the beginning, said Jain. Eventually the startup wishes to provide a range of services and serve as a neobank for youngsters to retain them with the platform forever, he said, though he didn’t wish to share currently what those services might be.

Image Credits: FamPay

Teens represent the “most tech-savvy generation, as they haven’t seen a world without the internet,” he said. “They adapt to technology faster than any other target audience and their first exposure with the internet comes from the likes of Instagram and Netflix. This leads to higher expectations from the products that they prefer to use. We are unique in approaching banking from a whole new lens with our recipe of community and gamification to match the Gen Z vibe.”

“I don’t look at FamPay just as a payments service. If the team is able to execute this, FamPay can become a very powerful gateway product to teenagers in India and their financial life. It can become a neobank, and it also has the opportunity to do something around social, community and commerce,” said Arora.

During their college life, Jain and Taneja collaborated and built an app and worked at a number of startups, including social network ShareChat, logistics firm Rivigo and video streaming service Hotstar. Jain said their work with startups in the early days paved the idea to explore a future in this ecosystem.

Prior to arriving at FamPay, Jain said the duo had thought about several more ideas for a startup. The early days of FamPay were uniquely challenging to the founders, who had to convince their parents about their decision to do a startup rather than joining firms or startups as had most of their peers from college. Until being selected by Y Combinator, Jain said he didn’t even fully understand a cap table and dilutions.

He credited entrepreneurs such as Kunal Shah (founder of CRED) and Amrish Rau (CEO of Pine Labs) for being generous with their time and guidance. They also wrote some of the earliest checks to the startup.

The startup, which has amassed over 2 million registered users, plans to deploy the fresh capital to expand its user base and product offerings, and hire engineers. It is also looking for people to join its leadership team, said Jain.

#apps, #asia, #elevation-capital, #fampay, #finance, #funding, #general-catalyst, #global-founders-capital, #greenoaks-capital, #neobanks, #recent-funding, #rocketship-vc, #sequoia-capital-india, #startups, #tc, #venture-highway, #y-combinator

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Solar concentration startup Heliogen basks in $108M of new funding

Sunlight is a great source of energy, but it rarely gets hot enough to fry an egg, let alone melt steel. Heliogen aims to change that with its high-tech concentrated solar technique, and has raised more than a hundred million dollars to test its 1,000-degree solar furnace to a few game mines and refineries.

We covered Heliogen when it first made its debut in 2019, and the details in that article still get at the core of the company’s tech. Computer vision techniques are used to carefully control a large set of mirrors, which reflect and concentrate the sun’s light to the extent that it can reach in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, almost twice what previous solar concentrators could do. “It’s like a death ray,” founder Bill Gross explained then.

That lets the system replace fossil fuels and other legacy systems in many applications where such temperatures are required, for example mining and smelting operations. By using a Heliogen concentrator, they could run on sunlight during much of the day and only rely on other sources at night, potentially halving their fuel expenditure and consequently both saving money and stepping toward a greener future.

Both goals hint at why utilities and a major mining and steel-making company are now investors. Heliogen raised a $25M A-2, led by Prime Movers Lab, but soon also pulled together a much larger “bridge extension round” in their terminology of $83M that brought in the miner ArcelorMittal, Edison International, Ocgrow Ventures, A.T. Gekko, and more.

The money will be used both to continue development of the “Sunlight Refinery,” as Heliogen calls it, and deploy some actual on-site installations that would work in real production workflows at scale. “We are constantly making design and cost improvements to increase efficiency and decrease costs,” a representative of the company told me.

One of those pilot sites will be in Boron, CA, where Rio Tinto operates a borates mine and will include Heliogen’s tech as part of its usual on-site processes, according to an MOU signed in March. Another MOU with ArcelorMittal will “evaluate the potential of Heliogen’s products in several of ArcelorMittal’s steel plants.” Facilities are planned in the U.S., MENA, and Asia Pacific areas.

Beyond mining and smelting, the technique could be used to generate hydrogen in a zero-carbon way. That would be a big step towards building a working hydrogen infrastructure for next-generation fuel supply, since current methods make it difficult to do without relying on fossil fuels in the first place. And no doubt there are other industrial processes that could benefit from a free and zero-carbon source of high heat.

“We’re being granted the resources to do more projects that address the most carbon-intensive human activities and work toward our goals of lowering the price and emissions of energy for everyone on the planet,” Gross said in a release announcing the round(s). “We thank all of our investors for enabling us to pursue our mission and offer the world technology that will allow it to achieve a post-carbon economy.”

#artificial-intelligence, #funding, #fundings-exits, #greentech, #heliogen, #recent-funding, #solar, #startups

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Meet Nickson, the furniture-as-a-service startup that Barack Obama’s ex-financial adviser just backed

Ever toured an apartment and fall in love with the model unit?

You’re not alone. Harvard Business School grad Cameron Johnson is a former institutional real estate investor and Greystar exec turned startup founder that realized that very often, “renters would try to rent the model apartment.”

This got him thinking. People would love to rent a model apartment in a building, and no one likes to move. This spelled opportunity in Johnson’s mind.

So in 2017, he came up with the idea of Nickson, a Dallas-based startup that fully furnishes apartments on demand.

Image Credits: CEO and founder Cameron Johnson / Nickson

“I thought ‘What if you gave people the ability to simply rent the model, or the ability to add everything in their space needs with a few clicks, similar to how a cable modem comes to your house ’ ” CEO Johnson said. “I wondered, ‘Why can’t we do that for everything else?’ ”

But Nickson doesn’t just provide furniture such as beds and sofas, it delivers all the essentials too — from extension cords to pots and pans to silverware to curtain rods. By partnering with a variety of retailers, the startup claims that it allows users “to make their new spaces move-in ready in as little as 3 hours.” 

Users take a style quiz and share apartment layout details. Nickson’s designers create an initial layout based on the dimensions of an apartment, desired functions (such as work from home) and the volume of furnishings based on a person’s lifestyle. Once the layout is complete, Nickson creates a custom design, including all furnishings and home goods. 

Upon signing up, users pay a one-time installation fee for the furniture-as-a-service offering, and then a monthly subscription charge for the duration of a lease — starting at $199 a month for a studio to $500 a month for a 3 bedroom apartment. The startup also offers concierge services such as a household supply starter kit and maid service, as an add-on to its flat monthly subscription.

Nickson is currently only live in the Dallas market, but plans to expand into other cities over the next 12 months, including expanding its beta tests in Austin and Houston. And it’s just raised a $12 million Series A to help it advance on that goal. 

A fund managed by Pendulum Opportunities LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Pendulum Holdings LLC, led the Series A round, which also included participation from Motley Fool Ventures, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest and Backstage Capital. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the global supply chain, leading to delivery delays for consumers. Nickson has purchased items over time that it stores as local inventory, making it even more attractive to renters who don’t want to deal with delays and hunting down furniture and essentials, Johnson said. The convenience Nickson offers led to its user base growing 700% in 2020 compared to the year prior, he added.

Robbie Robinson, co-founder and CEO of Pendulum, said his firm was drawn to invest in Nickson due to a combination of Johnson’s “vision, secular shifts toward renting and subscription consumption and the company’s disruptive business model.” (Robinson is President Barack Obama’s former financial adviser, and recently founded Pendulum to invest $250 million in founding startups of color).

Kabir Ahmed, vice president at Pendulum, added that he believes Nickson’s model is superior to the concept of renting one-off furniture pieces in that it offers an “end-to-end, turnkey solution.”

