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HungryPanda, a food delivery app for Chinese communities, raises $20 million

2020, February 20 - 10:00pm

HungryPanda, a food delivery service for Chinese communities in cities around the world, announced today it has raised $20 million in funding. The round was led by investors 83North and Felix Capital and will be used on hiring, product development and global expansion, particularly in the United States. The startup, which did not disclose its current valuation, said its goal is to reach an annual run rate of $200 million by May.

Founded in the United Kingdom, where its service first launched in Nottingham, HungryPanda is now available in 31 cities in the U.K., Italy, France, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.

Food delivery is a competitive space with tight margins, but HungryPanda is carving out its own niche, and differentiating from competitors like UberEats, Deliveroo and FoodPanda, by tailoring its platform for Chinese-language users, including business owners, and focusing on Chinese food and grocery deliveries. It also accepts payment services like Alipay and WeChat Pay, and uses WeChat for marketing.

Chinese communities around the world present a major market opportunity and HungryPanda says its operations in the United Kingdom and New York City are already profitable. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report published last year, the Chinese diaspora around the world ranges from about 10 million, when counting people born in China, to about 45 million under a wider definition that also includes second-generation immigrants and other groups.

In a press statement, HungryPanda CEO Eric Liu said “we are delighted to secure the backing of 83North and Felix Capital to bring our unique service to more people in more places. Their unrivaled industry investment experience, coupled with our ability to focus on the precise needs of our customers and launch in every new city within a two-week window, means we are in an ideal position to significantly scale to the business to meet the huge level of demand created by Chinese cuisine.”

Both 83North and Felix Capital already have other food delivery startups in their portfolios. 83North is an investor and Just Eat and Helsinki-based Wolt, while Felix Capital has backed Deliveroo and Frichti, a French startup that makes all its meals in-house.

Categories: Business News

Liquid Death raises $9M to make canned water cool

2020, February 20 - 9:33pm

It sounds like Liquid Death has won over investors with its promise to “murder your thirst.” The startup is announcing that it’s raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Liquid Death sells water in a tallboy aluminum can, and it’s expanding the lineup with a sparkling water can that it plans to start shipping in March. A 12-pack of either regular or sparkling mountain water currently costs $18.99 on the Liquid Death website.

Co-founder and CEO Mike Cessario has worked as a creative director and copywriter at companies like VaynerMedia, and he told me that his goal is to create a brand that’s healthy and sustainable while being “just as exciting, if not more exciting, than energy drinks, soda, alcohol and candy.”

Hence the “murder your thirst” tagline, as well as a generally tongue-in-cheek approach to marketing, including aggressive, heavy metal-influenced art. The startup is expanding those efforts with a new “Keep the Underworld Beautiful” campaign that asks customers to save Hell itself from plastic bottles.

“When you’re launching a new brand, if you don’t have millions and millions of dollars to push it out there with [advertising], your only chance of survival is the product itself has to be insanely shareable,” Cessario said. “You’re going to have a hard enough time funding production. You’re not going to have the money to compete with the Cokes and the Pepsis, so the only way get it out there is if people organically want to share it because of the funny, irreverent marketing.”

As one piece of evidence that the message is resonating, the company says there are at least 20 “random customers” who have received Liquid Death tattoos.

The emphasis on branding left me wondering whether the water itself was a bit of a sidenote. Cessario responded that when it comes to food and beverage products, branding is the biggest differentiator, because “consumers aren’t stupid.” They don’t actually believe that one product is dramatically better than the other; it’s more about which brand they feel affinity with.

At the same time, he said that when it comes to turning Liquid Death into more than a one-time novelty purchase, “The most important thing, first and foremost, is that when someone buys it, they enjoy drinking this water from a can. When they actually have a freezing cold can of Liquid Death, people will continue to come back because they like the product experience.”

I’ll note that I’ve tried out Liquid Death myself and can confirm that it’s perfectly fine water. Most notably, there’s something genuinely fun and satisfying about cracking open a new can (though if you do it at work, you’ll probably get some suspicious or amused stares from your coworkers).

Cessario also argued that the brand is about “so much more than loud marketing, it’s about sustainability.” The company makes a big point out of the fact that its aluminum cans are made out of more than 70% recycled material, and that aluminum is “infinitely recyclable,” making the packaging much more environmentally friendly than plastic bottles. Liquid Death also donates 5 cents for every can sold to nonprofits like 5 Gyres (which fights plastic pollution) and Thirst Project (which works on providing access to clean drinking around the world).

The sustainability message has prompted criticism around the fact that packaged water — even if it’s in an aluminum can — is less sustainable than simply filling up a reusable container with tap water.

“We’re definitely not against reusable bottles,” Cessario said when I brought this up. “But the reality is: Do you think it’s possible to actually get 300 million people, people in the Midwest, to do that 100 percent of the time? It’s highly unrealistic.”

Instead, he suggested that he’s happy for people to drink tap water from reusable bottles when it makes sense, and they can turn to Liquid Death at other times — “at a concert venue, when you’re having a house party, when you’re at a bar.”

Liquid Death’s Series A was led by Velvet Sea Ventures, a new firm created by Buddy Media co-founder Michael Lazerow. Ring founder Jamie Siminoff, TOMS founding members Jake Strom and Blake Mycoskie, GirlBoss founder/CEO Sophia Amoruso and Thrive Market CEO Nick Green also participated, as did existing investors Science Inc. and Away co-founder Jen Rubio. Liquid Death has now raised a total of $11.25 million.

Cessario said that until now, the majority of the startup’s sales have either come from its website or from Amazon, but one of the main aims with the funding is to get the cans into brick-and-mortar stores. In fact, it’s already taking a big step in that direction, with nationwide availability in Whole Foods stores planned for next month.

A brand called Liquid Death wants to sell mountain water to the cool kids

Categories: Business News

The Org nabs $8.5M led by Founders Fund to build a global database of company org charts

2020, February 20 - 3:00pm

LinkedIn has cornered the market when it comes to putting your own professional profile online and using it to network for jobs, industry connections and professional development. But when it comes to looking at a chart of the people, and specifically the leadership teams, who make up organizations more holistically, the Microsoft-owned network comes up a little short: you can search by company names, but chances are that you get a list of people based on their connectivity to you, and otherwise in no particular order (including people who may no longer even be at the company). And pointedly, there is little in the way of verification to prove that someone who claims to be working for a company really is.

Now, a startup called The Org is hoping to take on LinkedIn and address that gap with an ambitious idea: to build a database (currently free to use) of organizational charts for every leading company, and potentially any company in the world, and then add features after that, such as job advertising — for example organizations looking to hire people where there are obvious gaps in their org charts.

With 16,000 companies profiled so far on its platform, a total of 50,000 companies in its database and around 100,000 visitors per month, The Org is announcing $11 million in funding: a Series A of $8.5 million, and a previously unannounced seed round of $2.5 million.

Led by Founders Fund, the Series A also includes participation from Sequoia and Balderton, along with a number of angels. Sequoia is actually a repeat investor: it also led The Org’s $2.5 million seed round, which also had Founders Fund, Kevin Hartz, Elad Gil, Ryan Petersen, and SV Angel in it. Keith Rabois, who is now a partner at Founders Fund but once held the role of VP of business and corporate development at LinkedIn, is also joining the startup’s board of directors.

Co-headquartered in New York and Copenhagen, Denmark, The Org was co-founded by Christian Wylonis (CEO) and Andreas Jarbøl, partly inspired by a piece in online tech publication The Information, which provided an org chart for the top people at Airbnb (currently numbering 90 entries).

“This article went crazy viral,” Wylonis said in an interview. “I would understand why someone would be interested in this outside of Airbnb, but it turned out that people inside the company were fascinated by it, too. I started to think, when you take something like an org chart and made it publicly facing, I think it just becomes interesting.”

So The Org set out to build a bigger business based on the concept.

