The expansion of NATO has received overwhelming support among Democrats and Republicans in a deeply divided Washington.
The lopsided bipartisan vote demonstrated broad support in the United States for one of the most significant expansions of the military alliance, amid Russia’s continued assault on Ukraine.
The director of “Sabaya,” about Yazidi women who had been sexually enslaved by ISIS, says that he wasn’t present for a key scene and that he substituted footage.
Covid precautions created a global slowdown in human activity — and an opportunity to learn more about the complex ways we affect other species.
Make the affirmative case for NATO enlargement.
The change was a victory for President Biden and a setback to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who had justified the Ukraine invasion as a warning against NATO’s expansion.
Finnish and Swedish hopes of being accepted as applicants by next week’s NATO summit meeting have been dashed by a Turkish government that says it is in no hurry.
The United Nations helped the Yaqui Nation, an Indigenous group in Mexico and the United States, reclaim a deer’s head and other items from a Swedish museum.
Dr. Paolo Macchiarini became a star by creating a “bioartificial” windpipe. But it did not work, and a court in Sweden has found him criminally liable for the harm inflicted on a patient.
Social media users around the world fixated on the curious Swedish tradition of not automatically offering food to guests.
A move by right-wing lawmakers to remove Sweden’s justice minister has been dragged into a battle over the country’s efforts to join NATO.
For Sweden and Finland, which want to join NATO, the U.S.S. Kearsarge is a promise of the protection that membership in the alliance would bring against President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s block on NATO membership for Sweden and Finland is likely to be managed, but Washington and the rest of the alliance are annoyed.
This should be a moment of clarity.
The top Senate Republican traveled to Europe in a bid to show that isolationism hasn’t taken over his party. He has privately lobbied his colleagues to vote that way, and so far, most are.
Speedy approval seems likely among most members of the alliance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but Turkey’s objections remain a sticking point.
Russia benefits as Turkey slows down Swedish and Finnish applications to NATO and Hungary continues to block an E.U. embargo on Russian oil.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created new fears, and the Swedes, dragged along by Finland, are expected to apply, reluctantly, to join the alliance and its collective defense.
Ukraine has been considered too long on corruption and too short on democratic institutions to make membership likely for years, if not decades, to come.
The troops will serve in the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force, created in 2014 in response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.
There is a window of opportunity for the two countries to join the alliance. They should seize it.
The invasion of Ukraine has heightened security fears, pushing even formally nonaligned countries toward the Western alliance.
Why more enthusiasm and more advertisement might have saved more lives.
She began posting about her daily life in Sweden at the age of 99. She went on to acquire a worldwide fan base.
Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, European anxiety has shifted from Covid to nuclear annihilation. Bunkers, survival guides and iodine pills are flying off the shelves.
In a rare rebuke of Beijing, Nils van der Poel, a speedskater, handed one of his gold medals to the daughter of Gui Minhai, a book publisher imprisoned in China.
A conversation about hip-hop’s evolution in the country, and how a high-profile shooting thrust the music into the spotlight.
Dozens of songwriters and producers in Stockholm make a living from K-pop — even if they can’t speak Korean.
For more than a decade, Anna von Hausswolff has been bringing the sound of pipe organs to rock fans. But Roman Catholic extremists have tried to stop her playing shows in churches.
The Swedish moviemaker thinks pornography can create a society that sees sexuality as myriad and joyful, and where women’s pleasure matters.
Hip-hop, the country’s most popular music, has quickly become a lightning rod for Sweden’s long-roiling problems with gun violence and gang warfare.
The Swedish Parliament elected Magdalena Andersson as prime minister by a narrow margin. She was first elected last week, but her government soon collapsed over a budget dispute.
Magdalena Andersson, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, quit after her new government’s budget was defeated on her first day in office and her coalition partners bolted.
Is work working for us?
How one of the biggest pop groups in the world secretly reunited to make a new album and a high-tech stage show featuring digital avatars of themselves — from 1979.
The artist, Lars Vilks, had been under police protection since 2010, after his sketch prompted widespread condemnation from Muslims. He was killed along with two bodyguards in a crash that the police said was an accident.
The acclaimed documentary “Sabaya” portrays the rescue of Yazidi women sexually enslaved by the Islamic State terrorist group. But many of the traumatized women said they never agreed to be in the film.
It’s a story common to all sectors today: investors only want to see ‘uppy-righty’ charts in a pitch. However, edtech growth in the past 18 months has ramped up to such an extent that companies need to be presenting 3x+ growth in annual recurring revenue to even get noticed by their favored funds.
Some companies are able to blast this out of the park — like GoStudent, Ornikar and YouSchool — but others, arguably less suited to the conditions presented by the pandemic, have found it more difficult to present this kind of growth.
One of the most common themes Brighteye sees in young companies is an emphasis on international expansion for growth. To get some additional insight into this trend, we surveyed edtech firms on their expansion plans, priorities and pitfalls. We received 57 responses and supplemented it with interviews of leading companies and investors. Europe is home 49 of the surveyed companies, six are based in the U.S., and three in Asia.
Going international later in the journey or when more funding is available, possibly due to a VC round, seems to make facets of expansion more feasible. Higher budgets also enable entry to several markets nearly simultaneously.