This seamless experience is highly differentiated and offers a compelling value proposition for the consumer,” he said.

Of course, Nickson is not the only company attempting to turn the stodgy furniture rental industry on its head. Other startups offering similar services as Nickson include Oliver Space, Fernish and The Landing.

But Nickson claims that it stands out from the competition in that it “takes care of everything” beyond furniture (including artwork and toilet wand brushes) and that it can curate space and bring it all in before a renter even shows up.

“No other competitor in this space offers this level of service, detail or turnaround,” Johnson says. “You can literally arrive at your new home with a suitcase and toothbrush, and it’s ready to ‘live in.’”

#apartment, #austin, #backstage-capital, #barack-obama, #cable-modem, #ceo, #dallas, #funding, #fundings-exits, #harvard-business-school, #houston, #motley-fool-ventures, #president, #real-estate, #recent-funding, #startup, #startup-company, #startups, #venture-capital, #vice-president

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Apple Watch accessory maker Wristcam raises $25M

Last week word got out that Facebook was taking another big step into first-party hardware with the planned launch of its own smartwatch. The most intriguing part of the report was the inclusion of not one but two watches. Other wearable makers have flirted with video and images on wrist-worn devices, but the feature is far from mainstream.

Industry leader Apple certainly doesn’t seem to be rushing into the idea, so Wristcam went and did it for them with the launch of a band sporting its own camera capable of shooting 4K images and 1080p. The product launched late last year, following a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Now its makers are going a more traditional funding route, announcing a $25 million raise led by Marker LLC. “We will use the funding to scale our team, Wristcam production, go to market, and R&D of our computer vision engine for wearables,” CEO Ari Roisman told TechCrunch.

Part of that funding involves effectively doubling the company’s headcount by early next year and helping deliver updates to some of the demands and concerns that have arisen since the product’s “public beta” launch in December.

Among the forthcoming features are live video. The company says it has sold “thousands” of units, which currently retail for $299 through the Wristcam site — so $20 more than a Watch SE. The company says it ran into COVID-19 supply chain issues earlier this year, but has pushed through and is now fulfilling orders daily.

In spite of Facebook’s apparent interest in wrist-base imaging, Roisman says he’s not concerned about possible Sherlock from Apple.

“I see camera continuing to be a core part of the iPhone strategy, with DSLR quality equivalence, including Pro offerings priced north of $1,000,” the exec says. “Meanwhile, I see continued Apple Watch focus on quantified health and wellness, as opposed to power, data and real estate intensive functionality that could conflict with the iPhone strategy.”

#apple, #apple-watch, #hardware, #marker-llc, #recent-funding, #startups, #wristcam

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Construction robotics firm Dusty raises $16.5M

It certainly follows then that some leading construction robotics companies are able to strike while the iron is hot with some healthy raises. Today, Bay Area-based Dusty Robotics announced a $16.5 million Series A. Led by Canaan Partners and featuring NextGen Venture Partners, Baseline Ventures, Root Ventures and Cantos Ventures, the round brings the startup’s full funding up to $23.7 million.

“We have an enormous amount of demand from customers across the U.S., and around the world,” founder and CEO Tessa Lau told TechCrunch. “In addition to growing our team, we will be expanding our fleet of robots and building more robots to service this demand.”

Canaan partner Rich Boyle adds that the pandemic has helped accelerate some of the already existing demand.

“Both markets are incredibly active and evolving quickly, I believe mostly due to longer-term trends. Those include things like continued improvements in AI and labor shortages in key industries, as well as the decreasing price of robotic hardware. That said, COVID has driven changes in how people are thinking about the design, construction and ongoing utilization of real estate assets, and it’s driven substantial changes in behavior — how we work, how we live, how we shop, and some of those changes that were accelerated by COVID we think are here to stay.”

The Dusty team is still fairly lean at about 17 employees, largely located in Mountain View. The startup’s first product is the Field Printer, a robot that prints out plans on the floor of construction sites. The company likens the maps to “Ikea Instructions.” The autonomous bot has been used by Swinerton, DPR Construction, Build Group and Pankow Builders, among others.

“We just released our third-generation hardware platform, which was designed from the ground up by our team in Mountain View to be purpose-built for producing accurate and speedy layout on construction sites,” says Lau. “We’ve been working on this product since fall of 2018 and have incorporated lessons learned from completing over 1 million square feet of production layout into this third-generation design.”

 

#canaan-partners, #construction, #dusty-robotics, #recent-funding, #robotics, #startups

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BookClub checks out a shiny new $20 million Series A

Serial edtech entrepreneur David Blake, who co-founded Degreed and launched LearnIn, is living the dream of any book worm. He reads at least one book a week, talks to the authors behind it and unpacks his biggest questions around the subtlest of passages.

And it’s all thanks to his latest startup, BookClub, which first launched in September to bring author-led book clubs to readers. “With Degreed, it’s big, it’s enterprise and it’s structural. It brought a deep sense of fulfillment, it felt rigorous and challenging” he said. “BookClub has felt joyful, a lot of fun, and like a blessing in my life.”

The platform gives authors a chance to hold book groups, share exclusive video-based interviews and engage in questions readers might have. And months after announcing its existence and $6 million seed raise, BookClub is back to announce a $20 million Series A round, led by Signal Peak Ventures. Other investment firms that participated in the round include GSV Ventures, Maveron, Backstage Capital​ and Pelion Venture Partners​.

Blake often describes BookClub as “MasterClass meets Goodreads.” It’s fitting that he got the founders of both of those companies on his cap table as well, with Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder of MasterClass and founder of Outlier.org, and Otis Chandler, co-founder and previous CEO of Goodreads, joining the Series A round.

The capital comes as BookClub prepares to open its private beta, which includes thousands of readers, to the public by July. Along with opening up for business, BookClub is investing heavily in adding more authors to its platform. So far, there are 11 books featured on BookClub’s website from writers such as Emily Chang, Lara Prescott, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr.

Blake declined to give specifics for how many books are in production, but said that BookClub’s plan is to hit 200 books for its service by the end of 2021.

The startup is currently experimenting with two services to bring author-led discussions to readers. One service is that users can find a book and then click through videos as they progress through the book. When BookClub was recording with Emily Chang, the author of “Brotopia,” it produced eight to 12 hours of content, which ranges from Q&A to readings to behind-the-scenes musings on writing the book, Blake explained.

“A lot of that sounds simple, but in a lot of ways it is special in its own way,” Blake said. “If you grew up in most places in America, there weren’t New York Times best-sellers coming to your local indie bookstore and just doing readings…in a lot of ways, this is able to democratize a lot of what authors do to engage the big cities [on book tours] but for everyone else,” he said.

The other service is similar to Oprah’s Book Club, a long-existent discussion series where Oprah interviews a different author behind a book each month. BookClub’s version of this is picking an author to discuss their book, as well as a series of books with similar themes, in an interview-style format. For example, Barbara Corcoran is discussing her book, “Shark Tales,” as well as five other books in an entrepreneurship-featured club.

One limitation for BookClub is figuring out how to generate enthusiasm through its platform. Book clubs often start off with the best of intentions, but then fall apart due to lack of accountability or limited interest among members to invest in deeper conversations. The startup will have to find a way, beyond author appeal, to integrate excitement without being overly prescriptive in its prompts. Another limitation might be the authors themselves. Because the startup’s products only work with living authors, it is missing out on a chunk of classical text.

The company might need to figure out a different way to represent authors, the non-living or camera shy, to reach what Blake views as its ultimate goal.

