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Updated: 3 hours 12 min ago

For the love of the loot: Blockchain, the metaverse and gaming’s blind spot

5 hours 21 min ago
Jonathan Stringfield Contributor Share on Twitter Jonathan Stringfield, PhD, is VP and Global Head of Business Marketing, Measurement and Insights at Activision Blizzard Media and Esports.

The speed at which gaming has proliferated is matched only by the pace of new buzzwords inundating the ecosystem. Marketers and decision makers, already suffering from FOMO about opportunities within gaming, have latched onto buzzy trends like the applications of blockchain in gaming and the “metaverse” in an effort to get ahead of the trend rather than constantly play catch-up.

The allure is obvious, as the relationship between the blockchain, metaverse, and gaming makes sense. Gaming has always been on the forefront of digital ownership (one can credit gaming platform Steam for normalizing the concept for games, and arguably other media such as movies), and most agreed upon visions of the metaverse rely upon virtual environments common in games with decentralized digital ownership.

Whatever your opinion of either, I believe they both have an interrelated future in gaming. However, the success or relevance of either of these buzzy topics is dependent upon a crucial step that is being skipped at this point.

Let’s start with the example of blockchain and, more specifically, NFTs. Collecting items of varying rarities and often random distribution form some of the core “loops” in many games (i.e. kill monster, get better weapon, kill tougher monster, get even better weapon, etc.), and collecting “skins” (e.g. different outfits/permutation of game character) is one of the most embraced paradigms of micro-transactions in games.

The way NFTs are currently being discussed in relation to gaming are very much in danger of falling into this very trap: Killing the core gameplay loop via a financial fast track.

Now, NFTs are positioned to be a natural fit with various rare items having permanent, trackable, and open value. Recent releases such as “Loot (for Adventurers)” have introduced a novel approach wherein the NFTs are simply descriptions of fantasy-inspired gear and offered in a way that other creators can use them as tools to build worlds around. It’s not hard to imagine a game built around NFT items, à la Loot.

But that’s been done before… kind of. Developers of games with a “loot loop” like the one described above have long had a problem with “farmers”, who acquire game currencies and items to sell to players for real money, against the terms of service of the game. The solution was to implement in-game “auction houses” where players could instead use real money to purchase items from one another.

Unfortunately, this had an unwanted side-effect. As noted by renowned game psychologist Jamie Madigan, our brains are evolved to pay special attention to rewards that are both unexpected and beneficial. When much of the joy in some games comes from an unexpected or randomized reward, being able to easily acquire a known reward with real money robbed the game of what made it fun.

The way NFTs are currently being discussed in relation to gaming are very much in danger of falling into this very trap: Killing the core gameplay loop via a financial fast track. The most extreme examples of this phenomena commit the biggest cardinal sin in gaming — a game that is “pay to win,” where a player with a big bankroll can acquire a material advantage in a competitive game.

Blockchain games such as Axie Infinity have rapidly increased enthusiasm around the concept of “play to earn,” where players can potentially earn money by selling tokenized resources or characters earned within a blockchain game environment. If this sounds like a scenario that can come dangerously close to “pay to win,” that’s because it is.

What is less clear is whether it matters in this context. Does anyone care enough about the core game itself rather than the potential market value of NFTs or earning potential through playing? More fundamentally, if real-world earnings are the point, is it truly a game or just a gamified micro-economy, where “farming” as described above is not an illicit activity, but rather the core game mechanic?

The technology culture around blockchain has elevated solving for very hard problems that very few people care about. The solution (like many problems in tech) involves reevaluation from a more humanist approach. In the case of gaming, there are some fundamental gameplay and game psychology issues to be tackled before these technologies can gain mainstream traction.

We can turn to the metaverse for a related example. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in gaming, you’ve almost certainly heard of the concept after Mark Zuckerberg staked the future of Facebook upon it. For all the excitement, the fundamental issue is that it simply doesn’t exist, and the closest analogs are massive digital game spaces (such as Fortnite) or sandboxes (such as Roblox). Yet, many brands and marketers who haven’t really done the work to understand gaming are trying to fast-track to an opportunity that isn’t likely to materialize for a long time.

Gaming can be seen as the training wheels for the metaverse — the ways we communicate within, navigate, and think about virtual spaces are all based upon mechanics and systems with foundations in gaming. I’d go so far as to predict the first adopters of any “metaverse” will indeed be gamers who have honed these skills and find themselves comfortable within virtual environments.

By now, you might be seeing a pattern: We’re far more interested in the “future” applications of gaming without having much of a perspective on the “now” of gaming. Game scholarship has proliferated since the early aughts due to a recognition of how games were influencing thought in fields ranging from sociology to medicine, and yet the business world hasn’t paid it much attention until recently.

The result is that marketers and decision makers are doing what they do best (chasing the next big thing) without the usual history of why said thing should be big, or what to do with it when they get there. The growth of gaming has yielded an immense opportunity, but the sophistication of the conversations around these possibilities remains stunted, due in part to our misdirected attention.

There is no “pay to win” fast track out of this blind spot. We have to put in the work to win.

Categories: Business News

Fiberplane nabs € 7.5M seed to bring Google Docs-like collaboration to incident response

6 hours 55 min ago

Fiberplane, an Amsterdam-based early stage startup that is building collaborative notebooks for SREs (site reliability engineers)  to collaborate around an incident in a similar manner to group editing in a Google Doc, announced a ​​€ 7.5M (approximately $8.8 million USD) seed round today.

The round was co-led by Crane Venture Partners and Notion Capital with participation from Northzone, System.One and Basecase Capital.

Micha Hernandez van Leuffen (known as Mies) is founder and CEO at Fiberplane. When his previous startup, Werker was sold to Oracle in 2017, Hernandez van Leuffen became part of a much larger company where he saw people struggling to deal with outages (which happen at every company).

“We were always going back and forth between metrics, logs and traces, what I always call this sort of treasure hunt, and figuring out what was the underlying root cause of an outage or downtime,” Hernandez van Leuffen told me.

He said that this experience led to a couple of key insights about incident response: First, you needed a centralized place to pull all the incident data together, and secondly that as a distributed team managing a distributed system you needed to collaborate in real time, often across different time zones.

How you react when your systems fail may define your business

When he left Oracle in August 2020, he began thinking about the idea of giving DevOps teams and SREs the same kind of group editing capabilities that other teams inside an organization have with tools like Google Docs or Notion and an idea for his new company began to take shape.

What he created with Fiberplane is a collaborative notebook for SRE’s to pull in the various data types and begin to work together to resolve the incident, while having a natural audit trail of what happened and how they resolved the issue. Different people can participate in this notebook, just as multiple people can edit a Google Doc, fulfilling that original vision.

Fiberplane collaborative notebook example with multiple people involved. Image Credit: Fiberplane

He doesn’t plan to stop there though. The longer term vision is an operational platform for SREs and DevOps teams to deal with every aspect of an outage. “This is our starting point, but we are planning to expand from there as more I would say an SRE workbench, where you’re also able to command and control your infrastructure,” he said.

Today the company has 13 employees and is growing, and as they do, they are exploring ways to make sure they are building a diverse company, looking at concrete strategies to find more diverse candidates.

“To hire diversely, we’re re-examining our top of the funnel processes. Our efforts include posting our jobs in communities of underrepresented people, running our job descriptions through a gender decoder and facilitating a larger time frame for jobs to remain open,” Elena Boroda, marketing manager at Fiberplane said.

While Hernandez van Leuffen is based in Amsterdam, the company has been hiring people in the UK, Berlin, Copenhagen and the US, he said. The plan is to have Amsterdam as a central hub when offices reopen as the majority of employees are located there.

Categories: Business News

Don’t miss the Startup Alley Crawls at Disrupt next week

7 hours 13 sec ago

It’s coming down to the wire folks. TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 — our flagship global event — takes over the internet on September 21-23. More than 10,000 people will attend to learn about the latest tech and investment trends from iconic leaders, founders and VCs. They’ll network and connect to build game-changing startups.

