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Real-time developer tool startup Pusher pulls in $8M in Series A funding

4 hours 5 min ago

Pusher, the London startup that provides tools and cloud infrastructure for developers to add real-time functionality to their apps, such as push notifications and messages, has pulled in $8 million in Series A funding. The round was led by London VC firm Balderton Capital, with participation from Heavybit, the San Francisco-based investor that specialises in helping developer product companies scale.

Founded in 2011 — off the back of a modest $1 million in seed funding — Pusher aims to significantly lower the barriers for developers who want to build real-time features into their websites and apps. This was originally delivered via a general purpose realtime API and supporting cloud infrastructure, enabling app developers to more easily build things like rich push notifications, live content updates, and various real-time collaboration and communication features.

However, more recently the company has began rolling out additional offerings dedicated to specific real-time functionality. The first of those is Chatkit, an API and SDK intended to do a lot of the heavy lifting required to add chat functionality to an app or service.

In a call, Pusher co-founder Max Williams told me the startup’s Series A will be used to continue building new developer products and to establish a bigger presence in the U.S. so that it can be closer to customers.

Pusher already has a small team working out of Heavybit’s San Francisco office, but in line with growth it plans to eventually set up a bigger office on the West Coast and aims to have up to 30 people working in the U.S. by the end of the year. These will be in sales, marketing and customer support.

In addition, a significant amount will be invested in R&D, too, with Pusher’s own London-based engineering team being bolstered accordingly. Pusher currently employs 60 people.

To that end, Williams says that the new capital will enable Pusher to move a lot faster, in recognition that the real-time developer tool space has not only grown exponentially in the last few years but is also becoming more competitive. He feels that for Pusher to fully take advantage of the opportunity ahead, organic growth — and in turn the company growing at the same pace as revenue — wasn’t going to cut it. Prior to this round of funding the startup had only raised $2.5 million in debt in addition to its original $1 million seed round.

Meanwhile, Pusher says that more than 200,000 developers worldwide are using Pusher’s products and more than 40 billion messages per day are now sent using APIs provided by the company, “connecting more than eight billion devices per month”. Customers include The New York Times, which uses Pusher for updating its realtime news feeds; Mailchimp, which uses it for internal collaboration tools; and DraftKings, which uses Pusher for updating its realtime leaderboards.

Categories: Business News

German insurance ‘robo-advisor’ Clark scores $29 million Series B

5 hours 4 min ago

Clark, one of a plethora of so-called ‘insurtech’ startups offering something akin to a digital insurance brokerage all delivered through a convenient mobile app, has closed a hefty $29 million in Series B funding.

The round was led by fintech investor Portag3 Ventures, and VC fund White Star Capital, with participation from a number of existing investors including Coparion, Kulczyk Investments, and Yabeo Capital. It brings Clark’s total funding to $45 million.

Founded in July 2015 — and originally out of fintech company builder Finleap — Frankfurt and Berlin-based Clark has built what it describes as an “insurance­ robo-­advisor”. Once you’ve given the startup a mandate to act as your insurance broker, the Clark iOS, Android and web apps let you manage and purchase various insurance products, spanning the full gamut of life, health, and property insurance.

Specifically, its algorithms analyze your current insurance situation and automatically propose ways to improve your coverage or get a better deal than the one you are currently on. It makes the majority of its revenue from management and admin fees paid by insurance companies on its platform, but also via commission on any new policy taken out.

To date, Clark says it has acquired close to 100,000 customers for its digital insurance services, making it one of the largest digital insurance players in Europe. This, we’re told, translates to $310 million in contract volume, which the insurtech startup says is a ten-fold increase from the contract volume it managed in 2016 at the time of its Series A.

Some of that growth appears to have come from partnerships with a number of banks in Germany, including challenger N26, and incumbents ING-DiBa, and DKB. I’m also told Clark has started working on a B2B line, offering Clark technology to banks and other insurance companies as a white-label product. Four deals with leading companies have been signed and are “in development”.

“Over the next few years, we will continue to focus on growth to cement our digital insurance management as the standard in Europe,” says Dr. Christopher Oster, CEO and co-founder of Clark, in a statement. “To drive Clark’s development, we will invest in our team in both Frankfurt and Berlin, especially in technology and marketing”.

Categories: Business News

Vacation rental management service Guesty raises $19.75M

12 hours 33 min ago

As the vacation rental sector heats up — with Airbnb making even more moves to expand its portfolio of services to include multiple tiers of rentals — there’s going to be more and more of a need for people who manage a large number of properties.

Guesty is one service that aims to do that, and today a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission notes that it’s raised $19.75 million in a new Series B round of financing. While Airbnb may be the dominant home vacation rental service, there are others like VRBO, and managing those properties across multiple different platforms could require handling all of that information in something more analog like an Excel sheet. It’s a kind of CRM tool for property management, ranging from tracking guest check-ins to the amount of revenue a property owner. Guesty also helps property owners by providing tools to manage operations beyond just the tracking.

Airbnb earlier this year started rolling out more tiers of home categories that are geared toward different kinds of travelers. That included high-end tiers called Airbnb Plus and Beyond by Airbnb. While these new categories potentially offer a more granular set of choices for consumers, it might make managing those properties a little more difficult — especially if it’s across multiple different services like Airbnb and VRBO, or even more analog channels. Tools like Guesty can help owners of multiple different properties (that might span multiple tiers) turn those homes into an actual business.

There are also plenty of platforms that are looking for additional services for people managing multiple properties on vacation rental sites. There are startups like Beyond Pricing, which look to help property managers figure out how to best price their homes. Airbnb has its own pricing algorithms, but there’s clear demand for tools that cross multiple platforms. Guesty was party of Y Combinator’s winter 2014 class, and raised $3 million in May last year.

While Airbnb continues to try to expand into new categories and offer home owners a way to rent out their homes — or for owners of multiple properties to run a side business — it’s not the only approach to vacation rentals. One startup, Selina, is looking to convert existing properties into kinds of campuses that cater to different tiers of travelers, ranging from travelers looking to stay in a hostel to ones that are willing to pay for their own rooms. Selina earlier this month said it raised $95 million. Selina is more of a hotel-ish model as it expands from geography to geography, but it also shows that there’s demand for an experience that can cater to a wide variety of guests.

Categories: Business News

New numbers illustrate how fast fundraising has changed for young startups

14 hours 17 min ago

Fundraising is never easy, but it’s even harder when the goal posts are being moved around. Such is the challenge facing today’s youngest startups, which are looking at very different fundraising metrics than new startups did just six or seven years ago.

We explored the issue yesterday with Peter Wagner, who spent more than 14 years with Accel as a managing partner before co-founding the early-stage firm Wing Venture Capital in 2013 with another veteran investor, Gaurav Garg, formerly of Sequoia Capital.

Wagner has an obvious interest in how rounds are changing. Wing has to know how much is reasonable to expect to invest in a company, even while it prefers to invest in companies that don’t yet have revenue or customers. In a competitive funding landscape, its now four-person investing team is also looking to raise the firm’s profile by publishing smart industry research, including, not so long ago, on the state of IoT.

Whatever Wing’s motivations, its findings are worth tracking if you’re a founder who is thinking about raising either a seed or Series A round any time soon. More from our chat with Wagner, along with Wing’s data, follows.

TC: Your second fund, $300 million, was nearly twice the size of your $160 million debut fund. Do you expect your third fund will be even larger? Is this going to be an Accel-size firm some day?

PW: No, we’re actually working hard to keep a lid on our fund size. Early-stage investing doesn’t scale. For us to grow, we’d have to change our investing strategy.

TC: So many firms are doing exactly that, with the notable exception of Benchmark, which has maintained its fund size for the last 18 years roughly. 

PW: I was at Accel when we were [expanding into] having a later-stage practice. We sought out different skills [from potential hires] because it’s a different process. It fact, the more we learned about it, the more we realized how different a discipline it is.

TC: Given that you’re so focused on early-stage financing dynamics, tell us what you’ve learned. How did you put together this new report?

PW: We looked at companies that were funded by the 20 or so leading venture firms between 2010 and 2017. It’s 2,700 companies altogether, and 5,800 financings. If a company raised a seed fund from another firm, but Sequoia led its Series A, all of its financings rounds, including that seed round, were incorporated into our research. We also focused on these companies’ downstream financings [no matter the investors].

TC: So some of these companies are pretty new. Others are eight years old. What should founders know about the numbers?