“Right now, statistically, the chance that we’ve covered one of the books on your nightstand is pretty low,” he said. “We want to get there, fast.”

#bookclub, #david-blake, #degreed, #edtech, #recent-funding, #signal-peak-ventures, #startups, #tc

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Robotic landscaping startup Scythe emerges from stealth with $13.8M raise

Founded in 2018, Scythe Robotics is emerging from stealth today by announcing an $13.8 million Series A raise. The round was led by Inspired Capital and features True Ventures, Zigg Capital and Lemnos. It brings the Boulder, Colorado-based landscaping robotics company’s total funding up to $18.6 million, including a $4 million seed, also led by True Ventures.

The startup’s first product is an autonomous mower, offered to customers through a Robot-as-a-Service (RaaS) model. The method is becoming increasingly popular in the enterprise and industrial space, essentially offering clients robotics through a rental model that includes regular updates and maintenance. Interestingly, the company’s charging customers based on acres mowed.

The mower features eight HDR cameras and a variety of sensors designed to help avoid people, animals and various obstacles it might encounter on the job. Naturally, all of those sensors also come with a wealth of data collection aimed at — among other things — increasing the robot’s efficiency. Landscaping is a relatively low-hanging fruit for robotics. There’s certainly a lot to be said for automating the process for those with large swaths of land. Toro, notably, recently acquired Left Hand Robotics, and iRobot has announced its own (since delayed) robotic mower.

“To date, commercial landscape contractors haven’t had a technology partner who enables them to keep up with demand and to operate emissions-free. We are that partner,” said co-founder and CEO Jack Morrison in a release. “Our autonomous mower gives them the ability to grow their business, while staying green. It’s designed from the ground up to be an order of magnitude more reliable, more productive, and safer than any existing machine by incorporating state of the art autonomy with a rugged, all-electric design.”

Funding will go toward increasing headcount in its Colorado, Texas and Florida offices, R&D on further products and getting the mower in front of new customers.

#inspired-capital, #landscaping, #mowing, #recent-funding, #robotics, #scythe-robotics, #startups

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Messaging social network IRL hits unicorn status with SoftBank-led $170M Series C

Social calendar app IRL has been busy building a messaging-based social network, or what founder and CEO Abraham Shafi calls a “WeChat of the West.” Following its pandemic-fueled growth and further push into the social networking space with group chat and other features, IRL is today announcing a sizable $170 million Series C growth round, led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2. The fundraise also mints IRL as a new unicorn with a $1.17 billion valuation.

Besides SoftBank, new investor Dragoneer also participated in the oversubscribed round, alongside returning investors Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund and Floodgate. To date, IRL has raised over $200 million.

The startup began its life as a tool for discovering real-world events — an industry that went to zero almost overnight due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That could have been the end for IRL, but the startup quickly pivoted to prioritize discovery of online events instead. Under COVID lockdowns, users could turn to the app to find things like livestreamed concerts, esports events, Zoom parties and more.

Image Credits: IRL

IRL focused on pulling in popular online events from places like Live Nation, Twitch, YouTube, TikTok and others.

As a result, IRL became more accessible because its audience was no longer limited only to those who had time and money to travel to real-world events.

That focus also helped the app to attract a crowd of younger users who are of the generation that doesn’t use Facebook.

“They essentially use Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok,” explains Shafi. “But there is no groups and events product for that generation,” he points out.

Earlier this year, the company doubled down on its social networking features with the launch of a new site that added things like user profiles, support for group chats, the ability to join group events, personalized recommendations and more. As users could now network with friends across both web and mobile, IRL began to feel more like a social network, not just an event-discovery engine.

Image Credits: IRL

Today, IRL has 20 million users and 12 million who use the app monthly, which are not startling numbers in comparison to major social networks and their billions of users. But the numbers are representative of a steady approach that helped IRL grow 400% over the past 15 months, despite COVID’s impact to real-world events.

But as of recently, things are starting to change. In-person events are starting to return. California, the home state for San Francisco-based IRL, is today re-opening, for example. That opens up IRL to once again focus on connecting people not just online, but also “in real life,” as its name implies.

That could mean helping people better connect around events with not just their own friend group, as is often the case today, but helping them discover new groups in their local area or on campus. The company is even planning to use a portion of its fundraise to help fuel the new events economy by allocating a certain amount of money per city that will go toward helping people put on real-world events. The exact details are still being worked out, Shafi says, but says the idea is that IRL wants to help “bring culture back in cities that are opening up again.”

IRL also plans to expand its international footprint by finding ways to bring in non-U.S. users to its platform — possibly beginning with the events focused on watching the Olympics. (If the Games are not again delayed or canceled due to a COVID surge.)

Shafi says IRL hadn’t been planning to fundraise, but they decided to take the meetings when they were approached.

“The philosophy is not to raise when you have to, but to raise when it makes sense. And we were scaling like crazy to the point where our servers were melting. It made sense to take those discussions very seriously when they came to us,” he says.

The addition of SoftBank and Dragoneer brings some expertise in scaling large social networks to the IRL team. SoftBank’s other notable social networking investment is with TikTok owner’s Bytedance, while Dragoneer has backed Snap. IRL has already has a close relationship with TikTok as it’s worked with the video app to pull in interesting events for discovery. It more recently integrated with TikTok’s new “Login Kit,” too, allowing TikTok users to authenticate with IRL using their TikTok credentials.

Now, IRL plans to add an even deeper TikTok integration — something that caught SoftBank’s attention.

Shafi is cagey on the details, but says more will be announced in the “coming weeks.”

“But what I can say is that we’ve seen a ton of growth of TikTok users linking to IRL group chats and IRL events through their TikTok profiles as a way to communicate and go deeper in relationships,” he says. “If you think about it, right now Instagram has really great messaging…whereas TikTok is still developing that,” he hints.

Image Credits: IRL

Beyond its value to growing social networks for the younger, Facebook-less generation, IRL is thinking about how to build a profitable business without ad revenue. On this front, it sees potential in helping people connect through paid events — although these wouldn’t have to be influencer-driven as on other platforms. In fact, when IRL recently piloted paid group chats, users were willing to pay for access to things like a calc homework help group, for example.

IRL also sees demand for tools that help groups and clubs collect membership dues and other fees, as well as for events that are too small for Ticketmaster or Eventbrite.

“Whether we succeed or fail will be based on our ability to execute on our opportunity,” says Shafi, adding that most social networks today are focused on media more so than helping users make connections. “What we’re building isn’t the media part of social, it’s the real human interaction part of social, because that hasn’t been paid attention to as much.”

“We’re building a messaging social network,” he continues, comparing it to the biggest messaging social network in the world, WeChat. “The big vision that we’re going for is building the WeChat of the West — a messaging super social network. And it starts with people organizing groups and doing things together,” he says.

With the additional funding, IRL will invest in product growth, international expansion and its Creator and Culture Fund, and will grow its now 25-person remotely distributed team to 100 by year-end.

“People are increasingly seeking more in-person social connections and are looking to share meaningful experiences together. As an innovative event-based social network, IRL sits at the intersection of group and event discovery, social calendaring, and group messaging, enabling people to do more together,” added Serena Dayal, director at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement about its investment. “We are excited to partner with Abraham and the IRL team to support their ambition of helping everyone deepen their connections to friends and family.”