Time to get on board: It costs less than $100 to attend TechCrunch Disrupt until this Monday. Purchase your pass now to save yourself some money. You can check out the Disrupt agenda here and then go grab your ticket.

The heart of every Disrupt — even our virtual incarnations — is Startup Alley. It’s where hundreds of innovative startups exhibit their products, platforms and services. It’s where investors look for portfolio potential, founders find new customers, tech journalists hunt for stories and everyone finds inspiration.

We’ve created a special series of events to focus on the wide range of talent in Startup Alley. It’s the Startup Alley Crawl — think pub crawl without the remorse. We group exhibitors in Startup Alley by business category, and each business category will have its own dedicated, hour-long crawl.

You might even see some of these exhibitors interviewed live during a Disrupt Desk segment. Sit back in the comfort of your secure, undisclosed location and tune in to learn more about what these companies have to offer.

All Startup Alley exhibitors have their own virtual booth where you can check out their pitch deck, strike up a conversation, schedule a product demo or connect with them via CrunchMatch to set up 1:1 video meetings.

Here’s what Jessica McLean, the director of marketing and communications for Infinite-Compute, a Startup Alley exhibitor at Disrupt 2020, had to say about networking during a virtual conference:

The virtual platform made networking easy. We sent quick introductions, scheduled meetings with investors and other smart people who could add value to our company. A person we connected with at Disrupt is currently helping us with marketing, which is fantastic.

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 takes place on September 21-30. If you haven’t done so yet, buy your pass now. Pop some corn, pop a pint and join the Startup Alley Crawl — and check out all the other exhibitors, too. You never know what opportunities are waiting there just for you.

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Categories: Business News

Tyk raises $35M for its open source, open-ended approach to enterprise API management

7 hours 7 min ago

APIs are the grease turning the gears and wheels for many organizations’ IT systems today, but as APIs grow in number and use, tracking how they work (or don’t work) together can become complex and potentially critical if something goes awry. Now, a startup that has built an innovative way to help with this is announcing some funding after getting traction with big enterprises adopting its approach.

Tyk, which has built a way for users to access and manage multiple internal enterprise APIs through a universal interface by way of GraphQL, has picked up $35 million, an investment that it will be using both for hiring and to continue enhancing and expanding the tools that it provides to users. Tyk has coined a term describing its approach to managing APIs and the data they produce — “universal data graph” — and today its tools are being used to manage APIs by some 10,000 businesses, including large enterprises like Starbucks, Societe Generale and Domino’s.

Scottish Equity Partners led the round, with participation also from MMC Ventures — its sole previous investor from a round in 2019 after boostrapping for its first five years. The startup is based out of London but works in a very distributed way — one of the co-founders is living in New Zealand currently — and it will be hiring and growing based on that principle, too. It has raised just over $40 million to date.

Tyk (pronounced like “tyke”, meaning small/lively child) got its start as an open source side project first for co-founder Martin Buhr, who is now the company’s CEO, while he was working elsewhere, as a “load testing thing,” in his words.

Corporate venture capital follows the same trend as other VC markets: Up

The shifts in IT toward service-oriented architectures, and building and using APIs to connect internal apps, led him to rethink the code and consider how it could be used to control APIs. Added to that was the fact that as far as Buhr could see, the API management platforms that were in the market at the time — some of the big names today include Kong, Apigee (now a part of Google), 3scale (now a part of RedHat and thus IBM), MuleSoft (now a part of Salesforce) — were not as flexible as his needs were. “So I built my own,” he said.

It was built as an open source tool, and some engineers at other companies started to use it. As it got more attention, some of the bigger companies interested in using it started to ask why he wasn’t charging for anything — a sure sign as any that there was probably a business to be built here, and more credibility to come if he charged for it.

“So we made the gateway open source, and the management part went into a licensing model,” he said. And Tyk was born as a startup co-founded with James Hirst, who is now the COO, who worked with Buhr at a digital agency some years before.

The key motivation behind building Tyk has stayed as its unique selling point for customers working in increasingly complex environments.

“What sparked interest in Tyk was that companies were unhappy with API management as it exists today,” Buhr noted, citing architectures using multiple clouds and multiple containers, creating more complexity that needed better management. “It was just the right time when containerization, Kubernetes and microservices were on the rise… The way we approach the multi-data and multi-vendor cloud model is super flexible and resilient to partitions, in a way that others have not been able to do.”

“You engage developers and deliver real value and it’s up to them to make the choice,” added Hirst. “We are responding to a clear shift in the market.”

One of the next frontiers that Tyk will tackle will be what happens within the management layer, specifically when there are potential conflicts with APIs.

“When a team using a microservice makes a breaking change, we want to bring that up and report that to the system,” Buhr said. “The plan is to flag the issue and test against it, and be able to say that a schema won’t work, and to identify why.”

Even before that is rolled out, though, Tyk’s customer list and its growth speak to a business on the cusp of a lot more.

“Martin and James have built a world-class team and the addition of this new capital will enable Tyk to accelerate the growth of its API management platform, particularly around the GraphQL focused Universal Data Graph product that launched earlier this year,” said Martin Brennan, a director at SEP, in a statement. “We are pleased to be supporting the team to achieve their global ambitions.”

Keith Davidson, a partner at SEP, is joining the Tyk board as a non-executive director with this round.

Categories: Business News

As offices come back, ATMO launches air monitoring device claiming to give COVID-risk score

2021, September 16 - 11:41pm

Way back in 2015 we covered the launch of the Atmotube, a small, innovative, portable air quality monitor which went on to receive a number of awards after its CES debut.

Since rebranding as ATMO, the company, co-founded by Vera Kozyr, is now launching the Atmocube, an indoor air quality monitoring system for businesses and enterprises. This new product is positioned far more for the post-COVID era, where air quality inside offices is going to be vital, and this time, instead of being small and portable (although that earlier product is still sold), the Atmocube will be prominent and visible in order to give office workers peace of mind that their air quality is good.

The key to this is measuring CO2 levels, which the Atmocube displays on its screen along with other metrics.

Atmotube Is A Tiny Pollution Sensor That Clears Up What’s In The Air You Breathe

The device has up to 14 sensors measuring various environmental parameters such as CO2, formaldehyde NO2, PM1 (small airborne particles), PM2.5, ozone and others, and other environmental parameters, such as relative humidity, temperature, atmospheric pressure, ambient noise, light levels and color temperature.

The company says this new device also calculates the Airborne Virus Transmission Score — based on the levels of particulate matter, humidity and CO2, and says it comes up with a “score” that estimates the probability of transferring virus diseases in closed spaces. Obviously, that’s probably something that would need independent testing to verify, but it is the case that the WHO advises that COVID-19 can be transmitted in poorly ventilated and/or crowded indoor settings.

Kozyr said: “Air pollution is dangerous because it can affect you and your health even if you don’t notice it. We aim to help people know what they’re breathing and make changes as a result. As businesses return to the office, they need a tool to make information about indoor air quality transparent and accessible to their employees. Most air quality monitors are designed to be hidden away, so we set out to create a device with a more transparent interface that would highlight HVAC performance safety and create trust between occupants and building owners”.

ATMO is by no means the only player in the space of course, as it’s joined by AirThings, Awair Omni and Kaiterra.

Categories: Business News

Open Mineral raises $33M Series C funding for its ‘eBay for commodities trading’ platform

2021, September 16 - 11:23pm

Back in 2018 we covered how Open Mineral (OM), a startup aiming to leverage greater transparency in commodities trading, had raised $2.25 million. Well, they’ve come a long way, and now the Zug, Switzerland-based, company has raised a $33 million Series C funding round led by Mubadala Investment Company. Existing investors Xploration Capital and Emerald Technology Ventures were joined by new investors Statkraft and Lingfeng Capital.