The survey revealed a roughly even split of target customers across companies, institutions and consumers, as well as a good spread of home markets. The largest contingents were from the U.K. and France, with 13 and nine respondents respectively, followed by the U.S. with seven, Norway with five, and Spain, Finland, and Switzerland with four each. About 40% of these firms were yet to foray beyond their home country and the rest had gone international.
International expansion is an interesting and nuanced part of the growth path of an edtech firm. Unlike their neighbors in fintech, it’s assumed that edtech companies need to expand to a number of big markets in order to reach a scale that makes them attractive to VCs. This is less true than it was in early 2020, as digital education and work is now so commonplace that it’s possible to build a billion-dollar edtech in a single, larger European market.
But naturally, nearly every ambitious edtech founder realizes they need to expand overseas to grow at a pace that is attractive to investors. They have good reason to believe that, too: The complexities of selling to schools and universities, for example, are widely documented, so it might seem logical to take your chances and build market share internationally. It follows that some view expansion as a way of diversifying risk — e.g. we are growing nicely in market X, but what if the opportunity in Y is larger and our business begins to decline for some reason in market X?
International expansion sounds good, but what does it mean? We asked a number of organizations this question as part of the survey analysis. The responses were quite broad, and their breadth to an extent reflected their target customer groups and how those customers are reached. If the product is web-based and accessible anywhere, then it’s relatively easy for a company with a good product to reach customers in a large number of markets (50+). The firm can then build teams and wider infrastructure around that traction.
Numan, the European subscription service covering erectile dysfunction (ED) and men’s wellness/health needs more generally, has raised $40 million in a Series B funding round led by White Star Capital, with participation from existing investors Novator, Vostok New Global, Anthemis Exponential, Colle Capital, and new investor Hanwha Group. The new round will be used to fuel expansion.
Numan’s current roster of services cover ED, premature ejaculation, hair loss, gut and lung health, and nutritional deficiencies. But they can also do blood tests for general health needs which don’t require in-person appointments.
Post-pandemic, the digitization of health and wellness continues apace. Had we not had a pandemic, vitamins, and the like, delivered through the letterbox, would almost certainly have continued to grow steadily as a business. But with the pandemic, businesses that can speak to our health needs remotely have exploded.
Who would have considered taking a blood test remotely a ‘normal thing’ two years ago? Now it’s practically required. Into this space, wellness companies have uncovered an extremely lucrative nexus of trends: an aging male population with a desire to remain sexually active, increasing awareness of their own health, the convenience of subscription, and the imperative of the pandemic to keep things remote has proven to be a powerful combination of forces.
Numan is not alone in this space. Roman and Hims, for example, are two big players in the US. The open door Numan is pushing against is more this wider movement around male health, which men themselves are becoming more open to. As well as growing organically, Numan has also made two strategic acquisitions of companies in the UK and Sweden to expand its footprint. It’s likely this new round will lead to similar strategic plays.
With sexual health a tricky subject for men, digital services are stepping in to mitigate any embarrassment around having to sit in front of the family GP. Numan is also regulated by the Care Quality Commission as a registered healthcare provider, giving it a further stamp of approval.
Numan claims men now prefer its model to in-person healthcare meetings. In its own survey of 800 subscribers, 88% said that using the service has improved their confidence, while 68% say that using Numan has also improved their relationships, and over half said the effects of the pandemic had given them a more positive impression of using digital healthcare.
In a statement Sokratis Papafloratos, CEO & founder, Numan said: “This funding is a significant milestone on our journey to help millions of men be healthier. White Star Capital is one of the best investors in our space, and I’m delighted to be working together along with a wider team of brilliant investors.”
Speaking to me over a call, Papafloratos added that despite there being a lot of competition in the space “this is not a winner-takes-all-market. We have 25 languages on the team so we understand the market, patients, regulation, we understand it more in-depth than many competitors.”
Eric Martineau-Fortin, Founder and Managing Partner, White Star Capital: “Men’s health has been under-served by traditional services and needs innovative businesses to break down barriers and ensure taboos don’t prevent men from being happy and healthy. Numan’s digital offering helps men take charge of their health discreetly and decisively. We’re incredibly excited by Sokratis and his team, and look forward to working with them as they grow.”
Payments made a huge shift to digital platforms during the Covid-19 pandemic — purchasing moved online for many consumers and businesses; and a large proportion of those continuing to buy and sell in-person went cash-free. Today a startup that has been focusing on one specific aspect of payments — recurring billing — is announcing a round of funding to capitalize on that growth with expansion of its own. Billogram, which has built a platform for third parties to build and handle any kind of recurring payments (not one-off purchases), has closed a round of $45 million.
The funding is coming from a single investor, Partech, and will be used to help the Stockholm-based startup expand from its current base in Sweden to six more markets, Jonas Suijkerbuijk, Billogram’s CEO and founder, said in an interview, to cover more of Germany (where it’s already active now), Norway, Finland, Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy.
The company got its start working with SMBs in 2011 but pivoted some years later to working with larger enterprises, which make up the majority of its business today. Suijkerbuijk said that in 2020, signed deals went up by 300%, and the first half of 2021 grew 50% more on top of that. Its users include utilities like Skanska Energi and broadband company Ownit, and others like remote healthcare company Kry, businesses that take invoice and take monthly payments from their customers.
While there has been a lot of attention around how companies like Apple and Google are handling subscriptions and payments in apps, what Billogram focuses on is a different beast, and much more complex: it’s more integrated into the business providing services, and it may involve different services, and the fees can vary over every billing period. It’s for this reason that, in fact, even big companies in the realm of digital payments, like Stripe, which might even already have products that can help manage subscriptions on their platforms, partner with companies like Billogram to build the experiences to manage their more involved kinds of payment services.