PW: Today’s cumulative seed capital — because it often comes in in multiple rounds — is larger than the average Series A round was in 2010, which wasn’t all that long ago. The average Series A in 2010 was $4.9 million; by last year, it had reached $12.1 million. The average amount of seed funding a startup raised in 2010 was $1.4 million; as of last year, it was $6.3 million.

TC: That’s a big uptick. Do you find it concerning at all?

PW: Not necessarily. It’s a reflection of the changing strategies of major venture firms. Those defined as Series A investors have mostly adopted a later-stage posture and at scale. And when you’re scaling a venture firm, you’ll do more later-stage investing because you can invest more money. That’s one of the things pulling up Series A sizes.

TC: Looking at another of your charts, it looks like the companies raising A rounds have to be a lot further along than was formerly the case. That’s not exactly a news flash, but it’s still interesting. Perhaps more telling is that 67 percent of them were already generating revenue, unlike 11 percent of their peers in 2010. The same is playing out for seed investments, looks like.

PW: Yes, just 9 percent of seed-funding companies were generating revenue back in 2010; last year, more than half of them were.

VC: So much for “venture” investing. Since everyone is taking so much less risk on these companies at the seed and Series A stage, are they getting less in terms of their ownership of these startups?

PW: Ownership percentages [outside of Wing] are hard to get, other than in IPO prospectuses. Based on anecdotal data and what I’ve observed, major firms are still looking for the same ownership percentages. They’re just paying a lot more for it.

TC: You have other interesting data, including around the number of financings that startups are sealing up before they get to the Series A. It used to be A was the second round. Now, companies have raised nearly three rounds before they get to that point.

That seems not great for founders, who are giving away part of their company with every financing.

PW: As you know, “pre-seed” is a thing now, as are “seed plus” financings. So you have this segmentation within the world of seed before you get to post-adoption, where you have some evidence that things are working and investors can see how rapidly. Seed is the new A.

As for whether founders own less because of this trend, that’s a hard one to track, again because ownership stats are the last ones you’ll find.

TC: Well, you’re investing very early on, at the pre-seed or pre-adoption phase in many cases. Are you still taking the 20 percent that you looked to own when you were doing Series A deals that looked more like seed deals?

PW: Ideally. Other times, we’ll start with a smaller position and build up to that. We play the role of go-to partner, so we want to be in that ownership position.

TC: With things shifting around so much, where is the Valley of Death these days? You obviously have to have a strong startup to land Series A funding.

PW: It’s interesting. Major firms have adopted these scaled-up strategies and they’ve outsourced a lot of the adoption work to investors and incubators and angel investors, who are launching a fleet of a thousand ships. That enables the firms to hang around and see which startups look the best and pick and choose.

What’s notable is they don’t have as much vested interest in companies at the Series A because it’s very different when you make a new investment versus a follow-on investment. It used to be that individuals at these firms were involved much earlier. 

I’m not sure if that’s a healthy or unhealthy development. But it does mean that seed firms have been presented with this expanded territory from which these other firms have backed away. Somebody has to do the foundation building. It’s a great opportunity for seed investors to play a bigger role, but it can certainly be a confusing time for founders, with investors changing, along with the criteria for who you let into your inner circle.

TC: You’ve been in venture for more than 20 years. Is there a correction coming or has something fundamentally changed?

PW: There will be a correction. There will always be a correction. Every time we’ve ever thought the cycle has been broken, we’ve been proven wrong. VC is cyclical. What I don’t know is the date of that correction or how deep it will be.

TC: Do you think venture firms should be raising such gigantic funds right now, given this likelihood? 

PW: The last time around [in the late ’90s], a bunch of people raised really big funds and wound up releasing half the capital or more back to their limited partners when the market changed. Returns on big funds have always disappointed. Things do change and tech is a much more important ingredient. But I do think this is still a boom-bust business.

Categories: Business News

Four MIT students have launched DeepBench to democratize access to expert networks

14 hours 34 min ago
Frederick Daso Contributor Share on Twitter Frederick Daso is a Master's candidate in Aerospace Engineering at MIT writing about college students and recent college graduates pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities.

New European financial regulations requiring fund managers at investment firms to pay banks for research and trading services separately could open the door for new entrants in the professional advisory services marketplace.

The rules, which were approved in 2014, but only took effect in January, are proving to be a boon for four MIT students who launched a company last year to try to grab some of the market.

DeepBench, founded by Devin Basinger, Yishi Zuo, Derek Hans and Nikhil Punwaney, is proposing some novel business model solutions to address what the MIT students see as flaws in the existing market — particularly around the use of expert networks in financial advisory services.

DeepBench co-founders Devin Basinger, Nikhil Punwaney, Derek Hans and Yishi Zuo

Expert networks are communities of experienced professionals in a given field. Fortune 500 companies, hedge funds, private equity firms and other entities rely on individuals from these groups for their insights and expertise. The biggest company in the expert network industry, Gerson Lerman Group (GLG), has nearly 50 percent market share and was on track to reach $400 million in revenue in 2016.

But GLG has had its share of troubles. The company played an integral role in providing the expert that passed confidential information to an SAC Capital trader, which was used as evidence in an insider trading case against the firm and its owner, Steven A. Cohen. The hedge fund ended up paying a record $1.8 billion in fines to the SEC (they did not admit wrongdoing in the case).

There is a significant opportunity to disrupt the expert networking space. As more experienced workers retire, some may want to continue putting their skills to use, albeit in a reduced capacity. Being a part of an expert network allows them to be available for clients who request their expertise in a flexible, convenient capacity. Facilitating this specialized knowledge sharing is a billion-dollar market for the taking.

Aside from established players like GLG and its European competitors, AlphaSights and Third Bridge, other startups like Clarity, Slingshot Insights, Catalant (formerly known as HourlyNerd) and Dūcō are also looking to transform the way expert networking is done. GLG is known to charge a group of four within a firm $100,000 for basic access to their network for a year. In comparison, these startups have different approaches and business models to improving the way clients access the expertise they need. Their efforts reflect two main segments within the expert network market: expert calls and project-based work.

DeepBench and Slingshot Industries are focusing their efforts on expert calls. DeepBench launched its current service in March 2017, which uses its “technology-driven, human-assisted” platform to connect individual clients with available experts for a 30 to 60-minute conversation at an agreed-upon rate. In addition, the startup does not require “learners” to sign long-term contracts or prepay, unlike other firms, allowing for greater client flexibility. Slingshot Industries matches groups of clients with similar interests to an expert to answer their questions. The group would crowdfund the cost for chatting with the expert.

Catalant and Dūcō have aimed for matching clients that need long-term projects completed with the relevant experienced contractor. These clients are looking for experts who are interested in extended-duration work. Catalant leverages its algorithms to quickly match prospective clients with the experts they are looking for based on the former’s search criteria.

Their goal is to make this process seamless, so more experts and clients will feel enabled to collaborate outside of a conventional consulting framework or contracting arrangement. Dūcō appears to take a more conventional approach to connecting clients and experts. The D.C.-based startup vets its pool of experts before offering them up to potential clients. Like Catalant, Dūcō uses matching algorithms to match clients with project work needs to experts ready to assist them.

As investors seek information to keep their competitive edge, and firms need outside help in solving internal problems, on-demand access to expert networks will become necessary. DeepBench currently has more than 1,000 registered experts for their closed beta platform. Currently, more than 20 clients are using the service. Most are top consulting companies, investors and product designers.

“We are focused on finding quality high-fit advisors right now instead of increasing the volume we can have available for clients,” Basinger said.

With a shift in E.U. financial regulations, expert networks are using their momentum in the Asian and U.S. markets to establish themselves in Europe. This specialized knowledge sharing can be shaped by startups like DeepBench as competition between firms continues to intensify.

Categories: Business News

Bose acquires Andrew Mason’s walking tour startup, Detour

17 hours 3 min ago

Groupon founder Andrew Mason’s audio tour startup Detour has been sold to Bose. The acquisition, which involves only the software and tour content — not the team — was quietly announced on Detour’s blog a few days ago, followed by an email to customers. Bose, initially, seems like an unlikely acquirer for an app designed to help people discover a city through narrated walking tours. But its interest in the product has to do with its upcoming AR platform, which involves audio experiences delivered through a pair of sensor-laden glasses.

Bose is now “actively looking for a partner to host the Detour content,” and make it available to its customers, including those on Bose AR.  The Detour app itself will soon shut down.

Mason says he may help Bose a bit in the process of finding that third party, but his focus is on his new company, Descript.

