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Updated: 5 hours 27 min ago

Bird lays off about 30% of workforce amid COVID-19 pandemic

2020, March 28 - 3:26am

Bird is the latest startup hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, Bird laid off about 30% of its employees amid the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, TechCrunch has learned.

“The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has forced our leadership team and the board of directors to make many extremely difficult and painful decisions relating to some of your teammates,” Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden wrote to staffers in a memo, obtained by TechCrunch, today. “As you know, we’ve had to pause many markets around the world and drastically cut spending. Due to the financial and operational impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are saying goodbye to about 30% of our team.”

Bird has confirmed the layoffs and says it is providing four weeks of pay, three months of health coverage* and an extended time frame of 12 months to exercise their stock options. According to a source, Bird’s balance sheet is strong but it needed to reduce burn in order to extend its runway into 2021.

Bird’s layoffs come shortly after news broke that Lime is looking for a funding round that would cut its valuation from $2.4 billion to $400 million.

Last week Bird and Lime suspended their respective services in response to the pandemic.

Bird is not the only startup forced to have layoffs amid the crisis. As The Information reported earlier this week, layoffs are accelerating across Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, Lime is reportedly considering laying off up to 70 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Here’s the full memo VanderZanden sent this morning:

We’ve watched the COVID-19 pandemic radically and quickly transform our lives, the world, and our business in less than a month. This once in a decade black swan event presents one of the greatest challenges in history because of the viral impact it has not just on our health, but also on our lives—our families, friends, communities, finances, work, emotions—the list goes on.

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has forced our leadership team and the board of directors to make many extremely difficult and painful decisions relating to some of your teammates. As you know, we’ve had to pause many markets around the world and drastically cut spending. Due to the financial and operational impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are saying goodbye to about 30% of our team.

In business, I feel like every challenge is surmountable with the right team. And I believe Bird has been building the right team these past few years. Until today, there wasn’t a problem we couldn’t solve together. That’s what makes this such a painful situation. To say goodbye to some of the most incredible, intelligent, scrappy, funny, loving, dedicated members of our Bird Family for reasons totally outside our control, hurts deeply.

I recognize and sympathize that this situation adds to an already difficult time. As you know, we strive to be community-focused at Bird—we always try to care deeply about the people we serve. The impacted individuals are an important part of this community and I hope that our commitment to caring and supporting them during this transition by providing severance pay, extended health insurance, and an extended window to exercise options makes a positive impact during this crisis.

We looked at many different options and scenarios and took as many preventive measures as possible to reduce the impact of the virus. Given the unknown timeline and current economic situation, we were forced to cut back in this way to elongate the trajectory of Bird and our mission.  As you know, we just raised hundreds of millions from investors, but given all the uncertainty, we needed to ensure a cash runway to last through the end of 2021.

Moving forward, together

As we all know: yes, the world has changed and continues to change. This will be a difficult season, but we continue to work around the clock to move us forward as a team. As mentioned last week, we’re aggressively shoring up resources and protecting our existing assets. We’ve curbed all spending company-wide that is not directly related to helping us weather this storm together. We appreciate all your help identifying unnecessary spend during this down time.

History also tells us something important: micromobility, especially scooters, will very likely have an important role to play as communities begin to get moving again in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is not the first time that a public health crisis has had a direct impact on the micromobility industry. When the SARS outbreak was sweeping through China, e-bike sales surged as riders looked for more personalized alternatives to public transit.

History suggests that people will demand a large scale mobility option that still allows for personal distancing. And Bird will be there, working hand in hand with cities to help communities heal, and help riders regain mobility, in the wake of the most serious global pandemic in recent memory.

I just want to give a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has rallied to keep up with such a rapidly changing situation. We’ll try to keep everyone informed as it relates to changing priorities and business impact. We’ve had successes that allow businesses to persevere in times of uncertainty and, with your trust, patience and determination, we will overcome the challenges we face today as well.

Lean on each other. Over communicate. Support each other. Reach out to your teammates and managers to understand what you can do to keep us moving forward.

*An earlier version of this story said three weeks of health insurance instead of three months. We apologize for the error.

Categories: Business News

Zyl resurfaces old photos to create collaborative stories

2020, March 28 - 1:35am

French startup Zyl has released a major update of its mobile app for iOS and Android. The app is all about finding long-forgotten memories of important life events in your photo library.

Zyl scans your photo library and magically finds photos that matter. Every day, the app sends you a notification to tell you that you can unlock a new memory — a new Storyl. It instantly brings you back to that special day with an automatically generated story. All your photos are already stitched together, the app is just waiting for you.

With today’s update, Zyl lets you share your memory with your friends and family members who were part of this past event. They can contribute and add their own photos from their photo library.

Sure, each user could have created their own version of this story. But collaborative stories lead to something more powerful. Years after celebrating something, Zyl brings you closer to your friends right now.

Behind the scene, the company has been working on machine learning-powered algorithms to understand the emotions behind your photo. The company has a privacy-focused approach. It scans your photo library on your devices — your photos aren’t uploaded to Zyl’s servers. You don’t need to create a user account either.

Zyl doesn’t want to overwhelm you with a ton of content at once. You have to wait 24 hours to unlock a new Storyl. That slow-paced approach sets it apart from Instagram, where you have to frenetically tap on the screen to gobble as much content as possible.

Just like with your memories, you have to make room for new memories and cherish the most important ones. In the future, Zyl could remove some of your old Storyls to let you focus on the ones that matter most. If you haven’t shared it with a friend, chances are it wasn’t that important.

Instead of traditional comments, the startup is also working on a way to add some meaningful content on top of your photos. Again, Zyl is focused on emotions and generating a good vibe. For me, it has been a great way to forget about the news cycle for a few minutes.

Categories: Business News

Not all entrepreneurs are 30-year-old guys

2020, March 27 - 11:15pm
Barbara Sprenger Contributor Share on Twitter Barbara Sprenger does double duty as CEO of The Satellite Centers, a network of flexible workspaces, and Satellite DeskWorks, cloud-based software to manage co-work spaces, executive suites and corporate flexible space.

All co-working isn’t WeWork . And not all entrepreneurs are 30-year-old guys.

I know this well, having built my first startup in the mid-1980s after a potential employer said women wouldn’t be accepted in technical sales. Within five years, their large computer manufacturing business was gone, but we were selling our products around the world.