I should point out here that Suijkerbuijk told me that Stripe recently became a partner of Billograms, which is very interesting… but he also added that a number of the big payments companies have talked to Billogram. He also confirmed that currently Stripe is not an investor in the company. “We have a very good relationship,” he said.
It’s not surprising to see Stripe and others wanting to more in the area of more complex, recurring billing services. Researchers estimate that the market size (revenues and services) for subscription and recurring billing will be close to $6 billion this year, with that number ballooning to well over $10 billion by 2025. And indeed, the effort to make a payment or any kind of transaction will continue to be a point of friction in the world of commerce, so any kinds of systems that bring technology to bear to make that easier and something that consumers or businesses will do without thinking about it, will be valuable, and will likely grow in dominance. (It’s why the more basic subscription services, such as Prime membership or a Netflix subscription, or a cloud storage account, are such winners.)
Within that very big pie, Suijkerbuijk noted that rather than the Apples and Googles of the world, the kinds of businesses that Billogram currently competes against are those that are addressing the same thornier end of the payments spectrum that Billogram is. These include a wide swathe of incumbent companies that do a lot of their business in areas like debt collection, and other specialists like Scaleworks-backed Chargify — which itself got a big investment injection earlier this year from Battery Ventures, which put $150 million into both it and another billing provider, SaaSOptics, in April.
The former group of competitors are not currently a threat to Billogram, he added.
“Debt collecting agencies are big on invoicing, but no one — not their customers, nor their customers’ customers — loves them, so they are great competitors to have,” Suijkerbuijk joked.
This also means that Billogram is not likely to move into debt collection itself as it continues to expand. Instead, he said, the focus will be on building out more tools to make the invoicing and payments experience better and less painful to customers. That will likely include more moves into customer service and generally improving the overall billing experience — something we have seen become a bigger area also during the pandemic, as companies realized that they needed to address non-payments in a different way from how their used to, given world events and the impact they were having on individuals.
“We are excited to partner with Jonas and the team at Billogram.” says Omri Benayoun, General Partner at Partech, in a statement. “Having spotted a gap in the market, they have quietly built the most advanced platform for large B2C enterprises looking to integrate billing, payment, and collection in one single solution. In our discussion with leading utilities, telecom, e-health, and all other clients across Europe, we realized how valuable Billogram was for them in order to engage with their end-users through a top-notch billing and payment experience. The outstanding commercial traction demonstrated by Billogram has further cemented our conviction, and we can’t wait to support the team in bringing their solution to many more customers in Europe and beyond!”
Cheese is one of those foods that when you like it, you actually love it. It’s also one of the most difficult foods to make from something other than milk. Stockeld Dreamery not only took that task on, it has a product to show for it.
The Stockholm-based company announced Thursday its Series A round of $20 million co-led by Astanor Ventures and Northzone. Joining them in the round — which founder Sorosh Tavakoli told TechCrunch he thought was “the largest-ever Series A round for a European plant-based alternatives startup,” was Gullspång Re:food, Eurazeo, Norrsken VC, Edastra, Trellis Road and angel investors David Frenkiel and Alexander Ljung.
Tavakoli previously founded video advertising startup Videoplaza, and sold it to Ooyala in 2014. Looking for his next project, he said he did some soul-searching and wanted the next company to do something with an environmental impact. He ended up in the world of food, plant-based food, in particular.
“Removing the animal has a huge impact on land, water, greenhouse gases, not to mention the factory farming,” he told TechCrunch. “I identified that cheese is the worst. However, though people are keen on shifting their diet, when they try alternative products, they don’t like it.”
Tavakoli then went in search of a co-founder with a science background and met Anja Leissner, whose background is in biotechnology and food science. Together they started Stockeld in 2019.
Pär-Jörgen Pärson, general partner at Northzone, was an investor in Videoplaza and said via email that Stockeld Dreamery was the result of “the best of technology paired with the best of science,” and that Tavakoli and Leissner were “using their scientific knowledge and vision of the future and proposing a commercial application, which is very rare in the foodtech space, if not unique.”
The company’s first product, Stockeld Chunk, launched in May, but not without some trials and tribulations. The team tested over 1,000 iterations of their “cheese” product before finding a combination that worked, Tavakoli said.
Advances in the plant-based milk category have been successful for the most part, not necessarily because of the plant-based origins, but because they are tasty, he explained. Innovation is also progressing in meat, but cheese still proved difficult.
“They are typically made from starch and coconut oil, so you can have a terrible experience from the smell and the mouth feel can be rubbery, plus there is no protein,” Tavakoli added.
Stockeld wanted protein as the core ingredient, so Chunk is made using fermented legumes — pea and fava in this case — which gives the cheese a feta-like look and feel and contains 30% protein.
Chunk was initially launched with restaurants and chefs in Sweden. Within the product pipeline are spreadable and melting cheese that Tavakoli expects to be on the market in the next 12 months. Melting cheese is one of the hardest to make, but would open up the company as a potential pizza ingredient if successful, he said.
Including the latest round, Stockeld has raised just over $24 million to date. The company started with four employees and has now grown to 23, and Tavakoli intends for that to be 50 by the end of next year.