Detour had launched a few years ago, and was entirely self-funded by Mason. Its goal was to offer tourists and locals alike a way to discover a city’s hidden gems, like its off-the-beaten-track shops and alleys — things other tours would overlook. The service arrived to the public with tours in San Francisco starting in 2015, before later expanding to other markets, including international destinations, all available as in-app purchases.

The app, at the time of sale, had around 120 available tours.

A tour of the Marina’s sweets shops in Detour, narrated by a German philosopher

As part of the creation of its tours, Detour had developed some interesting technology — like a tool to transcribe audio that lets you edit the audio file by editing the written transcription, and a way to add music and sound to a narrative by adding it to the transcription.

This technology has now been spun off as a new startup, Descript. The Detour team, including Mason, have been working on Descript for around six months now. Descript, which aims to make editing sound files as easy as editing a Word document, launched in December with $5 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz.

Given Mason’s current focus, it’s not surprising that Detour was shutting down. But it is a little surprising it found an acquirer.

The app was never able to gain a sizable following on the scale of other travel guides. (It had been ranking in the 400s to 700s in the App Store’s “Travel” category as of late — meaning, practically invisible.) However, its tours were unique and interesting and had been designed with features others at the time lacked — like location awareness or the ability to sync with multiple people in a group, for example.

The Detour app will remain available until May 31, 2018, and all tours will be free through then. Afterwards, the app will be removed from the App Store.

“Thank you to the producers, engineers, designers, and storytellers that made Detour what it is over the last four years. I’m excited to see where Bose takes it,” wrote Mason, on Detour’s blog.

PitchBook claims Detour had raised funding, but Mason says that’s incorrect.

“Detour is self-funded (by me) and we never disclosed how much,” he says. But he did confirm that Mihir Shah, a friend, had invested a “some token number of thousands of dollars in the very beginning,” which is why the investment is listed on Shah’s LinkedIn.

Deal terms were not available, but it was likely a small exit.

It’s unclear when Detour would arrive on Bose AR, as Bose is still in the process of finding a third party to continue with Detour, and hasn’t yet shipped test builds of its AR glasses to developers.

Categories: Business News

Etleap scores $1.5 million seed to transform how we ingest data

18 hours 5 min ago

Etleap is a play on words for a common set of data practices: extract, transform and load. The startup is trying to place these activities in a modern context, automating what they can and in general speeding up what has been a tedious and highly technical practice. Today, they announced a $1.5 million seed round.

Investors include First Round Capital, SV Angel, Liquid2, BoxGroup and other unnamed investors. The startup launched five years ago as a Y Combinator company. It spent a good 2.5 years building out the product, says CEO and founder Christian Romming. They haven’t required additional funding until now because they have been working with actual customers. Those include Okta, PagerDuty and Mode, among others.

Romming started out at adtech startup VigLink and while there he encountered a problem that was hard to solve. “Our analysts and scientists were frustrated. Integration of the data sources wasn’t always a priority and when something broke, they couldn’t get it fixed until a developer looked at it.” That lack of control slowed things down and made it hard to keep the data warehouse up-to-date.

He saw an opportunity in solving that problem and started Etleap . While there were (and continue to be) legacy solutions like Informatica, Talend and Microsoft SQL Server Integration Services, he said when he studied these at a deeply technical level, he found they required a great deal of help to implement. He wanted to simplify ETL as much as possible, putting data integration into the hands of much less technical end users, rather than relying on IT and consultants.

One of the problems with traditional ETL is that the data analysts who make use of the data tend to get involved very late after the tools have already been chosen, and Romming says his company wants to change that. “They get to consume whatever IT has created for them. You end up with a bread line where analysts are at the mercy of IT to get their jobs done. That’s one of the things we are trying to solve. We don’t think there should be any engineering at all to set up an ETL pipeline,” he said.

[gallery ids="1627465,1627466,1627467"]

Etleap is delivered as managed SaaS or you can run it within your company’s AWS accounts. Regardless of the method, it handles all of the managing, monitoring and operations for the customer.

Romming emphasizes that the product is really built for cloud data warehouses. For now, they are concentrating on the AWS ecosystem, but have plans to expand beyond that down the road. “We want to help more enterprise companies make better use of their data, while modernizing data warehousing infrastructure and making use of cloud data warehouses,” he explained.

The company currently has 15 employees, but Romming plans to at least double that in the next 12-18 months, mostly increasing the engineering team to help further build out the product and create more connectors.

Categories: Business News

Catalyst brothers find capital success with $2.4M from True

19 hours 5 min ago

Over the past few years, the old language of “customer support” has been supplanted by the new language of “customer success.” In the old model, companies would essentially disappear following the conclusion of a sale, merely handling customer problems when they arose. Now, companies are actively reaching out to customers, engaging them with education and training and monitoring them with analytics to ensure they have the best time with the product as possible.

What’s changing is the nature of product and services today: subscription. Customers no longer just make a single buying decision about a product, but instead must actively commit to using the product, or else they churn.

New York-based Catalyst, founded by brothers Edward and Kevin Chiu, wants to rebuild customer success from the ground up with an integrated software platform. They have received some capital success of their own, securing $2.4 million in venture capital from Phil Black of True Ventures with participation from Ludlow Ventures and Compound.

New York has had something of an increase in founder mafias, as TechCrunch reported this weekend. Catalyst is no exception to this trend, with the Chiu brothers both working at DigitalOcean, one of New York’s many high-flying enterprise startups. Edward Chiu was director of customer success at the company for a number of years, but had a unique background in sales and also in coding before starting.

Kevin Chiu was head of inside sales at DigitalOcean . “I brought my brother on to do sales at DigitalOcean,” Edward Chiu explains. “We always knew that we wanted to start a company together, but wanted to see if we would kill each other.” The two worked together, and lo and behold, they didn’t kill each other.

Edward Chiu wanted to match the product experience of using DigitalOcean with the experience of using its internal customer success tools. Nothing on the market fit. “Given that DigitalOcean was a very technical product,” Chiu explained, “we decided to build our own tool.” Chiu thought of customer success at DigitalOcean as its own product, and his team built up the platform to improve its functionality and scalability. “We just used the tool and we loved it,” he said, so we “started to show this tool to a bunch of other customer success leaders I am connected with.”

Other customer success leaders said they wanted the platform, and “after the 20th person told me that,” he and his brother spun out of DigitalOcean to go on their own. Unlike enterprise startups in New York a couple of years ago that often struggled to find any investors, Catalyst found cash quickly. “Two weeks in we had more offers than we knew what to do with,” Chiu explained. The two said they had originally targeted a fundraise of $750,000, but ended up at $2.4 million.

Catalyst is a platform that integrates between a number of other major SaaS services such as Salesforce, Zendesk, Mixpanel and others to create a unified dashboard for data around customer success. From there, customer success managers have a set of automated tools to handle engagement, such as customer segmentation and email campaigns.

A major challenge in the customer success world is that these managers often don’t have the skills required to do advanced data analytics, so they often rely on their friends in engineering to run scripts or perform database lookups. The hope is that Catalyst’s feature set is powerful enough that these sorts of ad hoc tasks become a thing of the past. “Because we aggregate all this data, you can run queries,” Chiu explains.

Chiu says that Catalyst doesn’t just want to be a software platform, but rather a movement that pushes every company to think about how they can make their customers successful. “There are so many companies that are starting to understand that it is not something that you do once you raise a Series A, but something you do from day one,” Chiu said. “If you take care of your very first customer, they will constantly promote you and constantly promote your business.”

The company is based in Flatiron, and has eight employees.

Categories: Business News

Meet the quantum blockchain that works like a time machine

2018, April 24 - 11:48pm

A new — and theoretical — system for blockchain-based data storage could ensure that hackers will not be able to crack cryptocurrencies once the quantum era starts. The idea, proposed by researchers at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, would secure cryptocurrency futures for decades using a blockchain technology that is like a time machine.

You can check out their findings here.

To understand what’s going on here we have to define some terms. A blockchain stores every transaction in a system on what amounts to an immutable record of events. The work necessary for maintaining and confirming this immutable record is what is commonly known as mining. But this technology — which the paper’s co-author Del Rajan claims will make up “10 percent of global GDP… by 2027” — will become insecure in an era of quantum computers.

Therefore the solution to store a blockchain in a quantum era requires a quantum blockchain using a series of entangled photons. Further, Spectrum writes: “Essentially, current records in a quantum blockchain are not merely linked to a record of the past, but rather a record in the past, one that does not exist anymore.”

Yeah, it’s weird.