For now, The Org is aimed at two distinct markets: those outside the company who might most typically be interested in who is working where and doing what — for example, recruiters, those in human resources departments who are using the data to model their own organizational charts, or salespeople; and those inside the company (or again, outside) who are simply interested in seeing who does what.

The Org is aiming to have 100,000 org charts on its platform by the end of the year, with the longer-term goal being to cover 1 million. For now, the focus is on adding companies in the US before expanding to other markets.

But while the idea of building org charts for many companies sounds easy enough, there is also a reason why it hasn’t been done yet: it’s not nearly as simple as it looks. That is one reason why even trying to surmount this issue is of interest to top VCs — particularly those who have worked in startups and fast-growing tech companies themselves.

“Today, information about teams is unstructured, scattered, and unverified, making it hard for employees and recruiters to understand organizational structures,” said Roelof Botha, partner at Sequoia Capital, in a statement.

“Organizational charts were the secret weapon to forging partnerships during my 20 years as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and Europe. Yet, they are a carefully guarded secret, which have to be painstakingly put together by hand,” said Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen, general partner at Balderton Capital, in a statement. “The Org is surfacing this critical information, improving efficiency from the sales floor to the boardroom.”

“Up-to-date org charts can be useful for everything from recruiting to sales, but they are difficult and time consuming to piece together,” added Rabois in a statement. “The Org is making this valuable information easily accessible in a way we were never able to do at LinkedIn.”

The approach that The Org is taking to building these profiles so far has been a collaborative one. While The Org itself might establish some company names and seed and update them with information from publicly available sources, that approach leaves a lot of gaps.

This is where a crowdsourced, wiki-style approach comes in. As with other company-based networking services such as Slack, users from a particular company can use their work email addresses to sign into that organization’s profile, and from there they can add or modify entries as you might enter data in a wiki — the idea being that multiple people getting involved in the edits helps keep the company’s org chart more accurate.

While The Org’s idea holds a lot of promise and seems to fill a hole that other companies like LinkedIn — or, from another direction, Glassdoor — do not address in their own profiling of companies, I can see some challenges, too, that it might encounter as it grows.

Platforms that provide insights into a company landscape, such as LinkedIn or Glassdoor, are ultimately banked more around individuals and their own representations. That means that by their nature these platforms may not ever provide complete pictures of businesses themselves, just slices of it. The Org, on the other hand, starts from the point of view of presenting the company itself, which means that the resulting gaps that arise might be more apparent if they never get filled in, making The Org potentially less useful as a tool.

Similarly, if these charts are truly often closely guarded by companies (something I don’t doubt is true, since they could pose poaching risks, or copycats in the form of companies attempting to build org structures based on what their more successful competitors are doing), I could see how some companies might start to approach The Org with requests to remove their profiles and corresponding charts.

Wylonis said that “99%” of companies so far have been okay with what The Org is building. “The way that we see it is that transparency is of interest to the people who work there,” he said. “I think that everyone should strive for that. Why block it? The world is changing and if the only way to keep your talent is by hiding your org chart you have other problems at your company.”

He added that so far The Org has not had any official requests, “but we have had informal enquiries about how we get our information. And some companies email us about changes. And when an individual person gets in touch and says, ‘I don’t want to be here,’ we delete that. But it’s only happened a handful of times.” It’s not clear whether that proportion stays the same, or goes up or down, as The Org grows.

In the meantime, the other big question that The Org will grapple with is just how granular should it go?

“I hope that one day we can have an updated and complete org chart for every business, but that might prove difficult,” Wylonis said. Indeed, that could mean mapping out 1 million people at Walmart, for example. “For the biggest companies, it may be that it works to map out the top 500, with the top 30-40 for smaller companies. And people can always go in and make corrections to expand those if they want.”

Categories: Business News

Flywheel to stop online classes and offer trade-in for Peloton bikes after settling lawsuit

2020, February 20 - 1:16pm

After settling a patent infringement lawsuit filed against it by Peloton, fitness startup Flywheel will stop offering its At Home online classes on March 27. Current Flywheel At Home customers were emailed a trade-in offer for Peloton bikes.

Peloton said the replacement bikes are refurbished, but will function like new ones. The trade-in form needs to be completed by March 27.

In an email to customers, Flywheel said its brick-and-mortar fitness centers will continue to operate. Flywheel At Home subscribers will stop being billed immediately (though subscriptions through Apple need to be turned off separately) and prepaid subscriptions will be refunded to customers for dates after March 27 or when they activate their Peloton replacement bikes. Flywheel’s live classes will continue through February 29 and on-demand classes will be available until March 27.

After filing lawsuits against Flywheel for patent infringement in 2018 and 2019, Peloton announced earlier this month it had reached a settlement in which Flywheel admitted that its Fly Anywhere bike and services infringed on Peloton patents.

Categories: Business News

Ex-YC partner Daniel Gross rethinks the accelerator

2020, February 20 - 8:01am

Amid skyrocketing operating expenses, remote work has become an obsession for Bay Area founders looking to have it both ways, accessing Silicon Valley’s networks of capital and opportunity without paying steep premiums for talent.

Daniel Gross has a deeper understanding than most of Silicon Valley’s opportunities. The Jerusalem native was one of Y Combinator’s early successes, joining with an AI startup that, at 23, he sold to Apple (we reported the deal was between $40-60 million). Gross served as a director of machine learning at Apple before returning to YC — this time as a partner.

At age 28, his role at YC behind him, Gross is now working to revamp the startup accelerator model for a remote future with his startup Pioneer. He’s received backing from Marc Andreessen and Stripe to build a program he hopes can give founders access to funding streams and talent networks that are nearly impossible to find outside Silicon Valley.

“In the way software is eating the world, remote is almost eating earth in the sense that it may very well be the way large companies are created, but also perhaps the way that venture funding takes place,” Gross told TechCrunch in an interview. “With Pioneer, the product experiment we’re running is an attempt to build a San Francisco or Mountain View — to build a city on the internet.”

Marc Andreessen, one of Pioneer’s early investors.

That lofty goal has required quite a bit of tinkering on Gross’s part over the past 18 months since he launched the startup. During that time, he’s shifted the program’s structure from a Reddit-like online contest to win cash grants to what he calls a “fully remote startup generator” that can help remote founders create companies that later apply to Y Combinator or raise money from Pioneer.

“People were really taking advantage of Pioneer as kind of an online accelerator almost organically,” Gross says. “We decided to kind of operationalize that inside and focus more on funding people that are working on things that will turn into companies and potentially offer them more funding.”

Pioneer has already backed more than 100 founders, who have created solutions like remote team product There, desktop app generator ToDesktop and software search engine Metacode.

Pioneer is hoping their efforts can provide opportunities to founders in underserved geographies and regions, but like other investors in Silicon Valley, the startup hasn’t been backing nearly as many female founders as their male counterparts. From funded entrepreneurs publicly announced on Pioneer’s blog, less than 15 percent are women.

“Pioneer is an engine for finding, funding and mentoring underrated people, many of whom I suspect are female. Our minds are constantly spinning on ways to raise awareness amongst female founders, and we’re working with our community to improve female representation,” Gross wrote in an email response. “The world could stand to have many more founders like Mathilde Collin (of Front) and Laura Behrens Wu (of Shippo), and we are eager to find them.”

One of Pioneer’s livestream discussions during its remote program.

Pioneer’s existence is partially the result of an advent of remote work and communication tools, but another real enabler is the competitive market for early-stage investing. Mega VC funds are competing over pre-seed deals for the buzziest startups and Y Combinator’s batch sizes are ballooning, leaving little room for accelerators with similar pitches. As the world of early-stage startup investing gets more crowded, investors are having to get creative. For Gross and his investors, Pioneer also represents an opportunity to scout deal flow earlier in the pipeline.

Gross has a weighty portfolio of his own angel investments including GitHub, Figma, Uber, Gusto, Notion, Opendoor, Cruise Automation and Coinbase.