#abraham-shafi, #apps, #covid, #founders-fund, #funding, #goodwater-capital, #irl, #mobile-applications, #online-events, #recent-funding, #social, #social-calendar, #social-network, #social-networks, #softbank-group, #softbank-investment-advisers, #softbank-vision-fund-2, #startups, #tc, #tiktok, #twitch, #united-states, #wechat

0

Automotive marketplace Carro hits unicorn status with $360M Series C led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2

Carro, one of the largest automotive marketplaces in Southeast Asia, announced it has hit unicorn valuation after raising a $360 million Series C led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2. Other participants include insurance giant MSIG and Indonesian-based funds like EV Growth, Provident Growth and Indies Capital. About 90% of vehicles sold through Carro are secondhand, and it offers services that cover the entire lifecycle of a car, from maintenance to when it is broken down and recycled for parts.

Founded in 2015, Carro started as an online marketplace for cars, before expanding into more verticals. Co-founder and chief executive officer Aaron Tan told TechCrunch that, roughly speaking, the company’s operations are divided into three sections: wholesale, retail and fintech. Its wholesale business works with car dealers who want to purchase inventory, while its retail side sells to consumers. Its fintech operation offers products for both, including B2C car loans, auto insurance and B2B working capital loans.

Carro’s last funding announcement was in August 2019, when it said it had extended its Series B to $90 million. The company’s latest funding will be used to fund acquisitions, expand its financial services portfolio and develop its AI capabilities, which Carro uses to showcase cars online, develop pricing models and determine how much to charge insurance policyholders.

It also plans to expand retail services in its main markets: Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Carro currently employs about 1,000 people across the four countries and claims its revenue grew more than 2.5x during the financial year ending March 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped Carro’s business because people wanted their own vehicles to avoid public transportation and became more receptive to shopping for cars online. Those factors also helped competitors like OLX Autos and Carsome fare well during the pandemic.

The adoption of electric vehicles across Southeast Asia has resulted in a new tailwind for Carro, because people who buy an EV usually want to sell off their combustion engine vehicles. Carro is currently talking to some of the largest electric vehicle countries in the world that want to launch in Southeast Asia.

“For every car someone typically buys in Southeast Asia, there’s always a trade-in. Where do cars go, right? We are a marketplace, but on a very high level, what we’re doing is reusing and recycling. That’s a big part in the environmental sustainability of the business, and something that sets us apart of other players in the region,” Tan said.

Cars typically stay in Carro’s inventory for less than 60 days. Its platform uses computer vision and sound technology to replicate the experience of inspecting a vehicle in-person. When someone clicks on a Carro listing, an AI bot automatically engages with them, providing more details about the cost of the car and answering questions. They also see a 360-degree view of the vehicle, its interior and can virtually start the engine to see how it sounds. Listings also provide information about defects and inspection reports.

Since many customers still want to get an in-person look before finalizing a purchase, Carro recently launched a beta product called Showroom Anywhere. Currently available in Singapore, it allows people to unlock Carro cars parked throughout the city, using QR codes, so they can inspect it at any time of the day, without a salesperson around. The company plans to add test driving to Showroom Anywhere.

“As a tech company, our job is to make sure we automate everything we can,” said Tan. “That’s the goal of the company and you can only assume that our cost structure and our revenue structure will get better along the years. We expect greater margin improvement and a lot more in cost reduction.”

Pricing is fixed, so shoppers don’t have to engage in haggling. Carro determines prices by using machine-learning models that look at details about a vehicle, including its make, model and mileage, and data from Carro’s transactions as well as market information (for example, how much of a particular vehicle is currently available for sale). Carro’s prices are typically in the middle of the market’s range.

Cars come with a three or seven-day moneyback guarantee and 30-day warranty. Once a customer decides to buy a car, they can opt to apply for loans and insurance through Carro’s fintech platform. Tan said Carro’s loan book is about five years old, almost as old as the startup itself, and is currently about $200 million.

Carro’s insurance is priced based on the policyholders driving behavior as tracked by sensors placed in their cars. This allows Carro to build a profile of how someone drives and the likelihood that they have an accident or other incident. For example, someone will get better pricing if they typically stick to speed limits.

“It sounds a bit futuristic,” said Tan. “But it’s something that’s been done in the United States for many years, like GEICO and a whole bunch of other insurers,” including Root Insurance, which recently went public.

Tan said MSIG’s investment in Carro is a “statement that we are really trying to triple down in insurance, because an insurer has so much linkage with what we do. The reason that MSIG is a good partner is that, like ourselves, they believe a lot in data and the difference in what we call ‘new age’ insurance, or data-driven insurance.”

Carro is also expanding its after-sale services, including Carro Care, in all four of its markets. Its after-sale services reach to the very end of a vehicle’s lifecycle and its customers include workshops around the world. For example, if a Toyota Corolla breaks down in Singapore, but its engine is still usable, it might be extracted and shipped to a repair shop in Nairobi, and the rest of its parts recycled.

“One thing I always ask in management meetings, is tell me where do cars go to die in Indonesia? Where do cars go to die in Thailand? There has to be a way, so if there is no way, we’re going to find a way,” said Tan.

In a statement, SoftBank Investment Advisers managing partner Greg Moon said, “Powered by AI, Carro’s technology platform provides consumers with full-stack services and transparency throughout the car ownership process. We are delighted to partner with Aaron and the Carro team to support their ambition to expand into new markets and use AI-powered technology to make the car buying process smarter, simpler and safer.”

#asia, #automative-marketplace, #car-marketplace, #carro, #fundings-exits, #indonesia, #malaysia, #recent-funding, #singapore, #softbank-vision-fund-2, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #thailand, #used-cars

0

Yana’s mental health tool for Spanish speakers nears 5 million users

Andrea Campos has struggled with depression since she was 8 years old. Over the years, she’s tried all sorts of therapies — from behavioral to pharmacotherapy.

In 2017, when Campos was in her early 20s, she learned to program and created a system to help manage her mental health. It started as a personal project but as she talked to more people, Campos realized that many others might benefit from the system as well.

So, she then built an application to provide access to mental health tools to Spanish-speaking people and began testing it with a small group of people. At first, Campos herself was her own chatbot, texting with users who were tired of dealing with depression.

“During the month, I was pretending I was an app, and would send these people a list of activities they had to complete during the day, such as writing in a gratitude journal, and then asking them how those activities made them feel,” Campos recalls.

Her thinking was that sometimes with depression and anxiety comes “a lot of avoidance,” where people resist potential treatment out of fear.

The results from her small experiment were encouraging. So, Campos set out to conduct a bigger sample of experiments, and raised about $10,000 via crowdfunding campaign. With that money, she hired a developer to build a chatbot for her app, which was mostly being used via Facebook Messenger.

Then an earthquake hit Mexico City and that developer lost everything — including his home and computer — and had to relocate.

“I was left with nothing,” Campos says. But that developer introduced her to another, who disappeared with his payment, and again, left Campos, “with nothing.”

“I realized at the beginning of 2019, I was going to have to do this by myself,” Campos said. So she used a site that she described as a “Wix for chatbots,” and created one herself.

After experimenting with the app with a sample of 700 people, Campos was even more encouraged and raised an angel round of funding for Yana, the startup behind her app. (Yana is an acronym for “You Are Not Alone.”) By early 2020, with just three months of runway left, she pivoted to create an app with chatbot integration that wasn’t just limited to use via Facebook Messenger.

Campos ended up launching the app more broadly during the same week that her city in Mexico went into quarantine.

Image Credits: Yana

At first, she said, she saw “normal, steady growth.” But then on Oct. 10, 2020, Apple’s App Store highlighted Yana for International Mental Health Day, and the response was overwhelming.

