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Startups Weekly: What countries want your startup?

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They say business needs certainty to succeed, but new tech startups are still getting funded aggressively despite the pandemic, recession, trade wars and various large disasters created by nature or humans. But before we get to the positive data, let’s spend some time reviewing the hard news — there is a lot of it to process.

TikTok is on track to get banned if it doesn’t get sold first, and leading internet company Tencent’s WeChat is on the list as well, plus Trump administration has a bigger “Clean Network” plan in the works. The TikTok headlines are the least significant part, even if they are dominating the media cycle. The video-sharing social network is just now emerging as an intriguing marketing channel, for example. And if it goes, few see any real opening in the short-form video space that market leaders aren’t already deep into. Indeed, TikTok wasn’t a startup story since the Musical.ly acquisition. It was actually part of an emerging global market battle between giant internet companies, that is being prematurely ended by political forces. We’ll never know if TikTok could have continued leveraging ByteDance’s vast resources and protected market in China to take on Facebook directly on its home turf.

Instead of quasi-monopolies trying to finish taking over the world, those with a monopoly on violence have scrambled the map. WeChat is mainly used by the Chinese diaspora in the US, including many US startups with friends, family and colleagues in China. And the Clean Network plan would potentially split the Chinese mobile ecosystem from iOS and Android globally.

Let’s not forget that Europe has also been busy regulating foreign tech companies, including from both the US and China. Now every founder has to wonder how big their TAM is going to be in a world cleaved back the leading nation-states and their various allies.

“It’s not about the chilling effect [in Hong Kong],” an American executive in China told Rita Liao this week about the view in China’s startup world. “The problem is there won’t be opportunities in the U.S., Canada, Australia or India any more. The chance of succeeding in Europe is also becoming smaller, and the risks are increasing a lot. From now on, Chinese companies going global can only look to Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.”

The silver lining, I hope, is that tech companies from everywhere are still going to be competing in regions of the world that will appreciate the interest.

Image Credits: DocSend (opens in a new window)

Startup fundraising activity is booming and set to boom more

A fresh analysis from our friends over at Docsend reveals that startup investment activity has actually sped up this year, at least by the measure of pitchdeck activity on its document management platform used by thousands of companies in Silicon Valley and globally (which makes it a key indicator of this hard-to-see action).

Founders are sending out more links than before and VCs are racing through more decks faster, despite the gyrations of the pandemic and other shocks. Meanwhile, many startups shared that they had cut back hard in March and now have more room to wait or raise on good terms. Docsend CEO Russ Heddleston concludes that the rest of the year could actually see activity increase further as companies finish adjusting to the latest challenges and are ready to go back out to market.

All this should shape how you approach your pitchdeck, he writes separately for Extra Crunch. Additional data shows that decks should be on the short side, must include a “why now” slide that addresses the COVID-19 era, and show big growth opportunities in the financials.

Image Credits: Cadalpe (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

SaaS founders could transcend VC fundraising via securitized debt

“In one decade, we went from buying licenses for software to paying monthly for services and in the process, revolutionized the hundreds of billions spent on enterprise IT,” Danny Crichton observes. “There is no reason why in another decade, SaaS founders with the metrics to prove it shouldn’t have access to less dilutive capital through significantly more sophisticated debt underwriting. That’s going to be a boon for their own returns, but a huge challenge for VC firms that have been doubling down on SaaS.”

Sure, the market is sort of providing this with various existing venture debt vehicles, and by other routes like private equity (which has acquired a taste for SaaS metrics this past decade). Danny sees a more sophisticated world evolving, as he details on Extra Crunch this week. First, he sees underwriters tying loans to recurring revenues, even to the point that your customers could be your assets that the bank takes if you go bust. The trend could then build from there:

Part two is to take all those individual loans and package them together into a security… Imagine being an investor who believes that the world is going to digitize payroll. Maybe you don’t know which of the 30 SaaS providers on the market are going to win. Rather than trying your luck at the VC lottery, you could instead buy “2018 SaaS payroll debt” securities, which would give you exposure to this market that’s safer, if without the sort of exponential upside typical of VC investments. You could imagine grouping debt by market sector, or by customer type, or by geography, or by some other characteristic.

Image Credits: Hussein Malla / AP

Help the startup scene in Beirut

Beirut is home to a vibrant startup scene but like the rest of Lebanon it is reeling from a massive explosion at its main port this week. Mike Butcher, who has helped connect TechCrunch with the city over the years, has put together a guide to local people and organizations that you can help out, along with stories from local founders about what they are overcoming. Here’s Cherif Massoud, a dental surgeon turned founder of invisible-braces startup Basma:

We are a team of 25 people and were all in our office in Beirut when it happened. Thankfully we all survived. No words can describe my anger. Five of us were badly injured with glass shattered on their bodies. The fear we lived was traumatizing. The next morning day, we went back to the office to clean all the mess, took measurements of all the broken windows and started rebuilding it. It’s a miracle we are alive. Our markets are mainly KSA and UAE, so customers were still buying our treatments online, but the team needed to recover so we decided to take a break, stop the operations for a few days and rest until next Monday.

Image Credits: Madrona (opens in a new window)

How to build a great “revenue stack”

Every business has been scrambling to figure out online sales and marketing during the pandemic. Fortunately the Cambrian explosion of SaaS products began years ago and now there are many powerful options for revenue teams of all shapes and sizes. The problem is how to put everything together right for your company’s needs. Tim Porter and Erica La Cava of Madrona Venture Group have created a framework for how to build what they call the “revenue stack.” While most companies are already using some form of CRM, communications and agreement management software generally, each one needs to figure out four new “capabilities.” What they define as revenue enablement, sales engagement, conversational intelligence and revenue operations.

Here’s a sample from Extra Crunch, about sales engagement:

Some think of sales engagement as an intelligent e-mail cannon and analysis engine on steroids. While in reality, it is much more. Consider these examples: How can I communicate with prospects in a way that is both personalized and efficient? How do I make my outbound sales reps more productive and enable them to respond more quickly to leads? What tools can help me with account-based marketing? What happened to that email you sent out to one of your sales prospects?

Now, take these questions and multiply them by a hundred, or even a thousand: How do you personalize a multitouch nurture campaign at scale while managing and automating outreach to many different business personas across various industry segments? Uh-oh. Suddenly, it gets very complicated. What sales engagement comes down to is the critical understanding of sending the right information to the right customer, and then (and only then) being able to track which elements of that information worked (e.g., led to clicks, conversations and conversions) … and, finally, helping your reps do more of that. We see Outreach as the clear leader here, based in Seattle, with SalesLoft as the number two. Outreach in particular is investing considerably in adding additional intelligence and ML to their offering to increase automation and improve outcomes.

Around TechCrunch

Hear how working from home is changing startups and investing at Disrupt 2020

Extra Crunch Live: Join Wealthfront CEO Andy Rachleff August 11 at 1pm EDT/10am PDT about the future of investing and fintech

Register for Disrupt to take part in our content series for Digital Startup Alley exhibitors

Boston Dynamics CEO Rob Playter is coming to Disrupt 2020 to talk robotics and automation

Across the week

TechCrunch
The tale of 2 challenger bank models

Majority of tech workers expect company solidarity with Black Lives Matter

‘Made in America’ is on (government) life support, and the prognosis isn’t good

What Microsoft should demand in exchange for its ‘payment’ to the US government for TikTok

Equity Monday: Could Satya and TikTok make ByteDance investors happy enough to dance?