The new funding will enable the company to focus on R&D, to build out a pilot plant and to move into a new headquarters building next year in Stockholm. The company also looks to expand out of Sweden and into the U.S.
“We have ambitious investors who understand what we are trying to do,” Tavakoli said. “We have an opportunity to think big and plan accordingly. We feel we are in a category of our own in a sense that we are using legumes for protein. We are almost like a third fermented legumes category, and it is exciting to see where we can take it.”
Eric Archambeau, co-founder and partner at Astanor Ventures, is one of those investors. He also met Tavakoli at his former company and said via email that when he was pitched on the idea of creating “the next generation of plant-based cheese,” he was interested.
“From the start, I have been continuously impressed by the Stockeld team’s diligence, determination and commitment to creating a truly revolutionary and delicious product,” Archambeau added. “They created a product that breaks the mold and paves the way towards a new future for the global cheese industry.”
Last fall, Spotify introduced a new format that combined spoken word commentary with music, allowing creators to reproduce the radio-like experience of listening to a DJ or music journalist who shared their perspective on the tracks they would then play. Today, the company is making the format, which it calls “Music + Talk,” available to global creators through its podcasting software Anchor.
Creators who want to offer this sort of blended audio experience can now do so by using the new “Music” tool in Anchor, which provides access to Spotify’s full catalog of 70 million tracks that they can insert into their spoken-word audio programs. Spotify has said this new type of show will continue to compensate the artist when the track is streamed, the same as it would elsewhere on Spotify’s platform. In addition, users can also interact with the music content within the shows as they would otherwise — by liking the song, viewing more information about the track, saving the song, or sharing it, for example.
The shows themselves, meanwhile, will be available to both free and Premium Spotify listeners. Paying subscribers will hear the full tracks when listening to these shows, but free users will only hear a 30-second preview of the songs, due to licensing rights.
The format is somewhat reminiscent of Pandora’s Stories, which was also a combination of music and podcasting, introduced in 2019. However, in Pandora’s case, the focus had been on allowing artists to add their own commentary to music — like talking about the inspiration for a song — while Spotify is making it possible for anyone to annotate their favorite playlists with audio commentary.
Since launching last year, the product has been tweaked somewhat in response to user feedback, Spotify says. The shows now offer clearer visual distinction between the music and talk segments during an episode, and they include music previews on episode pages.
The ability to create Music + Talk shows was previously available in select markets ahead of this global rollout, including in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.
With the expansion, creators in a number of other major markets are now gaining access, including Japan, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia. Alongside the expansion, Spotify’s catalog of Music + Talk original programs will also grow today, as new shows from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, India, Japan, and the Philippines will be added.
Spotify will also begin to more heavily market the feature with the launch of its own Spotify Original called “Music + Talk: Unlocked,” which will offer tips and ideas for creators interested in trying out the format.
Mondo Duplantis has a world record and a good chance at Olympic gold. But he’s endeared himself to Sweden (his mother’s home country) by buying into its culture.
With the rise of Open Banking, Psd2 Regulation, InsurTech, and the whole, general Fintech boom, tech investors have realized that there is an increasing place for dedicated funds which double down on this ongoing movement. When you look at the rise of banking-as-a-service offerings, payments platforms, insurtech, asset management, and infrastructure providers, you realize that there is a pretty huge revolution going on.
European fintech companies have raised $12.3bn in 2021 according to Dealroom, but the market is still wide-open for a great deal more funding for B2B fintech startups.
So it’s little surprise that B2B fintech-focused Element Ventures, has announced a $130 million fund to double-down on this new FinTech enterprise trend.
Founded by financial services veterans Steve Gibson and Michael McFadgen, and joined by Spencer Lake (HSBC’s former Vice Chairman of Global Banking and Markets) Element is backed by finance-oriented LPs and some 30 founders and executives from the sector.
Element says it will focus on what it calls a “high conviction investment strategy,” which will mean investing in only around 15 companies a year, but, it says, providing a “high level of support” to its portfolio.
So far it has backed B2B fintech firms across the UK and Europe including Hepster (total raised $10M), the embedded insurance platform out of Germany which I recently reported on; Billhop (total raised $6.7M), the B2B payment network out of Sweden; Coincover (total raised $11.6M), a cryptocurrency recovery service out of the UK; and Minna (total raised $25M), the subscription management platform out of Sweden.
Speaking to me over a call McFadgen, Partner at Element Ventures, said: “Steven and I have been investing in B2B FinTech together for quite a long time. In 2018 we had the opportunity to start element and Spencer came on boar in 2019. So Element as an independent venture firm is really a continuation of a strategy we’ve been involved in for a long time.”
Gibson added: “We are quite convinced by the European movement and the breakthrough these Fintech and insure tech firms in Europe are having. Insurance has been a desert for innovation and that is changing. And you can see that we’re sort of trying to build a network around companies that have those breakthrough moments and provide not just capital but all the other things we think are part of the story. Building the company from A to C and D is the area that we try and roll our sleeves up and help these firms.”
Element says it will also be investing in the US and Asia.
Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.
Despite the geopolitical headwinds for foreign tech firms to enter China, many companies, especially those that find a dependable partner, are still forging ahead. For this week’s roundup, I’m including a conversation I had with Prophesee, a French vision technology startup, which recently got funding from Kai-Fu Lee and Xiaomi, along with the usual news digest.