“It was also my birthday so I was at a spa in a nearby town, relaxing, when I started hearing my cell phone go crazy,” Campos recalls. “Everything went nuts. I had to go back to Mexico City because our servers were exploding since they were not used to having that kind of volume.”

As a result of that exposure, Yana went from having around 80,000 users to reaching 1 million users two weeks later. Soon after that, Google highlighted the app as one of best for personal growth in 2020, and that too led to another spike in users. Today, Yana is about to hit the 5 million-user mark and is also announcing it has raised $1.5 million in funding led by Mexico’s ALLVP, which has also invested in the likes of Cornershop, Flink and Nuvocargo.

When the pandemic hit last year, six of Yana’s 9-person team decided to quarantine together in a “startup house” in Cancun to focus on building the company. Earlier this year, the company had raised $315,000 from investors such as 500 Startups, Magma and Hustle Fund. The company had pitched ALLVP, who was intrigued but wanted to wait until it could write a bigger check. 

That time is now, and Yana is now among the top three downloaded apps in Mexico and 12 countries including Spain, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela.

With its new capital, Yana is planning to “move away from the depression/anxiety narrative,” according to Campos.

“We want to compete in the wellness space,” she told TechCrunch. “A lot of people were looking for us to deal with crises such as a breakup or a loss but then they didn’t always see a necessity to keep using Yana for longer than the crisis lasted.”

Some of those people would download the app again months later when hit with another crisis.

“We don’t want to be that app anymore,” Campos said. “We want to focus on whole wellness and mental health and transmit something that needs to be built every single day, just like we do with exercise.”

Moving forward, Yana aims to help people with their mental health not just during a crisis but with activities they can do on a daily basis, including a gratitude journal, a mood tracker and meditation — “things that prevent depression and anxiety,” Campos said.

“We want to be a vitamin for our soul, and keeping people mentally healthy on an ongoing basis,” she said. “We also want to include a community inside our application.”

ALLVP’s Federico Antoni is enthusiastic about the startup’s potential. He first met Campos when she was participating in an accelerator program in 2017 and then again recently.

The firm led Yana’s latest round because it “wanted to be on her team.”

“She [Campos] has turned into an amazing leader, and we realized her potential and strength,” he said. “Plus, Yana is an amazing product. When you download it, it’s almost like you can see a soul in there.”

#allvp, #app-store, #apps, #chatbot, #chile, #computing, #ecuador, #facebook, #funding, #fundings-exits, #google, #health, #itunes, #mental-health, #messenger, #mexico, #mexico-city, #operating-systems, #recent-funding, #social-media, #software, #spain, #startup, #startups, #tc, #venezuela, #venture-capital

0

Anrok raises $4.3M to solve sales tax for SaaS companies

It’s easier than ever to build a product and sell it around the United States, or the world. But if you want to do so without incurring the wrath of any particular state, or nation-state, you’d best have your tax matters in order. This is why Stripe’s news last week that it has built tax-focused tooling to help its customers manage their state bills mattered.

But for SaaS companies, things can be more complicated from a tax perspective. That’s what Anrok, a startup working to build sales tax software for SaaS firms, told TechCrunch.

The company’s CEO, Michelle Valentine, said that modern software companies need specialized help. And her startup is announcing a $4.3 million fundraise today to back its efforts. The capital event was led by Seqouia and Index, the latter firm a place where Valentine used to work.

Anrok delivers its service via an API, and charges based on the total dollar value of sales that it helps a customer manage. Its percentage-fee falls with volume, and you can’t pay more than 0.19% of managed revenue, so it’s pretty cheap regardless, given how strong software gross margins tend to be.

The Anrok founding team: Michelle Valentine, and Kannan Goundan. Via the company.

Valentine said that there are three things that make SaaS tax issues more complex than other products. The first deals with addresses. Software companies have to pay sales tax where customers are located, and often only have partial information. Anrok will help with that problem. The CEO also said that variable SaaS billing makes charging the right amount of tax an interesting issue, and that states have tax laws specifically aimed at the software market that must be navigated.

So, a more mass-market solution might not be the best fit for SaaS companies looking to avoid both trouble with states and the work of handling tax matters themselves.

It’s not hard to see why Anrok was able to raise capital. The company is early-stage with its first customers onboarded, so it’s not posting the sort of revenue growth that investors covet at the later stages. What then were its more fetching attributes? From our perspective, on-demand pricing and a simply gigantic market.

Sure, Anrok is serving SaaS businesses, but it’s doing so using what could be described as a post-SaaS business model; on-demand, or usage-based pricing is an increasingly popular way to charge for software products today, putting Anrok closer to the cutting edge in business-model terms. And the company’s market is essentially every software business out there. That’s a lot of TAM to carve into, something that investors love to see.

#anrok, #fundings-exits, #index-ventures, #recent-funding, #saas, #sales-tax, #seqouia, #startups

0

Slintel scores $20M Series A as buyer intelligence tool gains traction

One clear outcome of the pandemic was pushing more people to do their shopping online, and that was as true for B2B as it was for B2C. Knowing which of your B2B customers are most likely to convert puts any sales team ahead of the game. Slintel, a startup providing that kind of data, announced a $20 million Series A today.

The company has attracted some big-name investors with GGV leading the round and Accel, Sequoia and Stellaris also participating. The investment brings the total raised to over $24 million including a $4.2 million seed round from last November.

That’s a quick turnaround from seed to A, and company founder and CEO Deepak Anchala, says that while he had plenty of runway left from the seed round, the demand was such that it seemed prudent to take the A money sooner than he had planned. “So we had enough cash in the bank, but investors came to us and we got a pretty good valuation compared to the previous round, so we decided to take it and use that money to go faster,” Anchala said.

Certainly the market dynamics were working in Slintel’s favor. Without giving revenue details, Anchala said that revenue grew 5x last year in the middle of the worst of the pandemic. He says that meant buyers were spending less time with sales and marketing folks to understand products and more time online researching on their own.

“So what Slintel does as a product is we mine buyer insights. We understand where the buyers are in their journey, what their pain points are, what products they use, what they need and when they need it. So we understand all of this to create a 360 degree view of the buyer that you provide these insights to sales and marketing teams to help them sell better,” he said.

After growing at such a rapid clip last year, the company expected more modest growth this year at perhaps 3x, but with the added investment, he expects to grow faster again. “With the funding we’re actually looking at much bigger numbers. We’re looking at 5x in our revenue this year, and also trying for 4x revenue next year.”

He says that the money gives him the opportunity to improve the product and put more investment into marketing, which he believes will contribute to additional sales. Since the round closed 6 weeks ago, he says that he has increased his advertising budget and is also hopes to attract customers via SEO, free tools on the company website and events.

The company had 45 employees at the time of its seed round in November and has more than doubled that number in the interim to 100 spread out across 10 cities. He expects to double again by this time next year as the company is growing quickly. As a global company with some employees in India and some in the U.S., he intends to be remote first even after offices begin to reopen in different areas. He says that he plans to have company gatherings each quarter to let people gather in person on occasion.

#artificial-intelligence, #b2b, #enterprise, #funding, #ggv, #recent-funding, #sales, #slintel, #startups, #tc

0

Punchbowl nabs $5M investment, acquires VidHug to add video to party planning platform

When the pandemic hit last year, Punchbowl, an online party planning service was left in the lurch with gatherings all but shut down, but instead of lamenting the situation, founder and CEO Matt Douglas went to work to rethink the company’s approach. He started by expanding the company’s online greeting card business, which until that point had been a small part of the revenue mix. Then he began talking to investors about a cash influx with an eye toward adding video to the platform.