Extra Crunch
5 VCs on the future of Michigan’s startup ecosystem

Eight trends accelerating the age of commercial-ready quantum computing

A look inside Gmail’s product development process

The story behind Rent the Runway’s first check

After Shopify’s huge quarter, BigCommerce raises its IPO price range

#EquityPod

From Alex Wilhelm:

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

As ever, I was joined by TechCrunch managing editor Danny Crichton and our early-stage venture capital reporter Natasha Mascarenhas. We had Chris on the dials and a pile of news to get through, so we were pretty hyped heading into the show.

But before we could truly get started we had to discuss Cincinnati, and TikTok. Pleasantries and extortion out of the way, we got busy:

It was another fun week! As always we appreciate you sticking with and supporting the show!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PT and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Categories: Business News

How to pick the right Series A investors

2020, August 8 - 3:18am

Early-stage startup founders who are embarking on a Series A fundraising round should consider this: their relationship with the members of their board might last longer than the average American marriage.

In other words, who invests in a startup matters as much — or more — than the total capital they’re bringing with them.

It’s important for founders to get to know the people coming onto their board because they’ll likely be a part of the company for a long time, and it’s really hard to fire them, Jake Saper of Emergence Capital noted during TechCrunch’s virtual Early Stage event in July. But forging a connection isn’t as easy as one might think, Saper added.

The fundraising process requires founders to pack in meetings with numerous investors before making a decision in a short period of time. “Neither party really gets to know the other well enough to know if this is a relationship they want to enter into,” Saper said.

“You want to work with people who give you energy,” he added. “And this is why I strongly encourage you to start to get to know potential Series A leads shortly after you close your seed round.”

Here are the best methods to meet, win over and select Series A investors.

Identify industry experts

Saper recommends extending the typically short Series A time frame by identifying a handful of potential leads as soon as a founder has closed their seed round. Founders shouldn’t just pick any one with a big name and impressive fund. Instead, he recommends focusing on investors who are suited to their startup’s business category or industry.

Categories: Business News

IoT and data science will boost foodtech in the post-pandemic era

2020, August 8 - 3:03am
Sunny Dhillon Contributor Share on Twitter Sunny Dhillon is an early-stage investor at Signia Ventures in San Francisco where he invests in retail tech, e-commerce infrastructure and logistics, alongside consumer and enterprise software startups. More posts by this contributor

Even as e-grocery usage has skyrocketed in our coronavirus-catalyzed world, brick-and-mortar grocery stores have soldiered on. While strict in-store safety guidelines may gradually ease up, the shopping experience will still be low-touch and socially distanced for the foreseeable future.

This begs the question: With even greater challenges than pre-pandemic, how can grocers ensure their stores continue to operate profitably?

Just as micro-fulfillment centers (MFCs), dark stores and other fulfillment solutions have been helping e-grocers optimize profitability, a variety of old and new technologies can help brick-and-mortar stores remain relevant and continue churning out cash.

Today, we present three “must-dos” for post-pandemic retail grocers: rely on the data, rely on the biology and rely on the hardware.

Rely on the data

Image Credits: Pixabay/Pexels (opens in a new window)

The hallmark of shopping in a store is the consistent availability and wide selection of fresh items — often more so than online. But as the number of in-store customers continues to fluctuate, planning inventory and minimizing waste has become ever more so a challenge for grocery store managers. Grocers on average throw out more than 12% of their on-shelf produce, which eats into already razor-thin margins.

While e-grocers are automating and optimizing their fulfillment operations, brick-and-mortar grocers can automate and optimize their inventory planning mechanisms. To do this, they must leverage their existing troves of customer, business and external data to glean valuable insights for store managers.

Eden Technologies of Walmart is a pioneering example. Spun out of a company hackathon project, the internal tool has been deployed at over 43 distribution centers nationwide and promises to save Walmart over $2 billion in the coming years. For instance, if a batch of produce intended for a store hundreds of miles away is deemed soon-to-ripen, the tool can help divert it to the nearest store instead, using FDA standards and over 1 million images to drive its analysis.

From farm to phone: A paradigm shift in grocery

Similarly, ventures such as Afresh Technologies and Shelf Engine have built platforms to leverage years of historical customer and sales data, as well as seasonality and other external factors, to help store managers determine how much to order and when. The results have been nothing but positive — Shelf Engine customers have increased gross margins by over 25% and Afresh customers have reduced food waste by up to 45%.

Categories: Business News

mmhmm, the virtual presentation software from Phil Libin, launches its Beta 2

2020, August 8 - 2:11am

mmhmm, the latest project from Evernote founder Phil Libin and All Turtles, has today announced the launch of the mmhmm Beta 2. The 100,000-strong waitlist of people who have requested access are getting their invite to the platform today. Also part of the beta 2: a handful of new features for the video presentation software.

Most notable among them is Copilot. Copilot allows two users to “drive” the presentation simultaneously, with one user speaking and visible and the other running the controls of that presentation, switching slides, playing video and/or changing the look and feel.

But let me back up for those of you who’ve (understandably) missed the mmhmm news in the past few weeks.

What is it?

If Twitch got together with the production team for a late night talk show, and their resulting love child was into corporate presentations, that baby would be called mmhmm.

Essentially, users can elevate their on-screen virtual presentations from a head in a box (or sometimes a screen-shared slide deck) to a more elegantly produced affair.

mmhmm users can run their presentation from a PIP (picture-in-picture) window, change the size of themselves on screen, add interesting filters and effects and do it all on the fly.

And as fun as that may be, there is a lot involved in running a live production while also giving a presentation, which is why mmhmm is introducing Copilot. Copilot offers users the chance to have their very own executive producer help them with their call, allowing the presenter to focus on what they’re saying instead of the mmhmm controls.

Because Copilot is multiplayer, beta users can invite one friend per day to the platform starting now.

Alongside Copilot, mmhmm is also launching Dynamic Rooms, which gives users the ability to create a background unique to them, selecting the colors, shapes, etc. to have your own “template.”

The product has raised a total of $4.5 million led by Sequoia, with participation from Human Capital, Biz Stone, Jana Messerschmidt (#ANGELS), Hiroshi Mikitani (Rakuten), Taizo Son (Mistletoe), Brianne Kimmel (worklife.vc), Digital Garage, Precursor Ventures, Kevin Systrom (IG), Mike Krieger (IG), Linda Kozlowski (Blue Apron), Julia and Kevin Hartz (Eventbrite) and Lachy Groom (Stripe).

Categories: Business News

Conversational analytics are about to change customer experiences forever

2020, August 8 - 2:05am
Evan Kohn Contributor Share on Twitter A digital marketing and customer experience leader, Evan Kohn is chief business officer at Pypestream, where he created PypePro, an AI onboarding methodology used by Fortune 500 firms.

Companies have long relied on web analytics data like click rates, page views and session lengths to gain customer behavior insights.This method looks at how customers react to what is presented to them, reactions driven by design and copy. But traditional web analytics fail to capture customers’ desires accurately. While marketers are pushing into predictive analytics, what about the way companies foster broader customer experience (CX)?

Leaders are increasingly adopting conversational analytics, a new paradigm for CX data. No longer will the emphasis be on how users react to what is presented to them, but rather what “intent” they convey through natural language. Companies able to capture intent data through conversational interfaces can be proactive in customer interactions, deliver hyper-personalized experiences, and position themselves more optimally in the marketplace.