Spotting opportunities in China
Like many companies working on futuristic, cutting-edge tech in Europe, Prophesee was a spinout from university research labs. Previously, I covered two such companies from Sweden: Imint, which improves smartphone video production through deep learning, and Dirac, an expert in sound optimization.
The three companies have two things in common: They are all in niche fields, and they have all found eager customers in China.
For Prophesee, they are production lines, automakers and smartphone companies in China looking for breakthroughs in perception technology, which will in turn improve how their robots respond to the environment. So it’s unsurprising that Xiaomi and Chinese chip-focused investment firm Inno-Chip backed Prophesee in its latest funding round, which was led by Sinovation Venture.
The funding size was undisclosed but TechCrunch learned it was in the range of “tens of million USD.” It was also the first investment that Kai-Fu Lee has made through Sinovation in Europe. As Prophesee CEO Luca Verre recalled:
I met Dr. Kai-Fu Lee three years ago during the World Economic Forum … and when I pitched to him about Prophesee, he got very intrigued. And then over the past three years, actually, we kept in touch and last year, given the growing traction we were having in China, particularly in the mobile and IoT industry, he decided to jump in. He said okay, it is now the right timing Prophesee becomes big.
The Paris-based company wasn’t actively seeking funding, but it believed having Chinese strategic investors could help it gain greater access to the complex market.
Rather than sending information collected by sensors and cameras to computing platforms, Prophesee fits that process inside a chip (fabricated by Sony) that mimics the human eyes, a technology that is built upon neuromorphic engineering.
The old method snaps a collection of fixed images so when information grows in volume, a tremendous amount of computing power is needed. In contrast, Prophesee’s sensors, which it describes as “event-based,” only pick up changes in the environment just as the photoreceptors in our eyes and can process information continuously and quickly.
Europe has been pioneering neuromorphic computing, but in recent years, Verre saw a surge in research coming from Chinese universities and tech firms, which reaffirmed his confidence in the market’s appetite.
We see Chinese OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), particularly Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo pushing the standard of quality of image quality to very, very high … They are very eager to adopt new technology to further differentiate in a way which is faster and more aggressive than Apple. Apple is a company with an attitude which to me looks more similar to Huawei. So maybe for some technology, it takes more time to see the technology mature and adopt, which is right very often but later. So I’m sure that Apple will come at certain point with some products integrating event-based technology. In fact, we see them moving. We see them filing patents in the space. I’m sure that will come, but maybe not the first.
Though China is striving for technological independence, Verre believed Prophesee’s addressable market is large enough — $20 billion by his estimate. Nonetheless, he admitted he’d be “naive to believe Prophesee will be the only one to capture” this opportunity.
WeRide bought a truck company
One of China’s most valuable robotaxi startups has just acquired an autonomous trucking company called MoonX. The size of the deal is undisclosed, but we know that MoonX raised “tens of millions RMB” 15 months ago in a Series A round.
While WeRide is focused on Level 4 self-driving technology, it is also finding new monetization avenues before its robotaxis can chauffeur people at scale. It’s done so by developing minibusses, and the MoonX acqui-hire, which brings the company’s founder and over 50 engineers to WeRide, will likely help diversify its revenue pool.
WeRide and MoonX have deep-rooted relationships. Their respective founders, Tony Han and Yang Qingxiong, worked side by side at Jingchi, which was later rebranded to WeRide. Han co-founded Jingchi and took the helm as CEO in March 2018 while Yang was assigned vice president of engineering. But Yang soon quit and started MoonX.
Han, a Baidu veteran, gave Yang a warm homecoming and put him in charge of the firm’s research institute and its new office in Shenzhen, home to MoonX. WeRide’s sprawling headquarters is just about an hour’s drive away in the adjacent city of Guangzhou.
AI surveillance giant Cloudwalk nears IPO
Cloudwalk belongs to a cohort of Chinese unicorns that flourished through the second half of the 2010s by selling computer vision technology to government agencies across China. Together, Cloudwalk and its rivals SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu were dubbed the “four AI dragons” for their fast ascending valuations and handsome funding rounds.
Of course, the term “AI dragon” is now a misnomer as AI application becomes so pervasive across industries. Investors soon realized these upstarts need to diversify revenue streams beyond smart city contracts, and they’ve been waiting anxiously for exits. Finally, here comes Cloudwalk, which will likely be the first in its cohort to go public.
Cloudwalk’s application to raise 3.75 billion yuan ($580 million) from an IPO on the Shanghai STAR board was approved this week, though it can still be months before it starts trading. The firm’s financials don’t look particularly rosy for investors, with net loss amounting to 720 million yuan in 2020.
Also in the news
- Speaking of the torrent of news in autonomous driving, vehicle vision provider CalmCar said this week that it has raised $150 million in a Series C round. Founded by several overseas Chinese returnees in 2016, CalmCar uses deep learning to develop ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System) used in automotive, industrial and surveillance scenarios. German auto parts maker ZF led the round.
- Baby clothes direct-to-consumer brand PatPat said it has raised $510 million from Series C and D rounds. The D2C ecosystem leveraging China’s robust supply chains is increasingly gaining interest from venture capitalists. Brands like Shein, PatPat, Cider and Outer have all secured fundings from established VCs. Founded by three Carnegie Mellon grads, PatPat counts IDG Capital, General Atlantic, DST Global, GGV Capital, SIG China and Sequoia China among its investors.