The company says it will use the capital to solidify its physical supply chain merchant activities. The commodities trading market is worth $200 billion and even today there’s still a lot of paper flying around, so digitization is continuing apace.

Open Mineral says its platform has registered more than 900 metals and mining companies across the world, using its pricing algorithms across the commodity supply chain.

As well as digitizing aspects of the industry, OM says it’s also working with third-party providers to incorporate “green” ESG metrics across the sell-side and buy-side.

Open Mineral plans to disrupt commodities trading with blockchain

It also claims to have developed automated blending/smelter material optimization solutions “enabling more efficient, informed, and profitable trade of physical metal raw commodities.” These have an impact on transitioning to a lower carbon footprint, says the company.

Boris Eykher, CEO and co-founder of Open Mineral, said in a statement: “The metal trading industry’s future is in digital data and analytics, enabling market participants to communicate faster and make quicker, and more data-driven decisions. Just as eBay revolutionized retail purchasing by bringing more choices to buyers and sellers, we aim to do the same for physical commodity producers in a curated, trusted environment of the Open Mineral platform.”

Faris Al Mazrui, head of Russia and CIS Investments at Mubadala, said: “Open Mineral is disrupting the commodity trading business by leveraging data analytics technology. Buyers and sellers of base metal commodities can tap into a unique and proprietary data hub to trade more efficiently and capture upside.”

Categories: Business News

What could stop the startup boom?

2021, September 16 - 11:14pm

We’ve spent so long staring at record venture capital results around the world from Q2 that it’s nearly Q3.

We’ve seen record results from cities, countries and regions. There’s so much money sloshing around the venture capital and startup worlds that it’s hard to recall what they were like in leaner times. We’ve been in a bull market for tech upstarts for so long that it feels like the only possible state of affairs.

It’s not.

Digging back through our notes from the last few months from data sources, investors and founders, it’s clear that there are macroeconomic factors bolstering the startup economy. And there are changes to the economy that are providing additional lift. Secular tailwinds, if you will.

The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.

But as the market giveth, it can also taketh away.

What might slow the startup boom? Similar to how certain macroeconomic conditions have provided a long-term boost, a reversal of those conditions could do the opposite. The secular trends powering startups — often on the demand side due to more rapid digitalization of global business — may be unconnected to the larger economy, a view underscored by software’s outsized performance during COVID-19 induced economic mess of mid-2020.

This morning, let’s talk about what’s fueling startups and their backers, and what could change. Because no bull market lasts forever.

Driving forces

Prominent among the macroeconomic conditions that have helped startups’ fundraising totals rise are globally low interest rates. Money is cheap around the world at the moment.

It doesn’t cost much to borrow money today, compared to historical norms. The result of that dynamic is that lending money doesn’t earn as much either. Bank yields are negative in real terms, and bond yields aren’t impressive.

Money always skates towards yield, so the low interest rate environment has led to lots of capital moving toward more lucrative investing options. This dynamic is partially responsible for the seemingly ever-rising stock market, for example. It’s also a partial explanation of why there is so much capital flowing into venture capital funds and other vehicles that push money into high-growth private companies. The money is looking for yield.

Categories: Business News

Avalanche raises $230 million from private sale of AVAX tokens

2021, September 16 - 11:00pm

Avalanche, a relatively new blockchain with a focus on speed and low transactions costs, has completed a $230 million private sale of AVAX tokens to some well-known crypto funds. Polychain and Three Arrows Capital are leading the investment.

The Avalanche Foundation completed the private sale back in June 2021 and is disclosing it today. Other participants in the private sale include R/Crypto Fund, Dragonfly, CMS Holdings, Collab+Currency and Lvna Capital.

Proceeds from the private sale will be used to support the Avalanche ecosystem, which is relatively nascent when you compare it to the Ethereum blockchain, for instance. Among other things, the foundation plans to support DeFi (decentralized finance) projects as well as enterprise applications through grants, token purchases and other forms of investments.

Everyone wants to fund the next Coinbase

Like Solana and other newer blockchains, Avalanche wants to solve the scalability issues that older blockchains face. For instance, if you’ve recently tried to buy an NFT on the Ethereum blockchain, you probably paid $50 or $100 in transaction fees, or gas fees.

The Avalanche Foundation positions its blockchain as a solid alternative to Ethereum. You can run Dapps (decentralized apps) for a fraction of the costs with a much faster time-to-finality. Avalanche supports smart contracts, which is a key feature to enable DeFi projects.

Here’s what Avalanche’s official website says about its blockchain performance:

Image Credits: Avalanche

Having better performance is just part of the problem when you’re competing with Ethereum and other blockchains. Avalanche also needs to attract developers and build a strong developer community so that it becomes the infrastructure of other crypto projects.

That’s why Avalanche wants to make it as easy as possible to port your Ethereum Dapp to Avalanche. Avalanche’s smart contract chain executes Ethereum Virtual Machine contracts, which means that you can reuse part of your codebase if you’re already active on the Ethereum blockchain.

Similarly, applications that query the Ethereum network can be adapted to support Avalanche by changing API endpoints and adding support for a new network. The Avalanche team has also been working on a bridge to transfer Ethereum assets to the Avalanche blockchain. The equivalent of $1.3 billion in crypto assets have been transferred using this bridge.

Those are technical incentives. As for financial incentives, private sales and grants could help bootstrap developer interest. The Avalanche Foundation says that 225 projects currently support the platform, including popular crypto projects that already run on other blockchains, such as Tether, SushiSwap, Chainlink, Circle and The Graph. Topps, an NFT-based game with partnerships with the MLB and Bundesliga, is also using Avalanche.

Avalanche and its underlying token AVAX is currently the 14th cryptocurrency by total market capitalization according to CoinMarketCap. With a current market cap of $13 billion, Avalanche is ahead of Algorand or Polygon, but behind Polkadot and Solana. Solana also suffered from a major outage earlier this week, raising questions about Solana’s ability to scale. It’s going to be interesting to see whether one of these blockchains can catch up with Ethereum or even surpass Ethereum in usage and value.

Categories: Business News

CodeSignal secures $50M for its tech hiring platform

2021, September 16 - 11:00pm

In less than a year after raising $25 million in Series B funding, technical assessment company CodeSignal announced a $50 million in Series C funding to offer new features for its platform that helps companies make data-driven hiring decisions to find and test engineering talent.

Similar to attracting a big investor lead for its B round — Menlo Ventures — it has partnered with Index Ventures to lead the C round. Menlo participated again and was joined by Headline and A Capital. This round brings CodeSignal’s total fundraising to $87.5 million.

Co-founder and CEO Tigran Sloyan got the idea for the company from an experience his co-founder and friend Aram Shatakhtsyan had while trying to find an engineering job. Both from Armenia, the two went in different paths for college, with Shatakhtsyan staying in Armenia and Sloyan coming to the U.S. to study at MIT. He then went on to work at Google.

“As companies were recruiting myself and my classmates, Aram was trying to get his resume picked up, but wasn’t getting attention because of where he went to college, even though he was the greatest programmer I had ever known,” Sloyan told TechCrunch. “Hiring talent is the No. 1 problem companies say they have, but here was the best engineer, and no one would bring him in.”

They, along with Sophia Baik, started CodeSignal in 2015 to act as a self-driving interview platform that directly measures skills regardless of a person’s background. Like people needing to take a driver’s test in order to get a license, Sloyan calls the company’s technical assessment technology a “flight simulator for developers,” that gives candidates a simulated evaluation of their skills and comes back with a score and highlighted strengths.

The need by companies to hire engineers has led to CodeSignal growing 3.5 times in revenue year over year and to gather a customer list that includes Brex, Databricks, Facebook, Instacart, Robinhood, Upwork and Zoom.