Direct customer experiences based on customer disposition

Conversational AI, which powers these interfaces and automation systems and feeds data into conversational analytics engines, is a market predicted to grow from $4.2 billion in 2019 to $15.7 billion in 2024. As companies “conversationalize” their brands and open up new interfaces to customers, AI can inform CX decisions not only in how customer journeys are architected–such as curated buying experiences and paths to purchase–but also how to evolve overall product and service offerings. This insights edge could become a game-changer and competitive advantage for early adopters.

Today, there is wide variation in the degree of sophistication between conversational solutions from elementary, single-task chatbots to secure, user-centric, scalable AI. To unlock meaningful conversational analytics, companies need to ensure that they have deployed a few critical ingredients beyond the basics of parsing customer intent with natural language understanding (NLU).

While intent data is valuable, companies will up-level their engagements by collecting sentiment and tone data, including via emoji analysis. Such data can enable automation to adapt to a customer’s disposition, so if anger is detected regarding a bill that is overdue, a fast path to resolution can be provided. If a customer expresses joy after a product purchase, AI can respond with an upsell offer and collect more acute and actionable feedback for future customer journeys.

Tap into a multitude of conversational data points
Categories: Business News

Register for our next pitch-off happening on August 13

2020, August 8 - 2:02am

Here’s a shout-out to all the early-stage founders attending Disrupt 2020. Don’t forget to register for our next Pitchers & Pitches — on August 13 — and get ready to hone your 60-second pitch to a razor’s edge.

If you’re not in the know, our ongoing Pitchers & Pitches webinar series is a pitch-off-masterclass-mashup. It’s a chance to deliver your best pitch to a panel of experts who will provide invaluable critique to help you craft a more compelling pitch. Better pitches equal more opportunities, amirite?

Anyone can benefit by attending Pitchers & Pitches, but only companies exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley can compete. Want to be eligible to pitch in next week’s event? Buy a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package here.

We’ll randomly select five startups to pitch, receive direct feedback and have a shot at taking the top prize. We love prizes…especially the kind that help build a better startup. The winning founders receive a consulting session with cela, a company that connects early-stage startups to accelerators and incubators that can help scale their businesses.

Here’s another great reason to exhibit in Digital Startup Alley. You get exclusive access to our three-part interactive webinar series. Check the dates and topics below:

  • August 12: The Dos and Don’ts of Working with the Press
  • August 19: COVID-19’s Impact on the Startup World
  • August 26: Fundraising and Hiring Best Practices

We’ll announce the pitching lineup — and the specific VC judges those founders need to impress — on August 12. Remember, only startups exhibiting at Disrupt 2020 are eligible to pitch. If you want in on the action, get yourself a Digital Startup Alley Package today.

Register here and join us for the next Pitchers & Pitches on August 13. And hey, even if you don’t compete, you’ll hear loads of good advice on ways to improve your presentation skills and make the most of your 60-second pitch.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Categories: Business News

Extra Crunch Live: Join Eric Hippeau for a live Q&A on August 13 at 11am PT/2pm ET

2020, August 8 - 1:59am

The media landscape is changing rapidly. Even before COVID, media companies were looking at new revenue models beyond your standard banner ad, all the while trying to navigate the oft-changing world of social media and search, where a minor algorithm change can boost or tank traffic.

Anytime an industry is in the midst of a transformation is a great time for startups to capitalize. That’s why we’re amped to have Lerer Hippeau’s managing partner Eric Hippeau join us for an episode of Extra Crunch Live.

The episode will air at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on August 13. Folks in the audience can ask their own questions, but you must be an Extra Crunch member to access the chat. If you still haven’t signed up, now’s your chance!

Eric Hippeau served as CEO for the Huffington Post before co-founding Lerer Hippeau. He also served as chairman and CEO at Ziff-Davis, a former top publisher of computer magazines. He sits on the boards of BuzzFeed and Marriott International.

Lerer Hippeau portfolio companies include Axios, BuzzFeed, Genius, Chartbeat and Giphy. And while the firm has experience in media, that doesn’t mean the portfolio is squarely focused on it. Other portfolio companies include Casper, WayUp, Warby Parker, Mirror, HungryRoot, Glossier, Everlane, Brit + Co. and AllBirds, to name just a few.

As an early-stage investor, Hippeau knows what it takes for companies to get the attention of VCs and take the deal across the finish line. We’ll chat with Hippeau about some of the dos and don’ts of fundraising, his expectation for the next-generation of startups born in this pandemic world and which sectors he’s most excited to invest in.

As previously mentioned, Extra Crunch members are encouraged to bring their own questions to this discussion. Come prepared!

Hippeau joins an all-star cast of guests on Extra Crunch Live, including Mark Cuban, Roelof Botha, Kirsten Green, Aileen Lee and Charles Hudson. You can check out the full slate of episodes here.

You can find the full details of the conversation below.

Categories: Business News

Clean.io raises $5M to continue its battle against malicious adtech

2020, August 8 - 1:45am

Clean.io, a startup that helps digital publishers protect themselves from malicious ads, recently announced that it has raised $5 million in Series A funding.

The Baltimore-based company isn’t the only organization promising to fight malvertising (such as ads that force visitors to redirect to another website). But as co-founder Seth Demsey told me last year, Clean.io provides “granular control over who gets to load JavaScript.”

CEO Matt Gillis told me via email this week that the challenge will “always” be evolving.”

“Just like an antivirus company needs to constantly be updating their definitions and improving their protections, we always need to be alert to the fact that bad actors will constantly try to evade detection and get over and around the walls that you put in front of them,” Gillis wrote.

The company says its technology is now used on more than 7 million websites for customers including WarnerMedia’s Xandr (formerly AppNexus), The Boston Globe and Imgur.

Image Credits: Clean.io

Clean.io has now raised a total of $7.5 million. The Series A was led by Tribeca Venture Partners, with participation from Real Ventures, Inner Loop Capital and Grit Capital Partners.

Gillis said he’d initially planned to fundraise at the end of February, but he had to put those plans on hold due to COVID-19. He ended up doing all his pitching via Zoom (“I saw more than my fair share of small NY apartments”) and he praised Tribeca’s Chip Meakem (whose previous investments include AppNexus) as “a world-class partner.”

Of course, the pandemic’s impact on digital advertising goes far beyond pausing Gillis’ fundraising process. And when it comes to malicious ads, he said that with the cost of digital advertising declining precipitously in late March, “bad actors capitalized on this opportunity.”

“We saw a pretty constant surge in threat levels from mid-March until early May,” Gillis continued. “Demand for our solutions have remained strong due to the increased level of attacks brought on by the pandemic. Now more than ever, publishers need to protect their user experience and their revenue.”

Clean.io raises $2.5M to fight malicious advertising

Categories: Business News

Sign up to attend The Dos and Don’ts of Working with the Press

2020, August 8 - 1:40am

If you’re exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley during Disrupt 2020 — or you plan to — do not miss this opportunity to sharpen your media skills. The first of our three-part interactive webinar series takes place on August 12th with The Dos and Don’ts of Working with the Press.

Pro tip: Our August webinar series is open only to folks exhibiting at Disrupt 2020. Don’t miss out — buy a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package now and gain entry to all three exclusive webinars. Then get ready to introduce your startup to thousands of global Disrupt 2020 attendees. Talk about opportunity knocking.

Media coverage can make or break a startup, especially in the early stages. Sharing your startup story — the journey, the capabilities, the benefits — in a concise, compelling way draws media interest. And positive media coverage attracts the potential customers and investors that can drive your business forward.