An earlier structure gave Pioneer the right to invest up to $100K in startups emerging from the program if they went onto raise, but just 30% of grant awardees went on to found companies, Gross tells me. In its 2.0 form, Pioneer wants participants to give up 1% of their company to join the one-month remote program. The accelerator won’t give them cash but will help founders incorporate their startups, give them guidance via a network of experts, and toss some other substantial perks like $100K worth of cloud credits and a roundtrip ticket to San Francisco to inject a bit of face-to-face time into the process.

Greatly enjoyed the first Pioneer (@pioneerdotapp) Summit! pic.twitter.com/fIvdA24Kdf

— Patrick Collison (@patrickc) October 26, 2019

The biggest evolution is the more formalized investment structure for founders exiting the program. If Pioneer is excited about the progress of a particular startup, they may give it the option to raise directly from Pioneer upon completion, sticking it in one of three investment buckets and investing between $20K and $1 million.

Gross acknowledges that Pioneer will largely be making bets closer to the $20K mark as the accelerator scales its portfolio. Pioneer is relying on an undisclosed amount of early funding from Gross, Andreessen and Stripe for both its investments and operating expenses. Gross says that the company has additional funding sources lined up to facilitate some of these larger investments, but that he’s reticent to raise too much too early. “This being my second rodeo, I’m well aware of the downsides of over-capitalizing and so I think we’re going to remain nimble and frugal,” Gross says.

Gross isn’t looking to replace Y Combinator, and realizes that for founders with plenty of options, Pioneer’s investments might not be the most enticing. Y Combinator invest $150K in startups for a 7% slice of equity, by comparison, a $20K investment from Pioneer will cost founders 5% of their company plus the 1% they gave up to join the accelerator in the first place. Nevertheless, Gross hopes that plenty of founders sitting on great ideas will want to take advantage of this deal.

“I think there are a lot of great companies that instead of being listed on the S&P 500 are stuck at the phase where they’re just a Python script.”

Daniel Gross of Apple leaves to become Y Combinator’s newest partner

Categories: Business News

Expanding its women’s health benefits offerings for employers, Maven raises $45 million

2020, February 20 - 4:46am

Over the past 12 months, Maven, the benefits provider focused on women’s health and family planning, has expanded its customer base to include more than 100 companies, and grown its telehealth services to include 1,700 providers across 20 specialties — for services like shipping breast milk, finding a doula and egg freezing, fertility treatments, surrogacy and adoption.

The New York-based company, which offers its healthcare services to individuals, health plans and employers, has now raised an additional $45 million to expand its offerings even further.

Its new money comes from a clutch of celebrity investors, like Mindy Kaling, Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon, and institutional investors led by Icon Ventures and return backers Sequoia Capital, Oak HC/FT, Spring Mountain Capital, Female Founders Fund and Harmony Partners. Anne Wojcicki, the founder of 23andMe, is also an investor in the company.

Maven is addressing critical gaps in care by offering the largest digital health network of women’s and family health providers,” said Tom Mawhinney, lead investor from Icon Ventures, who will join the Maven board of directors, in a statement. “With its virtual care and services, Maven is changing how global employers support working families by focusing on improving maternal outcomes, reducing medical costs, retaining more women in the workplace, and ultimately supporting every pathway to parenthood.”

In the six years since founder Katherine Ryder first launched Maven, the company has raised more than $77 million for its service and she became a mother of two boys.

“You go through this enormous life experience; it’s hugely transformative to have a child,” she told TechCrunch after announcing the company’s $27 million Series B round, led by Sequoia. “You do it when your career is moving up — they call it the rush hour of life — and with no one supporting you on the other end, it’s easy to say ‘screw it, I’m going home to my family’ … If someone leaves the workforce, that’s fine, it’s their choice, but they shouldn’t feel forced to because they don’t have support.”

Some of Maven’s partners include Snap and Bumble to provide employees access to its women’s and family health provider network. The company connects users with OB-GYNs, pediatricians, therapists, career coaches and other services around family planning.

Categories: Business News

Autonomous yard trucking startup Outrider comes out of stealth with $53 million in funding

2020, February 20 - 1:42am

The 400,000 distribution yards located in the U.S. are critical hubs for the supply chain. Now one startup is aiming to make the yard truck — the centerpiece of the distribution yard — more efficient, safer and cleaner, with an autonomous system.

Outrider, a Golden, Colo. startup previously known as Azevtec, came out of stealth Wednesday to announce that it has raised $53 million in seed and Series A funding rounds led by NEA and 8VC. Outrider is also backed by Koch Disruptive Technologies, Fraser McCombs Capital, warehousing giant Prologis, Schematic Ventures, Loup Ventures and Goose Society of Texas.

Outrider CEO Andrew Smith said distribution yards are ideal environments to deploy autonomous technology because they’re well-defined areas that are also complex, often chaotic and with many manual tasks.

“This is why a systems approach is necessary to automate every major task in the yard,” Smith said.

Outrider has developed a system that includes an electric yard truck equipped with a full stack self-driving system with overlapping suite of sensor technology such as radar, lidar and cameras. The system automates the manual aspect of yard operations, including moving trailers around the yard as well as to and from loading docks. The system can also hitch and unhitch trailers, connect and disconnect trailer brake lines, and monitor trailer locations.

The company has two pilot programs with Georgia-Pacific and four Fortune 200 companies in designated sections of their distribution yards. Over time, Outrider will move from operating in specific areas of these yards to taking over the entire yards for these enterprise customers, according to Smith.

“Because we’re getting people out of these yard environments, where there’s 80,000 pound vehicles, we’re delivering increased efficiency,” Smith told TechCrunch in a recent interview. That efficiency is not just in moving the trailers around the yard, Smith added. It also helps move the Class 8 semi trailers used for hauling freight long distances through the system and back on the road quickly.

“We can actually reduce the amount of time the over-the-road guys are stuck sitting at a yard trying to do a pickup or drop-off,” Smith said.

Smith sees a big opportunity to demonstrate the responsible deployment of autonomy as well as clean up yards filled with diesel-powered yard trucks.

“If there was ever a location for near-term automation and electrification of the supply chain, it’s here,” he said. “Our customers and suppliers understand there’s a big opportunity for these autonomy systems to accelerate the deployment of 50,000 plus electric trucks in the market because they are a superior platform for automation.”

Categories: Business News

SentinelOne raises $200M at a $1.1B valuation to expand its AI-based endpoint security platform

2020, February 20 - 1:30am

As cybercrime continues to evolve and expand, a startup that is building a business focused on endpoint security has raised a big round of funding. SentinelOne — which provides a machine learning-based solution for monitoring and securing laptops, phones, containerised applications and the many other devices and services connected to a network — has picked up $200 million, a Series E round of funding that it says catapults its valuation to $1.1 billion.

The funding is notable not just for its size but for its velocity: it comes just eight months after SentinelOne announced a Series D of $120 million, which at the time valued the company around $500 million. In other words, the company has more than doubled its valuation in less than a year — a sign of the cybersecurity times.

This latest round is being led by Insight Partners, with Tiger Global Management, Qualcomm Ventures LLC, Vista Public Strategies of Vista Equity Partners, Third Point Ventures and other undisclosed previous investors all participating.

Tomer Weingarten, CEO and co-founder of the company, said in an interview that while this round gives SentinelOne the flexibility to remain in “startup” mode (privately funded) for some time — especially since it came so quickly on the heels of the previous large round — an IPO “would be the next logical step” for the company. “But we’re not in any rush,” he added. “We have one to two years of growth left as a private company.”

While cybercrime is proving to be a very expensive business (or very lucrative, I guess, depending on which side of the equation you sit on), it has also meant that the market for cybersecurity has significantly expanded.

Endpoint security, the area where SentinelOne concentrates its efforts, last year was estimated to be around an $8 billion market, and analysts project that it could be worth as much as $18.4 billion by 2024.