About twelve years ago, my partner and I saw how the workplace was changing as laptops and WiFi allowed people to work anywhere. At the same time, endless commutes and long office hours were separating families, generating excess CO2 emissions and making work-life balance almost impossible.

We understood that enabling people to work close to home, rather than in their home, could address these issues while reducing isolation and distractions. We could apply our startup, manufacturing, building and operations backgrounds to this problem to develop automated, welcoming workspace centers in neighborhoods and small-town cores, and we could make this replicable.

This was 2008 — nearly a decade before Masayoshi Son plowed billions into WeWork with the directive to be crazier, go bigger. Our model was very different from WeWork’s model of large centers in large cities that primarily targeted large corporations. It was more than a real estate play and with an interesting problem to solve: community focused centers were valuable to regular people, but could these be created sustainably and profitably over the long term?

We thought it could. So we built it.

The crux of what we developed was smaller, replicable, technologically-enabled and automated centers, outside big cities, that could meet the needs of their members and do it profitably and with minimal staffing. We developed our co-working management software, Satellite Deskworks, along with our now patented tracking and automation, to run any type of shared use center, and to do it simply, intuitively, and comprehensively.

I do not get funded. Several guys — without cynicism — suggested that I get a 30-year-old front man.

With the model proven, we began working on funding to scale the enterprise. The business plan, slide deck and pro forma were written. The pitches started, all the while running and growing the business from personal and generated funds. More pitches. And more pitches. Clearly we weren’t making it interesting enough. Or it was too early. Or the people with funds didn’t understand how important this was for the vast majority of workers and their local communities. Or perhaps there was just something wrong with us, since the business was already working.

Some of the pitch meetings felt like walking through the looking glass: One VC group provided us with an internal sponsor who advised us to only talk about software. Then his associate took over and said that advice was all wrong: our strength was in the combination of real-world and software.

On pitch day, before our presentation, a single-function app was pitched — just an idea, no product. It got funded. Subsequently, even though we had three profitable centers and several software clients, I was told that we weren’t far enough along to validate the market. Another group declined to fund us, then a year later asked me back as an expert on co-working to explain this emerging industry to them. But, again, no funds were forthcoming.

Over and over again, I’d be told that the presentation was spot-on, and yet, no funds.

I’m an older woman. I got my undergraduate degree at 43 years old and a masters at 46. I had started, run and sold my first startup to a large multinational by the time I was 40. I am good at what I do; I build and scale businesses.

Another group declined to fund us, then a year later asked me back, as an expert on co-working, to explain this newly emerging industry to them.

But I do not get funded.

This is not a complaint. This is a fact. I understand what happened at those pitches. Despite our scalable, successful business model, the decision makers were trying to gauge what others at the table would do, how they would perceive me. And the double-whammy of being older and a woman was a bridge too far.

Like picking at a scab, I talk to people knowledgeable in venture who nod their heads at the idea that I’d have trouble getting funded, no matter how well the model worked or the software functioned.

Several guys — without cynicism — suggested that I get a 30-year-old front man. But instead, I focused on growing my business organically, perhaps missing the opportunity to truly scale something that communities of all sizes need.

There is a serious flaw in how businesses are funded, and it is the same discussion we had twenty and thirty years ago about who was at the table in managing businesses.

Vibrant, innovative concepts and businesses are frequently started by people who aren’t happy with their options inside the box of the corporate world. 45% of small business owners are from minority ethnic groups. Women start businesses at twice the rate of men, yet female founders got 2% of VC dollars in 2017. Black women are the most educated group in the U.S., yet they receive about 0.2% of VC funding.

Older founders are seen as less dynamic, less adventurous, while the reality is that half the startups in the U.S. are by people over 50 — and older entrepreneurs are actually more likely to succeed.

Despite the fact that many acknowledge this as a problem, the solutions seem elusive. But they shouldn’t be. Corporations are stronger because of bringing diversity to boards, and the VC model would be stronger by employing many of the same tactics. The likelihood that funded startups will succeed increases by appealing to a broader audience, and the best way to do that is to fund a broader segment of entrepreneurs. Although these shouldn’t be new concepts, let me propose a few ideas:

Set up and support funds at an intermediate level. There is a crying need for funding in the $1 million – $3 million range, particularly for women- and minority-owned businesses. We know how to successfully bootstrap, but however good we are, it takes investment to scale.

If you measure it, you get it. Set up metrics. 10% of your board will be women within a year, 30% within three years, and 50% within six years. Set up similar metrics for ethnic and racial diversity. Set a goal for the percentage of your portfolio that will be minority- and women-owned startups each year over the next five years. And measure the performance of these startups against the past portfolio.

Increase the diversity of VC management and boards. By including decision-makers at the table from a broad range of backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and genders, the industry should get to a more diverse portfolio with a greater likelihood of overall success.

Get to critical mass. Token diversity accomplishes little. You need enough people to truly provide a voice and echo. It’s easy to ignore a single voice from a different perspective. Research has shown that for a group to even hear a woman’s voice in a meeting at least 30% of that group needs to be women.

So, yes, I walk into the VC pitch rooms, and I know I’m not walking out with funding. No one is going to wire me a generous seed round and tell me to go break things.

Because of who I am and how this particular world perceives me, I have to build a business that works, that stands on its own from the beginning. This is not the end of the world. Businesses should work.

But the VC model needs to work, too.

Categories: Business News

Stripe goes Fast for $20M, D2C tips and tricks and what’s happening to tech internships?

2020, March 27 - 10:00pm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

The three of us were back today — Natasha, Danny and Alex — to dig our way through a host of startup-focused topics. Sure, the world is stuffed full of COVID-19 news — and, to be clear, the topic did come up some — but Equity decided to circle back to its roots and talks startups and accelerators and how many pieces of luggage does an urban-living person really need?