Still, no one’s born knowing this essential skill — it takes time and practice to develop. And no one gives better advice on how to talk to tech media than, well, tech media. Join TechCrunch writers and editors Greg KumparakAnthony Ha and Ingrid Lunden as they divulge tips and best practices when it comes to talking with the press.

You’ll come away with actionable steps to present yourself and your startup in the best possible light. That’ll come in handy while you exhibit in Digital Startup Alley. Hundreds of tech journalists from around the world will be there searching for great stories to tell. Give them something worth writing about.

And don’t forget — this is just the first of three webinars devoted to helping Digital Startup Alley exhibitors wring every ounce of opportunity out of their time at Disrupt. Be sure to add these two webinars to your calendar:

  • August 19 COVID-19’s Impact on the Startup World with panelists Nicola Corzine, executive director of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurship Center, and Cameron Stanfill, a VC analyst at PitchBook.
  • August 26 — Fundraising and Hiring Best Practices with panelists Sarah Kunst of Cleo Capital and Brett Berson of First Round Capital.

Exhibiting in Digital Startup Alley lets you showcase your incredible startup to a global audience. Buy a Disrupt Digital Startup Alley Package, join the first of three exclusive webinars on August 12th, get comfortable talking to the press and learn how to make the best impression possible.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Categories: Business News

Last chance to save on Disrupt 2020 passes

2020, August 8 - 12:44am

It’s last call startup fans, last call. We’re not talking about International Beer Day (which is a thing and it’s today — look it up). No, we mean August 7 is your absolute last chance to save up to $300 on a pass to Disrupt 2020. Beat the clock, buy your early-bird pass before 11:59 p.m. (PT), then hoist a beer to celebrate your savvy shopping. We’ll drink to that!

Every new challenge presents new opportunities, and that holds true for TechCrunch’s first all-virtual Disrupt. Now Disrupt is bigger, more accessible and more global than ever. Thousands of attendees across the world have five full days — September 14-18 — to connect, network, exhibit, compete and learn new and better ways to build their business.

As always, Disrupt features the top minds and makers in tech, investment and business. Check out the interviews, panel discussions, interactive Q&As and workshops that explore and tackle new trends, crucial issues and a metric ton (we measured) of how-tos designed to inform and support early-stage startups.

In a nod to the diverse, global aspect of this Disrupt, we’re also planning sessions that focus on Europe and Asia. Translation: time zone-friendly scheduling that won’t keep you up at night. Stay tuned for more on that front soon.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the Disrupt 2020 agenda, with just some of the topics leading experts will discuss. We’ll divulge more in the coming weeks. Hey, that’s another reason to stay tuned.

We’ve just scratched the surface of what you can do at Disrupt.

Network with CrunchMatch, our AI-powered platform that gets smarter the more you use it. It easily finds and connects you with the right people — you know, the ones who can help you reach your goals. And it opens weeks ahead of Disrupt to give you even more time to expand your network.

Explore hundreds of early-stage startups in Digital Startup Alley — or exhibit there yourself. Find new customers, potential investors, exciting partnerships.

Watch some of the most promising early-stage startups around the world go head-to-head in the renowned Startup Battlefield pitch competition. Which team will earn the Disrupt Cup and take home $100,000 in equity-free cash?

It’s time. Time to heed the last call, buy your Disrupt 2020 pass before 11:59 p.m. (PT) today and save up to $300. You could celebrate the heck out of International Beer Day with that kind of money — hey, we don’t judge.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

 

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Categories: Business News

Hypotenuse AI wants to take the strain out of copywriting for e-commerce

2020, August 8 - 12:07am

Imagine buying a dress online because a piece of code sold you on its ‘flattering, feminine flair’ — or convinced you ‘romantic floral details’ would outline your figure with ‘timeless style’. The very same day your friend buy the same dress from the same website but she’s sold on a description of ‘vibrant tones’, ‘fresh cotton feel’ and ‘statement sleeves’.

This is not a detail from a sci-fi short story but the reality and big picture vision of Hypotenuse AI, a YC-backed startup that’s using computer vision and machine learning to automate product descriptions for e-commerce.

One of the two product descriptions shown below is written by a human copywriter. The other flowed from the virtual pen of the startup’s AI, per an example on its website.

Can you guess which is which?* And if you think you can — well, does it matter?

Screengrab: Hypotenuse AI’s website

Discussing his startup on the phone from Singapore, Hypotenuse AI’s founder Joshua Wong tells us he came up with the idea to use AI to automate copywriting after helping a friend set up a website selling vegan soap.

“It took forever to write effective copy. We were extremely frustrated with the process when all we wanted to do was to sell products,” he explains. “But we knew how much description and copy affect conversions and SEO so we couldn’t abandon it.”

Wong had been working for Amazon, as an applied machine learning scientist for its Alexa AI assistant. So he had the technical smarts to tackle the problem himself. “I decided to use my background in machine learning to kind of automate this process. And I wanted to make sure I could help other e-commerce stores do the same as well,” he says, going on to leave his job at Amazon in June to go full time on Hypotenuse.

The core tech here — computer vision and natural language generation — is extremely cutting edge, per Wong.

“What the technology looks like in the back end is that a lot of it is proprietary,” he says. “We use computer vision to understand product images really well. And we use this together with any metadata that the product already has to generate a very ‘human fluent’ type of description. We can do this really quickly — we can generate thousands of them within seconds.”

“A lot of the work went into making sure we had machine learning models or neural network models that could speak very fluently in a very human-like manner. For that we have models that have kind of learnt how to understand and to write English really, really well. They’ve been trained on the Internet and all over the web so they understand language very well. “Then we combine that together with our vision models so that we can generate very fluent description,” he adds.

Image credit: Hypotenuse

Wong says the startup is building its own proprietary data-set to further help with training language models — with the aim of being able to generate something that’s “very specific to the image” but also “specific to the company’s brand and writing style” so the output can be hyper tailored to the customer’s needs.

“We also have defaults of style — if they want text to be more narrative, or poetic, or luxurious —  but the more interesting one is when companies want it to be tailored to their own type of branding of writing and style,” he adds. “They usually provide us with some examples of descriptions that they already have… and we used that and get our models to learn that type of language so it can write in that manner.”

What Hypotenuse’s AI is able to do — generate thousands of specifically detailed, appropriately styled product descriptions within “seconds” — has only been possible in very recent years, per Wong. Though he won’t be drawn into laying out more architectural details, beyond saying the tech is “completely neural network-based, natural language generation model”.

“The product descriptions that we are doing now — the techniques, the data and the way that we’re doing it — these techniques were not around just like over a year ago,” he claims. “A lot of the companies that tried to do this over a year ago always used pre-written templates. Because, back then, when we tried to use neural network models or purely machine learning models they can go off course very quickly or they’re not very good at producing language which is almost indistinguishable from human.

“Whereas now… we see that people cannot even tell which was written by AI and which by human. And that wouldn’t have been the case a year ago.”

(See the above example again. Is A or B the robotic pen? The Answer is at the foot of this post)

Asked about competitors, Wong again draws a distinction between Hypotenuse’s ‘pure’ machine learning approach and others who relied on using templates “to tackle this problem of copywriting or product descriptions”.

“They’ve always used some form of templates or just joining together synonyms. And the problem is it’s still very tedious to write templates. It makes the descriptions sound very unnatural or repetitive. And instead of helping conversions that actually hurts conversions and SEO,” he argues. “Whereas for us we use a completely machine learning based model which has learnt how to understand language and produce text very fluently, to a human level.”