Sloyan said the company has not yet touched the money it received in its Series B, but wanted to jump at the opportunity to work with Nina Achadjian, partner at Index Ventures, whom he had known for many years since their time together at Google. To work together and for Achadjian to join the company’s board was something “I couldn’t pass up,” Sloyan said.

When Achadjian moved over to venture capital, she helped Sloyan connect to mentors and angel investors while keeping an eye on the company. Hiring engineers is “mission critical” for technology companies, but what became more obvious to her was that engineering functions have become necessary for all companies, Achadjian explained.

While performing due diligence on the space, she saw traditional engineering cultures utilizing CodeSignal, but then would also see nontraditional companies like banks and insurance companies.

“Their traction was undeniable, and many of our portfolio companies were using CodeSignal,” she added. “It is rare to see a company accelerate growth at the stage they are at.”

U.S. Department of Labor statistics estimate there is already a global talent labor shortage of 40 million workers, and that number will grow to over 85 million by 2030. Achadjian says engineering jobs are also expected to increase during that time, and with all of those roles and applicants, vetting candidates will be more important than ever, as will the ability for candidates to apply from wherever they are.

The new funding enabled the company to launch its Integrated Development Environment for candidates to interact with relevant assessment experiences like codes, files and a terminal on a machine that is familiar with them, so that they can showcase their skills, while also being able to preview their application. At the same time, employers are able to assign each candidate the same coding task based on the open position.

In addition, Sloyan intends to triple the company’s headcount over the next couple of months and expand into other use cases for skills assessment.

How to hire your first engineer: A guide for nontechnical founders

 

Categories: Business News

SOSV is building a New Jersey HAX facility for industrial, healthcare and climate startups

2021, September 16 - 10:26pm

SOSV this morning announced work on a $50 million HAX facility in Newark, New Jersey focused on growing industrial, healthcare and climate startups. The five-year development plan utilizes $25 million from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

The facility is set to open in June of 2022, with an eye on early-stage U.S. companies working toward their seed round. SOSV notes that, while HAX’s earliest focus was on wearables, in more recent years, the accelerator has largely shifted to industrial and healthcare, which currently comprise 70% and 20% of its portfolio, respectively.

“Since 2015, HAX started investing in more industrial & health startups and today make up 90% of our new investments,” HAX partner Garrett Winther told TechCrunch. “These hard tech startups, at their earliest stages, tend to rely on more deep science R&D, high-precision prototyping, and only require one to two of their first product before raising funding. These companies also take up a lot of space, easily filling a room with their equipment and prototypes.”

Newark was chosen for myriad reasons, including proximity to New York City and universities like Princeton and Rutgers. It also, frankly, has more space than, say, Manhattan — which is a clear necessity for industrial startups. That’s a big part of the reason companies like AeroFarms and Bowery have looked toward to the area to host their massive vertical farming facilities.

The fact that the state was willing to put up around half the cost of the project likely didn’t hurt, either. New Jersey no doubt has a vested interest in welcoming hardware startups with open arms. It will be interesting to see what sort of incentives the local governments can offer to help keep them there to avoid the allure of nearby NYC.

“Growing New Jersey’s innovation economy both creates high-quality jobs today and generates opportunities for exponential returns in the future,” NJEDA CEO Tim Sullivan said in a release. “As startups become successful and scale-up in New Jersey, they build buildings, hire more employees, and become anchors for vibrant communities and small-business supply-chains.”

SOSV says the Newark location will effectively operate as a U.S. equivalent to its offices in Shenzhen, China, which afford easy access to the global supply chain. HAX also operates satellites in San Francisco, Tokyo and New York.

Categories: Business News

Elodie Games obtains $32.5M round to make social co-op gaming better

2021, September 16 - 10:01pm

During the darkest hours of the pandemic, millions upon millions of people turned to online gaming as a way to pass time in lockdown and connect with friends they couldn’t see in person. But a social, cooperative, fun and cross-platform gaming experience is remarkably hard to find — and Elodie Games is here to change that.

Elodie’s co-founders, Christina Norman and David Banks, are gaming industry vets who both worked on global hit League of Legends at Riot Games. The pair — also partners — left in 2019 to form their own company, announcing their intention in 2020 to build games focusing on co-op, cross-play and “endlessly engaging experiences,” which suggests more open-ended, sandbox play.

The team already numbers 30 (and they’re hiring), and the game they’re working on is still something of a mystery; the images on its site are just general ideas, nothing from development. But what they showed behind closed doors was clearly enough to secure a $32.5 million Series A from Galaxy Interactive and a16z, with Brian Cho of Patron and Chris Ovitz from Electric Ant participating as well. The company last raised $5 million in 2020 to get the ball rolling, and clearly they’ve put that money to good use.

Norman explained that the main idea is to remove the barriers many gamers have come to accept as inevitable.

“At the simplest level, we’re designing our game so players have these great experiences more easily, and more frequently,” she told TechCrunch. “This starts with removing friction that stops you from playing with friends in the first place. Most social multiplayer gamers are segmented by platform, time investment, purchases or skill in a way that limits who you can play with, and how you can play with them. While there are examples of how to overcome these limitations individually (Among Us is doing some great stuff for example) progress overall here has been slow and we are excited to speed it up.”

Certainly I can speak personally to even the slightest amount of friction stopping a nascent play session in its tracks as one person had to update their app or OS, or another couldn’t get the lobby to load, an Android-iOS conflict emerged, and so on. We ended up playing the rather poor games built into video chat apps simply because they worked every time. Even then it depended on the feel of the gathering, and being able to decide collectively what sounds like fun is another aspect of the Elodie ambition.

Making a game cross-platform isn’t as difficult as it used to be, thanks to shared architectures like Unreal and Unity, but it’s still no cake walk.

1047 Games raises $100M on the runaway success of its debut title, Splitgate

“Of course, modern engine tech helps immensely with making cross-play possible, but it doesn’t make it fun. Traditional approaches to cross-platform development are slow, expensive and repetitive,” said Banks. “That’s why we are building Elodie’s development practices to achieve exceptional cross-play and focusing on what we call the true cross-play experience from day one.”

“True” cross-play, one presumes, is a step above the elementary “Xbox players can play with PC players,” to the point where the game is actually equally desirable to play on either platform. Whether that can really be achieved is a matter of debate, but the proof of the pudding is in the taste, so we’ll find out when Elodie puts its game out into the wild.

Categories: Business News

Outer, D2C outdoor furniture brand, secures $50M Series B funding to spur expansion and materials development 

2021, September 16 - 10:00pm

Americans spend more than 90% of each day indoors on average. However, approximately 82% of American homeowners are more interested in renovating their outdoor living spaces than they were prior to the pandemic, based on a recent survey, Outer co-founder and CEO Jiake Liu told TechCrunch.

On top of that, about 54% of homeowners have made at least one home improvement in the backyard since the outbreak of COVID-19, while millennials, the largest house-buying group now, are willing to take less square feet inside, or even give up a bedroom, to get a little bit of outdoor space, Liu said.

COVID-19 caused a “flight from density” across the U.S., meaning millions of Americans fled from big cities to suburbs to escape the coronavirus pandemic. This trend has led to more market opportunities in the outdoor entertainment industry.

A Santa Monica-based direct-to-consumers (D2C) outdoor furniture startup company, Outer, announced today its $50 million Series B funding to help more people around the globe to bring their lives back outside. The company was founded by CEO Liu and Chief Design Officer Terry Lin in 2019. 

The Series B round was led by Capital Today’s founder Kathy Xu, with participation from Tribe Capital, C Ventures and Upfront Ventures. Existing investors, including Sequoia Capital China, Mucker Capital, Mantis VC and Reimagined Ventures, also joined in the round.

This fundraising, which comes about eight months after Outer’s $10.5 million Series A round in January, brings its total funding to $65 million.