The answer, as far as we can work it out, is either one piece or seven. Regardless, here’s what we got through this week:

  • Big news from 500 Startups, and our favorite companies from the accelerator’s latest demo day. Y Combinator is not the only game in town, so TechCrunch spent part of the day peekin’ at 500 and its latest batch of companies. We got into some of the startups that stuck out, tackling problems within the influencer market, trash pickup and esports.
  • Plastiq raised $75 million to help people and businesses use their credit card anywhere they want. And no, it wasn’t closed after the pandemic hit.
  • We also talked through Fast’s latest $20 million round led by Stripe. Stripe, as everyone recalls, was most recently a topic on the show thanks to a venture whoopsie in the form of a check from Sequoia to Finix.1 But all that’s behind us. Fast is building a new login and checkout service for the internet that is supposed to be both speedy and independent.
  • All the Stripe talk reminded us of one of the startups that launched so it could beat it out: Brex. The startup, which has amassed over $300 million in known venture capital to date, recently acquired three companies.
  • We chatted through the highlights of our D2C venture survey, focused on rising CAC costs in select channels, the importance of solid gross margins and why Casper wasn’t really a bellwether for its industry.

After that we had two quick hits, namely Natasha’s look at how tech internships cancellations are impacting our future workforce, and the latest from Slack.

And that wraps up what felt like a refreshing show. We hope you think so too, and thank you for listening. Stay healthy, all.

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

  1. What do you call a check from Sequoia? A cheque!
Categories: Business News

Clearstep’s COVID-19 chat-based screener goes in-depth to preserve healthcare resources

2020, March 27 - 9:50pm

There are a growing number of symptom checker and screening tools that you can use at home if you suspect you might have contracted the new coronavirus that is causing the global COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these are relatively simple, including around three or four questions that basically cover the top reported symptoms experienced by anyone who has confirmed to have had the disease. Chatbot-based symptom checking software startup Clearstep has created its own COVID-19 screener, which goes more in-depth to combine symptom checking with screening for potential exposure to the virus.

The reason Clearstep’s tool is designed to go a step further than most is simple, according to co-founder and COO Bilal Naved – the symptoms reportedly suffered by those affected by COVID-19 include many that could indicate other serious conditions, including an impending heart attack. More effective and comprehensive screening can also help reduce the burden on an already heavily-taxed healthcare system, which seems likely to only get busier over time as the number of cases across the U.S. continues to climb.

Naved and cofounder Adeel Malik, both of whom have worked in health at Johns Hopkins University and been involved in a number of academic scientific publications, developed Clearstep as a front-line way to connect patients with the right care, using remote screening facilitated via chatbot on their desktop or mobile device. Clearstep’s aim fits naturally with one of the key needs in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – effective screening that can provide individuals with clear and accurate guidance about what steps they need to take to seek care, and when.

“Our country is entering a time of a lot of uncertainty, but but also a time where there could be a true, critical threat to the integrity of the healthcare system,” Naved said in an interview. “If the rate of infection of this really reaches some projections, we might not have enough hospital beds or ICU beds to deal with all of this […] So it’s all about urgency and speed here and rapid response, but also being able to deliver the highest quality product. We are built off of nurse protocols, and we’re the only ones that have access to this in a publicly available chatbot format that has been used in over 200 million encounters in over 95% of the call centers around the country.”

Clearstep’s screener asks a range of questions about symptoms, travel, potential contact with anyone either diagnosed with COVID-19 or likely to have it based on their own travel and other factors. Once you go through the questions, which are presented in a fairly standard and easy-to-follow chat message format, the tool provides you an evaluation of what next steps you should take. It’ll provide you advice about whether or not you need testing for COVID-19 based on current CDC guidelines about who should be tested – and alert you about whether you should seek care for any other reason, independent of your potential coronavirus exposure.

The Clearstep team is also making sure to stay on top of new research as it emerges regarding the presentation and likelihood of symptoms in COVID-19 patients. Their approach focuses on data-driven representation of the symptoms that most people are likely to have, and then also taking the less likely presenting symptoms and building a model wherein those compound and add up to a total. The team is “keeping a pulse in the literature” published in peer-reviewed sources and adapting its screener as it needs to, as well, Naved says.

Ultimately, Naved thinks that where Clearstep can contribute is in its ability to integrate quickly with healthcare providers, providing a triage tool that can give frontline responders a way to interface with the public safely, while also helping to ensure that all the health issues that are not related to COVID-19 but that are still serious and require care don’t get left behind.

“We were able to go from first conversation to contract signed to configured and implemented in total of nine days,” Naved says about their speed of response. “The contracts took six days and in three days, we we customized, put in behind their branding, integrate itd and deployed it out to an entire population in Florida for a health system there […] The symptom checkers that are being put out there need to be able to integrate with those places that are seeing the massive influx of volume and may not be able to handle it, because that’s our responsibility right now.”

Categories: Business News

How child care startups in the U.S. are helping families cope with the COVID-19 crisis

2020, March 27 - 7:37pm

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of billions of people around the world. For many parents with young children in the United States, shelter-in-place orders implemented in different areas over the past few weeks mean they now spend each day balancing work with taking care of their families. For child care providers, a vital but often under-appreciated part of the American economy, the crisis means dealing with economic uncertainty, but also adapting to serve new roles, including providing care for essential workers.

Child care startups, including home-based daycare networks, apps for finding child care, and benefits and business management software, are working hard to help families. For example, many are using their technology to connect essential workers with carers or provide emergency child care, helping providers navigate government aid programs and, in some cases, raising their own relief funds.

TechCrunch talked to nine U.S.-based child care startups–home daycare and preschool networks Wonderschool, NeighborSchools, WeeCare and MyVillage; Winnie, Komae and Helpr, all apps for arranging child care; and enterprise software companies Kinside and Kangarootime, to see how they are dealing with the impact of COVID-19.

Child care for essential workers

Many of the child care startups TechCrunch spoke to are now focused on helping people in jobs classified as essential during shelter-in-place orders, including healthcare, emergency responders and grocery store workers. Several of them are adapting their platforms or services to serve those families more quickly, while balancing their urgent need for care with COVID-19 safety precautions.

For example, Winnie, a platform for finding verified child care providers throughout the United States, is collecting and updating data in real time about which providers are temporarily closed and which ones have availability, says founder and CEO Sara Mauskopf. This week, Winnie launched a portal for parents to find emergency child care with immediate openings.

Kasey Edwards, the founder and CEO of Helpr, an app that connects parents with screened babysitters, said it is working with families of essential workers to help them afford child care. Helpr’s “Out-of-network” feature allows families to add their own care providers to the platform and manage backup care subsidies from their employers.