There are now some pretty high profile applications of AI that enable you to generate similar text to your input data — but Wong contends they’re just not specific enough for a copywriting business purpose to represent a competitive threat to what he’s building with Hypotenuse.

“A lot of these are still very generalized,” he argues. “They’re really great at doing a lot of things okay but for copywriting it’s actually quite a nuanced space in that people want very specific things — it has to be specific to the brand, it has to be specific to the style of writing. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. It hurts conversions. It hurts SEO. So… we don’t worry much about competitors. We spent a lot of time and research into getting these nuances and details right so we’re able to produce things that are exactly what customers want.”

So what types of products doesn’t Hypotenuse’s AI work well for? Wong says it’s a bit less relevant for certain product categories — such as electronics. This is because the marketing focus there is on specs, rather than trying to evoke a mood or feeling to seal a sale. Beyond that he argues the tool has broad relevance for e-commerce. “What we’re targeting it more at is things like furniture, things like fashion, apparel, things where you want to create a feeling in a user so they are convinced of why this product can help them,” he adds.

The startup’s SaaS offering as it is now — targeted at automating product description for e-commerce sites and for copywriting shops — is actually a reconfiguration itself.

The initial idea was to build a “digital personal shopper” to personalize the e-commerce experence. But the team realized they were getting ahead of themselves. “We only started focusing on this two weeks ago — but we’ve already started working with a number of e-commerce companies as well as piloting with a few copywriting companies,” says Wong, discussing this initial pivot.

Building a digital personal shopper is still on the roadmap but he says they realized that a subset of creating all the necessary AI/CV components for the more complex ‘digital shopper’ proposition was solving the copywriting issue. Hence dialing back to focus in on that.

“We realized that this alone was really such a huge pain-point that we really just wanted to focus on it and make sure we solve it really well for our customers,” he adds.

For early adopter customers the process right now involves a little light onboarding — typically a call to chat through their workflow is like and writing style so Hypotenuse can prep its models. Wong says the training process then takes “a few days”. After which they plug in to it as software as a service.

Customers upload product images to Hypotenuse’s platform or send metadata of existing products — getting corresponding descriptions back for download. The plan is to offer a more polished pipeline process for this in the future — such as by integrating with e-commerce platforms like Shopify .

Given the chaotic sprawl of Amazon’s marketplace, where product descriptions can vary wildly from extensively detailed screeds to the hyper sparse and/or cryptic, there could be a sizeable opportunity to sell automated product descriptions back to Wong’s former employer. And maybe even bag some strategic investment before then…  However Wong won’t be drawn on whether or not Hypotenuse is fundraising right now.

On the possibility of bagging Amazon as a future customer he’ll only say “potentially in the long run that’s possible”.

Joshua Wong (Photo credit: Hypotenuse AI)

The more immediate priorities for the startup are expanding the range of copywriting its AI can offer — to include additional formats such as advertising copy and even some ‘listicle’ style blog posts which can stand in as content marketing (unsophisticated stuff, along the lines of ’10 things you can do at the beach’, per Wong, or ’10 great dresses for summer’ etc).

“Even as we want to go into blog posts we’re still completely focused on the e-commerce space,” he adds. “We won’t go out to news articles or anything like that. We think that that is still something that cannot be fully automated yet.”

Looking further ahead he dangles the possibility of the AI enabling infinitely customizable marketing copy — meaning a website could parse a visitor’s data footprint and generate dynamic product descriptions intended to appeal to that particular individual.

Crunch enough user data and maybe it could spot that a site visitor has a preference for vivid colors and like to wear large hats — ergo, it could dial up relevant elements in product descriptions to better mesh with that person’s tastes.

“We want to make the whole process of starting an e-commerce website super simple. So it’s not just copywriting as well — but all the difference aspects of it,” Wong goes on. “The key thing is we want to go towards personalization. Right now e-commerce customers are all seeing the same standard written content. One of the challenges there it’s hard because humans are writing it right now and you can only produce one type of copy — and if you want to test it for other kinds of users you need to write another one.

“Whereas for us if we can do this process really well, and we are automating it, we can produce thousands of different kinds of description and copy for a website and every customer could see something different.”

It’s a disruptive vision for e-commerce (call it ‘A/B testing’ on steroids) that is likely to either delight or terrify — depending on your view of current levels of platform personalization around content. That process can wrap users in particular bubbles of perspective — and some argue such filtering has impacted culture and politics by having a corrosive impact on the communal experiences and consensus which underpins the social contract. But the stakes with e-commerce copy aren’t likely to be so high.

Still, once marketing text/copy no longer has a unit-specific production cost attached to it — and assuming e-commerce sites have access to enough user data in order to program tailored product descriptions — there’s no real limit to the ways in which robotically generated words could be reconfigured in the pursuit of a quick sale.

“Even within a brand there is actually a factor we can tweak which is how creative our model is,” says Wong, when asked if there’s any risk of the robot’s copy ending up feeling formulaic. “Some of our brands have like 50 polo shirts and all of them are almost exactly the same, other than maybe slight differences in the color. We are able to produce very unique and very different types of descriptions for each of them when we cue up the creativity of our model.”

“In a way it’s sometimes even better than a human because humans tends to fall into very, very similar ways of writing. Whereas this — because it’s learnt so much language over the web — it has a much wider range of tones and types of language that it can run through,” he adds.

What about copywriting and ad creative jobs? Isn’t Hypotenuse taking an axe to the very copywriting agencies his startup is hoping to woo as customers? Not so, argues Wong. “At the end of the day there are still editors. The AI helps them get to 95% of the way there. It helps them spark creativity when you produce the description but that last step of making sure it is something that exactly the customer wants — that’s usually still a final editor check,” he says, advocating for the human in the AI loop. “It only helps to make things much faster for them. But we still make sure there’s that last step of a human checking before they send it off.”

“Seeing the way NLP [natural language processing] research has changed over the past few years it feels like we’re really at an inception point,” Wong adds. “One year ago a lot of the things that we are doing now was not even possible. And some of the things that we see are becoming possible today — we didn’t expect it for one or two years’ time. So I think it could be, within the next few years, where we have models that are not just able to write language very well but you can almost speak to it and give it some information and it can generate these things on the go.”

*Per Wong, Hypotenuse’s robot is responsible for generating description ‘A’. Full marks if you could spot the AI’s tonal pitfalls

Categories: Business News

LivingPackets hopes to nurture a circular economy with its smart parcels

2020, August 8 - 12:01am

More than ever before, people are getting life’s essentials delivered — good news for Amazon, but bad news for the environment, which must bear the consequences of the resulting waste. LivingPackets is a Berlin-based startup that aims to replace the familiar cardboard box with an alternative that’s smarter, more secure and possibly the building block of a new circular economy.

The primary product created by LivingPackets is called The Box, and it’s just that: a box. But not just any box. This one is reusable, durable, digitally locked and monitored, with a smartphone’s worth of sensors and gadgets that make it trackable and versatile, and an E-Ink screen so its destination or contents can be updated at will. A prototype shown at CES and a few other locations attracted some interest, but the company is now well into producing V2 of The Box, improved in many ways and ready to be deployed at the scale of hundreds of thousands.

Sure, it costs a lot more than a cardboard box. But once a LivingPackets Box has been used a couple hundred times for returns and local distribution purposes, it breaks even with its paper-based predecessor. Cardboard is cheap to make new, but it doesn’t last long — and that’s not its only problem.