Driving it is the single biggest trend that has changed the world of work in the last decade. Everyone — whether a road warrior or a desk-based administrator or strategist, a contractor or full-time employee, a front-line sales assistant or back-end engineer or executive — is now connected to the company network, often with more than one device. And that’s before you consider the various other “endpoints” that might be connected to a network, including machines, containers and more. The result is a spaghetti of a problem. One survey from LogMeIn, disconcertingly, even found that some 30% of IT managers couldn’t identify just how many endpoints they managed.

“The proliferation of devices and the expanding network are the biggest issues today,” said Weingarten. “The landscape is expanding and it is getting very hard to monitor not just what your network looks like but what your attackers are looking for.”

This is where an AI-based solution like SentinelOne’s comes into play. The company has roots in the Israeli cyberintelligence community but is based out of Mountain View, and its platform is built around the idea of working automatically not just to detect endpoints and their vulnerabilities, but to apply behavioral models, and various modes of protection, detection and response in one go — in a product that it calls its Singularity Platform that works across the entire edge of the network.

“We are seeing more automated and real-time attacks that themselves are using more machine learning,” Weingarten said. “That translates to the fact that you need defence that moves in real time as with as much automation as possible.”

SentinelOne is by no means the only company working in the space of endpoint protection. Others in the space include Microsoft, CrowdStrike, Kaspersky, McAfee, Symantec and many others.

But nonetheless, its product has seen strong uptake to date. It currently has some 3,500 customers, including three of the biggest companies in the world, and “hundreds” from the global 2,000 enterprises, with what it says has been 113% year-on-year new bookings growth, revenue growth of 104% year-on-year and 150% growth year-on-year in transactions over $2 million. It has 500 employees today and plans to hire up to 700 by the end of this year.

One of the key differentiators is the focus on using AI, and using it at scale to help mitigate an increasingly complex threat landscape, to take endpoint security to the next level.

“Competition in the endpoint market has cleared with a select few exhibiting the necessary vision and technology to flourish in an increasingly volatile threat landscape,” said Teddie Wardi, managing director of Insight Partners, in a statement. “As evidenced by our ongoing financial commitment to SentinelOne along with the resources of Insight Onsite, our business strategy and ScaleUp division, we are confident that SentinelOne has an enormous opportunity to be a market leader in the cybersecurity space.”

Weingarten said that SentinelOne “gets approached every year” to be acquired, although he didn’t name any names. Nevertheless, that also points to the bigger consolidation trend that will be interesting to watch as the company grows. SentinelOne has never made an acquisition to date, but it’s hard to ignore that, as the company to expand its products and features, that it might tap into the wider market to bring in other kinds of technology into its stack.

“There are definitely a lot of security companies out there,” Weingarten noted. “Those that serve a very specific market are the targets for consolidation.”

Categories: Business News

Talking cybersecurity, SaaS and early-stage valuations with ForgePoint Capital

2020, February 20 - 1:05am

Earlier today TechCrunch covered the launch of a new, $450 million cybersecurity-focused fund, the second from venture group ForgePoint Capital.

The new vehicle, inventively named Fund II, will mostly focus on early-stage companies in the cybersecurity space. The fund’s timing is somewhat unsurprising. As we noted in our earlier coverage, the recent IPOs of Cloudflare (more here) and CrowdStrike (more here) have given cybsersecurity a halo, showing founders and investors alike that outsize returns are possible in the space. Such successes can’t hurt VCs looking for fresh capital.

To get a stronger grip on how ForgePoint sees the market, TechCrunch corresponded with the group, asking about fund mechanics (check sizes, investing pace), the cybersecurity sector itself (business models, valuations) and recent liquidity events (CrowdStrike in particular). ForgePoint’s Alberto Yépez, a co-founder and managing director at the group, answered our questions.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. Let’s have some fun:

TechCrunch: The new fund is $150 million larger than its predecessor. Why raise 50% more for the new vehicle? What is the target number of checks per year? Will it be faster than the preceding fund?

ForgePoint Capital: We were one of the first investors to focus on cybersecurity when we raised our first fund. Since then, the cybersecurity market has grown by more than 50%, driven by the constantly evolving challenges facing businesses, governments and individuals. We’ve also doubled our investment team. Our team has a singular focus on the market, driving unparalleled domain expertise and insights into emerging industry trends.

We will continue to invest in six to ten new cybersecurity companies per year, and find great opportunities with leading entrepreneurs.

Putting capital to work in “early-stage and select growth companies” is delightfully flexible. What check size range is the fund targeting, and what is the target deal size for growth-oriented deals?

We target up to $25 million for early-stage ventures throughout the life of an investment, and up to $50 million for growth-oriented companies achieving considerable revenue growth.

How much did Crowdstrike’s successful IPO boost cybersecurity-focused startup valuations and fundraising last year?

A rising tide lifts all boats. In cybersecurity, as elsewhere, the market rewards rapid growth and valuations reflect [that]. We target companies with great teams building innovative solutions that are poised for high growth. While the Crowdstrike IPO certainly boosted attention on the market, over 90% of successful cybersecurity exits are through M&A. Strategic buyers and financial sponsors pay up for companies that can scale.

Categories: Business News

India’s Swiggy raises $113M led by Prosus

2020, February 20 - 12:57am

Weeks after Zomato acquired Uber’s food delivery business in India, its chief local rival is bulking up some ammunition of its own.

Swiggy, India’s largest food delivery startup, announced on Wednesday it has raised $113 million as part of its Series I financing round. Prosus Ventures, the biggest venture capital for food delivery startups, led the round.

Meituan Dianping and Wellington Management Company also participated. The new round values Swiggy at about $3.6 billion, only slightly above its $3.3 billion valuation from the previous round, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The startup has raised about $1.57 billion to date.

Sriharsha Majety, co-founder and chief executive of Swiggy, said the startup will use the fresh capital to invest in “new lines of business” such as cloud kitchens and delivery beyond food items, and get on a “sustainable path to profitability.”

Prosus Ventures, formerly known as Naspers Ventures and Food, first wrote a check to Swiggy three years ago. Since then, it has become its biggest investor — having pumped in more than $700 million alone in the startup’s $1 billion financing round in December 2018.

“Swiggy continues to exhibit strong execution and a steadfast commitment to delivering the best service to consumers and has one of the best operational teams in food delivery globally. We are confident Swiggy will continue on a path to earn a significant place in the daily lives of Indians,” said Larry Illg, chief executive of Prosus Ventures and Food, in a statement.

The Bangalore-headquartered firm, which is operational in 520 cities, said it has witnessed a 2.5x growth in the volume of transactions in the past year. Its restaurant partners base has also grown to 160,000 and more than 10,000 are joining the platform each month.

Some analysts say that it will be very challenging for Swiggy and Zomato, both of which are spending over $20 million a month to win customers, to reach profitability.

Unlike in the developed markets like the U.S., where the order value of each delivery is about $33, in India, a similar item carries the price tag of $4.

Anand Lunia, a VC at India Quotient, said in a recent podcast that the food delivery firms have little choice but to keep subsidizing the cost of food items on their platform as otherwise most of their customers can’t afford to get their lunch and dinner from them.

The exit of Uber from India’s food delivery space has, however, made the market a duopoly play, so investors remain bullish. At stake is a $4.2 billion opportunity, according to research firm Redseer. But Zomato, which raised $150 million earlier this year, and Swiggy have alone picked up more than $2.1 billion from the market already.

Inside Prosus Ventures’ $4.5 billion bet on India

Categories: Business News

Level launches a mobile banking app offering 1% cash back on debit purchases, 2.10% APY

2020, February 20 - 12:24am

A number of startups are taking on big banks with new apps that offer modern, mobile banking experiences, innovative features and reduced or even zero fees. Entering this now-crowded market is Level, a challenger bank and banking app with advantages like 1% cash back on debit card purchases, 2.1% APY on deposits, early access to paychecks and no fees.

The banking service is the latest from the same team behind the “debit-style” credit card called Zero, aimed at millennials who want the benefits of credit without the potential for overspending. As Zero, the company last year closed on $20 million in Series A funding from New Enterprise Associates (NEA), SignalFire, Eniac Ventures and Nyca, bringing its total raise to date $35 million. It now has tens of thousands of users.