Minneapolis-based Yardbird raised $4.4 million for furniture made from recycled ocean-bound plastic

The fresh funding will be used to cement its position in the outdoor living industry as they develop new sustainable materials, build an eco-friendly supply chain and expand their product offering and community, Liu said. Outer is currently hiring a variety of roles to enter global market this year and will announce a strategic international launch in October, Liu told TechCrunch.

“We are working on new, eco-friendly fabrics, plastics and concrete to replace the industry standards that currently pollute our environment,” Liu said. The company’s effort in sustainable materials isn’t stopping at recycled plastics but working towards carbon neutrality, and has set its goal of becoming carbon negative in the future, he explained.

“Since the beginning, the Outer team has insisted on prioritizing sustainability. Terry and his team have pioneered new fabrics and eco-friendly designs to ensure durability doesn’t come at the expense of environmental responsibility. The team is developing sustainable fabrics, plastics and concrete that will become the new industry gold standard,” said Capital Today’s founder Kathy Xu.

Its unique feature is its Neighborhood Showroom program, allowing shoppers to visit the homes of nearby Outer customers to experience Outer products in more than 1,000 locations in 49 states as of today, which has grown from 50 locations in 13 states in 2019. Outer’s direct-to-consumers (D2C) business does not require middlemen like distributors, retailers or brick-and-mortar showrooms.

The global furniture market was approximately $17.8 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow to $26.6 billion 2027, Liu said. The U.S. outdoor living market is estimated at $33.4 billion in 2021, based on a report by Freedonia.

Outer recently launched the Teak Collection, Aluminum Collection and Bug Shield Blankets.

“Outdoor products have long been an afterthought and their poor design has been a serious barrier to time spent outside. Outer’s thoughtful and sustainable products are already changing the way consumers interact with their outdoor spaces,” Xu said, adding that Outer is tackling real consumer problems, from dirty, wet outdoor cushions to pesky mosquito bites, with its solutions.

“Jiake and his team have taken a product-focused approach to establish Outer as a go-to premium furniture brand — driving rapid growth and attractive unit economics,” said Tribe Capital partner Sri Pangulur.

Categories: Business News

Mynd raises $57.3M at an $807M valuation to give people a way to invest in rental properties remotely

2021, September 16 - 10:00pm

Mynd, a company that aims to make it easier for people to buy and manage single-family rental properties, announced today it has raised $57.3 million in funding from QED Investors.

The financing values the Oakland, California-based company at $807 million, and brings the company’s total raised to $174.9 million since its 2016 inception. Invesco Real Estate led its previous round, a $40 million raise, and committed $5 billion to purchase and rent 20,000 single-family homes through Mynd over the next three years.

Doug Brien and Colin Wiel started Mynd with the goal of making real estate investing more accessible. The pair has built a platform for investors to find, finance, purchase and manage single-family rental properties — 100% remotely.

“We don’t outsource to partners. We do that all in-house,” Brien told TechCrunch. “We remove the geographical barriers to real estate investment, making it possible to invest in 25 cities from anywhere in the country — all from the comfort of home through our desktop interface and/or mobile apps.”

10 proptech investors see better era for residential and retail after pandemic

Currently, Mynd manages over 9,000 rental units in 25 markets across the country. The startup plans to expand to 15 additional markets over the next three years including, Indianapolis, Indiana and Memphis, Tennessee.

Mynd’s tech product is complemented by “boots on the ground” people in local markets, improving the speed and clarity of communications that the company can provide to Mynd residents, Brien said. 

“Plus it provides total visibility and transparency for our owners around the health of their investments,” he said “Unlike other companies we have our own purpose-built system called OTTO. It’s almost like a ‘Snowflake meets Zendesk’ — but custom-built for real estate investing and property management.”

Image Credits: Mynd

Last year, Mynd added 1,846 homes to the platform. This year, it’s on track to add roughly 8,500 across both retail and institutional — enough to nearly double the total homes managed by Mynd year over year, according to Brien. Invesco is its largest institutional client. On the retail side of its business, it has roughly 4,000 investors using Mynd.

“We believe that investing in the single-family residential asset class is the best path for building long-term, generational wealth,” he told TechCrunch. “Mynd is committed to democratizing real estate — making it accessible to a whole new crop of investors who were previously too intimidated and/or were constrained by geography.”

The pandemic underscored the urgency of what the company was building, he said, as people sought more space to live and work. Renting also became more common as more people wanted increased flexibility. 

Mynd plans to use its new capital to continue upgrading its digital platform, which it says is powered by “an extensive proprietary data set.” It also plans to enhance its automated workflow engine, underwriting, mobile applications and omnichannel communications. The startup also plans to keep hiring and expanding into new markets.

Presently, Mynd has 568 employees, up from 366 a year ago today.

QED partner Chuckie Reddy said the Mynd team was “one of the best” his firm had seen in the single-family rental market with a “purpose-built” tech stack designed specifically for such properties.

“They have a customized offering that is superior to anything else on the market today,” he said. 

Generally, QED believes the single-family rental asset class is one of the fastest-growing in the country, “because of how big the housing market is, the need and desire for the product and the tremendous amount of capital formation we have seen since the last financial crisis,” according to Reddy.

“There is a shortage of quality, affordable single-family rental housing, and Mynd has technology to manage this asset class,” he said.

QED Investors closes on $1.05B across two funds to invest in fintech companies globally

Categories: Business News

Self Financial raises $50M to help the subprime consumer build credit and savings at the same time

2021, September 16 - 10:00pm

Self Financial, a fintech company that aims to help consumers build credit and savings at the same time, announced today it has raised $50 million in Series E funding.

Altos Ventures led the financing, which also included participation from Meritech Capital and Conductive Ventures and brings the Austin-based startup’s total raised to $127 million since its 2015 inception.

The company, as many fintechs these days, aims to make building credit and savings more accessible, regardless of a person’s financial history. It requires no hard credit check to get started. 

“We’ve been focused on delivering high-quality, low-cost products that help with mainstream credit access,” said Self founder and CEO James Garvey.

Today, Self Financial has 200 employees, up from about 80 at the beginning of this year. The startup, which was initially founded in California but relocated to Austin after participating in the Techstars program in the city, plans to do more hiring with its new capital.

Garvey declined to reveal hard revenue figures, saying only that Self is going to do “nine figures” of revenue this year, about 2x compared to 2020. Self’s active customer base has more than doubled in the past 12 months to about 1 million today. Over time, it has served more than 2 million customers.

All the reasons why you should launch a credit or debit card

The fintech’s flagship product, he said, is basically secured installment loans, or small-dollar loans with a deposit account that has a CD (certificate of deposit) connected to it.

After using that product successfully customers can then get access to Self’s Visa credit card.

Image Credits: Self Financial

Self’s Credit Builder products are issued via its three bank partners. But the company has built its own proprietary core technology platform that Garvey says “powers everything behind the scenes.” The company’s products are available via iOS and Android, as well as through a desktop application.

Beginning this month, Self will allow people who hold an H-1B or L 1 work visa or student visa to open Credit Builder accounts, a move Garvey said “opens the door for more people to participate who are new to the U.S. credit system.”

“We believe everyone should have the opportunity to improve their financial future,” he added.

Part of Self’s longer-term goals include entering the insurance market, as well as the planned launch of another product designed to help give its customers access to credit.

“Credit score is used for a lot of things, and in many states it’s an important factor in determining the cost of auto insurance,” he said. “We’re going to be helping our customers to get access to auto insurance as one of the benefits of a higher credit score.”

The company plans to use its new capital to hire about 50 to 100 people over the next 12 months, Garvey said. Recently it named Kathleen Leonik to serve as its chief compliance officer. She has previously held leadership positions at Juniper Bank, Barclaycard and, most recently, Mercury Financial. She also worked in compliance at First USA, Bank One and Chase.

Altos Ventures Managing Director Anthony Lee described Self as a pioneer in the increasingly crowded space. This week, TomoCredit, which has the similar goal of helping underrepresented consumers build a credit history, announced it has raised $10 million. And last week, Varo Bank — the first  U.S. neobank to be granted a national bank charter — raised a massive $510 million in a Series E funding round at a $2.5 billion valuation.