That all culminated in a slew of announcements today. For starters, the company pulled in $5 million from SG Credit Partners. Douglas then turned around and bought online video production service VidHug and rebranded it for his platform as Memento. Finally, he invested in a couple of apps designed to draw new parents to the service early in their children’s lives. More on those shortly.

When the government made the no-gatherings rule official, Punchbowl needed a plan. “So we took our team and we put our energy towards a product that was less than 10% of our business prior to the pandemic and that is greeting cards,” Douglas said.

He made the greeting cards more personalized by adding a video component. His team got that going pretty fast, putting it together by Mother’s Day 2020 to include a visual message at a time when people couldn’t get together in person. But he wanted something more than that, and he dove into researching the video montage market. That ultimately led to him connecting with the founders of VidHug and making an offer to buy the Canadian startup.

Memento helps you make and collect video clips, pull them together into a video and choose music and backgrounds in a friendly interface, putting basic video production within reach of of just about any user.

Douglas sees adding video as more than a consumer play though. He believes with Memento, he can also attract business customers to use video — for example, as a way to welcome new employees, especially in distributed organizations, or to make a good-bye video for a long-time employee leaving the company, and in this way begin to expand the platform to include not only consumer customers, but businesses too.

While he was at it, he invested in some apps directed at new parents, particularly moms, including Qeepsake and pumpspotting. Qeepsake is an app that prompts parents with a text to collect different memories of their children’s lives and then print them in a keep-sake book. It’s aimed at parents who never got around to making that baby book. Pumpspotting helps support breastfeeding moms, whether they are at home or work, and it also provides resources for their employers to support nursing moms as well.

He believes that by attracting parents at the earliest time in their childrens’ lives, he can get them to use other Punchbowl services to plan birthday parties and other events, add video memories, and build long-term brand loyalty along the way.

Douglas has been at this since 2007 when he conceived and launched Punchbowl, and while he says he has had offers over the years to be acquired, he never wanted to sell. Although 2020 might have been the toughest year ever for his party planning business, he used the crisis to rethink it, and in the process may have built something that can survive and thrive longer term with a wider variety of services and revenue streams.

#funding, #ma, #mergers-and-acquisitions, #party-planning, #punchbowl, #recent-funding, #startups, #video

0

Fintech giant Klarna raises $639M at a $45.6B valuation amid ‘massive momentum’ in the US

Just over three months after its last funding round, European fintech giant Klarna is announcing today that it has raised another $639 million at a staggering post-money valuation of $45.6 billion.

Rumors swirled in recent weeks that Klarna had raised more money at a valuation north of $40 billion. But the Swedish buy now, pay later behemoth and upstart bank declined to comment until now.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 led the latest round, which also included participation from existing investors Adit Ventures, Honeycomb Asset Management and WestCap Group. The new valuation represents a 47.3% increase over Klarna’s post-money valuation of $31 billion in early March, when it raised $1 billion, and a 330% increase over its $10.6 billion valuation at the time of its $650 million raise last September. Previous backers include Sequoia Capital, SilverLake, Dragoneer and Ant Group, among others.

The latest financing cements 16-year-old Klarna’s position as the highest-valued private fintech in Europe.

In an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, Klarna CEO and founder Sebastian Siemiatkowski said the company has seen explosive growth in the U.S. and plans to use its new capital in part to continue to grow there and globally.

In particular, over the past year, the fintech has seen “massive momentum” in the country, with more than 18 million American consumers now using Klarna, he said. That’s up from 10 million at the end of last year’s third quarter, and up 118% year over year. Klara is now live with 24 of the top 100 U.S. retailers, which it says is “more than any of its competitors.”

Overall, Klarna is live in 20 markets, has more than 90 million global active users and more than 2 million transactions a day conducted on its platform. The company’s momentum can be seen in its impressive financial results. In the first quarter, Klarna notched $18.1 billion in volume compared to $9.9 billion in the prior year first quarter. In all of 2020, it processed $53 billion in volume. To put that into context; Affirm’s financial report in May projected it would process $8.04 billion in volume for the entire fiscal year of 2021 and Afterpay is projecting $16 billion in volume for its entire fiscal year. 

March 2021 also represented a record month for global shopping volume with $6.9 billion of purchases made through the Klarna platform.

Meanwhile, in 2020, Klara hit over a billion in revenue. While the company was profitable for its first 14 years of life, it has not been profitable the last two, according to Siemiatkowski, and that’s been by design.

“We’ve scaled up so massively in investments in our growth and technology, but running on a loss is very odd for us,” he told TechCrunch. “We will get back to profitability soon.”

Klarna has entered six new markets this year alone, including New Zealand and France, where it just launched this week. It is planning to expand into a number of new markets this year. The company has about 4,000 employees with several hundred in the U.S. in markets such as New York and Los Angeles. It also has offices in Stockholm, London, Manchester, Berlin, Madrid and Amsterdam. 

While Klarna is partnered with over 250,000 retailers around the world (including Macy’s, Ikea, Nike, Saks), its buy now, pay later feature is also available direct to consumers via its shopping app. This means that consumers can use Klarna’s app to pay immediately or later, as well as manage spending and view available balances. They can also do things like initiate refunds, track deliveries and get price-drop notifications.

“Our shopping browser allows users to use Klarna everywhere,” Siemiatkowski said. “No one else is offering that, and are rather limited to integrating with merchants.”

Image Credits: Klarna

Other things the company plans to do with its new capital is focus on acquisitions, particularly acqui-hires, according to Siemiatkowski. According to Crunchbase, the company has made nine known acquisitions over time — most recently picking up Los Gatos-based content creation services provider Toplooks.ai.

“We’re the market leader in this space and we want to find new partners that want to support us in this,” Siemiatkowski told TechCrunch. “That gives us better prerequisites to be successful going forward. Now we have more cash and money available to invest further in the long term.”

Klarna has long been rumored to be going public via a direct listing. Siemiatkowski said that the company in many ways already acts like a public company in that it offers stock to all its employees, and reports financials — giving the impression that the company is not in a hurry to go the public route.

“We report quarterly to national authorities and are a fully regulated bank so do all the things you expect to see from public companies such as risk control and compliance,” he told TechCrunch. “We’re reaching a point for it to be a natural evolution for the company to IPO. But we’re not preparing to IPO anytime soon.”

At the time of its last funding round, Klarna announced its GiveOne initiative to support planet health. With this round, the company is again giving 1% of the equity raised back to the planet.

Naturally, its investors are bullish on what the company is doing and its market position. Yanni Pipilis, managing partner for SoftBank Investment Advisers, said the company’s growth isfounded on a deep understanding of how the purchasing behaviors of consumers are changing,” an evolution SoftBank believes is only accelerating. 

Eric Munson, founder and CIO of Adit Ventures, said his firm believes the “best is yet to come as Klarna multiplies their addressable market through global expansion.” 

For Siemiatkowski, what Klarna is trying to achieve is to compete with the $1 trillion-plus credit card industry.

We really see right now all the signs are there. True competition is coming to this space, this decade,” he said. “This is an opportunity to genuinely disrupt the retail banking space.”