Similar to Zero, Level also targets a younger demographic — in this case, those who no longer see the need for physical banks, when a bank account, useful app and debit card is all they need. Today, there are several of these sorts of banking services to choose from; in the U.S., for example, there’s Simple, Ally, Chime, Varo, N26, Current, Space, Step, Stash, Empower and others.

Level takes on these rival challenger banks, too, by offering a higher 2.10% APY on its FDIC-insured deposits, without requiring a minimum balance. The company notes that’s 35x the national average, based on U.S. bank balances with a less than $100,000 balance.

It also snags a feature popular with credit card users, by offering 1.0% unlimited cash bank on debit card spending. This cashback applies to both signature-based and online purchases, and is paid out on accounts that have at least a $1,000 monthly direct deposit. To be clear, a signature-based purchase means you select “credit” instead of “debit” when paying at point-of-sale. This determines how the merchant processes the transaction and the fees it pays. In Level’s case, it’s sharing some of those fees back with customers as the “cash back” option.

Level could benefit from consumers believing that running a card as credit takes an extra step. In some cases, customers may skip this when they’re in a hurry and run the card as a debit instead — allowing Level to keep the fees for itself.

Like many challenger banks, Level offers early access to your paycheck. For customers with a direct deposit, Level will make the funds available based on when they are received, which could be up to two days early.

Also like most other banking startups, Level ditches the numerous fees big banks charge. There are no monthly, overdraft, foreign transaction or add-on ATM fees, says Level, and no minimum balance is required to have an account. It will even reimburse ATM fees worldwide up to three times per month, at up to $4 per reimbursement to take the sting out of the increasingly costly fees to access your cash.

Level additionally includes features that have now become part of the baseline experience for challenger banking apps, like being able to see transactions on a map, lock a missing debit card from the app and receive push notifications for purchases, refunds and transfers.

The app itself has a clean, modern almost minimalist design, making it simple to understand and navigate. However, it sadly opted for that terrible design trend of using an overly lightened gray font on a white background. This could put off older customers, as it makes the screen harder to read.

However, where it’s lacking is in the more robust bill, expense and goal planning features offered by other banking apps like Simple, Empower or N26, for example, which help users better plan for both recurring expenses as well as long-term goals.

However, like most (but not all) of the digital banks operating today in the U.S., Level itself is not a bank. Its customers’ funds are actually held in FDIC-insured accounts (up to $250,000) through Evolve Bank & Trust. Level, meanwhile, provides the technology, the customer-facing experience and banking services.

“Level was built to challenge the status quo in banking and put an end to the era of big banks holding people’s money while giving them no interest, a clunky app experience, and frustrating customer service,” said Level founder and CEO Bryce Galen, in a statement.

“Although several challenger banks have launched in recent years and most compare favorably to traditional banks, surprisingly few of them deliver a strong enough customer value prop to truly compel people to switch their primary banking,” Galen told TechCrunch. “For instance, Square Cash has a reliable app with rotating cash back perks, but lacks FDIC insurance or phone customer support. Chime has FDIC insurance and phone customer support, but lacks meaningful customer rewards or 24/7 support availability,” he continued.

“Level addresses this by leveraging the technical foundation, team experience, and bank partner deals that undergird Zero to deliver better customer value across all these dimensions — app, support, and economics — in a highly accessible product,” Galen said.

Level is available today on both iOS and Android, after first signing up on levelbank.com or on mobile.

Updated 2/19/20, 3:15 PM ET with further comments from Level. 

Categories: Business News

BluBracket scores $6.5M seed to help secure code in distributed environments

2020, February 19 - 11:00pm

BluBracket, a new security startup from the folks who brought you Vera, came out of stealth today and announced a $6.5 million seed investment. Unusual Ventures led the round with participation by Point72 Ventures, SignalFire and Firebolt Ventures.

The company was launched by Ajay Arora and Prakash Linga, who until last year were CEO and CTO respectively at Vera, a security company that helps companies secure documents by having the security profile follow the document wherever it goes.

Arora says he and Linga are entrepreneurs at heart, and they were itching to start something new after more than five years at Vera. While Arora still sits on the Vera board, they decided to attack a new problem.

He says that the idea for BluBracket actually came out of conversations with Vera customers, who wanted something similar to Vera, except to protect code. “About 18-24 months ago, we started hearing from our customers, who were saying, ‘Hey you guys secure documents and files. What’s becoming really important for us is to be able to share code. Do you guys secure source code?'”

That was not a problem Vera was suited to solve, but it was a light bulb moment for Arora and Linga, who saw an opportunity and decided to seize it. Recognizing the way development teams operated has changed, they started BluBracket and developed a pair of products to handle the unique set of problems associated with a distributed set of developers working out of a Git repository — whether that’s GitHub, GitLab or BitBucket.

The first product is BluBracket CodeInsight, which is an auditing tool, available starting today. This tool gives companies full visibility into who has withdrawn the code from the Git repository. “Once they have a repo, and then developers clone it, we can help them understand what clones exist on what devices, what third parties have their code, and even be able to search open source projects for code that might have been pushed into open source. So we’re creating what we call a blueprint of where the enterprise code is,” Arora explained.

The second tool, BluBracket CodeSecure, which won’t be available until later in the year, is how you secure that code including the ability to classify code by level importance. Code tagged with the highest level of importance will have special status and companies can attach rules to it like that it can’t be distributed to an open source folder without explicit permission.

They believe the combination of these tools will enable companies to maintain control over the code, even in a distributed system. Arora says they have taken care to make sure that the system provides the needed security layer without affecting the operation of the continuous delivery pipeline.

“When you’re compiling or when you’re going from development to staging to production, in those cases because the code is sitting in Git, and the code itself has not been modified, BluBracket won’t break the chain,” he explained. If you tried to distribute special code outside the system, you might get a message that this requires authorization, depending on how the tags have been configured.

This is very early days for BluBracket, but the company takes its first steps as a startup this week and emerges from stealth next week at the RSA security conference in San Francisco. It will be participating in the RSA Sandbox competition for early security startups at the conference, as well.

Three-year old startup Vera scores huge deal to protect all of GE’s IP

Categories: Business News

Ordway lands $10M Series A to bridge gap between sales and finance

2020, February 19 - 9:30pm

Ordway, a Washington, DC startup, is building a platform to deal with all of the stuff that happens after you make sale. It starts with the order and goes all the way to revenue as a one-time payment or recurring subscription. Today the company announced a $10 million Series A.

CRV led the round with participation from Clocktower Ventures and existing investors Lerer Hippeau and Revolution Rise of the Rest fund. The company has now raised a total of $12.5 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Sameer Gulati, founder and CEO at Ordway, says the company wanted to build a flexible tool to sit between the CRM and financial systems of a company. “So in that sense, we do everything for post-sales from billing automation, payment collection, revenue recognition, analytics, all the way to cash. We have a streamlined workflow for managing order to revenue,” Gulati told TechCrunch.

It sounds a lot like the Quote-to-Cash space where companies like Apttus (acquired by Thoma Bravo in 2018) or SteelBrick (acquired by Salesforce in 2015) tried to stake a claim, but Gulati says while his company’s solution handles the quote-to-cash workflow, it can do much more than that.

“We absolutely can handle the workflow from quote to billing to payments to revenue, for sure. But the reason Ordway has a niche is because we are a lot more configurable and a lot more flexible to accommodate any workflow out there,” he said.

He says his company’s solution connects to the CRM system on one side and the financial systems on the other. They are compatible with all the major CRM tools including Salesforce and Dynamics 365. And they support a range of financial tools like NetSuite or QuickBooks.

“In fact, we can work with any back-end small system to a large scale ERP system, but our value add is automating the movement of data into the ERP. So we are the operational framework between sales and traditional ERP. We will handle everything in between,” he said.