“James and his team at Self have had a clear mission from day one: to build credit and savings for millions of Americans who are marginalized by the mainstream financial system,” said Lee. “It’s a mission that is going to take decades to realize and we are happy to be there for the journey.”

For Silverton Partners’ Managing Director Morgan Flager, who participated in Self’s Series A-D rounds, Garvey’s passion has been key to its repeated investments in the company.

“When you have a founder with a clear and noble vision for solving a critical problem this massive, it is hard to say no as an investor,” he told TechCrunch.

The firm was also drawn to Self’s mission to “lift up” subprime consumers.

“Many of the offers that target subprime consumers are expensive and restrictive,” he said. “Self Financial is unique in that it intends to break this cycle, rather than just profit from it in a different way.”

Categories: Business News

OnLoop launches with $5.5M to inject some fun into performance reviews

2021, September 16 - 10:00pm

Performance reviews eat up a lot of a manager’s time and are often the most dreaded part of work. OnLoop aims to bring some joy into the process by enabling information-gathering to happen behind the scenes and be easier for hybrid workforces.

The Singapore-based company designed a mobile-first product that consistently gathers employee feedback and goals so that the company has better insights into how both individuals and teams are doing. The feedback is also captured and converted into auto-generated reviews that lay out all of the content collected for managers to then quickly put together a finished product.

The platform was in private beta since January 2021, and after a successful run with 25 companies, OnLoop raised $5.5 million co-led by MassMutual Ventures and Square Peg Capital along with Hustle Fund and a group of angel investors including XA Network, BCG’s Aliza Knox, Uber’s Andrew Macdonald, Ready’s Allen Penn, Google’s Bambos Kaisharis, Ripple’s Brooks Entwistle, Robert Hoyt, Nordstar’s Eddie Lee, Nas Academy’s Alex Dwek and hedge fund managers John Candeto and Keshav Lall.

How engaged are your employees?

OnLoop co-founder and CEO Projjal Ghatak spent over three years at Uber and said he saw his fair share of productivity tools, but still struggled to develop his own team as tasks and communication were done differently by each employee.

“This is the one problem that companies consistently complain about — not having the right tool to develop teams,” he added.

As someone who began spending more and more time on his phone, Ghatak wanted his product to be mobile-native and eliminate the need for managers to start from scratch on performance reviews each time. Rather than spend days gathering the information, as the name suggests, OnLoop continuously and automatically captures the data and converts it into a well-written summary.

OnLoop app. Image Credits: OnLoop

Having that continuous loop of information is good for morale, he said. He points to data that shows regular self-reflection and feedback increased productivity by 20%, and a Gallup study where only 14% of employees thought their performance reviews inspired them to improve.

“A lot of company culture is set by the leaders, so as they want to drive this culture in their organizations, we are the tool that drives this,” Ghatak said. “Our job is to help educate the teams on how to do that well. We hear time and time again to make it fun and convenient. Teams don’t realize that if you are helping colleagues understand, showing them a light they didn’t have before, it will drive impact.”

The new funding will be mainly invested into product development and R&D, including expanding product, data and engineering teams. The company will also look at its sales and marketing framework. The company currently has 22 employees.

OnLoop was able to convert some of its early adopters into paying customers and is now focusing on figuring out a scalable way to get the product into the hands of more teams.

Piruze Sabuncu, partner at Square Peg Capital, experienced the pain of performance reviews when she was working in Stripe’s Southeast Asia and Hong Kong region. One of the challenges she faced working with regional teams was that an employee’s direct manager could be located elsewhere, yet work closely with a manager in their respective office.

Square Peg itself uses OnLoop, and Sabuncu said she liked that it is mobile-first and was designed in a way that people didn’t open it up and dread using it.

“Who your manager is, is a big question, but it shouldn’t matter,” she added. “It would still be my duty to be capturing and developing the person even if they were not my direct person. Everyone is talking about remote and hybrid work, and it is not going anywhere — it is here to stay. We believe this is a huge opportunity, a $400 billion market to disrupt, and OnLoop is providing better ways to communicate and give feedback.”

Real-time performance review platform Reflektive raises $25M Series B round

Editor’s note: Due to error, the round amount and lead investors were updated following the announcement.

Categories: Business News

Tile secures $40 million to take on Apple AirTag with new products

2021, September 16 - 9:59pm

Tile, the maker of Bluetooth-powered lost item finder beacons and, more recently, a staunch Apple critic, announced today it has raised $40 million in non-dilutive debt financing from Capital IP. The funding will be put toward investment in Tile’s finding technologies, ahead of the company’s plan to unveil a new slate of products and features that the company believes will help it to better compete with Apple’s AirTags and further expand its market.

The company has been a longtime leader in the lost item finder space, offering consumers small devices they can attach to items — like handbags, luggage, bikes, wallets, keys and more — which can then be tracked using the Tile smartphone app for iOS or Android. When items go missing, the Tile app leverages Bluetooth to find the items and can make them play a sound. If the items are further afield, Tile taps into its broader finding network consisting of everyone who has the app installed on their phone and other access points. Through this network, Tile is able to automatically and anonymously communicate the lost item’s location back to its owner through their own Tile app.

Image Credits: Tile

Tile has also formed partnerships focused on integrating its finding network into over 40 different third-party devices, including those across audio, travel, wearables and PC categories. Notable brand partners include HP, Dell, Fitbit, Skullcandy, Away, Xfinity, Plantronics, Sennheiser, Bose, Intel and others. Tile says it’s seen 200% year-over-year growth on activations of these devices with its service embedded.

To date, Tile has sold more than 40 million devices and has over 425,000 paying customers — a metric it’s revealing for the first time. It doesn’t disclose its total number of users, both free and paid combined, however. During the first half of 2021, Tile says revenues increased by over 50%, but didn’t provide hard numbers.

While Tile admits that the COVID-19 pandemic had some impacts on international expansions, as some markets have been slower to rebound, it has still seen strong performance outside the U.S., and considers that a continued focus.

The pandemic, however, hasn’t been Tile’s only speed bump.

Apple officially unveils its lost item finder, AirTag

When Apple announced its plans to compete with the launch of AirTags, Tile went on record to call it unfair competition. Unlike Tile devices, Apple’s products could tap into the iPhone’s U1 chip to allow for more accurate finding through the use of ultra-wideband technologies available on newer iPhone models. Tile, meanwhile, has plans for its own ultra-wideband-powered device, but hadn’t been provided the same access. In other words, Apple gave its own lost item finder early, exclusive access to a feature that would allow it to differentiate itself from the competition. (Apple has since announced it’s making ultra-wideband APIs available to third-party developers, but this access wasn’t available from day one of AirTag’s arrival.)

Image Credits: Tile internal concept art

Tile has been vocal on the matter of Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, having testified in multiple congressional hearings alongside other Apple critics, like Spotify and Match. As a result of increased regulatory pressure, Apple later opened up its Find My network to third-party devices, in an effort to placate Tile and the other rivals its AirTags would disadvantage.

But Tile doesn’t want to route its customers to Apple’s first-party app — it intends to use its own app in order to compete based on its proprietary features and services. Among other things, this includes Tile’s subscriptions. A base plan is $29.99 per year, offering features like free battery replacement, smart alerts and location history. A $99.99 per year plan also adds insurance of sorts — it pays up to $1,000 per year for items it can’t find. (AirTag doesn’t do that.)

Despite its many differentiators, Tile faces steep competition from the ultra-wideband-capable AirTags, which have the advantage of tapping into Apple’s own finding network of potentially hundreds of millions of iPhone owners.

However, Tile CEO CJ Prober — who joined the company in 2018 — claims AirTag hasn’t impacted the company’s revenue or device sales.