Meanwhile, Komae, an app that enables groups of families to create babysitting cooperatives and swap care with one another, is offering free care credits and working with seven healthcare organizations to coordinate child care for their workers, said founder and CEO Erin Beck.

The babysitting circles on Komae are private, “which means families from one organization can insulate their caregiving strictly among themselves, getting the care they need without risking exposure to the community at large (like our grandparents or other traditional caregivers),” Beck said. The app currently recommends that users “buddy up” with just one or two other families for their care group.

In some places, small in-home care providers have been allowed to stay open, said Chris Bennett, the co-founder and CEO of Wonderschool, a network of home-based child care and preschools in states including California, New York and Texas.

“Repeatedly, we are seeing county officials allowing small in-home childcare operators to continue to operate, thus providing support for these critical workers under shelter in place orders,” he said. “Our programs have now entered into a critical support role that larger preschools cannot support at this time.”

Jessica Chang, the co-founder and CEO of WeeCare, another network of in-home child care providers, said the company is “adjusting its support each hour and taking into account the changing protocols in each county. In certain areas such as Northern California and New York City, our providers are changing how they support their community. Instead of caring for children who attend their daycare regularly, they are now caring for children of first responders and essential workers.”

In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker ordered all early child care centers closed starting on March 23. The only centers currently allowed to operate in the state are Exempt Emergency Child Care programs, intended for essential workers and opened by the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC).

As a result, Boston-based NeighborSchools, which partners with home child care providers, closed all its centers to comply with the order. Co-founder and CEO Brian Swartz said some of NeighborSchool’s provider partners are applying to provide emergency child care for medical professionals, first responders and vulnerable populations. The startup is currently helping providers figure out regulatory requirements and putting together guidance for using government aid. It is also communicating with the EEC’s leadership to offer full access to its platform.

“While we never envisioned this scenario, the tech we’ve built for our network is uniquely well suited to automatically match families to child care programs in real-time,” said Swartz. “In child care scheduling, we need to account for each child’s date of birth, the family’s care schedule and the licensed capacity of each program within age range. Our team is ready to drop everything and make this happen if the EEC asks for our help.”

On-demand services

Startups are also helping other parents find short-term or emergency child care. Some have launched online services, like digital playdates, to help families balance working from home and their family lives.

MyVillage, a network of home-based care providers in Colorado and Montana, is seeing “an influx of interest from families who are looking for temporary care and/or short-term placement due to large child care centers closing and school districts closing,” said co-founder and CEO Erica Mackey. The company is currently working on a short-term placement solution for families in select MyVillage programs who need child care.

To help parents navigate the sudden collision of their work and home lives, Komae and Helpr both started offering online services. Helpr launched online music lessons and tutoring for families on its platform, while Komae is facilitating digital playdates. This means parents use the app to schedule video calls with their children’s friends.

“I never imagined my toddler could be so entertained by her friends on a computer screen, but they amazingly go an hour showing each other their toys and silly faces,” said Beck. “That social connection, for all of us, is so essential.”

Safety and support

Child washing hands

Safety compliance is always a priority for child care providers, but it is especially critical during this time. In addition to following CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many companies have also enacted safeguards of their own. Some are also implementing financial support programs to help care providers who are forced to close because of illness.

For example, Beck published a letter on Komae’s site on March 12, hours before Ohio became the first state to close schools, asking families on the app to immediately stop swapping child care.

“It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make as a founder, because as a parent myself, I was painfully aware of how desperate these families would be for both care and companionship,” Beck said. “But ‘adhering to social distance’ was not a given then like it is now; we had the responsibility as a leader of this vast community to be firm with what needed to be done.”

Taking steps like helping parents who work with healthcare organizations find care and launching digital features has allowed Komae to maintain its community, she added. “We knew Komae had the tools to make that happen, so with social distance at our core, we adapted for insulating or digital caresharing.”

As a safety precaution, WeeCare developed a feature to monitor caregivers for fevers, using a function already in its app that allows them to take photos and videos of children throughout the day and tag activities. The technology was adapted so providers can submit a video of themselves taking their temperature with a thermometer each morning. Once the video is verified by the WeeCare team, the provider receives a badge on their listing that says “Health Status: Fever-Free,” with the date of the verified reading.

Chang says the feature “allows providers to take more proactive measures, as recommended by the CDC, to ensure the health and safety of our community.”

Several companies are also providing financial programs to help their providers who are forced to shut down and ensure they don’t feel compelled to work even when sick. For example, MyVillage raised additional funding to allow the 60-plus open programs in its network to continue earning their projected income into April. Mackey says that, so far, two anonymous funders have contributed.

“Many of our educators don’t have the safety net needed to stop working, so we want to help them stay open so long as it’s safe,” says Mackey. “If parents are exposed or infected and subject to quarantine, our relief funding provides a subsidy to cover 11 of the 14 days of the child’s tuition until he or she can safely return to class.”

Helpr launched a paid sick leave policy for babysitters on its platform after the first known cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Sitters are also informed of any sickness in a home through a mandatory disclosure from the family in Helpr’s app when they book an appointment.

A few days after TechCrunch spoke to Wonderschool, Bennett announced that the company had been forced to lay off team members because of the crisis. Before the announcement, Bennett told TechCrunch that if a Wonderschool care program is forced to shut down because a child, parent or provider shows symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19, the company will draw on its network to help its other families find another carer in their area. For financial support, Wonderschool is monitoring state and federal relief policies for businesses.

“These crisis funds will be key in ensuring that in-home providers who have shut down temporarily are available to parents again once people return to work,” he said.

Enterprise software

For startups that build enterprise and management software related to child care, the pandemic creates a different set of challenges.

Genevieve Carbone of Kangarootime, business management software for child care providers, said that many of its customers have been relying on its messaging feature to keep families updated on rapidly changing regulations. Its software also enables “low contact,” for example by allowing information to be passed to parents digitally instead of on paper handouts, in-app check-in and check-outs, and online payments.

“We’re keeping a very close eye on the impact the virus will have on businesses further down the road and how we can better support our customers once the pandemic passes,” said Carbone. “Improving billing for agencies/subsidies is something we have explored, assuming there may be an increase in families that will need government subsidies to cover their childcare.”