As for the funding, Gulati has the kind of plans you would expect with a Series A investment. “The core goal is definitely to accelerate all aspects of our business from sales and marketing to product and engineering, and most importantly, customer success. Basically, in a sense we are doubling down on making sure our customers are successful in solving their core sales to finance business challenges,” he said.

The company launched in 2018 and has 25 employees today. Gulati says his company’s goal is to grow 4x in the next 12 months and grow employees at a similar rate.

Categories: Business News

Online learning marketplace Udemy raises $50M at a $2B valuation from Japanese publisher Benesse

2020, February 19 - 9:00pm

The internet has, for better or worse, become the default platform for people seeking information, and today one of the companies leveraging that to deliver educational content has raised some funding to fuel its next stage of growth.

Udemy, which provides a marketplace offering some 150,000 different online learning courses from business analytics to ukulele lessons, has picked up $50 million from a single investor, Benesse Holdings, the Japan-based educational publisher that has been Udemy’s partner in the country. The investment was made at a $2 billion pre-money valuation, it said.

This is a big jump since the startup last raised money, a $60 million round in 2016 that valued it at around $710 million (according to PitchBook data). With this round, Udemy has raised around $200 million in funding, with other investors including Stripes, Naspers (now Prosus), Learn Capital, Insight Partners, Norwest Venture Partners, and a number of others.

The plan will be to use the funding to expand the various aspects of Udemy’s business. On one hand, it provides a vast array of courses for consumers that can be purchased a la carte, which, to date, have been used by some 50 million students. It also has, in more recent years, expanded to enterprise services, where Udemy works with companies like Adidas, General Mills, Toyota, Wipro, Pinterest and Lyft and others — 5,000 in all — to develop and administer subscription-based professional development courses. Udemy’s president Darren Shimkus describes it as a “Netflix-style” model, where users are presented with a dashboard listing a range of courses that they can take on demand.

Udemy will also be looking at improving how courses are delivered by and from its 57,000-strong network of instructors, as well as consider new areas it might move into more deeply. The bigger picture is that Udemy will be investing to address better what Shimkus said is the biggest challenge not just for the company, but for the global workforce overall:

“The biggest challenge is for learners is to figure out what skills are emerging, what they can do to compete best in the global market,” he said. “We’re in a world that’s changing so quickly that skills that were valued just three or four years ago are no longer relevant. People are confused and don’t know what they should be learning.” That’s a challenge that also stands for businesses, he added, which are trying to work out what he described as their “three to five year human capital roadmap.”

Udemy also plans to expand international operations, starting with Japan but also extending to other markets where Udemy has seen strong growth, such as Brazil and India.

“We’ve worked closely with Benesse for several years, and this investment is a testament to the strength of our relationship and the opportunity ahead of us,” said Gregg Coccari, CEO of Udemy, in a statement. “Udemy is on a mission to improve lives through learning, and so is Benesse. 2020 will be a milestone year where we serve millions more students and enable thousands of businesses and governments to upskill their employees. This growth wouldn’t be possible without our expert instructors who partner with us every step of the way as we build this business.”

Benesse’s business spans instructional materials for children to courses for adults both online and in in-person training centers. One of the better-known brands that it owns is Berlitz, which operates both virtual courses as well as a network of physical schools for learning languages. Udemy has been developing content alongside Benesse both in Japanese as well as English, Shimkus said, targeting both consumer and business markets.

“Access to the latest workplace skills is crucial for success everywhere, including Japan, and Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace enabling professional transformation. With this partnership, we envision a world where more people can continue to learn continuously throughout their lives,” said Tamotsu Adachi, Representative Director, President and CEO of Benesse Holdings Inc., in a statement. “Udemy and Benesse are incredibly synergistic businesses. This investment is the next progression in our business relationship and demonstrates our confidence in what we can accomplish together.”

Udemy’s expansion comes at a time when online education overall has generally continued to grow, although not without bumps.

Among those that compete at least in part with it, Coursera last year announced a $103 million round of funding at a $1 billion+ valuation and made its first acquisition to expand how it teaches programming and other computer science subjects. And in Asia, Byju’s in India is now valued at $8 billion after a quick succession of large growth rounds. We’ve also heard that Age of Learning, which quietly raised at a $1 billion valuation in 2016, is also gearing up for another round.

On the other hand, not all is rosy. Another big name in online learning, Udacity (not to be confused with Udemy), laid off 20% of its workforce amid a larger restructuring; and further afield, Kano — which merges online learning with DIY hardware kits — has also laid off and restructured in recent months. Meanwhile, we don’t seem to hear much these days from LinkedIn Learning, another would-be competitor that rebranded Lynda.com after it was acquired by the social networking site (itself owned by Microsoft).

Unlike Coursera and others that aim for full degrees that are potentially aiming to disrupt higher education, Udemy focuses on short courses, either simply for the student’s own interest, or potentially for certifications from organizations that either help administer the courses or “own” the subject in question. (For example, Cisco for networking certifications, or Microsoft for its software packages, or the PMI for a course related to project management.)

Those courses are delivered by individuals who form the other half of Udemy’s two-sided marketplace. In the 10 years that it’s been in business, Udemy has worked with some 57,000 instructors to develop courses, and in the marketplace model, Shimkus told TechCrunch that those instructors have netted $350 million in payments to date. (He would not disclose Udemy’s cut on those courses, nor whether the company is currently profitable.)

There are a lot of areas that Udemy has yet to tackle that present opportunities for how it might evolve. Working with both enterprises and a large base of consumer usage, there is, for example, a lot of scope to develop more data analytics about what is used, what is popular, and how to tailor courses in a better way to fit those models to improve outcomes and engagement.

Another area potentially could see Udemy moving deeper into specific subject areas like language learning, where it offers some courses today but has a lot of scope for growing, particularly leaning on what Benesse has with Berlitz. To date, Udemy has made no acquisitions, but that is also a route that could also become an option, Shimkus said.

Categories: Business News

Coinbase becomes a Visa Principal Member to double down on debit card

2020, February 19 - 8:00pm

Cryptocurrency company Coinbase has been working with Paysafe to issue the Coinbase Card, a Visa debit card that works with your Coinbase account balance. The company is now a Visa Principal Member, which should help Coinbase rely less on Paysafe and control a bigger chunk of the card payment stack.

Coinbase says it is the only cryptocurrency company that has reached that level of certification. The company will offer the Coinbase Card in more markets in the future. The new status could open up more possibilities and features as well.

While Coinbase originally launched the Coinbase Card in the U.K., it is now available in 29 European countries. It works with any Visa-compatible payment terminal and ATM. Users can decide in the app which wallet they want to use for upcoming transactions. This way, you can spend money in 10 cryptocurrencies.

There are some conversion fees just like on Coinbase. In addition to those fees, there can be some additional fees if you withdraw a lot of money or make a purchase abroad. More details here.

Still, half of users who ordered a card are actively using it. The U.K., Italy, Spain and France are the main markets so far. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies might not replace Visa and Mastercard just yet, so traditional debit cards represent a good alternative for now.

Categories: Business News

TubeMogul, Uber alums launch Arize AI for AI observability

2020, February 19 - 4:54am

A new startup called Arize AI is building what it calls a real-time analytics platform for “observability” in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The company is led by CEO Jason Lopatecki, who has also served as chief strategy officer and chief innovation officer at TubeMogul, the video ad company acquired by Adobe. TubeMogul’s co-founder and former CEO Brett Wilson is an investor and board member.

While Arize AI is only coming out of stealth today, it has already raised $4 million in funding led by Foundation Capital, with participation from Wilson and Trinity Ventures.

And it has already made an acquisition: a Y Combinator -backed startup called Monitor ML. The entire Monitor ML team is joining Arize, and its CEO Aparna Dhinakaran (who previously built machine learning infrastructure at Uber) is becoming Arize’s co-founder and chief product officer.

Lopatecki and Dhinakaran said that even when they were leading two separate startups, they were trying to solve similar problems — problems that they both saw at big companies.