From the paper intro:

Our method involves encoding the blockchain into a temporal GHZ (Greenberger–Horne–Zeilinger) state of photons that do not simultaneously coexist. It is shown that the entanglement in time, as opposed to an entanglement in space, provides the crucial quantum advantage. All the subcomponents of this system have already been shown to be experimentally realized. Perhaps more shockingly, our encoding procedure can be interpreted as non-classically influencing the past; hence this decentralized quantum blockchain can be viewed as a quantum networked time machine.

In short, the quantum blockchain is immutable because the photons that it contains do not exist at the current time but are still extant and readable. This means the entire blockchain is visible but cannot be “touched” and the only entry you would be able to try to tamper with is the most recent one. In fact, the researchers write, “In this spatial entanglement case, if an attacker tries to tamper with any photon, the full blockchain would be invalidated immediately.”

Is this possible? The researchers note that the technology already exists.

“Our novel methodology encodes a blockchain into these temporally entangled states, which can then be integrated into a quantum network for further useful operations. We will also show that entanglement in time, as opposed to entanglement in space, plays the pivotal role for the quantum benefit over a classical blockchain,” the authors write. “As discussed below, all the subsystems of this design have already been shown to be experimentally realized. Furthermore, if such a quantum blockchain were to be constructed, we will show that it could be viewed as a quantum networked time machine.”

Don’t worry about having to update your Bitcoin wallet, though. This process is still theoretical and not at all available to mere mortals. That said, it’s nice to know someone is looking out for our quantum future, however weird it may be.

Categories: Business News

Kidbox raises $15.3 million for its personalized children’s clothing box

2018, April 24 - 11:15pm

Kidbox, a clothing-in-a-box startup aimed at a slightly younger crowd than StitchFix, has raised $15.3 million in Series B funding to expand and scale its business.

The round was led by Canvas Ventures, and includes participation from existing investors Firstime Ventures and HDS Capital, as well as new strategic partners Fred Langhammer, former CEO of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., and The Gindi Family, owners of Century 21 department stores.

To date, Kidbox has raised $28 million.

The company was founded in October, 2015, then shipped its first box of clothing out of beta testing during the back-to-school shopping season the next year.

Similar to StitchFix, Kidbox also curates a selection of around half a dozen pieces of clothing and other accessories (but not shoes), which are based on a child’s “style profile” filled out online by mom or dad. The profile asks for the child’s age, sizes and questions about the child’s clothing preferences — like what colors they like and don’t like, as well as other styles to avoid — like if you have a child who hates wearing dresses, for example, or one who has an aversion to the color orange.

“Those answers feed into a proprietary algorithm — we’re very data science and tech focused,” explains Kidbox CEO Miki Berardelli. “That algorithm hits up against our product catalog at any given moment, and presents to our human styling team the perfect box for — just as an example, a size 7 sporty boy. And from there, the styling team looks at the box that’s been served up, the customer’s history, if they’re a repeat customer, the customer’s geography and any notes [the customer] added to their account,” she says.

The box is then put together and shipped to the customer.

Berardelli previously worked at Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch and was president of Digital Commerce for Chico’s (Chico’s, White House Black Market and Soma). She joined Kidbox in September 2016 after meeting founder Haim Dabah while he was searching for Kidbox’s CEO.

“It resonated with me as a consumer, as an early adopter of all things digital, and as a multi-time operator of e-commerce businesses,” she says, of why she decided to join the startup.

Today, Kidbox’s boxes are sent out seasonally for spring, summer, back-to-school, fall and winter. However, unlike StitchFix, Kidbox isn’t a subscription service — you can skip boxes at any time, and you’re not charged a “styling fee” or any other add-on fees.

However, if you keep the full box, Kidbox donates a new outfit to a child in need through a partnership with Delivering Good, a nonprofit that allows customers to choose the charity to receive their clothing donation.

At launch, Kidbox carried around 30 kid’s brands. It’s since grown its assortment to more than 100 brands for kids ages newborn through 14, including well-known names like Adidas, DKNY, 7 for All Mankind, Puma, Jessica Simpson, Reebok, Diesel and others.

Kidbox launches its own private labels

With the next back-to-school box, Kidbox will insert its own brands into the mix. The company will be launching multiple private labels across all ages, and every box will get at least one own-label item. The brands will include everything from onesies for babies to graphic tees to denim to basics, and more. 

“We believe we’ve identified a void in the children’s apparel marketplace,” notes Berardelli. “The style sensibility of our exclusive brands will all have a unique personality, and a unique voice that’s akin to how our customers describe themselves. It’s all really based on customer feedback. Our customers tell us what they would love more of; and our merchandising team understands what they would like to be able to procure more of, in terms of rounding out our assortment,” she says.

On a personal note, a customer of both Kidbox and Rockets of Awesome, two of the leading kid box startups, what I appreciate about Kidbox is the affordable price point — the whole box is less than $100 — and its personal touches. Kidbox ships with crayons and a pencil-case for kids, and the box is designed for kids to color. It also includes a print edition of its editorial content, and sometimes there’s a small toy included, too.

Kidbox rival Rockets of Awesome is a little pricier, I’ve found, but has some unique pieces that make it worth checking out, as well.

With the new funding, Kidbox aims to further invest in its technology foundation, its data science teams, its own labels, its customer acquisition strategy and marketing.

The company doesn’t disclose how many customers it has or its revenues. Instead, it notes that the Kidbox “community” — which includes fluffy numbers like Facebook Page fans and people who signed up for emails — is over 1.2 million. So it’s hard to determine how many people are actually buying from Kidbox boxes.

Kidbox has potential in a market where brick-and-mortar retailers are closing their doors, and e-commerce apparel is on the upswing. But it — like others in the space — faces the looming threat posed by Amazon. The retailer has also just launched its clothing box service, Prime Wardrobe, which includes kids’ clothing.

“Kidbox is at the head of a trend that sees a world in which every person will have their own personalized storefront for literally anything — be it kids clothing, furniture or weddings,” says Paul Hsiao, general partner at Canvas Ventures, about the firm’s investment. Hsiao has also led investments in Zola and eporta while at Canvas, and in Houzz while at NEA.

“Kidbox is growing at atypically high multiples. I think it is because of their deep connection with their customers — the kids, the parents and grandparents,” Hsiao continues. “The Kidbox team is also remarkable at logistics. Sounds boring, but e-commerce is fundamentally a logistics business,” he adds.

Kidbox is currently a team of 35 based in New York.

 

 

 

Categories: Business News

Spotify beefs up its free tier

2018, April 24 - 10:50pm

Today at the Gramercy Theater in NYC, Spotify’s Chief R&D Officer Gustav Söderström announced a brand new free version of the Spotify mobile app.

By leveraging their investment in machine learning, Spotify’s new free tier recommends music to users on the fly. That said, the free tier has always limited users to shuffle. With the new version, users can listen on-demand to whatever song they want, as many times as they want, as long as those songs appear on one of the 15 personalized discovery playlists like Daily Mix, Discover Weekly, Release Radar or Today’s Top Hits.

In total, that’s around 750 tracks (>40 hours of music) that Spotify is serving up to users for on-demand listening.

Spotify will also make recommendations in the free mobile version based on existing user-made playlists, from the songs on those playlists to the name of the playlist itself. The company is calling this “assisted playlisting,” which essentially means that each time you search for a song to add to a playlist, Spotify will make recommendations similar to it as well.

Finally, Spotify has built in a low-data mode (called data saver) that cuts data consumption by up to 75 percent. In the past, Spotify didn’t allow offline listening for free, meaning that users were somewhat tethered to wifi if they needed to conserve data.

With the new data consumption system, which caches music ahead of time to stream via 3G, users can actually listen to much more music with wireless data. Alongside utilizing 3G, Spotify is also optimizing the streaming itself as well as the app (including imagery and other UI elements) to save data and power.

All that said, advertisements will still run on the free tier of Spotify. Which is part of the company’s strategy not only for funding a free tier but for converting users to premium.

In 2014, Spotify introduced its free tier to mobile, letting users listen to their playlists on shuffle with ads. It was a huge part of Spotify’s free-tier growth. In fact, today Spotify has 90 million users on the free tier. And many of those convert to paid users — the company now has 70 million paid subscribers.

“If you’re on a date listening to music, you’re not going to want an ad to come on,” said Spotify’s Global Head of Creator Services Troy Carter.

The company has focused heavily on mobile since 2014, especially where it concerns the premium mobile player.