The Box, pictured here with standard cardboard boxes on a conveyor belt, is meant to be compatible with lots of existing intrastructure. Image Credits: LivingPackets 

“If you think about it, online transactions are still risky,” said co-founder Sebastian Rumberg. “The physical transaction and financial transaction don’t happen in parallel: You pay up front, and the seller sends something into the void. You may not receive it, or maybe you do and you say you didn’t, so the company has to claim it with insurers.”

“The logistics system is over-capacity; there’s frustration with DHL and other carriers,” he said. “People in e-commerce and logistics know what they’re missing, what their problems are. Demand has grown, but there’s no innovation.”

And indeed, it does seem strange that although delivery has become much more important to practically everyone over the last decade and especially in recent months, it’s pretty much done the same way it’s been done for a century — except you might get an email when the package arrives. LivingPackets aims to upend this by completely reinventing the package, leaving things like theft, damage and missed connections in the past.

Apps let users track the location and status of their box. Image Credits: LivingPackets

“You’re in full control of everything involved,” he explained. “You know where the parcel is, what’s happening to it. You can look inside. You can say, I’m not at the location for delivery right now, I’m at my office, and just update the address. You don’t need filling material, you don’t need a paper label. You can tell when the seal is broken, when the item is removed.”

It all sounds great, but cardboard is simple and, while limited, proven. Why should anyone switch over to such a fancy device? The business model has to account for this, so it does — and then some.

To begin with, LivingPackets doesn’t actually sell The Box. It provides it to customers and charges per use — “packaging as a service,” as they call it. This prevents the possibility of a business balking at the upfront cost of a few thousand of these.

As a service, it simplifies a lot of existing pain points for merchants, consumers and logistics companies.

For merchants, among other things, tracking and insurance are much simpler. As co-founder Alexander Cotte explained, and as surely many reading this have experienced, it’s practically impossible to know what happened to a missing package, even if it’s something large or expensive. With better tracking, lossage can be mitigated to start, and the question of who’s responsible, where it was taken, and so on can be determined in a straightforward way.

For packaging and delivery companies, the standard form factor with adjustable interior makes these boxes easy to pack and difficult to meddle with or damage — tests with European online retail showed that handling time and costs can be reduced by more than half. LivingPackets also pays for pickup, so delivery companies can recoup costs without changing routes. And generally speaking, more data, more traceability, is a good thing.

For consumers, the most obvious improvement is returns; no need to print a label or for the company to pre-package one, just notify them and the return address appears on the box automatically. In addition there are opportunities once an essentially pre-paid box is in a consumer’s house: for instance, selling or donating an old phone or laptop. LivingPackets will be operating partnerships whereby you can just toss your old gear in the box and it will make its way to the right locations. Or a consumer can hang onto the box until the item they’re selling on eBay is bought and send it that way. Or a neighbor can — and yes, they’re working on the public health side of that, with antibiotic coatings and other protections against spreading COVID-19.

The Box locks securely but also folds down for storage when empty. Image Credits: LivingPackets

The idea underpinning all this, and which was wrapped up in this company from the start, is that of creating a real circular economy, building decentralized value and reducing waste. Even The Box itself is made of materials that can be reused, should it be damaged, in the creation of its replacement. In addition to the market efficiencies added by turning parcels into traveling IoT devices, reusing the boxes could reduce waste and carbon emissions — once you get past the first hundred uses or so, The Box pays for itself in more ways than one. Early pilots with carriers and retailers in France and Germany have borne this out.

That philosophy is embodied in LivingPackets’ unusual form of funding itself: a combination of bootstrapping and crowdsourced equity.

Cotte and his father founded investment firm the Cotte Group, which provided a good starting point for said bootstrapping, but he noted that every employee is taking a less than competitive wage with the hope that the company’s profit-sharing plan will pan out. Even so, with 95 employees, that amounts to several million a year even by the most conservative estimate — this is no small operation.

CEO Alex Cotte sits with V2 of The Box. Image Credits: LivingPackets

Part of keeping the lights on, then, is the ongoing crowdfunding campaign, which has pulled in somewhere north of €6 million, from individuals contributing as little as €50 or as much as €20,000. This, Cotte said, is largely to finance the cost of production, while he and the founding team essentially funded the R&D period. Half of future profits are earmarked for paying back these contributors multiple times their investment — not exactly the sort of business model you see in Silicon Valley. But that’s kind of the point, they explained.

“Obviously all the people working for us believe deeply in what we’re doing,” Cotte said. “They’re willing to take a step back now to create value together and not just take value out of an existing system. And you need to share the value you create with the people who helped you create it.”

It’s hard to imagine a future where these newfangled boxes replace even a noticeable proportion of the truly astronomical number of cardboard boxes being used every day. But even so, getting them into a few key distribution channels could prove they work as intended — and improvements to the well-oiled machines (and deeply rutted paths) of logistics can spread like wildfire once the innumerable companies the industry touches see there’s a better way.

The aims and means of LivingPackets may be rather utopian, but that could be the moonshot thinking that’s necessary to dislodge the logistics business from its current, decidedly last-century methods.

Categories: Business News

As the world stays home, edtech’s Q2 venture totals rose sharply

2020, August 7 - 10:57pm

My friend and colleague Natasha Mascarenhas has been reporting on the edtech beat quite a lot in 2020. So far reading her coverage, I’ve discovered that not only is edtech less dull than I anticipated, it’s actually somewhat interesting on a regular basis.

This week, for example, India’s Byju bought WhiteHat Jr., another Indian edtech company, for $300 million. So what, you’re thinking, that’s just another startup deal? Yes, but it was an all-cash transaction, and White Hat Jr. was only 18 months old.

That’s enough to tell you that edtech is hot at the moment. Which makes sense: much of the world is sheltering at home with school and offices shuttered.

The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.

 

The COVID-19 era has provided an enormous boon to many software startups, though some more than others. Luckily for its boosters, edtech, after being neglected by VCs due to an expectation of small exits and long sales cycles thanks to red tape, is one of the sectors enjoying renewed interest from private investors and customers alike.

According to a Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) markets-focused report, edtech venture funding reached a local-maxima in Q2 2020, jumping more than 60% from the first quarter of this year to the second. On a year-over-year basis, Q2’s VC edtech results were even more impressive.

But, there’s some nuance to the data that should temper declamations that private edtech funding is forever changed.

This morning let’s peel apart the SVB data and parse through edtech funding rounds themselves from the second quarter to see what we can learn. COVID-19 is remaking the global economy as we speak, so it’s up to us to understand its evolving form.

An edtech boom?

From the top-line numbers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that edtech’s Q2 venture capital results were across-the-board impressive.

Before we dig into the results themselves, here’s the chart you need:

Categories: Business News

The rules of VC are being broken

2020, August 7 - 10:00pm

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

As ever, I was joined by TechCrunch managing editor Danny Crichton and our early-stage venture capital reporter Natasha Mascarenhas. We had Chris on the dials and a pile of news to get through, so we were pretty hyped heading into the show.

But before we could truly get started we had to discuss Cincinnati, and TikTok. Pleasantries and extortion out of the way, we got busy:

It was another fun week! As always we appreciate you sticking with and supporting the show!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PT and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Categories: Business News

Mashroom raises £4M for its ‘end-to-end’ lettings and property management service

2020, August 7 - 5:00pm

Mashroom, the London proptech that offers an “end-to-end” lettings and property management service, has raised £4 million in new funding.

Backing comes from existing unnamed private investors and matched funding from the U.K. taxpayer-funded Future Fund. It brings total funding to date for the company to £7 million.