“Businesses are deploying these complex models that are hard to understand, they’re not easy to troubleshoot or debug,” Lopatecki said. So if an AI or ML model isn’t delivering the desired results, “The state of the art today is: You file a ticket, the data scientist comes back with a complicated answer, everyone’s scratching their head, everyone hopes the problem’s gone away. As you push more and more models into the organization, that’s just not good enough.”

Similarly Dhinakaran said that at Uber, she saw her team spend a lot of time “answering the question, ‘Hey, is the model performing well?’ And diving into that model performance was really a tough problem.”

Machine learning startup Weights & Biases raises $15M

To solve it, she said, “The first phase is: How can we make it easier to get these real-time analytics and insights about your model straight to the people who are monitoring it in production, the data scientist or the product manager or engineering team?”

Lopatecki added that Arize AI is providing more than just “a metric that says it’s good or bad,” but rather a wide range of information that can help teams see how a model is performing — and if there are issues, whether those issues are with the data or with the model itself.

Besides giving companies a better handle on how their AI and ML models are doing, Lopatecki said this will also allow customers to make better use of their data scientists: “[You don’t want] the smallest, most expensive team troubleshooting and trying to explain whether it was a correct prediction or not … You want insights surfaced up [to other teams], so your head researcher is doing research, not explaining that research to the rest of the team.”

He compared Arize AI’s tools to Google Analytics, but added, “I don’t want to say it’s an executive dashboard, that’s not the right positioning of the platform. It’s an engineering product, similar to Splunk — it’s really for engineers, not the execs.”

Lopatecki also acknowledged that it can be tough to make sense of the AI and ML landscape right now (“I’m technical, I did EECS at Berkeley, I understand ML extremely well, but even I can be confused by some of the companies in this space”). He argued that while most other companies are trying to tackle the entire AI pipeline, “We’re really focusing on production.”

New Uber feature uses machine learning to sort business and personal rides

Categories: Business News

Noom competitor OurPath rebrands as Second Nature, raises $10M Series A

2020, February 19 - 4:27am

Back in 2018, OurPath emerged as a startup in the U.K. tackling the problem of diabetes. The company helped customers fight the disease, and raised a $3 million round of funding by combining advice from health experts with tracking technology via a smartphone app to help people build healthy habits and lose weight.

Now rebranded as Second Nature, it has raised a fresh $10 million in Series A funding.

New investors include Uniqa Ventures, the venture capital fund of Uniqa, a European insurance group, and the founders of mySugr, the digital diabetes management platform, which was acquired by health giant Roche .

The round also secured the backing of existing investors including Connect and Speedinvest, two European seed funds, and Bethnal Green Ventures, the early-stage Impact investor, as well as angels including Taavet Hinrikus, founder of TransferWise.

This new injection takes the total investment in the company to $13 million.

Competitors to the company include Weight Watchers and Noom, which provides a similar program and has raised $114.7 million.

Second Nature claims to have a different, more intensive and personalized approach to create habit change. The startup claims 10,000 of its participants revealed an average weight loss of 5.9kg at the 12-week mark. Separate peer-reviewed scientific data published by the company showed that much of this weight-loss is sustained at the six-month and 12-month mark.

Under its former guise as OurPath, the startup was the first “lifestyle change program” to be commissioned by the NHS for diabetes management.

Second Nature was founded in 2015 by Chris Edson and Mike Gibbs, former healthcare strategy consultants, who designed the program to provide people with personalized support in order to make lifestyle changes.

Participants receive a set of “smart” scales and an activity tracker that links with the app, allowing them to track their weight loss progress and daily step count. They are placed in a peer support group of 15 people starting simultaneously. Each group is coached by a qualified dietitian or nutritionist, who provides participants with daily 1:1 advice, support and motivation via the app. Throughout the 12-week program, people have access to healthy recipes and daily articles covering topics like meal planning, how to sleep better and overcoming emotional eating.

Gibbs said: “Our goal at Second Nature is to solve obesity. We need to rise above the confusing health misinformation to provide clarity about what’s really important: changing habits. Our new brand and investment will help us realize that.”

Philip Edmondson-Jones, investment manager at Beringea, who led the investment and joins the board of directors of Second Nature, said: “Healthcare systems are struggling to cope with spiraling rates of obesity and associated illnesses, which are projected to cost the global economy $1.2 trillion annually by 2025. Second Nature’s pioneering approach to lifestyle change empowers people to address these conditions.”

Categories: Business News

Secret’s founder returns with anti-loneliness app Ikaria

2020, February 19 - 3:31am

“I don’t feel good about that. That sucks,” Chrys Bader-Wechseler reflects when asked about the bullying that went down on the anonymous app Secret he co-founded in 2013. After $35 million raised, 15 million users and a spectacular flame out two years later, the startup was dead. “Since I left Secret I feel alive and aligned with my values and my purpose again.” 

But there was one bright side to Secret letting you post without a name or consequences. People opened up, got vulnerable and felt less alone when comments revealed they weren’t the only person dealing with a certain struggle. What Bader learned from watching Secret’s users “do this in the dark” was the realization that “actually, we need to learn to do this in the light, to have that same kind of dialogue, but do it openly with each other.”

So began the journey to Bader’s new startup Ikaria that’s exclusively revealing itself to the world today on TechCrunch. It’s a different kind of chat app, named after the Greek island where a close-knit community helps extend people’s lifespans. The six-person Santa Monica team is funded by a $1.5 million seed round led by Initialized Capital and Fuel Capital. People can sign up for early beta access here.

During a long interview about the startup, Bader and his co-founder Sean Dadashi were cagey about exactly how Ikaria works, as it’s still in development. Amidst all the philosophical context about the app’s intention, I was able to pull out a few details about what the product will actually look like.

“Basically, since 2004, technology has created this monumental shift in the human social experience. We’re more connected than ever technically but all the studies show we’re lonelier than ever,” Bader explains. “It’s like eating McDonald’s to get healthy. It’s not the right source of nutrition for our social well-being because true connection requires a level of vulnerability, presence, self-disclosure and reciprocity that you don’t really get on these platforms.”

Ikaria isn’t another feed. It’s a safe space where you can chat with close friends and family, or people going through similar life challenges. Members of these group chats will optionally go through guided experiences that help them reflect on and discuss what’s going on in their hearts and minds. This could become a whole new media format where outside creators or mental health professionals could produce and contribute their own guided experiences.

“Part of the reason we’re announcing this is that . . . it’s a call to action to involve all these practitioners and people who are doing these types of things and giving them a platform to allow them to facilitate these kind of group bonding experiences through a platform where they can extend their practices into the digital world,” Bader tells me. What Calm and Headspace did for making meditation more mainstream and accessible, Ikaria wants to do for mental health through online togetherness.

Ikaria already has a sizable closed beta going, which the startup plans to continue until it finds product fit, and it hopes to know its official release timeline by the end of the year. “We’re not going to launch this until we know 40% of people would be disappointed if they couldn’t use it.”

Rather than monetizing by exploiting people’s attention, Ikaria plans to develop a “customer relationship” with users, which could mean subscription access or in-app payments for buying content. Perhaps one user could act as the sponsor and purchase an experience for their whole group chat. Until then, it’s got its seed funding from Initialized, Fuel Capital, F7 Ventures, Ryan Hoover’s Weekend Fund, Backend Capital, Day One Ventures, Shrug, Todd Goldberg and Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra.

“The hope is that eventually this would be an app you use instead of iMessage, to increase your sense of presence,” Bader explains, revealing its grand ambitions. Why would we need to replace our core chat apps? Well for one thing, they don’t understand who really matters to you. If an app understood who your mom is, it could give her messages special prevalence or remind you to contact her.

Bader met Dadashi through an offline men’s group for discussing life, love and everything in the wake of Secret’s collapse and a rough romantic breakup. After just a few weeks of these meetups, they say they felt closer to each other than to most of their friends. Only later did Bader, a designer by trade, discover that Dadashi was a coder who’d been CTO of electronics company MHD Enterprises before starting a travel and lifestyle startup for mental wellness, called Somatic Studios. They tried working together on an app for sharing quotes from your friends but scrapped it.