Kinside, whose software helps employees manage family care benefits and find daycares, has seen a 60% decline in incoming parents because of shelter at home mandates and social distancing, said co-founder and CEO Shadiah Sigala. Thousands of daycares in its network have also shut down.

Even places that are not currently under shelter in place orders have seen a drop in parents searching for immediate care because they know “it’s likely only a matter of time before all states invoke similar measures,” she added.

But Kinside is helping essential workers find childcare and has also recently begun working with human resources at hospitals and grocery chains on its platform to “offer white glove child care support to their employees.”

After the pandemic

Daycare and school shutdowns have forced families to change their routines under extraordinary and difficult circumstances, and the situation is highlighting the value of caregivers to the economy and the well-being of families. At the same time, it also underscores how vulnerable many providers are, with few safety nets.

Mackey says that MyVillage was created to address structural problems in child care that have existed for a long time “It was tough to make it as a child care provider before this pandemic, and now it’s even harder. More than 40% of family home child care businesses nationally report that they couldn’t make it two weeks without revenue from having children in care,” she said, adding that MyVillage was created to help fix “America’s deeply broken child care market, which doesn’t work well for educators, who earn on average $11.50 an hour, or for working parents, who pay more than public university tuition for child care in a majority of states.”

Sigala said “the pandemic has exposed the essentiality of child care in the everyday working lives of Americans and the overall economy. More of our jobs may be fit to support work from home. But they are certainly not fit for work from home with kids.”

After the pandemic is over, many parents may find it difficult to re-enroll their kids with the same care provider or need to find new options that are more financially manageable for them, she added. Kinside currently works with thousands of employers, as well as daycare centers that can add up to one million child care slots. The company plans to offer deep discounts or free access to Kinside to companies while they recover from the crisis.

“We predict company executives will return to running their companies with more empathy than ever,” said Sigala. “They, too just experienced the complete lack of child care infrastructure (perhaps for the first time); a problem that many of their employees face on a daily basis. We are ready to engage with heads of HR and key executives with resources and consulting gratis.”

Categories: Business News

Notarize to add 1,000 online notaries to address demand for remote transactions

2020, March 27 - 5:08pm

Notarize, the platform that enables digital notarizations, announced that it is adding 1,000 notaries to address demand as more Americans are ordered to shelter in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but still need to sign important documents.

The startup is partnering with the National Notary Association to verify notaries have been screened and have the necessary insurance or bonding. The service is available to Americans in all 50 states or abroad, but notaries must be physically located in Florida, Nevada, Texas or Virginia to join the platform (with plans to add more states later) and have a digital certificate before applying for Notarize .

Founder and CEO Pat Kinsel said Notarize is “experiencing unprecedented demand due to coronavirus. Consumers and businesses are turning to us en masse because they can’t complete critical transactions.”

He added that to scale quickly, Notarize is able to “leverage existing credentials from the National Notary Association that ensure people have commissions, insurance and background screenings. Notaries are stuck at home right now, looking for safe work. They can get onboarded in one to two days.”

Right before the spread of COVID-19 prompted shelter in place orders and social distancing mandates, there was an increased demand for mortgages because of low rates, with refinance applications growing 400% annually, according to CNBC. Now many of those loans can no longer be closed in-person. Kinsel says more than 2,000 lenders and title companies have contacted Notarize in the past week, and it is also opening the platform so they can add their own employees to serve transactions.

Notarize users also want to make sure critical documents are updated as they cope with the pandemic. “Beyond real estate, we’re seeing spikes in medical authorizations, people updating financial accounts and beneficiaries,” Kinsel said.

Categories: Business News

Smart telescope startups vie to fix astronomy’s satellite challenge

2020, March 27 - 8:23am
Josh Nadeau Contributor Josh Nadeau is a Canadian journalist based in St. Petersburg who covers the intersection of Russia, technology and culture. He has written for The Economist, Atlas Obscura and The Outline. More posts by this contributor

Starlink, the satellite branch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has come under fire in recent months from astronomers over concerns about the negative impact that its planned satellite clusters have reportedly had — and may continue to have — on nighttime observation.

According to a preliminary report released last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the satellite clusters will interfere with the ability of telescopes to peer deep into space, and will limit the amount of observable hours, as well as the quality of images taken, by observatories.

Astronomers warn of ‘worrisome’ light pollution from satellite constellations

The stakes involved are high, with projects like Starlink potentially being central to the future of global internet coverage, especially as new infrastructure implements 5G and edge computing. At the same time, satellite clusters — whether from Starlink or national militaries — could threaten the foundations of astronomical research.

Musk himself has been inconsistent in his response. Some days, he promises collaboration with scientists to solve the issue; on others, such as two weeks ago at the Satellite 2020 conference, he declared himself “confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries.” 

Critics have pointed fingers in many directions in search of a solution to the issue. Some astronomers demand that spacefaring companies like Musk’s look after the interests of science (Amazon and Facebook have also been developing satellite projects similar to SpaceX’s) . Others ask national or international governing bodies to step in and create regulations to manage the problem. But there’s another sphere altogether that may provide a solution: startups looking to develop “smart telescopes” capable of compensating for cluster interference.

Should they deliver on their promise, smart telescopes and shutter units will save observatories time and money by protecting images that are incredibly complicated to generate.

Categories: Business News

Canceled conferences will force startups to focus on scalable lead generation

2020, March 27 - 5:18am
Dan Wheatley Contributor Share on Twitter Dan Wheatley is CEO/co-founder of StraightTalk Consulting, a SaaS operations and growth consultancy that works with B2B founders to implement long-term, data-driven growth strategies.

Described by Sequoia Capital as the black swan event of 2020, the long-term economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic on startups is still to be seen. However, one effect which is sure to disrupt the MO of many early-stage startups is the cancellation of events and conferences.

According to Forbes, more than 35.3 million people who were planning to attend an event have been forced to change their plans in recent months. And while some might lament being forced to leave their Metallica T-shirts and 2020 Summer Olympics flags in the cupboard, many startup founders are biting their nails at the prospect of lost leads and connections from events and conferences.

The silver lining: Forcing founders to wean themselves off conferences and events as a “go-to” business development tactic might not be a bad thing in the long run.