“But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re making things harder for us,” he says of Apple. “We’re a growing business. We’re winning the hearts and minds of consumers… and they’re competing unfairly.”

“When you own the platform, you shouldn’t be able to identify a category that you want to enter, disadvantage the incumbents in that category, and then advantage yourself — like they did in our case,” he adds.

Tile is preparing to announce an upcoming product refresh that may allow it to better take on the AirTag. Presumably, this will include the pre-announced ultra-wideband version of Tile, but the company says full details will be shared next week. Tile may also expand its lineup in other ways that will allow it to better compete based on look and feel, size and shape, and functionality.

Tile’s last round of funding was $45 million in growth equity in 2019. Now it’s shifted to debt. In addition to new debt financing, Tile is also refinancing some of its existing debt with this fundraise, it says.

“My philosophy is it’s always good to have a mix of debt and equity. So some amount of debt on the balance sheet is good. And it doesn’t incur dilution to our shareholders,” Prober says. “We felt this was the right mix of capital choice for us.”

The company chose to work with Capital IP, a group it’s had a relationship with over the last three years, and who Tile had considered bringing on as an investor. The group has remained interested in Tile and excited about its trajectory, Prober notes.

“We are excited to partner with the Tile team as they continue to define and lead the finding category through hardware and software-based innovations,” said Capital IP’s Managing Partner Riyad Shahjahan, in a statement. “The impressive revenue growth and fast-climbing subscriber trends underline the value proposition that Tile delivers in a platform-agnostic manner, and were a critical driver in our decision to invest. The Tile team has an ambitious roadmap ahead and we look forward to supporting their entry into new markets and applications to further cement their market leadership,” he added.

Categories: Business News

3 strategies to make adopting new HR tech easier for hiring managers

2021, September 16 - 9:38pm
Neil Morelli Contributor Share on Twitter Neil Morelli, Ph.D, is the chief industrial-organizational psychologist at Codility, a pre-hire assessment platform for software engineering talent. He has spent more than 10 years in technology-enabled talent acquisition, helping Fortune 500 and venture-backed tech companies create effective and inclusive hiring practices.

Recruiting for technical roles can be challenging. There are often too many roles to fill, too many or too few candidates to interview and not enough time to get it all done and develop relationships with your key stakeholders: Hiring managers and the executive team.

Working with talent acquisition (TA) leaders and technical recruiters can help companies scalably, accurately and fairly assess potential candidates’ technical skills to fill high-value engineering roles. Technology also offers many advantages that help achieve TA objectives. But in my experience, many TA and HR leaders get frustrated when new tools fail to launch or deliver underwhelming results, because they aren’t adequately adopted, trusted or utilized by end users.

I find that hiring managers are more open-minded to “mechanical” or automated hiring tools if those tools aren’t evaluated on their own, but are evaluated relative to status quo hiring processes.

All of this leads to technical decision-makers and stakeholders developing a natural skepticism for mechanical or automated hiring tools. If your hiring managers seem doubtful about using tech for hiring, here are three strategies to help them embrace hiring tools.

Expect skepticism, it’s natural

Researchers studying how to make scientific hiring tools more effective have discovered an interesting phenomenon: Human beings are naturally skeptical of tools that outsource our decisions (Highhouse, 2008). Left to our own devices, we are hardwired to trust gut instinct over external data points, especially when developing and nurturing new relationships, including who we work with.

Scientists have offered up a few explanations for this preference of gut over data. Some people consider external, mechanical decision-making aids as less trustworthy because of a lack of familiarity with how they work, or because using them reflects poorly on the decision-maker’s value and worth as a leader or manager.

It could also be because there’s a fear of surrendering control and agency to a tool that doesn’t seem to consider or understand context clues. However, research has shown that people make better choices when using mechanical decision support tools than when either humans or mechanical tools make decisions alone.

Categories: Business News

AI startup Sorcero secures $10M for language intelligence platform

2021, September 16 - 9:30pm

Sorcero announced Thursday a $10 million Series A round of funding to continue scaling its medical and technical language intelligence platform.

The latest funding round comes as the company, headquartered in Washington, D.C. and Cambridge, Massachusetts, sees increased demand for its advanced analytics from life sciences and technical companies. Sorcero’s natural language processing platform makes it easier for subject-matter experts to find answers to their questions to aid in better decision making.

CityRock Venture Partners, the growth fund of H/L Ventures, and Harmonix Fund co-led the round and were joined by new investors Rackhouse, Mighty Capital and Leawood VC, as well as existing investors, Castor Ventures and WorldQuant Ventures. The new investment gives Sorcero a total of $15.7 million in funding since it was founded in 2018.

Prior to starting Sorcero, Dipanwita Das, co-founder and CEO, told TechCrunch she was working in public policy, a place where scientific content is useful, but often a source of confusion and burden. She thought there had to be a more effective way to make better decisions across the healthcare value chain. That’s when she met co-founders Walter Bender and Richard Graves and started the company.

“Everything is in service of subject-matter experts being faster, better and less prone to errors,” Das said. “Advances of deep learning with accuracy add a lot of transparency. We are used by science affairs and regulatory teams whose jobs it is to collect scientific data and effectively communicate it to a variety of stakeholders.”

The total addressable market for language intelligence is big — Das estimated it to be $42 billion just for the life sciences sector. Due to the demand, the co-founders have seen the company grow at 324% year over year since 2020, she added.

Raising a Series A enables the company to serve more customers across the life sciences sector. The company will invest in talent in both engineering and on the commercial side. It will also put some funds into Sorcero’s go-to-market strategy to go after other use cases.

In the next 12 to 18 months, a big focus for the company will be scaling into product market fit in the medical affairs and regulatory space and closing new partnerships.

Oliver Libby, partner at CityRock Venture Partners, said Sorcero’s platform “provides the rails for AI solutions for companies” that have traditionally found issues with AI technologies as they try to integrate data sets that are already in existence in order to run analysis effectively on top of that.

Rather than have to build custom technology and connectors, Sorcero is “revolutionizing it, reducing time and increasing accuracy,” and if AI is to have a future, it needs a universal translator that plugs into everything, he said.

“One of the hallmarks in the response to COVID was how quickly the scientific community had to do revolutionary things,” Libby added. “The time to vaccine was almost a miracle of modern science. One of the first things they did was track medical resources and turn them into a hook for pharmaceutical companies. There couldn’t have been a better use case for Sorcero than COVID.”

AI is ready to take on a massive healthcare challenge

 

Categories: Business News

Concreit closes on $6M to allow more people to invest in the global private real estate market

2021, September 16 - 9:00pm

Concreit, a company that wants to open real estate investing to a broader group of people, announced today that it has closed $6 million in a seed funding round led by Matrix Partners. 

Hyphen Capital also participated in the round, in addition to individual investors such as Betterment founder Jon Stein; Andy Liu, partner at Unlock Venture Partners; and investor and advisor Ben Elowitz. Concreit raised the capital at a $22.5 million post-money valuation.

The Seattle-based startup also today launched its app, which it claims allows “anyone” to invest in the global private real estate market for as little as $1. 

It’s a lofty claim. But first let’s start with some background.

Concreit is not the first time that co-founders Sean Hsieh and Jordan Levy have worked together. The pair previously founded and bootstrapped VoIP communications platform Flowroute before selling it to West Corp. in 2018. Upon the sale of that company, Hsieh and Levy set out to build a company that, in their words, “could help everyday people become more financially secure.”

Hsieh, a second-generation immigrant, worked in his family’s restaurant where they shared the dream of achieving financial freedom through real estate. Similarly, Levy says he grew up watching his parents build a small construction business from scratch. He was intrigued by the idea of passive income through single-family rental homes but became disillusioned with the overhead, risk and hassle of managing one’s own single-family rental investments. 

So the duo worked together to design a mobile-first offering that could enable small investors to benefit from real estate “without the burden of making repairs at 2 a.m. on a Saturday.” Enter Concreit. 