Spotify is built upon three tiers: ubiquity, personalization and freemium. Söderström explained that Spotify thinks of itself as the broadcast radio of the 90s, where discovery of great music was supported by ads and drove people to the record stores.

Spotify’s free tier represents broadcast radio for Spotify, and is a critical piece of Spotify’s overall strategy as paid services like Apple Music continue to grow.

Categories: Business News

Flipboard launches a new tech section

2018, April 24 - 10:23pm

With recent changes, Flipboard has been placing a big emphasis on allowing readers to go deep on their interests. Now it’s adding even more features around one particular interest, in the Technology section of the Flipboard website and app.

“We want to make Flipboard definitive for tech insiders and enthusiasts,” said CEO Mike McCue .

This positions Flipboard as more of a direct competitor to a tech news aggregator like Techmeme, but with more curation from partners and from readers themselves.

The most immediately noticeable change is what the company describes as a “newspaper-like, high-density layout.” Basically, it moves away from the image-heavy look that Flipboard is known for, towards a layout that places a bigger emphasis on headlines and text, designed for quick scanning.

While McCue said the new look is “really meant for the desktop,” Flipboard has also created a version for the mobile web, and the app will also vary between a high-density and low-density layout depending on the stories. (If it seems strange for Flipboard to be prioritizing its web experience, remember that the company has also been shifting its focus away from its own native article formats toward the mobile web.)

Regardless of which layout you’re seeing, the section will also have new content. Some of it will be curated by Flipboard publishers, with The Verge creating roundups for Gadgets News and Artificial Intelligence, the Wirecutter offering Deals of the Week and the team here at TechCrunch curating our latest Features.

“Flipboard has really become more of an ecosystem,” McCue said. “Publishers and curators are curating stories around all sorts of different topics. We want to provide access to that ecosystem on any platform, with or without the app.”

Teams can also create their own magazines, which are basically private collections of stories. So if you’re at a startup and want all of your colleagues to be up-to-date on the latest headlines about your industry and competitors, you can curate a magazine that’s only visible to them.

Flipboard will also be asking experts and influencers for book recommendations, starting with Wired editor-in-chief Nick Thompson’s roundup of “Five Books I’ve Recently Read About the Future.”

And all of this will be rounded up in a daily email, which will include the latest tech headlines as well as selections from any team magazine to which you contribute. On Saturday, the newsletter will focus on those book recommendations, with links to buy the titles on Amazon.

McCue suggested that if all this new content is embraced by readers, we might see Flipboard start to pursue a similar strategy around other topics, with a focus on reaching professional readers. Next up: Advertising.

Categories: Business News

Delivery robotics company Marble raises $10 million, with plans to move beyond food

2018, April 24 - 10:00pm

San Francisco-based robotics company Marble announced this morning that it’s just closed a $10 million Series A. The round, which involves the likes of Tencent, Lemnos, Crunchfund and Maven, brings the startup’s total funding to $15 million.

In press material tied to the announcement, Marble’s careful not to get hung up on the whole food delivery label that’s been hung on the company since its early days. Instead, Marble’s now referring to itself as “the last-mile logistics company,” a catchy title that points to its broader ambitions to help meet the growing expectations of e-commerce consumers.

“Two day [delivery] has become the norm of expectations,” Marble CEO Matthew Delaney told TechCrunch. “It’s the Amazon effect. Everyone is trying to figure out how to get things to meet the consumer demand of faster and cheaper. That move from next day to same day and sooner is the inevitable trend that is happening.”

This time last year, the company made headlines for cruising down the San Francisco sidewalks with a Yelp Eat24 logo, playing the role traditionally reserved for humans on bicycles and mopeds. The system’s on-board LIDAR sensor help it navigate around pedestrians and other potential hazards, with plans for on-board temperature control helping keep food hot or cold as it cruises toward its destination.

Even then the company touched upon broader ambitions, including groceries, prescriptions and package delivery. Now, it seems, the company is ready to expand those trials.

“It’s a lot more than just food delivery. It’s about rearchitecting the urban supply chain of the future, to open up these services that everyone can afford,” says Delaney, “and bring that next level conveyance to everyone. The at-home parent with six kids or the homebound, elderly or disabled. They don’t have this option. Nobody can afford these services.”

Of course, the company and its competition are going to have to work with regulators to see that future to fruition. Marble’s hometown has halted sidewalk trials out of the same concerns that recently found it putting the kibosh on the city’s recent scooter obsession.

“If we don’t value our society,” City Supervisor Norman Yee said at the time, “if we don’t value getting the chance to go the store without being run over by a robot[…]what is happening?”

Delaney says the company is exploring other avenues for testing, but remains hopeful that it will be able to use its own backyard. “We’ve had so many other states and cities reach out to us. We continue to remain optimistic about San Francisco. It’s our home town. We want to continue to work with the local government to move regulation forward. We want our home town to benefit from this, instead of being the one backwards place.”

Categories: Business News

DoorDash makes a big push into grocery delivery through a pilot program with Walmart

2018, April 24 - 9:00pm

DoorDash is about to make a huge move into grocery delivery, but instead of going all out as a delivery service on its own, it’s instead going to be working behind the scenes to power delivery networks for larger companies — with Walmart as its first big partner.

While Instacart looks to control the end-to-end customer experience for grocery delivery, and Amazon is off doing Amazon-y things with its Whole Foods delivery system, DoorDash is hoping it can build a network that any company that needs some delivery network can tap without giving up its direct relationship with their customers. DoorDash is rolling out grocery delivery with Walmart in Atlanta in the first of what may be a major move to become a back-end platform for companies like Walmart, which want a delivery button on their website but don’t want to build the entire network themselves. By doing that, it offers DoorDash a potentially nice neutral niche as grocery delivery heats up.

“You can use the term white label, but our drivers still will often wear the DoorDash shirt and have the DoorDash bag,” DoorDash COO Christopher Payne said. “But if you go to Walmart.com, and order from Walmart in Atlanta, you’ll have no idea it’s from DoorDash. We’re very supportive of that scenario, that’s the DoorDash Drive scenario. We’re excited to build a business with them and provide this capability.”

Payne said he hopes this will be one of the first of a major expansion of that DoorDash Drive initiative to become a tool that businesses can start tapping for local delivery. And while DoorDash may partly be giving up that direct relationship with users, it can start getting a lot more data when it comes to deliveries. That data then helps it become more and more efficient, ensuring that it can get deliveries done in the best matter and attract more customers, leading to the need for more drivers, and so on.

DoorDash also basically started the whole last-mile delivery business on hard mode with restaurant delivery, Payne said. What DoorDash loses in that direct user experience is paid back in data, Payne says, and that’s more than valuable enough.

“It turns out restaurant delivery is probably one fo the hardest delivery use cases you have — you have to get a pizza somewhere in 20 or 30 minutes or it won’t be crisp, and you have to get an ice cream cone somewhere before it melts. Grocery delivery tends to be delivered earlier in the day, which is before dinner or before you go to work,” he said. “That works out perfectly for us, actually, because our drivers aren’t busy or are less busy than they would be otherwise. It’s a delivery window, as opposed to one that’s getting something to you at an exact moment and time. That’s actually much easier and less demanding than a real-time delivery.

It’s still a significant step beyond its core competency, which is restaurant delivery. But while that has the potential to be a big business, it’s also going to top out at some point. GrubHub, for example, has a market cap of nearly $9 billion — but Amazon, the backbone of how many consumers engage with physical goods through the Internet, is a $700 billion-plus company. If DoorDash is going to continue to grow, it has to start expanding into new lines of revenue, and figuring out how to take all the data and tools it’s built and bring them to new businesses is going to be critical.

Amazon changed the calculus of last-mile grocery delivery, and it pretty much did it overnight — or at least over the span of a few months, which is the equivalent of overnight for a $700 billion company. Amazon acquired Whole Foods, and all of its locations in major metropolitan areas, for $13.7 billion and very quickly began offering two-hour delivery for prime customers for Whole Foods. On top of that, the company quickly started offering a credit card with an absurdly good reward system that’s tied directly to Prime purchases and Whole Foods (assuming you stay within the Prime ecosystem).

That’s meant that larger companies find themselves trying to figure out how to make such an agile move, and do it as soon as possible. For Walmart, getting this partnership with DoorDash allows it to just add a small segment to its typical customer flow without having to build out a full-on logistics delivery system. The opportunity to expand that to other businesses is pretty natural, and that’s the theme behind the Drive platform, and in theory offers businesses a way to quickly ramp up a delivery network without having to hand off the customer relationship to DoorDash. That may, in the end, be much more palatable for businesses.