Based on my experience, many early-stage startups waste lots of time and resources doing the rounds at events without clear aims, using up lots of the founder’s time, without driving much business value. At an early stage in a startup’s journey, every tactic used needs to drive real ROI and ultimately be driving new business opportunities.

So let’s look at why missing out on events might not be the end of the world, and how startups can focus their time, energy and resources on more scalable and consistent lead-gen activities.

What’s my beef with startup events and conferences?
Categories: Business News

Private tech companies mobilize to address shortages for medical supplies, masks and sanitizer

2020, March 27 - 4:24am

Startups across the nation and around the world are looking for ways to relieve shortages of much-needed personal protective equipment and sanitizers used to halt the spread of COVID-19.

While some of the largest privately held technology companies, like SpaceX and Tesla, have shifted to manufacturing ventilators, smaller companies are also trying to pitch in and relieve scarcity locally.

Supplies have been difficult to come by in some of the areas hardest hit by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and the shortfalls have been made worse by a lack of coordination from the federal government. In some instances local governments have been bidding for supplies against each other and the federal government to acquire needed personal protective equipment.

On Sunday, New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo pleaded with local governments to not engage in a bidding war. In fact, Kentucky was outbid by the federal government for personal protective equipment.

“FEMA came out and bought it all out from under us,” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear told a local newspaper. “It is a challenge that the federal government says, ‘States, you need to go and find your supply chain,’ and then the federal government ends up buying from that supply chain.”

Against this backdrop local startups and maker spaces are stepping up to do what they can to fill the gap.

Alcohol brands are turning their attention to making hand sanitizer to distribute in communities experiencing shortages. 3D-printing companies are working on new ways to manufacture personal protective equipment and swabs for COVID-19 testing. And one fast fashion retail startup is teaching its tailors and seamstresses how to make cloth masks for consumer protection.

AirCo, a New York-based startup that developed a process to use captured carbon dioxide to make liquor, shifted its efforts to making hand sanitizer for donations in communities in New York City.

Now, new alcohol brands Bev and Endless West are joining the manufacturing push.

Endless West announced this morning that it would shift production away from its distillery to begin making hand sanitizers. The World Health Organization approved their sanitizers, which the company will produce in its warehouse in San Francisco.

The two-ounce bottles will be donated to local restaurants and bars that remain open for delivery, so that employees can use them and distribute them to customers. Bulk quantities will be distributed to healthcare organizations and facilities that need them.

Endless West also put out a call for other companies to provide supplies to hospitals and health organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We felt it was imperative to do our part and dedicate what resources we have to assist with shortages in the healthcare and food & beverage industries who keep the engine running and provide such important functions in this time of immense need throughout the community,” said Alec Lee, CEO of Endless West, in a statement.

Los Angeles-based Bev is no different.

“As an alcoholic beverage company, Bev is very lucky in that we are licensed to purchase ethanol directly from our suppliers, who are doing their part by discounting the product to anyone licensed to purchase it,” said Bev chief executive, Alix Peabody. “Community underscores everything we do here at Bev, and as such, we will be producing hand sanitizer and distributing it free of charge to the homeless and elderly communities here in Venice, populations who largely have insufficient access to healthcare and essential goods like sanitizer.”

Hand sanitizer is one sorely needed item in short supply, but there are others — including face masks, surgical masks, face shields, swabs and ventilator equipment that other startups are now switching gears to produce.

(Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

In Canada, INKSmith, a startup that was making design and tech tools accessible for kids, has now moved to making face shields and is hiring up to 100 new employees to meet demand.

“I think in the short term, we’re going to scale up to meet the needs of the province soon. After that, we’re going to meet the demands of Canada,” INKSmith CEO Jeremy Hedges told the Canadian news outlet Global News.

3D-printing companies like Massachusetts-based Markforged and Formlabs are both making personal protective equipment like face shields, as well as nasal swabs to use for COVID-19 testing.

Markforged is pushing ahead with a number of efforts to focus some of the benefits of 3D printing on the immediate problem of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers most exposed to COVID-19.

“We have about 20 people working on this pretty much as much as they can,” said Markforged chief executive, Gregory Mark. “We break it up into three different programs. The first stage is prototyping validation and getting first pass to doctors. The second is clinical trials and the third is production. We are in clinical trials with two. One is the nasal swab and two is the face shield.”

The ability to spin up manufacturing more quickly than traditional production lines using 3D printing means that both companies are in some ways better positioned to address a thousandfold increase in demand for supplies that no one anticipated.

“3D printing is the fastest way to make anything in the world up to a certain number of days, weeks, months or years,” says Mark. “As soon as we get the green light from hospitals, 10,000 printers around the world can be printing face shields and nose swabs.”

Formlabs, which already has a robust business supplying custom-printed surgical-grade healthcare products, is pushing to bring its swabs to market quickly.

“Not only can we help in the development of the swabs, but we can manufacture them ourselves,” says Formlabs chief product officer, David Lakatos.

Swabs for testing are in short supply in part because there are only a few manufacturers in the world who made them — and one of those primary manufacturers is in Italy, which means supplies and staff are in short supply. “There’s a shortage of them and nobody was expecting that we would need to test millions of people in short order,” says Lakatos.

Formlabs is also working on another piece of personal protective equipment — looking at converting snorkeling masks into respirators and face masks. “Our goal is to make one that is reusable,” says Lakatos. “A patient can use it as a respirator and you can put it in an autoclave and reuse it.”

In Brooklyn, Voodoo Manufacturing has repurposed its 5,000-square-foot facility to mass-produce personal protective equipment. The company has set up a website, CombatingCovid.com, where organizations in need of supplies can place orders. Voodoo aims to print at least 2,500 protective face shields weekly and can scale to larger production volumes based on demand, the company said.

STAMFORD, CT – MARCH 23: Nurse Hannah Sutherland, dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) awaits new patients at a drive-thru coronavirus testing station at Cummings Park on March 23, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Availability of protective clothing for medical workers has become a major issue as COVID-19 cases surge throughout the United States. The Stamford site is run by Murphy Medical Associates. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Finally, Resonance, the fast fashion startup launched by the founder of FirstMark Capital, Lawrence Lenihan, is using its factory in the Dominican Republic to make face masks for consumers on the island and beyond.