Pitching itself as going “beyond the tenant-finding service” to include the entire rental journey — from property advertising, arranging viewings, credit history checks and maintenance to end of tenancy and dispute resolution — the self-service platform lets landlords list their property, which tenants can then rent easily.

This includes digital credit and reference checks and the signing of rental agreements and tenancy renewals. In addition, open banking is employed to collect rental payments and provide real-time payment information to landlords.

“Letting and renting is, for the most part, still a fragmented, bricks-and-mortar industry,” says Mashroom founder and ex-venture capitalist Stepan Dobrovolskiy. “The experience as a landlord or tenant normally still involves a traditional estate agent who acts as intermediary and charges a hefty fee. While plenty of new players have come along with tech to solve certain points in the experience, we are the first to look at the entire process from end to end.”

Over on Extra Crunch, learn more about the opportunities within property tech with A/O PropTech, the European VC disrupting the €230 trillion real estate industry.

Dobrovolskiy says this sees Mashroom digitise about “98%” of the rental journey, although he maintains that some human interaction is, and perhaps always will be, necessary. “Unlike most traditional agents, we are also still there to help after tenants move in — things like maintenance requests, insuring contents, moving out or extending contracts at the end of the tenancy. We fundamentally believe that automation and tech should augment rather than replace human interactions in this market, and a big part of our brand is to create better relationships between landlords and tenants,” he says.

As an example, Mashroom incentivises tenants to help landlords with viewings at the end of their tenancy by offering a week’s worth of rent as a reward. “No one knows a property better than people who actually live in it, and it removes a lot of friction to have current tenants schedule and host viewings at times that suit them,” explains Dobrovolskiy. “This costs less than 2% of annual rent for landlords, compared to paying 10%+ to an estate agent for finding a new tenant. So we are unlocking financial benefits for landlords and tenants at the same time as giving them more flexibility.”

Mashroom has also developed a “Deposit Replacement Product” as an alternative to the traditional deposit. In partnership with insurer Arch Capital, it lets tenants pay one week’s rent while offering landlords more protection than a regular deposit — up to 12 weeks compared to the typical five weeks.

Noteworthy, the basic Mashroom service is free for tenants and landlords, with the proptech startup generating revenue via its financial products offering, which, along with deposit replacement, includes rent guarantee and other insurance products. The startup also operates its own in-house mortgage brokerage for buy-to-let mortgages and refinancing for landlords.

A/O PropTech offers giant sandbox for startups disrupting real estate

Categories: Business News

Can learning pods scale, or are they widening edtech’s digital divide?

2020, August 7 - 2:56am

Lucia, a six-year old, hides from Zoom calls and has rejected every edtech tool from Seesaw to Khan Academy. She will spend all of first grade in quarantine.

Her mother, Claire Díaz-Ortiz, says her daughter fits squarely into the “distance learning death zone.” The idea is that younger children are too young to do distance learning solo, even with tools meant to make it easier. Here’s one kindergartner’s remote fall class schedule:

Just got this schedule for my kindergartner’s “distance learning” in the fall and would just like to say LOL FOREVER TIMES A THOUSAND pic.twitter.com/CXXzdbwUWa

— Aubrey Hirsch (@aubreyhirsch) July 31, 2020

“And unfortunately for my daughter, I’m a VC, not a Zoom mom,” Díaz-Ortiz said.

The impact of the distance learning death zone, as Díaz-Ortiz calls it, is one of the reasons why many wealthy families with young children are considering a new solution: learning pods.

Learning pods are small clusters of children within the same age range who are paired with a private instructor. Depending on a parent’s preferences, learning pods could be an in-home or virtual experience and be either a full-time school replacement or supplemental learning.

In recent weeks, the concept has taken off all across the country, from suburbs to cities. There’s a Facebook group for Boulder, Colorado school districts; organizers launched Pandemic Pod San Diego to “connect families looking for in-home, teacher-led learning groups.” Some households are offering teachers a retainer. Among working mom groupchats, pods are taking off as a sanity lifesaver, especially as childcare responsibilities fall disproportionately on women.

Looking for the best 4-6th grade teacher in Bay Area who wants a 1-year contract, that will beat whatever they are getting paid, to teach 2-7 students in my back yard#microschool

If you know this teacher, refer them & we hire them, I will give you a $2k UberEats gift card

— jason@calacanis.com (@Jason) August 2, 2020

Startups are pivoting to keep up with the demand for private teachers. But because of high costs, only affluent families are able to form or join learning pods, which may limit the model’s ability to reach scale while extending the existing digital divide.

Categories: Business News

On-demand mental health service provider Ginger raises $50 million

2020, August 7 - 2:06am

Ginger, a provider of on-demand mental healthcare services, has raised $50 million in a new round of funding.

The new capital comes as interest and investment in mental health and wellness has emerged as the next big area of interest for investors in new technology and healthcare services companies.

Mental health startups saw record deal volumes in the second quarter of 2020 on the heels of rising demand caused by the COVID-19 epidemic, according to the data analysis firm CB Insights. More than 55 companies raised rounds of funding over the quarter, even though deal amounts declined 15%, to $491 million. That’s still nearly half a billion dollars invested into mental health in one quarter alone.

What started in 2011 as a research-based company spun out of work from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has become one of the largest providers of mental health services primarily through employer-operated health insurance plans.

Through Ginger’s services, patients have access to a care coordinator that is the first point of entry into the company’s mental health plans. That person is a trained behavioral health coach — typically someone with a master’s degree in psychology with a behavioral health coaching certificate from schools like Duke, UCLA, Michigan or Columbia and 200 hours of training provided by Ginger itself.

These health coaches provide the majority of care that Ginger’s patients receive. For more serious conditions, Ginger will bring in specialists to coordinate care or provide access to medications to alleviate the condition, according to the company’s chief executive officer, Russell Glass.

Ginger began offering its on-demand care services in 2016 and counts tens of thousands of active users on the platform. The company charges companies a fee for access to its services on a per-employee, per-month basis and provides access to mental health services to hundreds of thousands of employees through corporate benefit plans, Glass said.

More than 200 companies, including Delta Air Lines, Sanofi, Chegg, Domino’s, SurveyMonkey and Sephora, pay Ginger to cost-efficiently provide employees with high-quality mental healthcare. Ginger members can access virtual therapy and psychiatry sessions as an in-network benefit through the company’s relationships with leading regional and national health plans, including Optum Behavioral Health, Anthem California and Aetna Resources for Living, according to a statement.

“Our entire mission here is to break the supply/demand imbalance and provide far more care,” said Glass in an interview. “Ultimately we want Ginger to be available to help anybody who has a need. Being accessible to anybody, anywhere, is an important part of the strategy. That means direct-to-consumer will be a direction we head in.”

For now, the company will use the money to build out its partner ecosystem with companies like Cigna, an investor in the company’s latest $50 million round. Ginger will also look to getting government payers to reach more people. Eventually direct-to-consumer could become a larger piece of the business as the company drives down costs of care.

It’s also investing in automation and natural language processing to automate care pathways and personalizing patient care using machine learning.

The company’s $50 million Series D round was co-led by Advance Venture Partners and Bessemer Venture Partners, with additional participation from Cigna Ventures and existing investors such as Jeff Weiner, executive chairman of LinkedIn, and Kaiser Permanente Ventures. To date, Ginger has raised roughly $120 million. 