Anyone, an audio app that’s building a ‘marketplace for advice’ one five-minute phone call at a time, is launching new versions of its iOS and Android apps today* and beginning to large-scale onboarding after operating in a limited closed beta for the past six months.
The app — which was founded around 18 months ago (so pre-pandemic) — has a simple premise: Advice is best delivered verbally, concisely and one-to-one, in a time-limited format.
Video is distracting and a hassle to fit into busy people’s schedules. Text is time-consuming and prone to misunderstandings. But a simple phone call can — quickly and usefully — cut through, is the thinking here.
Hence the decision to hard-stop at a five-minute phone call. The app automatically terminates each call at the five minute mark — no ifs, no buts (and, well, hopefully fewer time-nibbling ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ too).
To fund development of the marketplace, the team has raised around $4 million in total to date — mainly comprised of a $3.6M seed round led by Berlin-based Cavalry Ventures with participation from Supernode Global, Antler and a number of high-profile angel investors (contributing angels include Atomico’s Sarah Drinkwater and Sameer Singh; and ustwo’s Matt ‘Mills’ Miller, among others).
Broadly speaking, online audio has shown its staying power through a sustained podcast boom and, more recently, a buzzy moment for social audio, via developments like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces — which speak to a general sense of pandemic-struck ‘Zoom fatigue’ as remote workers max out on video calls at work yet still crave meaningful connections with other people at a time when opportunities to mingle in person are still limited vs pre-COVID-19.
A lot of social audio can still be very noisy, though, and Anyone wants to be anything but. This is short-form, topic-specific audio.
Why five minutes? It’s short enough for a busy person to almost not have to think twice about taking a cold call from someone they’ve probably never spoken to before — while being just about long enough that some useful advice can be distilled and imparted across those 300 seconds of one-to-one connection.
Naturally the short format does not allow for group/conference calls. It’s one-to-one only.
Anyone’s CEO also reckons this “intimate”, short-form audio format could help drive diversity of advice by encouraging people whose voices may be underrepresented in traditional mentorship fora to feel more comfortable offering their time and knowledge to others. (He touts a current 50:50 user-split between men and women offering expertise through the app — and 25% people of color.)
“It’s not about taking long form meetings and compressing them — it’s about taking those conversations that would never have happened… and making them happen,” says CEO and co-founder David Orlic, pointing out that mainstream calendar apps have a default meeting slot that’s set to half an hour or an hour. So the wider thesis is that our current tools/infrastructure just aren’t set up to help people give and grab bitesized advice. (And, well, on the Internet anyone can claim to be an expert — but of course you can’t rely on the quality of the ‘advice’ you find freely floating around online.)
“Our belief is that there are a lot of five minute problems that we could be solving — whereas there are a lot of 30 or 60 minute problems that have solutions designed for them already. So we’re kind of building this for those conversations that aren’t happening,” he adds.
Orlic hints that the intention is also to leave Anyone’s callers a little hungry for more — to feed demand for more five-minute conversations and so fuel transactions across the marketplace.
“If you look at the demand side — the callers — there’s always multiple calls involved. So people will call a lot of people and ask them basically the same question or bounce ideas. And then they will aggregate those insights into something that’s much more valuable than one conversation,” he continues. “So it’s like building an advisory board for yourself.”
The idea for the platform came after Orlic and his co-founders realized they could trace key career decisions to a handful of short conversations — brief moments of advice that ended up profoundly influencing the trajectory of their working lives, to the point where they were still looking back on them years later.
“None of us in the founding team had any networks to speak of when we were growing up. And we had fairly little exposure to opportunity. Alfred is from a small village in the middle of nowhere in Sweden, I grew up in an immigrant family, and Sam is a working class bloke from Leeds. And looking back at our careers we could track them back to this handful of conversations — these haphazard moments when someone gave us a piece of critical advice,” he tells TechCrunch. “For them it was just another five minute chat but for us it turned out to be life-changing.”
“For Alfred it was some quick advice on how he could land a job at Google which he managed to do and spent almost a decade there working as a growth guy on Google Chrome and other stuff; for Sam it was how to start a company; for me it was the suggestion that I as a creative should pursue an MBA — which I ended up doing. So we started thinking long and hard about the concept of advice, and we became obsessed with opening up these closed networks.”
The aim for Anyone’s marketplace is to make similarly pivotal moments accessible to all sorts of people — by giving the app’s users the chance to call any expertise provider on the network (provided they can afford the fee) and ask their question.
A slogan on its website poses the question “imagine if you could call anyone in the world” — which is certainly a poetic-sounding moonshot to be shooting for, although the size of the user-base remains far off that global vision at this early stage.
“What we’re building is really the phone book of the future,” says Orlic, slotting his elevator pitch into our ~30-minute phone conversation. “We’re building a place for unique, one-to-one, five minute experiences — which is something really different from most social audio plays.”
He points to a trend of other apps intentionally applying limits to change/define the user experience in behavior-shaping ways (like Poparazzi, a self-styled ‘anti-Instagram’ photo sharing app that doesn’t let you take selfies to make you take more pics of your friends and vice versa; or the dating app Thursday which limits users to one active day of use per week to prevent endless swiping and nudge matches toward going on an actual in-person date).
The marketplace component of Anyone’s app is another intentional limit too, of course. Calls are not free by default.
Putting a price on Anyone’s one-to-one advice is one way to try to weed out unserious (or indeed abusive) users from those genuinely seeking others’ expertise on specific topics.