“To contribute to the Dominican health efforts, Resonance is acting to utilize their resources to manufacture safety masks for distribution to local hospitals, nursing homes, and other high-risk facilities as quickly as possible. They have provided user-friendly instructions and material and will pay their sewers who can to make these masks from the security of their homes,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email. “Resonance is currently working to share this downloadable platform and simple instructions to their website, so anyone in the world can contribute to their own local communities.”

All of these efforts — and countless others too numerous to mention — point to the ways small companies are hoping to do something to help their communities stay safe and healthy in the midst of this global outbreak.

But many of these extreme measures may not have been necessary had governments around the world actively coordinated their response and engaged in better preparation before the situation became so dire.

There are a litany of errors that governments made — and are still making — in their efforts to respond to the pandemic, even as the private sector steps in and steps up to address them.

Categories: Business News

TechCrunch’s favorite companies from 500 Startups’ latest demo day

2020, March 27 - 4:01am

Today 500 Startups hosted a virtual demo day for its 26th batch of startups, a group of companies that TechCrunch covered back in February.

500 is not the only accelerator that moved its traditional investor pitch event online; Y Combinator made a similar move after efforts to flatten the spread of COVID-19 required changes that made its traditional demo day setup temporarily impossible.

In addition to hosting a few dozen startup pitches today, 500 also explained changes to its own format and provided notes on the current state of the venture market.

Regarding how 500 Startups is shaking up how it handles its accelerator, the group intends to pivot to a rolling-admissions setup that will give participants more flexibility; the group will still hold two demo days each year — TechCrunch has more on the changes here.

Regarding the venture market, 500 Startups said venture capital’s investment pace could slow for several months. This seems likely given how the economy has taken body blows in recent weeks as huge swaths of the world’s economy shut down. What advice did 500 have in the face of the new world? What you’d expect: startups should cut burn and focus on customers.

Got all that? Ok, let’s talk about our favorite companies from the current 500 cohort.

Our faves
Categories: Business News

Leading VCs discuss how COVID-19 is impacting real estate & proptech

2020, March 27 - 3:11am

Several months ago, we surveyed more than 20 leading real estate VCs to learn about what was exciting them most in the real estate tech sector and hear their opinions on proptech trends like co-working, flexible office space and remote office space.

Since we published our survey, COVID-19 has flipped the real estate sector on its head as more companies move toward mandatory remote work, retail businesses are forced to temporarily shut their doors and high-traffic properties thin out. Suddenly, the traditionally predictable world of real estate is more chaotic and unclear than ever.

What are the short and long-term impacts of pandemic-induced volatility? Does this open up opportunities for proptech startups or shutter them? What does this mean from an investing point of view? We asked several of the VCs that participated in our last survey to update us on how COVID-19 is impacting real estate startups, non-proptech companies in general and the broader real estate market overall:

Christopher Yip, RET Ventures

Despite its banner year in 2019, proptech will not be immune to the pressures venture-backed companies face in a market pullback, and we are preparing ourselves and our portfolio companies for a bumpy year.

Categories: Business News

Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

2020, March 27 - 2:24am

Google, Amazon and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant and startups and small-to-medium sized businesses are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expenses besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy, and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SAAS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dotcom crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, and investors get less cautious, customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors could also offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward, or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation startup. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation, and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar, and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal

Categories: Business News

Jupe is a new startup aiming to address hospital room shortfalls with modular, mobile space

2020, March 27 - 1:00am

We’re already entering into a healthcare crisis due to the global coronavirus pandemic, and creative solutions to address shortfalls in supplies, protective equipment and more are being developed to help where possible. A new startup — with a founding team that includes an emergency room doctor, a crisis response expert and a public health researcher — is hoping that its novel approach can help address the impending lack of space that hospitals and healthcare facilities will encounter.

Jupe is a brand new venture launching today that has developed rapidly deployable “Health” rest, recovery and intensive care shelters for use in combating the ongoing global COVID-19 crises. The company says that its mobile spaces can be produced at around 1/30th the cost of a standard hospital room, and shipped anywhere using existing logistics infrastructure.

The Jupe mobile shelters come in three distinct versions, including a Rest unit equipped with beds for providing a place to rest and sleep for medical professionals working on the front lines; a Care version that includes an off-grid solar power/battery-powered solution for isolation of patients who don’t require critical care; and a Plus option that is essentially a self-contained ICU for those patients that require critical care, including readings for use with ventilators and specialized personal protective equipment.

Founders Dr. Jeff Wilson (founder of modular hospitality housing company Kasita) and Cameron Blizzard, along with core advisor Dr. Esther Choo (who also led the #GetMePPE hashtag campaign for sourcing protective equipment for healthcare workers), have obviously moved quickly to get this initiative up and running, but they are already building some of their solutions in Texas. They’re starting with the simpler Rest and Care models, and will be working to produce the more sophisticated Jupe Plus mobile ICUs as soon as possible.

[gallery ids="1966012,1966011,1966010,1966009,1966008,1966007,1966006"]

In terms of portability, Jupe says that its solution can be flat-packed and stacked for transport of up to 24 units at a time on a 40-foot flatbed trailer, towed by a heavy-duty pickup truck. It says it can load as many as 500,000 on just one cargo container ship for overseas transport, too. They use a common base or “chassis” and readily available materials, and the company says that one person can install a single unit in just “minutes.”

While it will take time for Jupe to spin up its engineering and supply chain, the company’s founders note that based on current expert predictions about even a successfully flattened curve of COVID-19 spread, there will be a need for more critical care beds than are available for the foreseeable future in most regions. Originally, the company hadn’t planned to debut so soon, and was instead working on providing modular housing for people requiring shelter after natural disasters, or as an aid in anti-homelessness measures, but it has sped up its efforts to build and ship.

The company’s El Paso, Texas manufacturing facility is currently working on its first 24 prototype units, but it hopes to scale production in part by leveraging the available automotive manufacturing supply chain in the area. The Jupe units will sell for between $14,500 and $78,000 for the Rest and Care units respectively, with different configurations affecting the cost, and the ICUs will be available for $99,000 and above. Jupe tells me that it will be offering Health units at cost, with no margins, including cost of delivery — the team is working on a volunteer basis; it has been bootstrapped financially by the founders to date, with the startup seeking donations and additional investment as a means of continuing to fund operations and production.