Together, the pair went on to research the rapid rise of other vulnerability-focused meetup organizations like the one where they met, including EvrymanManKind ProjectQuiltAuthentic RelatingCircling, and T-Groups. Though they knew that to have a chance at impact at scale, they’d need to build a mobile app familiar enough to get people over the hurdle of starting a mindfulness practice. They laid out a few principles to build by: a focus on relationships instead of Likes and followers, conscious design that won’t exploit people’s attention or weaknesses, no ads, and keeping all data private and in control of the user.

There are other startups hoping to address the sad state of mental health from different angles. Talkspace offers a mobile connection to licensed therapists, though it can be pricey at $65 to $99 per week. 7 Cups and TalkLife makes peer-to-peer counseling from volunteers free, though these aren’t professionals. There are also plenty of journaling products, gratitude practice apps and wellness podcasts out there. But Ikaria’s approach, combining mental health content with group chats of people you trust, feels unique.

Having known Bader since the Secret days, it’s obvious that working with Dadashi has made him happier and more centered. Ikaria is an app he can wake up feeling good about each day. “You know, I don’t like to speak ill of David [Byttow, Secret’s CEO who sources say was verbally abusive to employees], but that relationship was very, very toxic and taxing for me. And this time around with Sean, as I’m sure you can tell, is the polar opposite.”

If Ikaria can help people develop the open and honest relationships with friends or peers like building it has done for Bader and Dadashi, it could be a beacon amidst a sea of time unwell spent.

Categories: Business News

InVideo raises $2.5M and launches an automated assistant to make your videos better

2020, February 19 - 2:33am

Video editing startup InVideo has new funding and a new product.

The San Francisco-headquartered company bills itself as the easiest way for anyone to create professional-quality videos, using a drag-and-drop interface along with a library of templates and stock photos and videos. The resulting videos can then be optimized for Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other platforms.

InVideo’s new assistant does even more to help with the process. As demonstrated for me by co-founder and CEO Sanket Shah, as you create a video, it automatically makes suggestions for how the video could be improved — he compared it to Grammarly, but for video.

Shah said the assistant currently focuses on two areas, both text-related. First, it’s making sure that all the text on the screen is readable — so that, for example, you don’t have light-colored text on a light background. Second, it’s making sure the text is “comprehensible” — so that there’s not too much text on the screen, or it’s not flashing by too quickly.

“We all think that design is very creative, but there’s a lot of science in it as well,” he said.

Shah told me InVideo’s founders first worked together on a startup aiming to create 10-minute video summaries of nonfiction books. That’s when they discovered “video creation is a very painful process, it’s just not scalable.” So they launched the current startup hoping to solve this problem.

The company says it now has 100,000 customers — including AT&T, Sony Music, Reuters, CNN and CNBC — in 150 countries.

It might seem surprising for a large media company to need to use a tool like this, but Shah explained, “The users who use us [at those large companies] today are not video editors. If you want to constantly create videos about the U.S. elections, it’s not a video editor who’s doing it, it’s very likely a news producer” with limited or nonexistent editing experience.

Pricing for the editor starts at $10 per month, though there’s also a free version if you don’t mind watermarks.

InVideo is also announcing that it has raised an additional $2.5 million in funding from Sequoia Capital India’s Surge, along with angel investors Anand Chandrasekaran and Gokul Rajaram. It has now raised a total of $3.2 million.

“InVideo has truly captured the imagination of our users with their super user-friendly online video editor and great customer support,” said Ayman Al-Abdullah, CEO and president of software deals website AppSumo, in a statement. “In fact, it has gone on to become the most sold product in AppSumo history.”

Trash uses AI to edit your footage into a fun, short videos

Categories: Business News

Aisera, an AI tool to help with customer service and internal operations, exits stealth with $50M

2020, February 19 - 2:10am

Robotic process automation — the ability to automate certain repetitive software-based tasks to free up people to focus on work that computers cannot do — has become a major growth area in the world of IT. Today, a startup called Aisera that is coming out of stealth has taken this idea and supercharged it by using artificial intelligence to help not just workers with internal tasks, but in customer-facing environments, too.

Quietly operating under the radar since 2017, Aisera has picked up a significant list of customers, including Autodesk, Ciena, Unisys and McAfee — covering a range of use cases from “computer geeks with very complicated questions through to people who didn’t grow up in the computer generation,” says CEO Muddu Sudhakar, the serial entrepreneur (three previous startups, Kazeon, Cetas and Caspida, were respectively acquired by EMC, VMware and Splunk) who is Aisera’s co-founder.

With growth of 350% year-on-year, the company is also announcing today that it has raised $50 million to date, including most recently a $20 million Series B led by Norwest Venture Partners with Menlo Ventures, True Ventures, Khosla Ventures, First Round Capital, Ram Shriram and Maynard Webb Investments also participating.

(No valuation is being disclosed, said Sudhakar.)

The crux of the problem that Aisera has set out to solve is that, while RPA has identified that there is a degree of repetition in certain back-office tasks — which, if that work can be automated, can reduce operational costs and be more efficient for an organization — the same can be said for a wide array of IT processes that cover sales, HR, customer care and more.

There have been some efforts made to apply AI to solving different aspects of these particular use cases, but one of the issues has been that there are few solutions that sit above an organization’s software stack to work across everything that the organization uses, and does so in an “unsupervised” way — that is, uses AI to “learn” processes without having an army of engineers alongside the program training it.

Aisera aims to be that platform, integrating with the most popular software packages (for example in service desk apps, it integrates with Salesforce, ServiceNow, Atlassian and BMC), providing tools to automatically resolve queries and complete tasks. Aisera is looking to add more categories as it grows: Sudhakar mentioned legal, finance and facilities management as three other areas it’s planning to target.

Matt Howard, the partner at Norwest that led its investment in Aisera, said one of the other things that stands out for him about the company is that its tools work across multiple channels, including email, voice-based calls and messaging, and can operate at scale, something that can’t be said in actual fact for a lot of AI implementations.

“I think a lot of companies have overstated when they implement machine learning. A lot of times it’s actually big data and predictive analytics. We have mislabeled a lot of this,” he said in an interview. “AI as a rule is hard to maintain if it’s unsupervised. It can work every well in a narrow use case, but it becomes a management nightmare when handling the stress that comes with 15 million or 20 million queries.” Currently Aisera said that it handles about 10 million people on its platform. With this round, Howard and Jon Callaghan of True Ventures are both joining the board.

There is always a paradox of sorts in the world of AI, and in particular as it sits around and behind processes that have previously been done by humans. It is that AI-based assistants, as they get better, run the risk of ultimately making obsolete the workers they’re meant to help.

While that might be a long-term question that we will have to address as a society, for now, the reward/risk balance seems to tip more in the favour of reward for Aisera’s customers. “At Ciena, we want our employees to be productive,” said Craig Williams, CIO at Ciena, in a statement. “This means they shouldn’t be trying to figure out how a ticketing tool works, nor should they be waiting around for a tech to fix their issues. We believe that 75 percent of all incidents can be resolved through Aisera’s technology, and we believe we can apply Aisera across multiple platforms. Aisera doesn’t just make great AI technology, they understand our problems and partner with us closely to achieve our mission.”

And Sudhakar — similar to the founders of startups that are would-be competitors like UiPath when asked the same kind of question — doesn’t feel that obsolescence is the end game, either.

“There are billions of people in call centres today,” he said in an interview. “If I can automate [repetitive] functions they can focus on higher-level work, and that’s what we wanted to do. Those trying to solve simple requests shouldn’t. It’s one example where AI can be put to good use. Help desk employees want to work and become programmers, they don’t want to do mundane tasks. They want to move up in their careers, and this can help give them the roadmap to do it.”

Categories: Business News

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