“One of the other advantages of partnering with a company like Walmart isn’t just that they’re a leading grocer in the US,” Payne said. “They’re in a lot of other lines of businesses. As they want to expand and deliver more to their customers, they have physical assets to do that, so it provides a nice solution for us to test other items in the future. I would say grocery delivery is very much in its early days, it’s roughly equivalent to where food delivery was four years ago. We’re all going to be learning together, and it also means there’s gonna be a lot of other competition as there is in food delivery. But we believe our merchant operational excellence and quality of delivery will set us apart, and that’ll be proven in time.”

Categories: Business News

Belgium’s Cowboy raises $3M led by Index to launch a smarter e-bike

2018, April 24 - 8:35pm

Cowboy, the startup that’s building a new, smarter electronic bicycle, quietly launched in its home country of Belgium this past week, whilst simultaneously disclosing it has raised $3 million in seed funding.

Notably, the round is led by Index Ventures. The London and San Francisco-based VC appears to be particularly bullish on electric-powered mobility, recently backing electric scooter startup Bird.

France’s Hardware Club, and Kima Ventures also participated in Cowboy’s seed round, along with individual investors Thibaud Elziere (eFounders), Bertrand Jelensperger (LaFourchette), Harold Mechelynck (Ogone), Frederic Potter (Netatmo) and Francis Nappez (BlaBlaCar).

Founded by Adrien Roose and Karim Slaoui, who both previously co-founded Take East Easy, an early Deliveroo competitor, and Tanguy Goretti, who was previously co-founder ride-sharing startup Djump, Cowboy has set out to build and sell a better designed e-bike that it claims addresses issues that have historically held back the category’s mass appeal. This includes a more elegant design than many existing models currently on the market, making the bike ‘smart’ by being connected to a mobile phone and ‘over the air’ through cellular and GPS networks, and better affordability than comparative offerings.

In a call last week, Roose gave me a brief run down of the Cowboy’s features and a little of the product’s back story, including how Index got interested. He says he first became aware of e-bikes (or “ped-elec” bikes that combine a manual pedal and electric motor) after being puzzled that they weren’t more widely used by Take Eat Easy’s bicycle couriers. Riders that did use an e-bike tended to be older, suggesting that current e-bikes didn’t appeal to a younger demographic.

After researching the market a lot deeper, Cowboy’s eventual founders also noticed that most e-bikes use entirely off the shelf components, which not only constrains differentiation, but also price, since most of the margin goes to parts suppliers and retailers. By designing a completely new e-bike, where the body and brain is bespoke — namely, the chassis/battery, and printed circuit board (PCB) — and where the product is sold direct online, the team believed there was an opportunity to re-define the e-bike category entirely.

The resulting Cowboy e-bike is pitched as a better ride, powered by “intuitive and automatic motor assistance”. This uses built-in sensor technology that measures speed and torque, and adjusts to pedalling style and force to deliver an added boost of motor-assisted speed at key moments e.g. when you start pedalling, when you accelerate, or go uphill.

In addition, the Cowboy it attempting to be more secure thanks to its connectivity. You unlock the bike via the Cowboy smart phone app, which also supports on-board navigation and a data dashboard that tracks speed and other useful stats.

It is also worth noting that this is definitely a vertical platform in the longer-run. That IoT-styled SIM card and GPS have been added to the e-bike for a reason. Initially it will be used for diagnostics and ‘find my bike’ in case of theft, but one can easily imagine other premium services being offered on top, such as bike insurance perhaps.

The battery is said to be good to go for around 50km, and takes 2.5 hours to fully charge. As part of the bespoke design, it is integrated into the frame under the saddle and is easily removable. The Cowboy claims to be one of the lightest urban electric bikes on the market, too (the bike and battery together weigh 16kg).

However, as with any product where it’s ultimately about the ride, you probably need to try a Cowboy before truly appreciating it — which, as a powered wheelchair user with limited muscle strength, I’m never going to be able to do. Instead, I’ll note that a pre-production model — which Roose admits still had many remaining issues to iron out — won the prestigious EuroBike trade fair in July 2017.

He also echoes this sentiment when I ask him to tell the story of how the Cowboy team first got the attention of Index Ventures. He says that the startup weren’t originally planning to raise a large seed round, having already got a commitment from Cowboy’s original backers for enough follow-on investment to do a production run and small launch in Belgium. However, knowing that hardware is, well, hard, and that costs can easily overshoot, the company was advised by Hardware Club (who he says has been instrumental in making Cowboy a reality) to find a larger VC backer to mitigate this risk. Index Partner Martin Mignot, who led the round, was immediately interested and then convinced after actually trying the e-bike, but Roose says that it took a lot more to persuade the rest of the Index team to back Cowboy when he subsequently pitched the startup over a video call.

Which brings us to Cowboy’s go-to-market strategy. If you really need to touch the device to truly appreciate it, how will the startup sell directly online? In Brussels, Roose says the startup is experimenting with recruiting product ambassadors — people who already have a Cowboy in their possession — who will be able to bring the device to a prospective buyer to try beforehand. This isn’t as scalable as a pure digital marketing effort, but is still likely a lot cheaper than selling to physical retailers, which in turn would push up the €1,790 price. Meanwhile, the company is only delivering to Belgium for now, but with capital in the bank it plans to launch more widely in Europe next year.

Categories: Business News

Drink-a-day startup Hooch adds a perk-filled premium membership plan

2018, April 24 - 1:00pm

Hooch, the subscription startup that allows members to claim one free drink per day from hundreds of different bars and restaurants, is adding a new membership level called Hooch Black.

Signing up for Hooch Black will cost you significantly more than the regular subscription — instead of $9.99 per month, it’s $295 per year. And you don’t just get in automatically; you actually need to fill out an application.

But in exchange for that money and work, Hooch Black members get access to a variety of perks (on top of the standard drink-a-day option), including deals at more than 100,000 hotels worldwide — co-founder and CEO Lin Dai said that because they’re are only visible to members, Hooch gets access to lower “unpublished” prices that you won’t find elsewhere online, with discounts as high as 60 percent.

It also offers preferred reservations, discounts and free champagne at select restaurants. And there are other giveaways, too — in New York City, the launch offerings include Hamilton and Governor’s Ball tickets.

Dai suggested that Hooch has always been meant as an antidote to apps that “facilitate a couch economy” — instead of delivering stuff to your home, Hooch convinces you to go out to bars. Dai said Hooch Black “continues the concept” with all additional perks tied to real-world experiences. (There’s some couch-centric stuff too, like a $100 Postmates credit.)

In addition, Hooch Black members will get access to what Dai described as an “concierge who can make travel arrangements and dining reservations for you.” (Those reservations don’t have to be with Hooch partners, by the way.) He compared the experience to an American Express concierge, but with the advantage that the communication is handled in the Hooch app: “No one wants to pick up the phone anymore.”

About that application: Dai said he wants to limit the initial membership to around 295 people in the three launch cities of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He hopes to bring in more people eventually, but at first, having thousands of members would “dilute the experience,” particularly since some of the benefits (like access to celeb-hosted parties) don’t really scale.

At the same time, Dai said the application is “not about income or job title.” Instead, he sees the service as appealing to the same audience of “young professionals or millennial hustlers” as Hooch itself. So the application is focused on your bigger ambitions and “how hard you want to work to get there.”

Dai also noted that Hooch’s current membership is roughly even between men and women, something he’s hoping to continue with Hooch Black.

“We want to build a very inclusive community,” he added. “The primary criteria is, I would say, aspiration. We’re not just catering to a specific income level or race or gender.”

Categories: Business News

From Ferraris to flying taxis: Q&A with Lilium’s new head of Product Design

2018, April 24 - 8:00am

Munich-based Lilium, the super-ambitious company developing an electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jet and accompanying “air taxi” service, continues to hire top talent to make its vision a reality. The latest new recruitment is car design veteran Frank Stephenson, who has previously worked for Ferrari, Maserati and Mini, to name but a few.

Considered one of the world’s most renowned and influential car designers in recent times, 58-year-old Stephenson’s portfolio includes iconic designs such as the BMW X5, New MINI, Ferrari F430, Maserati MC12 and McLaren P1. Now he’s embarking on adding the Lilium jet to that list.

Officially starting next month, he’ll be tasked with recruiting an entirely new design team to shape both the interior and exterior of the jet itself, as well as a design language for the company’s wider infrastructure, including landing pads and departure lounges.