But primarily it’s there to provide an incentivize for people who have expertise worth sharing to make themselves available to take cold-calls (even very short ones) from strangers/those outside their existing contact networks.
Pricing for a five-minute call is set by Anyone users. So the call fee can vary from nothing at all (if the user distributes a free voucher code) to as little as $5 or all the way up to $500 (!) which does sound pretty crazy expensive. But Orlic notes users can choose to donate their fee to a charity if they do not wish to financially benefit from the advice they’re dishing out (so there may be instances where a high fee includes a philanthropic component).
With such highly variable fees, the app will need to have a good safety mechanism to re-confirm a user really does want to be charged the specific fee. (And, god forbid, to avoid the risk of butt-dialling… )
“If you want to connect with someone I think it’s reasonable to put a cost on the scarcest resource on the planet which is someone’s undivided attention,” Orlic argues, suggesting that plenty of mainstream tech confuses transient ‘access’ with attention. “We can ‘access’ people everywhere — we can listen to them, read them, follow them. But that’s not the same as attention… Someone’s undivided attention is a remarkable, remarkable thing. And the five-minute cap forces you to be very clear and to the point about what you want to chat about.”
With its intentionally attention-slicing infrastructure — which manages ephemeral contacts into precisely measured and billed units — “all of a sudden you have all of these conversations that wouldn’t have happened happening thanks to this manageable way of connecting with people”, is the claim.
Anyone users wanting to list themselves on the marketplace to sell one-to-one advice will need to create a profile that specifies their availability to take calls and some basic details (name, career details, location etc), as well as setting their five minute fee.
They also need to provide details of the “conversation topics” they’re comfortable giving advice on.
Co-founder Alfred Malmros’ profile includes examples such as: “Make the leap. Quitting a dream job to make it on your own”; “Rising quickly in a large organisation — politics vs. talent”; and “It takes a fool to remain sane. Thriving as an employee” — so topic steerage looks intended to be not only specific but maybe also give a flavor of the individual’s personality to further help advice-seekers decide if they want to shell out for five minutes of that particular person’s time.
The risk of imposters or low quality advice is being managed by “vetting and verification” processing all advisors have to go through prior to being able to sell, per Orlic. “Beyond verification, we put a lot of work into making sure that everyone on Anyone understands what constitutes good advice, how to avoid projection and biases in conversations, etc,” he adds.
The platform also incorporates a rating system — again, in an attempt to keep quality up across the marketplace.
Anyone’s early users are a blend of creators, founders and investors, per Orlic — including a lot of first and second time founders, as you might expect, with the pandemic having limited in-person startup networking opportunities.
He also says they’ve attracted a lot of people mid career, looking for advice on how to quit their jobs and pivot into something totally new — again, likely fuelled by the pandemic reconfiguring many things around how we work (and, more broadly, how we may be thinking about work-life balance).
“When you’re doing that kind of big life decision you really want to connect with a lot of people and ask around,” he suggests on the interest from established professionals looking for advice on a career switch. “Also there’s a high willingness to pay, I’d argue, when you’re in that position.”
“Business is a huge thing as a marketplace for advice,” Orlic adds, noting that a record number of businesses started in the last year too. “Investors — by the way — love this for deal flow because they can speed date a lot of founders and then pick who they continue with.”
Parents are another community of early users he highlights — saying they’ve been both offering and soliciting advice during the early test phase. He says one of the best pieces of advice he’s personally gained through the network was a conversation about parenting, adding: “I’ve had some really profound conversations with other dads. People that know a lot more about parenting than I do — where I’ve gotten really actionable advice and support. So that has been a big thing for me personally.”
Orlic also says he’s excited about potential in the area of mental health — suggesting the short-form format could be helpful to get people to have conversations about therapy which, since they’re so bitesized and bounded, may be a non-intimidating introduction toward taking up more sustained support.
He also mentions that he’s excited about the potential for civic society to make use of the platform as a tool for driving public engagement and awareness around issues and campaigns.
Appropriately enough, Anyone’s team has been dogfooding by using the app to get advice to help build the startup. (Orlic admits he asked someone on the network how to get TechCrunch’s attention and was advised, by the unnamed investor, to pitch this reporter — so it sounds like he got some solid advice there 😉
The app has had around 1,000 test users during the closed beta period — with some 12,000 on the wait-list that Orlic says they’ll be onboarding over the coming weeks.
Network building — so growing the size of the user-base on both the expertise and demand sides — is clearly going to be a key challenge here. (And notably Orlic emphases the network effects expertise of its angel backer, Singh.)
Anyone’s five-minute format may be bitesize enough to encourage users to spread the word of any good experiences they have on the platform to their (wider) social graphs on mainstream social networks. Although the calls themselves must surely remain private between the two interlocutors — so there are some hard limits on the app content being able to go viral.
At the same time it’s not hard to imagine a platform like Twitter (or, indeed, LinkedIn) seeing value in offering a similar one-to-one user call capability — and bolting it on as a feature on an established network where users have already built up extensive social graphs. So If Anyone’s idea really takes off the risk of cloning could get very real — which means it will have to balance network building/growth with attention to the quality of the community it’s building and innovating to keep its users happily stuck to its own (inevitably smaller) network.