10 proptech investors see better era for residential and retail after pandemic

Today, most investors can open a Concreit account and make their first investment in just minutes on their mobile device, the company claims. The company’s free mobile app allows consumers to invest as little as $1 into a fund managed by a team of investment professionals. Withdrawals can be requested at any time through the app and sent upon approval.

The platform facilitates weekly earned payouts, automated investments and on-demand withdrawals while compounding earned payouts weekly.

After selling Flowroute, Hsieh says he “saw the opportunity to earn a great APR through private real estate investing while gaining less correlation with traditional public stocks or bonds markets,” Hsieh said. “But they were only for the already wealthy or required multiyear commitments of capital. Concreit gives everyone access to a real estate portfolio and the ability to have access to withdrawals when they need them.”

Put simply, the startup wants to make it easy for anyone — not just the wealthy — to invest in real estate.

Concreit, Hsieh said, offers “regular people” the ability to access real estate strategies typically used by large hedge funds and private equity. 

“We’re seeing a surge of retail demand for alternatives and other ways to invest outside of the public markets and the crypto space for those that value diversification,” Hsieh told TechCrunch. “Most other competitors are focused on marketing and selling securities, but we knew in order to be an innovator in this space we had to produce a truly unique experience for our investors.”

Concreit’s platform is designed to be a more connected investment experience.

“We knew early on that digital natives deserved a whole new real estate investing experience and that it had to be 100x better than just taking traditional real estate investment opportunities and offering them digitally,” Hsieh said. 

So on the platform side, Concreit has built a cloud-based proprietary securities accounting engine that allows the company to process fractional calculations and pull in a lot of mutual fund practices, applying them toward the “more labor-intensive” private equity markets, with a focus on real estate.

“We’ve taken a lot of the cloud-architectural work that we’ve pioneered in the telecommunications space and applied it towards a back-office accounting solution that gives us a competitive edge around what we offer to our investors,” Hsieh said. “This affords the ability to run accounting at a higher frequency, which is how we are able to run weekly dividends, process fractional redemptions and ultimately a more real-time experience for our users.”

Concreit’s first private REIT fund, focused on passive income, consists of lower-risk fixed-income private market residential and commercial real estate first-lien mortgages. The fund, which the company says has an annualized return of 5.47%, is managed by a team of industry professionals. The startup has added over 18,000 customers to its platform since it was qualified by the SEC (slightly over a year ago), and doubled its user base in the month of August.

“Our current users can invest with any dollar amount, no lock-ups, weekly payouts, and an experience that’s as easy & familiar as a savings account,” Hsieh said.

Matrix’s Dana Stalder, who joined Concreit’s board as part of the financing,  believes Concreit has leveled the playing field for real estate investing by making it more accessible. 

“What Concreit has built is incredibly hard to do from both a technology and regulatory standpoint,” he told TechCrunch. “Alternative asset classes, in particular, have been notoriously closed off to the average consumer, leaving high yield returns exclusively to wealthy investors. “

Hustle Fund backs Fintor, which wants to make it easier to invest in real estate

Categories: Business News

New Zealand startup HeartLab raises $2.45M to bring heart scanning software to the US

2021, September 16 - 9:00pm

New Zealand-based medtech startup HeartLab has raised $2.45 million in seed funding that it says will help the company expand its AI-powered heart scanning and reporting platform to cardiologists in the United States by early next year.

HeartLab provides an end-to-end solution for echocardiograms, the ultrasound tests that doctors use to examine a patient’s heart structure and function. Not only does the software help sort and analyze ultrasound images to help doctors diagnose cardiovascular disease, but it also streamlines the workflow by generating patient reports for doctors that can then be added to a patient’s health record.

Will Hewitt, 21, started HeartLab when he was 18 years old studying applied mathematics and statistics at the University of Auckland and working as a researcher at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute. The idea for the startup came to him as he listened to cardiologist, and now co-founder, Patrick Gladding explain how time-consuming and potentially inaccurate it is for doctors to have to review multiple scans manually everyday.

AI is ready to take on a massive healthcare challenge

“You’ve got a really repetitive manual task done by a highly trained professional,” Hewitt told TechCrunch. “To start with, we just decided to train the AI to do one really small part of the doctor’s job, which was to look at these scans and generate a couple of different measurements that normally the doctor would have to do themselves,” said Hewitt.

In order to replicate the tedious process that doctors were doing, HeartLab built its own in-house labeling tool with sonographers that includes step-by-step guides and prompts to collect data on a range of different measurements. Hewitt said this initiative was one of the most valuable efforts of engineering the company has invested in to date because it has lead to cross validation, which is used to test the ability of the machine learning model to predict new data, as well as flag problems like selection bias and overfitting.

Once HeartLab was able to successfully replicate the scanning process, the company worked to expand its services in a way that would relieve doctors of further admin minutiae so they could spend more time actually treating their patients. Usually, doctors use a software tool that analyzes the images, another that visualizes patterns and another that actually writes up the report, says Hewitt. HeartLab’s platform, called Pulse, can now condense those processes into one software.

Cardiologists and sonographers at four different sites in New Zealand are trialing HeartLab’s tech now, which is also awaiting regulatory approval from the U.S.’s Food and Drug Administration. HeartLab anticipates FDA approval of Pulse by the first quarter of 2022, which is when the startup can begin selling the SaaS product.

“To begin with we want to talk to small and medium clinics over in the U.S.,” said Hewitt. “We’ve actually found that our products are most popular at those clinics because it replaces more software than at a larger clinic. At a larger clinic some of these bits of software they’ve already had to purchase, versus a smaller clinic, it’s stuff that they couldn’t access anyway. So when we get to the states, we want to start shipping mostly to those sorts of users while we work out how to best pitch our value proposition to the larger clinics.”

Hewitt says the funds from this round will also help the startup hire 10 more staff members to join the existing 13-member team based in Auckland. Having more tech talent on board will help HeartLab advance its product offering. At the moment, Pulse is at the point where it sees so many scans and takes so many measurements that it can get through the process quicker than a doctor could on their own and actually pick out patterns that a doctor wouldn’t see, according to Hewitt. The next step, which a good chunk of the seed funding is going toward, is how to be diagnostic about disease rather than just being able to indicate it.

“How do we actually provide something that normally doctors would have to order another scan for?” said Hewitt. “One of the key ideas with AI is you can create mappings from low-resolution images like ultrasounds. How can we try to learn a pattern from an ultrasound that’s similar to what you might see from an MRI, for example?”

If HeartLab can figure out how to glean advanced information from an echocardiogram instead of an MRI, it would be able to save hospitals, clinics and patients a lot of money. Each cardiac MRI can cost about $1,000 to $5,000, which is about five times the price of an echocardiogram.

“I’d say the biggest challenge for us is, how can we transform from a company that at the moment can deliver products to a few local clinics successfully to actually building a product that scales and delivers a really good experience to lots of users and different hospitals?” said Hewitt.

Advancements in early diagnostics and imaging tech like HeartLabs’ is causing an increased demand for such tools. As a result, the global AI-enabled medical imaging solutions market is expected to reach $4.7 billion by 2027. By extending its reach to the U.S., where heart disease is the leading cause of death, HeartLab is poised to take a big piece of that pie.

In total, HeartLab has publicly raised about $3.2 million in funding, which includes a pre-seed last October of about $800,000 led by Icehouse Ventures with support from Founders Fund, the San Francisco-based VC firm that led the round announced on Thursday. Icehouse Ventures also contributed to the oversubscribed seed round, along with another New Zealand firm Outset Ventures and private investor and CEO of design platform Figma, Dylan Field.

“The use of AI in medicine is reducing pressures on health systems and ultimately saving lives,” said Founders Fund partner Scott Nolan, who has led investment rounds for three other New Zealand startups, in a statement. “The HeartLab team has built a really compelling AI-powered platform that doctors love to use.”

Categories: Business News

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