In a call with Stephenson yesterday morning, I got to ask him why he’s ditched Ferraris for flying taxis, what his new role will entail more specifically and to dig a little deeper into how he thinks about design and why good design really matters. A lightly edited transcript of the full Q&A follows.

TC: I don’t know a huge amount about designing cars, let alone designing cars that can fly. Designing a modern-day car involves a heck of a lot of people and designing something like the Lilium jet again involves a whole team of people. As head of design, how does your role fit into the larger machine of building a vehicle or “flying car?”

So if you have a Michelin-rated restaurant and you’ve got to feed 100 people, you’re going to have quite a few cooks in there and the waiters and everybody else to run the machine. But the chef, the guy that’s got the Michelin stars… gets all the credit for it. But it’s all the other guys doing the work for him and he’s basically overseeing it and he’s trying to keep everything moving along the right track. That’s kind of what it’s like. I mean, I’m not probably your standard type of design director because I like to get in and cook and mix up the stuff too. I just have never been able to stop getting my hands dirty. I guess in that respect, the design directors come across often as prima donnas almost and sit back and watch the guys work and every now and then say he likes it or he doesn’t like it. But I am more of a hands-on type of director.

I like to build small teams. I don’t like huge teams because it takes a lot longer to get things done and the energy sometimes isn’t as strong with a big team as it is with a smaller team. You’ve got to work faster and much more focused and much more efficiently to get the amount of work done. So that sort of builds the steam up in the pressure cooker, but if you love design it’s absolutely the right temperature to be working at. You want to be under pressure to deliver great design. And typically if you think about a design too long, it gets watered down and loses that character, that pureness that you had at the beginning. So smaller teams tend to come up with better ideas I think, or more dramatic ideas, than huge companies with huge design teams.

I don’t set the brief because that comes from marketing, what product segment or what market segment the product should fit. So if they’re telling us to design a two-seater vehicle or a five-seater vehicle or whatever then that becomes the target of the design team to deliver in a certain time span. What I do is I meet with the marketing guys, I meet with engineering guys.

The engineering guys will lay out what we call a package, where all the critical components are for the vehicle. With a car it is typically “Where does the passenger and the driver sit? Where are the wheels and where is the engine and how much trunk or boot space are we going to have?” Things like that. And then I work around all those components with the aerodynamic engineers, suspension and everything.

What I have to do basically is get the team going with theme ideas and really innovative breakthrough ideas, because that’s what designers do. They don’t repeat stuff, they have to come up with stuff that basically moves the game forward. You’ve got to create within this design team a kind of awesome childlike creativity and emotion feeling. It takes a lot of brainstorming and inspiration. You sort of set the tone of that kind of atmosphere within design to get the designers going and then the mood gains momentum.

I’m very advanced in the way I think — I have to be because of the way design is geared, you do a lot of computer work — but I typically make sure that we all start pen on paper sketching, because that is really the only way to get a design or a spark out of your mind. If you go through a computer it loses the human… So I pretty much try to keep the design team on paper as long as possible.

The moment we come up with great ideas, we work with engineers. Typically I try to get engineers and designers working together in the same studio or very tightly together so there’s no loss of traction, and to make sure that what we’re doing can be made. We typically create scale models out of clay. We maybe do two, maybe three, different designs, and as those designs evolve one will get chosen as the favorite theme. That goes to full-scale. And then when this clay model is finally approved by engineering, and approved by finance, and approved by marketing, and approved by design, we will recommend that to the CEO and he’ll have a look at it if he hasn’t followed throughout the process, and then that product will become the model for prototyping and we’ll take molds off of it and create the real panels for the car and then it goes into production. Pretty much that’s it in a nutshell.

As a design director I have to control everything from the look to the color to the ergonomics to the feasibility of it. And then with Lilium the requirements will probably branch out over into what the Lilium port will look like that you access to get into your jet. So the whole kind of environment from an aesthetic or emotional point of view.

TC: Give me more of a sense of the relationship between design and engineering (or form and function)… Aren’t you somewhat constrained in your imagination by the science of flying?

No, that’s what a bad designer would tell you, “I’m constrained, that’s why the vehicle doesn’t look as good as it should.” But the fact is he’s getting paid the big bucks to make that thing look good and if he can’t make it look good he’s just not good enough. So there’s no excuse in my book for bad design or anything that looks bad. Absolutely no excuse. Anything can be made beautiful and should be made desirable, obviously.

We have to have constraints because safety and engineering require that. If we don’t have constraints then designers aren’t designers they’re just artists and they’re not doing the job. You can make a pretty picture but if it doesn’t work at the end of the day then you haven’t really designed anything, you’ve just drawn a pretty picture.

So in terms of constraints, yeah, but that is what makes the game so fun for a designer, that you’re working within rules and legislation and restrictions which make it a challenge. That’s why you get good-looking cars and other cars that don’t look as good. Like I said, if there is a beautiful small car, why aren’t all small cars beautiful? It’s a taste thing obviously. Some people like some designs, a lot of people like other designs. But good design is absolutely not subjective. There’s good design and bad design, and there are a lot of bad designs out there — not to knock them or criticize — but there are principles for good design that designers typically learn when they’re being educated. If you don’t apply those laws of good design then you’re not going to have a good design.

Inspiration for good design comes from a lot of different sources, but if you’re looking at inspiration from trendy sources like fashion or other types of design that are in one day and out the next then you’re not gonna have a timeless design or an iconic design. Iconic designs are typically timeless designs, they last forever. Anything that was designed iconically 40 years ago will still look great 40 years in the future. The design is so good that it just lasts and lasts and lasts. It is hard to achieve that, but if you use the right type of mental design approach then it’s achievable.

I think designing cars is not harder or easier than designing an aircraft, it’s just making the absolutely best product you can make that works well. Typically if you design something that works very, very well it looks fantastic. If you design something that doesn’t work very well then the design doesn’t matter at the end of the day. One of the interesting things is people always say that form follows function. I’ve never heard anything more ridiculous in my life because for me form equals function. If the product works well, it looks great. There’s nothing in the world that works fantastically well and looks awful, that combination doesn’t exist. Especially in nature. You look at all these beautiful animals and organisms in nature that work incredibly well, and therein lies the beauty of nature. Horses and cheetahs and all these amazing animals, nobody sat down and designed this amazing-looking animal. Evolution caused it to be absolutely fantastic at what it does, and through being fantastic at what it does, the result is the look, and that look is awesome. That same principle is how I feel about design. If you work very good with the engineers and you create optimized solutions, it’s very easy to make them look good, it’s almost inherent in that way.

TC: Regarding the Lilium jet… what is the main challenge in your mind of designing what is a new type of transportation?

My challenge — simply put — is to make the person who gets into the jet not want to get out of it. You know. Although he’s reached his destination he’ll want to do it again and again and again. The reason behind that is because all the new generations coming along after the old farts like us are basically looking for experiences. They’re not so much geared towards buying materialistic things. They love experiences. And that’s what Lilium is going to be offering, an experience and a service. And I see that as the future. For me it’s an amazing opportunity to be able to take something from scratch and develop it into a reality.

It’s always been a sort of science fiction, when you see The Jetsons, the cartoons and things… it’s like, one day, but not in my lifetime. Well, here’s news for the world, it’s coming before they know it and it’s going to be here very, very soon. And these things have to look as amazing as the technology that they’re bringing with them.

What I need to do is not just make it an incredible aesthetic joy to be in, but when you get inside one of these things you don’t want to get out of it. It’s going to be the experiences that you have when you’re inside this transportation device. If you could just take that situation of being inside a capsule, what would you want to occur there? You want to relax, you want to socialize, you want to work, you want to be entertained. All that is now incredibly possible.

I mean all the advances … where everything coming now is digital and so real that you can actually imagine something on the inside being the new wave of entertainment. So basically you’re in your private space, you get to turn it into a virtual world where you’re being transported from A to B or wherever your destination is. And within that space in time you’re in the ideal atmosphere. You’re not really sitting in a plane and just going along for the ride, which is what you do pretty much in a taxi. All the new materials that are coming about at the moment in terms of seats, flooring, lighting, buttons, displays, image projection, sounds and temperature control. You know all the things that we try to shoot into new cars as a next step for luxury, those are just going to become everyday things that are making the whole ride an incredible experience.

Regretfully they’ll be a lot shorter in duration because of the nature of the jet being you know very high-speed and all that. But it’s kind of like if you can imagine somebody who loves roller coasters they’re always at the end thinking “oh my gosh that was too quick, I want to do this thing again.” That is the kind of positive feeling you should have when you get out of the vehicle.