Commenting on backing the app in a statement, Claude Ritter, managing partner at Cavalry Ventures, said: “What sets Anyone apart from other audio apps is the quality and connection of 1:1 advice. The team saw the potential of audio and the emergence of the creator economy long before the hype. We’re impressed by what they’ve accomplished to date and by their mission to build the phone book of the future.”
Around 9,000 five-minute calls have been made via Anyone’s platform so far, per Orlic — who says the goal they’re shooting for as they open up access now is to get to 100,000 calls within a year.
The business model for now is to take a straightforward 20% cut of the advice fee.
On the fee side there’s also potential for things to get bumpy if momentum builds around the concept — given that platform giants have been known to take a predatory approach to pricing when trying to close down creator-supporting upstart competition via their own fast-following clones. (See, for example, Facebook’s recent dive into offering a newsletter platform — for which it’s both paying writers upfront for contributions and, at least initially, not taking any cut of their subscriptions.)
It’s clear that Anyone will need to pay particular attention to the quality of the advice and community it’s building. It may even end up needing to hone in on serving particular niches and specialisms in order to leverage differentiation vs larger more generalist networks which have the advantage of larger user-bases should they decide to move in on the same ‘quick call’ turf.
At the same time, there are signs that some of the buzz around social audio may be fading away to more of a hmm as the hype dies down and app users tire of all the noise. But again, that’s why Anyone keeping the audio side intentionally short looks smart.
“We feel that we are part of a movement that is rebuilding the Internet as we know it and building something that is more sustainable and healthy — and really creating value,” says Orlic, discussing the changing landscape around social apps. “Closed social is a topic that I’m really excited by. We’ve seen this for years, with Slack channels and WhatsApp groups. We’ve seen social closing off because of a tonne of different reasons — and with Geneva and a lot of new really cool startups and platforms we’re seeing everything focus around communities. People building communities around specific verticals and then monetizing them in different ways. So we’re definitely a part of that wave.
“A lot of our most active users are people who have built audiences around specific topic and want more meaningful connections with those audiences — the Substack writers that use us as a way to both connect with their existing readers but also gaining new superfans, if you will, because when you’ve had a five minute chat with someone and then sign up to read their Substack, you will read everything they write after that kind of intro. So we’re definitely a part of that closed social. But as a business we are a marketplace — because again we’re obsessed with that idea of someone’s undivided attention being a very scarce resource and the fact that we’re seeing the ‘cameo-ification’ of everything and everyone. And that is also here to stay.”
“Monetization — in one way — sounds like a really crass and cynical concept but at the end of the day we want people to build income streams around things they’re passionate and know a lot about. At the end of the day that is a wonderful, wonderful thing,” he adds. “A creator middle class is a very exciting concept because looking at all the big platforms, old social media, we know where the money is going — it’s going to the top 0.1% of influencers and creators. Whereas small and mid tier creators are not making money to sustain themselves off their passion. For that you have all of these cohort-based courses through Maven. And platforms like us — that enable people to connect directly with each other in a one-to-one setting.
“We think it’s very cool that we’re doing an opinionated, one-to-one, five-minutes, audio-only platform because that gives us a unique positioning. And this is what excites the team. Seeing these stories come out of it — and those stories would not come out of it if it was just another broadcasting or Clubhouse thing.”
There is of course no small irony that it’s exactly because of the proliferation of mobile connectivity and apps — which have driven increased utility by providing people with on-demand access to so much data (and people) — that the traditional ‘quick call’ of old has been derailed, creating conditions where a startup feels there’s an opportunity to build a dedicated marketplace for scheduled quick phone calls. (Albeit, one that’s aiming to scale to a far wider network that the average person would have had in their phone book back in the 1980s, say.)
But as software and connectivity keeps eating the world, enforcing tech upgrades and reconfiguring learned behaviors, it’s clear that the resulting disruption can recreate the right conditions for new tools to come in and repackage some of the old convenience — which maybe got a bit lost in the noise.
*App Store review gods willing
The incident was the second to affect a parachutists’ flight after a similar disaster in the country in 2019.
As an early-stage VC, you spend time with hundreds of fantastic startups, trying to identify potential winners by thinking about market size, business model and competition. Nevertheless, deep down you know that in the long run, it all comes down to the team and the founder(s).
When we look at the most successful companies in our portfolio, their amazing performance is in large part thanks to the founders. However, even after 20 years in the industry, I have to admit that analyzing the team is still the most challenging part of the job. How do you evaluate a young first-time entrepreneur of an early-stage company with little traction?
The best founders are humble and well aware of their weaknesses and limitations as well as the potential challenges for their startup.
At Creandum, in the past 18 years, we have been fortunate to work with some of Europe’s most successful startup founders such as Daniel Ek from Spotify, Sebastian Siemiatkowski from Klarna, Johannes Schildt from Kry, Jacob de Geer and Magnus Nilsson from iZettle, Emil Eifrem from Neo4J, Christian Hecker from Trade Republic and many more.
After a while, we realized that these incredible entrepreneurs all share some fundamental characteristics. They all have lots of energy, work hard, show patience, perseverance and resilience. But on top of that, all these unicorn founders share five key traits that, as an investor, you should look for when you back them at an early stage.
They know what they don’t know
Many people expect a typical startup founder to be very confident and have a strong sales mentality. While they should definitely live up to those expectations, the best founders are also humble and well aware of their weaknesses and limitations as well as the potential challenges for their startup.
They keep wanting to learn, improve and grow the business beyond what average people have the energy and drive to manage.
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