Even as Ginger is working through the existing network of employer benefit plans and standalone insurance providers to offer its mental health services, other startups are raising money to offer employer-provided mental health and wellness plans. SonderMind is working to make it easier for independent mental health professionals to bill insurers, AbleTo helps employers screen for undiagnosed mental health conditions and SilverLight Health partners with organizations to digitally monitor and manage mental health care. 

Meanwhile, other startups are going direct-to-consumer with a flood of offerings around mental health. Well-financed, billion-dollar-valued companies like Ro and Hims are offering mental health and wellness packages to customers, while Headspace has both a consumer-facing and employer benefit offering. And upstart companies like Real are focusing on providing care specifically for women.

With its funding round, Ginger is adding David ibnAle, a founding partner at Advance Venture Partners (AVP), which is the investment firm behind S.I. Newhouse’s family-owned media and technology holding company, Advance; and the digital health investment guru Steve Kraus from Bessemer Venture Partners. 

“AVP invests in companies that are using technology to tackle large-scale, global challenges and transform traditional businesses and business models,” said David ibnAle, founding partner of Advance Venture Partners. “Ginger is doing just that. We are excited to partner with an exceptional team to help make high-quality, on-demand mental health care a reality for millions of more people around the world.”

Categories: Business News

Robinhood’s Q2 soars

2020, August 7 - 1:00am

Robinhood’s huge, two-part Series F round came partially in Q2 and partially in Q3. The app-based trading platform announced the first $280 million  in early May, valuing the company at around $8.3 billion, up from a prior price tag of around $7.6 billion.

Then in July, Robinhood tacked on $320 million more at the same price, raising its valuation to around $8.6 billion.

While it has long been known that savings and investing apps and services are seeing a boom in 2020, precisely what caused investors to pour $600 million more into this already-wealthy company was less immediately evident. Recent data released by Robinhood concerning one of its revenue sources may help explain the rapid-fire capital events.

The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.

Filings from Robinhood covering the April through June period, Q2 2020, indicate that the company’s revenue from payment for order flow, a method by which a broker is paid to route customer orders through a particular group, or party rose during the period. As TechCrunch has covered, Robinhood generates a sizable portion of its revenue from such activities.

The company is hardly alone in doing so. As a new report from The Block, shared with The Exchange ahead of publication notes, Robinhood’s Q2 payment for order flow haul was impressive, but not singularly so; trading houses like E*Trade and Charles Schwab also grew their incomes from order flow routing in the period.

But Robinhood’s gains come in the wake of the firm’s promise to shake up its options trading setup after a customer took their own life. As we’ve written, there is a tension between Robinhood’s desire to limit who can access options trading, its need to grow and the incomes options-related order flow can drive for the budding fintech giant.

This morning, however, we are focusing on revenue growth over other issues (more to come on those later). Let’s dig into Robinhood’s Q2 order flow revenue numbers and see what we can learn about its run rate and current valuation.

A big Q2

According to The Block’s own calculations, Robinhood saw saw its total payment for order flow revenue roughly double, rising from $90.9 million in Q1 2020 to $183.3 million in Q2 2020, a 102% increase.

Categories: Business News

Eight trends accelerating the age of commercial-ready quantum computing

2020, August 7 - 12:58am
Ethan Batraski Contributor Share on Twitter Ethan Batraski is a partner at Venrock, where he invests across sectors with a particular focus on hard engineering problems such as developer infrastructure, advanced computing and space. More posts by this contributor

Every major technology breakthrough of our era has gone through a similar cycle in pursuit of turning fiction to reality.

It starts in the stages of scientific discovery, a pursuit of principle against a theory, a recursive process of hypothesis-experiment. Success of the proof of principle stage graduates to becoming a tractable engineering problem, where the path to getting to a systemized, reproducible, predictable system is generally known and de-risked. Lastly, once successfully engineered to the performance requirements, focus shifts to repeatable manufacturing and scale, simplifying designs for production.

Since theorized by Richard Feynman and Yuri Manin, quantum computing has been thought to be in a perpetual state of scientific discovery. Occasionally reaching proof of principle on a particular architecture or approach, but never able to overcome the engineering challenges to move forward.

That’s until now. In the last 12 months, we have seen several meaningful breakthroughs from academia, venture-backed companies, and industry that looks to have broken through the remaining challenges along the scientific discovery curve. Moving quantum computing from science fiction that has always been “five to seven years away,” to a tractable engineering problem, ready to solve meaningful problems in the real world.

Companies such as Atom Computing* leveraging neutral atoms for wireless qubit control, Honeywell’s trapped ions approach, and Google’s superconducting metals, have demonstrated first-ever results, setting the stage for the first commercial generation of working quantum computers.

While early and noisy, these systems, even at just 40-80 error-corrected qubit range, may be able to deliver capabilities that surpass those of classical computers. Accelerating our ability to perform better in areas such as thermodynamic predictions, chemical reactions, resource optimizations and financial predictions.

As a number of key technology and ecosystem breakthroughs begin to converge, the next 12-18 months will be nothing short of a watershed moment for quantum computing.

Here are eight emerging trends and predictions that will accelerate quantum computing readiness for the commercial market in 2021 and beyond:

1. Dark horses of QC emerge: 2020 will be the year of dark horses in the QC race. These new entrants will demonstrate dominant architectures with 100-200 individually controlled and maintained qubits, at 99.9% fidelities, with millisecond to seconds coherence times that represent 2x -3x improved qubit power, fidelity and coherence times. These dark horses, many venture-backed, will finally prove that resources and capital are not sole catalysts for a technological breakthrough in quantum computing.

Categories: Business News

48 hours left on early-bird savings to buy Disrupt 2020 passes

2020, August 7 - 12:22am

You won’t find a better deal than this on Disrupt 2020 passes, but you won’t find it at all if you don’t take action within 48 short hours. The opportunity to save up to $300 dollars on your pass disappears when the early-bird deadline expires.

Wake up, smell the savings and buy your Disrupt pass before August 7 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

This all-virtual Disrupt spans five days — September 14-18 — and it includes an unprecedented number of attendees and early-stage startups from around the world. Translation? More time and opportunity to learn, connect and collaborate with influential people who can help you move your business forward.

Let’s face facts. In our current global situation, building a successful startup requires every tool in the shed. Disrupt is a prime source for gathering new, effective tools. Still on the fence? Listen to what three of your peers have to say about their Disrupt experiences:

“Disrupt was a great place to look for potential partners beyond our blockchain world. We got to meet and collaborate with founders in complimentary technologies like IoT and AI. Building those relationships will help all of us provide customers with better solutions. It’s a win-win.” — Joel Neidig, founder of SIMBA Chain.

“I wanted to get the most out of my time at Disrupt. I learned a lot by splitting my time between the Startup Battlefield, the Main Stage speakers and the how-to presentations for founders on the Extra Crunch Stage.” — JC Bodson, founder and CEO of Arbitrage Technologies.

“I’ve attended many tech events and demo days. I like Disrupt’s approach. It combines demos with educational components — like speakers, panels and Q&As — that help you learn new trends and tactics. It’s more like a tech summit.” — Daniel Lloreda, general partner at H20 Capital Innovation.

Check out this preview of just some of the Disrupt speakers and sessions, take advantage of the new Pitch Deck Teardown and don’t forget about CrunchMatch. Our AI-driven networking platform opens weeks ahead of Disrupt so you have even more time to find and connect with the people who align with your business goals.

So many reasons to attend Disrupt 2020 and so little time left to score early-bird savings. Hop off the fence, buy your pass before August 7 at 11:59 p.m. (PT)save up to $300 and get ready to add a bunch of new tools to your startup arsenal.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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