 

#amsterdam, #ant-group, #apps, #bank, #berlin, #bnpl, #buy-now-pay-later, #europe, #finance, #fintech, #france, #funding, #fundings-exits, #ikea, #klarna, #london, #los-angeles, #macys, #madrid, #manchester, #market-leader, #money, #new-york, #new-zealand, #nike, #payments, #recent-funding, #sebastian-siemiatkowski, #sequoia-capital, #softbank-investment-advisers, #softbank-vision-fund-2, #stockholm, #united-states, #venture-capital

0

Can payday loans be made obsolete? With $15M more, Clair wants to find out

The world seems to move faster every year, and yet, nothing feels slower than the speed by which paychecks get distributed. In the United States, work conducted the day after a pay period will take two weeks just to process, with a check or direct deposit coming another week or two later. For the tens of millions of employees who live paycheck-to-paycheck, that multi-week delay can be the difference of making a rent check — or not.

A variety of startups have approached this problem with different solutions, and one of the newest and most compelling offerings is Clair.

Using its own base of capital, New York City-based Clair offers instant — and most importantly — free earned wage advances to workers by integrating into existing HR technology platforms. It works with both full-time employees and also gig workers, and it offers a suite of online and mobile apps for workers to make sense of their finances and ask for an earned wage advance.

The company was founded in late 2019 by CEO Nico Simko, COO Alex Kostecki and CPO Erich Nussbaumer, and today, the company announced that it raised $15 million in Series A funding led by Kareem Zaki of Thrive Capital, who will join the company’s board of directors. Just a few months ago, Clair had announced a $4.5 million seed round led by Upfront Ventures, bringing its total funding to $19.5 million.

“Pay advance” or “earned wage advance” (there is a slight distinction) have been the Silicon Valley euphemism for payday loan, an industry that has been plagued with allegations of fraud, deceit and rapacious greed that have bilked workers out of their hard-earned paychecks through usurious interest rates.

What sets Clair apart is that its offering is free to workers. Since it connects directly into HR systems, the startup takes on significantly less financial risk than traditional payday lenders, who don’t have access to the payroll data that Clair is able to analyze.

For Simko, one of his goals is simply to see the elimination of the traditional industry entirely. “I have a payday lender just in front of my apartment in Brooklyn and there is a long line on the 25th of every month, and I am not going to stop until that line disappears,” he said. “Success for us is just to become the winner in earned wage access.”

He is Argentine-Swiss, and came to the States to attend Harvard, where he met Nussbaumer. He ended up working at J.P. Morgan focused on the payments market. He stayed in touch with Kostecki, whose families are good friends, and the Swiss trio decided to go after this problem, partly inspired by Uber’s instant pay feature that it introduced in 2016 and which proved wildly successful.

Clair founders Alex Kostecki, Nico Simko, Erich Nussbaumer. Image Credits: Clair

Instead of making money on interest rates, fees, or tips, Clair instead wants to be the bank and financial service provider of choice for workers. As I noted last week about Pinwheel, an API platform for payroll, owning the direct deposit relationship with a worker all but guarantees they will conduct the vast majority of their financial transactions through that particular bank account.

Clair offers free instant pay advances as a gateway to its other offerings, which include spending and savings accounts, a debit card, a virtual in-app debit card, and financial planning tools. Simko said, “Our business model is to give earned wage access free for people and then sign them up automatically for a digital bank, and then we make money the same way Chime makes money, which is interchange fees.”

In fact, he and the company believe in that model so much, it will actually pay human capital technology platforms like workforce management and payroll systems to integrate with Clair as an inducement. It offers a recurring revenue fee stream for HR tools based on the number of users who join Clair, regardless of how much those workers use the software. We are “really going down the thesis of embedded fintech,” Simko said. “Employees start spending money on their Clair card, and we distribute that back to our [HR tech] partners.”

Clair joins a number of other companies in this space, which is becoming ever more heated as the perceived opportunity in financial services remains high among investors. Last year, payroll platform Gusto announced that it would expand from purely payroll to a financial wellness platform, which is partially based on its instant earned wage advances or what it dubs Cashout. We’ve covered Even, which is one of the originals in this space with a major partnership with Walmart, as well as neobank Dave, which offers pay advance features with a tipping revenue model. Dave just announced a $4 billion valued SPAC with VPC Impact Acquisition Holdings III.

Nonetheless, Clair’s angle is differentiated as the race to lock in every person globally with new financial services heats up. Simko says he sees a gargantuan opportunity to be the “Alipay” of the United States, noting that unlike China with Alipay, Nubank in Brazil and increasingly Latin America, and N26 and Revolut in Europe, there is still an opportunity for a comprehensive neobank to take over the U.S. market.

With the new funding, the company will continue to expand its product offerings, exploring areas like health care and debt repayment. “I can give APR not based on their credit score but on their employer’s credit score, which is the multi-billion dollar idea here,” Simko said. The team is nominally hubbed in New York with roughly half of the 25 or so person team.

#finance, #funding, #fundings-exits, #recent-funding, #startups

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New South African partnership gets $3M, launches telehealth product

For the early detection and treatment of health conditions, easy access to primary healthcare is crucial. Primary healthcare is best delivered by teams of primary care clinicians coordinating care between them. However, ubiquitous access to such care is scant across Sub-Saharan Africa.

There is a real opportunity for digital healthcare platforms to scale access to team-based care across the region. They can reduce the cost of quality care while improving health outcomes, reach patients in remote areas and reduce the pressure on the traditional medical support systems.

The pandemic has seen such platforms scale globally, and Africa is not exempt. A new platform (without a name yet) is launching out of South Africa and it wants to provide accessible quality care for Africans with its telehealth service. Today, it has closed a $3 million pre-Series A round to that end.

Yes, you’re wondering why the platform doesn’t have a name (I am too), but what’s interesting is the fact that a VC firm (Webrock Ventures) and two health tech companies (Healthforce.io and Doktor.se) joined forces to launch this new venture

Here’s summarized information on the trio.

Webrock Ventures is a Sweden-based investment company that employs a venture-building model. So essentially, the firm partners with tech companies in Sweden and combines its cash with the company’s business models to create portfolio businesses. It does this while maintaining a sizeable stake in the company.

Healthforce is a South Africa-based health tech company that tries to improve healthcare through multidisciplinary clinical teams. So far, it has set up nurses in over 450 clinics across the country while conducting more than 1 million nurse consultations. Healthforce also has a telemedicine play with over 110,000 consultations since launching the service last year.

As a Sweden-based telehealth company, Doktor.se allows patients to contact healthcare professionals through their smartphones across the whole spectrum of primary care. Most of its customers are in Europe, as well as in Latin America.

So why form a partnership to launch a telehealth product in South Africa with a plan for further roll-out in other African countries down the line?

Globally, telehealth investments have skyrocketed and increased by more than 50% since the start of the pandemic. With many of the fastest-growing economies globally, investors and companies (in this case, Webrock and Doktor.se) are now turning to Africa as a major growth region for such high-demand services.

South African telehealth

Saul Kornik (CEO & Co-Founder of Healthforce and CEO of the new venture)

Now, Doktor.se has two models for commercialising its telemedicine application. The first is to use its technology to personally deliver healthcare services. The second model licenses the core technology to third parties in markets in which Doktor.se has no intention of expanding. Doktor.se achieved this with Brazilian health tech startup ViBe Saúde (via Webrock), and last year, the platform had over 1.2 million patient consultations. It plans to do the same by licensing its technology to deliver care through Healthforce across Africa.

By forming a new partnership, a completely new opportunity is set up. Healthforce can leverage its current position to take core tech from Doktor.se to a new direct-to-patient market. In the background is Webrock, a willing investment machine set up to scale the platform.