TC: I saw this documentary a while back that made the point that the world we live in is predominately designed by humans and therefore design can make or break our everyday experiences. As a designer, is it really difficult for you living in a world where, let’s face it, a lot of design is awful?

Some designers take it as a job. Other people just live it. And design is all about making the world a better place not a prettier place. That’s [just] a consequence of making it a better place, but making it a better place is what the end goal should be. It’s a shame that there aren’t more designers in the world thinking about making the world a better place.

TC: How did you get this job ? Did they come to you? Were you just like, “I’ve done cars, I want to do something new”?

It was fate, that thing when two separate paths suddenly collide. I think it was more like that. I’d left McLaren in November 2017, not because I was frustrated or anything like that but because I thought there was something bigger than just designing products that nobody really needs, they just desired and want. What was I doing, I was just clogging up the road networks even more and not making the world a better place, probably a more exciting place, but not socially better. And so I left with my ideas of starting my own design studio, which I’ve been sort of kicking off, in terms of how to improve the world, and then I heard about Lilium and Lilium contacted me.

It was just a match made in heaven. It met all my principles of working for an exciting and incredibly innovative company from the very beginning. To be able to establish a design department for them with a design DNA, a design language, the design team, the studio. Doing something for the future of humanity. Staying with transportation, but making it even better than it ever was. Making something science fiction reality.

TC: Are there any particular designers or designs that you can point to and say that designer or product has stood the test of time?

That’s really, really tough. I can tell you specific products for their aesthetic value but I think I have to go deeper than that because you know everybody admires different designers for different reasons. If you could put two guys together that would be da Vinci and Einstein. I mean da Vinci was probably the guy because he not only could paint and draw and all that but he was also an incredible engineer and he figured out how to make these things work and he wanted things to look great too. So if I could say one person for me it would be da Vinci more than anybody else just because the guy could paint, the guy could engineer. Anything he ever touched was absolutely amazing. He was doing flying machines way back too. I like his natural approach. I like people who are really in tune with nature because for me that’s the best inspiration we have. He came up with things that never existed before for the benefit of humanity. Pretty much. If he would have been that kind of guy today he would be the absolutely most awesome human being on earth. I’ve got tons of books on his works and him, and everything like that, just because he’s so inspiring to me.

Categories: Business News

Indian lending platform Capital Float raises $22M Series C extension from Amazon

2018, April 24 - 3:30am

Capital Float, the fintech startup that says it is India’s largest online lender, announced today that it has raised $22 million in new funding from Amazon. At the end of last year, reports surfaced that Amazon was considering an investment in Capital Float as an extension of its $45 million Series C, which was announced last August. The Bangalore-based startup confirmed to TechCrunch that Amazon’s investment is indeed an extension of that round and brings the total equity it has raised over the past 12 months to $67 million.

Over the same period, Capital Float also raised $80 million of debt from banks and other financial companies, which it combines with its own balance sheet to finance loans to small businesses and other borrowers. Amazon India is among several e-commerce platforms that the company has partnered with to provide loans to sellers, including Snapdeal and Shopclues.

Since its inception in 2013 by co-founders Sashank Rishyasringa and Gaurav Hinduja, Capital Float has raised a total of about $110 million in equity funding from investors, including Ribbit Capital, SAIF Partners, Sequoia India, Creation Investments and Aspada, as well as total debt lines of $130 million.

During the last six months, Capital Float added 50,000 new customers, bringing its total customer base to more than 80,000 people in more than 300 cities. The startup says it currently disburses more than 10,000 loans each month and now has an outstanding loan portfolio of more than $170 million, with a default rate of about 2 percent. About 70 percent of its loans are microloans ranging from 25,000 rupees to 500,000 rupees (about $376 to $7,530).

With the investment from Amazon, the startup has set an ambitious goal of adding 300,000 new customers and originating more than $800 million in loans this year.

In a press statement, Amazon India’s country manager Amit Agarwal said, “We’re excited to work with Capital Float and invest alongside other investors. We are highly impressed with what Gaurav and Sashank have built and we back missionary entrepreneurs and management teams. Credit in India is highly under-penetrated and Capital Float is bringing the right kind of credit solutions to the underserved and informally served segments of SMEs to help realize their full potential.”

Over the last year, Capital Float expanded into more verticals, including products for small- to mid-sized manufacturers, point-of-sale financing for retailers and loans for school construction and self-employed professionals like doctors. It also added new online payment gateways to make it easier for borrowers to repay loans and began piloting deep learning-based underwriting models that use data points like image processing, geotags and new policies such as the Goods and Service Tax (GST), an indirect tax launched last year that is levied at every step of the production chain and the banknote demonetization started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2016.

Categories: Business News

Rapchat raises $1.6 million to help you make and share your def jams

2018, April 24 - 1:30am

The first thing to understand about media-sharing app Rapchat is that co-founder Seth Miller is not a rapper and his other co-founder, Pat Gibson, is. Together they created Rapchat, a service for making and sharing raps, and the conjunction of rapper and nerd seems to be really taking off.

Since we last looked at the app in 2016 (you can see Tito’s review below), a lot has changed. The team has raised $1.6 million in funding from investors out of Oakland and the Midwest. Their app, which is sort of a musical.ly for rap, is a top 50 music app on iOS and Android and hit 100 million listens since launch. In short, their little social network/sharing platform is a “millionaire in the making, boss of [its] team, bringin home the bacon.”

The pair’s rap bona fides are genuine. Gibson has opened or performed with Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa and Machine Gun Kelly, and he’s sold beats to MTV. “My music has garnered over 20M+ plays across YouTube, SoundCloud and more,” he wrote me, boasting in the semi-churlish manner of a rapper with a “beef.” Miller, on the other hand, likes to freestyle.

“I grew up loving to freestyle with friends at OU and I noticed lots of other millennials did this too (even if most suck lol) … at any party at 3am – there would always be a group of people in the corner freestyling,” he said. “At the same time Snapchat was blowing up on campus and just thought you should be able to do the same exact thing for rap.”

Gibson, on the other hand, saw it as a serious tool to help him with his music.

“I spent a lot of time, energy and resources making music,” he said. “I was producing the beats, writing the songs, recording/mixing the vocals, mastering the project, then distributing & promoting the music all by myself. With Rapchat, there’s a library of 1,000+ beats from top producers, an instant recording studio in your pocket, and the network to distribute your music worldwide and be discovered…. all from a free app. Rapchat is disrupting the creation, collaboration, distribution, & discovery of music via mobile.”

“We have a much bigger but also more active community than any other music creation app,” said Miller.

While it’s clear the world needs another sharing platform like it needs a hole in the head, thanks to a rabid fan base and a great idea, the team has ensured that Rapchat is not, as they say, wicka-wicka-whack. That, in the end, is all that matters.

Categories: Business News

Bluedot Innovation gets $5.5 million in funding to track smartphone users more precisely

2018, April 24 - 1:08am

When it comes to the promises of persistent location hyper-awareness, the promises of mobile have largely fallen flat. While this has been a bummer for consumers looking for more contextual services from the apps they have installed, this also has been a pain for marketers keen to get their hands on more quality user data.

Bluedot Innovation wants to tackle this by building out tech that can zero-in on smartphone users’ locations in the background. Bluedot announced today they have raised $5.5 million in Series A funding led by a major toll road company, Transurban. The Melbourne startup has raised $13 million to date.

The startup’s tech focuses on dialing-in user location data to just a few meters so that companies utilizing the API can tell whether their marketing efforts are actually turning into consumers visiting physical locations. There are no shortage of players in this space; what makes Bluedot unique, the company insists, is their focus on R&D to develop more precise, low-power solutions that rely on networks and a variety of sensors in the phone to deliver data insightful enough that customers can distinguish what users are doing in tighter urban areas and how they’re getting around.

Bluedot had initially focused its efforts entirely on developing a service that could make mobile payments for toll roads, the idea being that rather than having to install something on your windshield, you could just download an app, allowing persistent location access so whenever you drove through a tollway that had been mapped within the app, you’d make a payment without any friction.

The startup’s ambitions have certainly expanded since then, particularly through a partnership with Salesforce, though given the fact that this round was led by a toll road company it suffices to say that this use case is still firmly within their sights. In November, the startup released the LinktGO app with Transurban, which allows Australian users to make toll road payments from their phone.

The startup says it’s using this latest fund raise to build out its U.S. office in San Francisco and its Melbourne HQ, where it plans to double its current staff of 30 employees.

 

Categories: Business News

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