The new venture will focus on the uninsured, B2C segment through a freemium-type offering. The platform offers on-demand and scheduled consultations with nurses, general practitioners and mental health professionals. It also provides chronic care management and will be integrated with Healthforce’s broader primary care offering.

Saul Kornik, co-founder and CEO at Healthforce, will resume a new role at the newly formed company. According to him, the partnership gives Healthforce an additional product to add to its healthcare product stack. In addition, it gives Doktor.se the ability to generate license fee revenue from a new market, while Webrock has an opportunity to invest in yet another large developing market.

“Webrock and Healthforce partnered to bring funding and strategic/operational capacity to this new pan-African direct-to-patient play, respectively,” he said to TechCrunch. “All existing independent operations will continue. However, under the NewCo, Healthforce as a major shareholder will expand its primary care product stack and Doktor.se will generate revenue off license fees earned.”

Sub-Saharan Africa has a healthcare market of about $90 billion. But health insurance coverage is in single-digit (percentage-wise) across countries in Sub-Saharan Africa except for South Africa with 16% coverage. Kornik says the three parties want to tackle a large portion of this challenge and are aligned about how the healthcare system in Africa could look if it were functioning optimally.

“This is a pure-play provider-of-healthcare venture. Through this pan-African venture, we will deliver high-quality healthcare at low cost to 75 million people through telemedicine, literally putting healthcare in the palm of their hands,” he said.

Partner at Webrock Ventures Joshin Raghubar and co-founder and CEO of Doktor, Martin Lindman, are enthusiastic about the opportunity Africa presents due to its large population and increasing smartphone penetration.

This new venture, which should hopefully have a name soon, is one of the few health tech platforms based in South Africa that have raised seven-figure sums in a fintech-dominated year. In February, hearX Group, a company that specializes in making hearing healthcare technologies, raised $8.3 million Series A to expand into the U.S. April saw Quro Medical close a $1.1 million seed round to scale its service that manages ill patients in the comfort of their homes. Judging by the spacing between each fundraise, we should see more from the country before the year runs out.

#africa, #doktor-se, #health, #healthcare, #healthforce-io, #quro-medical, #recent-funding, #south-africa, #startups, #tc, #technology, #telehealth, #telemedicine, #webrock-ventures

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Stacey Abrams co-founded fintech company Now raises $9.5M

After co-founding Insomnia Consulting, Stacey Abrams and Lara O’Connor Hodgson started Nourish to address a personal problem.

“We were at a meeting, I think for one of my campaigns,” explains Abrams, the Georgia-based lawyer and politician whose voting rights work became a focal point for the country in 2020. “[O’Connor Hodgson] needed to put together a baby bottle and had to trust the waiter to take the bottle back and wash it. She said, ‘I just wish there was a Dasani for babies.’ ”

Ultimately, however, Nourish ran into an issue. The company was a victim of its own successes, to hear Abrams describe it — or, more accurately, a victim of a system that didn’t provide it the right tools to grow. A problem with invoicing ultimately stopped the childcare in its tracks. But it was precisely those failings that planted the seed for their next company, the simply named Now.

“We started looking for a loan. All we needed was the money to meet the order. This was during the credit crunch, and we could not get it,” Abrams tells TechCrunch. “We went from bank to credit union to factoring, and every time we got near the end, the credit model changed and we got kicked out of the program. Finally, unfortunately, we had to let our business die. We grew to death. We got too big to meet the needs and didn’t have a solution.”

Abrams and O’Connor Hodgson founded Now in 2010 to provide small businesses a quicker method for getting invoices paid. When a business submits an invoice through NowAccount, the service pays 100% of the invoice, minus a 3% merchant fee.

Image Credits: Now

“We sell bonds in the capital market, just like American Express does,” O’Connor Hodgson explains. “We have very low-cost capital that we’re able to give that small business their revenue immediately. And then we’ve built a system that allows us to manage the cost and risk of that, because we’re going to then wait 30+ days to get paid.”

Today the Georgia-based company announced that it has raised $9.5 million in Series A funding. The round, led by Virgo Investment Group and featuring Cresset Capital Partners, will be used to help scale Now’s offerings. It comes as the pandemic has put even more of a strain on invoices for many companies. O’Connor Hodgson says the average wait time for invoice payment expanded from around 50 days to between 70-80.

“We have served over 1,000 small businesses and we have processed over $700 million in transactions,” says O’Connor Hodgson. “So that’s $700 million of their capital that they have received sooner.”

Thus far, Now’s growth has largely been a product of word of mouth. The new influx of funding will go, in part, to market and advertising to get the product in front of more small businesses.

“When you’re a small business and someone tells you we have a solution to a problem that no one has been willing to solve, we sound like magic,” says Abrams. “And what we want people to understand and a big part of our scaling challenge has been, you have to experience it to believe it. And getting companies to understand that this actually does work the way we say that it does actually benefit you in the way we imagine, and that it works.”

#finance, #funding, #invoicing, #now, #recent-funding, #stacey-abrams, #startups, #virgo-investment-group

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Swedish company Northvolt raises $2.75B to accelerate European battery production

Swedish battery developer and manufacturer Northvolt AB has raised $2.75 billion in capital as it prepares to ramp up to an annual production capacity of 150 GWh in Europe by 2030.

The funding round – Northvolt’s largest thus far – was co-led by existing investors Goldman Sachs and Volkswagen, and new investors including the Swedish pension funds AP1-4, and OMERS, one of Canada’s largest pension plans. AMF, ATP, Baillie Gifford, Baron Capital Group, Bridford Investments Limited, Compagnia di San Paolo through Fondaco Growth, Cristina Stenbeck, Daniel Ek, IMAS Foundation, EIT InnoEnergy, Norrsken VC, PCS Holding, Scania and Stena Metall Finans also participated in the raise.

Volkswagen’s investment came to €500 million ($620 million), the OEM said Wednesday, maintaining its 20% stake in the battery manufacturer.

CNBC reported that Northvolt’s valuation now stands at $11.75 billion. The company declined to comment on the specific valuation figure to TechCrunch.

Northvolt has already scored major deals with automakers like Volkswagen and BMW. In July 2020, the company inked a $2.3 billion contract with BMW for batteries; more recently in March, Volkswagen put in a $14 billion order over a ten-year period. The two deals bring Northvolt’s total contracts to $27 billion. Other notable customers include Swedish heavy duty truck manufacturer Scania and energy storage company Fluence.

This brings Northvolt’s total raised to more than $6.5 billion since the company was founded in 2016. The manufacturer’s first gigafactory in Skellefteå, Sweden, will be expanded from 40 GWh to 60 GWh, in part due to increased demand from the Volkswagon order, the company said in a statement. That facility will commence production later in 2021.

Northvolt’s overarching plan is to ramp up to at least 150 GWh of annual battery production across Europe by 2030. To meet this massive target, the company is considering at least two additional gigafactories, including one in Germany.

Northvolt is one of Europe’s largest battery manufacturers. Company shareholder EIT InnoEnergy said in a statement Wednesday that the funding is key to Europe achieving its Green Deal objectives, which includes creating a European battery value chain.

The Swedish company aims to distinguish itself from other battery manufacturers by producing batteries using renewable energy for the manufacturing process. Northvolt says its batteries have an 80% lower carbon footprint than those made with coal power. It also recycles batteries in-house and reuses the raw materials in its production process.

#automotive, #bmw-group, #ev-batteries, #northvolt, #private-equity, #recent-funding, #tc, #transportation, #volkswagen