Categories: Business News

Kaizo raises $3M for its AI-based tools to improve customer service support teams

2020, March 27 - 12:39am

CRM has for years been primarily a story of software to manage customer contacts, data to help agents do their jobs, and tools to manage incoming requests and outreach strategies. Now to add to that we’re starting to see a new theme: apps to help agents track how they work and to work better.

Today comes the latest startup in that category, a Dutch company called Kaizo, which uses AI and gamification to provide feedback on agents’ work, tips on what to do differently, and tools to set and work to goals — all of which can be used remotely, in the cloud. Today, it is announcing $3 million in a seed round of funding co-led by Gradient — Google’s AI venture fund — and French VC Partech. 

And along with the seed round, Kaizo (which rebranded last week from its former name, Ticketless) is announcing that Christoph Auer-Welsbach, a former partner at IBM Ventures, is joining the company as a co-founder, alongside founder Dominik Blattner. 

Although this is just a seed round, it’s coming after a period of strong growth for the company. Kaizo has already 500 companies including Truecaller, SimpleSurance, Miro, CreditRepairCloud, Justpark, Festicket and Nmbrs are using its software, covering “thousands” of customer support agents, which use a mixture of free and paid tools that integrate with established CRM software from the likes of Salesforce, Zendesk and more.

Customer service, and the idea of gamifying it to motivate employees, might feel like the last thing on people’s minds at the moment, but it is actually timely and relevant to our current state in responding to and living with the coronavirus.

People are spending much more time at home, and are turning to the internet and remote services to get what they need, and in many cases are finding that their best-laid plans are now in freefall. Both of these are driving a lot of traffic to sites and primarily customer support centers, which are getting overwhelmed with people reaching out for help.

And that’s before you consider how customer support teams might be impacted by coronavirus and the many mandates we’ve had to stay away from work, and the stresses they may be under.

“In our current social climate, customer support is an integral part of a company’s stability and growth that has embraced remote work to meet the demands of a globalized customer-base,” said Dominik Blattner, founder of Kaizo, in a statement. “With the rise of support teams utilizing a digital workplace, providing standards to measure an agent’s performance has never been more important. KPIs provide these standards, quantifying the success, achievement and contribution of each team member.”

On a more general level, Kaizo is also changing the conversation around how to improve one’s productivity. There has been a larger push for “quantified self” platforms, which has very much played out both in workplaces and in our personal lives, but a lot of services to track performance have focused on both managers and employees leaning in with a lot of input. That means if they don’t set aside the time to do that, the platforms never quite work the way they should.

This is where the AI element of Kaizo plays a key role, by taking on the need to proactively report into a system.

“This is how we’re distinct,” Auer-Welsbach said in an interview. “Normally KPIs are top-down. They are about people setting goals and then reporting they’ve done something. This is a bottom-up approach. We’re not trying to change employees’ behaviour. We plug into whatever environment they are using, and then our tool monitors. The employee doesn’t have to report or measure anything. We track clicks on the CRM, ticketing, and more, and we analyse all that.” He notes that Kaizo is looking at up to 50 datapoints in its analysis.

“We’re excited about Kaizo’s novel approach to applying AI to existing ticket data from platforms like Zendesk and Salesforce to optimize the customer support workflow,” said Darian Shirazi, General Partner at Gradient Ventures, in a statement. “Using machine learning, Kaizo understands which behaviors in customer service tickets lead to better outcomes for customers and then guides agents to replicate that using ongoing game mechanics. Customer support and service platforms today are failing to leverage data in the right way to make the life of agents easier and more effective. The demand Kaizo has seen since they launched on the Zendesk Marketplace shows agents have been waiting for such a solution for some time.”

Kaizo is not the only startup to have identified the area of building new services to improve the performance of customer support teams. Assembled earlier this month also raised $3.1 million led by Stripe for what it describes as the “operating system” for customer support.

Categories: Business News

Meet the European startups that pitched at EF’s 13th (and first virtual) Demo Day

2020, March 26 - 10:07pm

Entrepreneur First (EF), the the London-headquartered company builder and “talent first” investor, unveiled its latest cohort of “deep tech” companies in a first virtual Demo Day, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Presenting startups, in the format of a slick pre-recorded video, are made up of teams formed across EF’s three European locations: London, Berlin and Paris. In total, 25 new startups have been created across deep technology fields such as AI, biotechnology, machine learning and robotics.

They include companies tackling drug discovery using digital twin cells, environmental pollutant monitoring, and artificial brain development for robotics applications, to name just a few (that last one was a mouthful).

It’s also worth re-capping that EF stands out from the many other demo days in U.K. and beyond — seeing the investor backs individuals “pre-team, pre-idea” — meaning that the companies pitching generally only came into existence during the three programmes and perhaps may have never seen the light of day without the founders bashing heads at EF.

Cue statement from Matt Clifford, co-founder Entrepreneur First: “While the format of today’s Demo Day event may have changed, the focus remains the same – introducing the globally important companies of the future to the world’s best investors. Entrepreneur First believes that the best way for the most ambitious and talented people to fulfil their potential is to use their exceptional talent to build companies, transform lives and change the world. With the right support, one talented individual has the potential to fundamentally change the way an entire industry operates – which is perhaps even more important in this period of global upheaval”.

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting tidbit: According to a source, one of the pitching EF companies, Ochre Bio — which is developing gene therapies to treat donor livers outside of the body — made the unusual decision to join Silicon Valley’s YC accelerator in the middle of the EF programme where the founders met, so they’re effectively coming into Demo Day with half their round filled.

The full list of presenting team video pitch links (described in their own words)

Ambify
Environmental pollutant monitoring to protect health and wellbeing.
(London)

Augmize
Augmize automates actuarial reserving in commercial insurance with interpretable machine learning.
(London)

Better Dairy
Building the future of food, starting with animal-free dairy.
(London)

Flaime
Revolutionising cloud gaming with dynamically distributed interactive 3D content delivery.
(London)

Bleep
Bleep lets you create and remix your favourite TV Shows, for and on, the channels we all know and love.
(London)

CARV3D
We generate on demand, new examples of unique and believable digital humans which do not exist in the real world.
(London)

cheMastery
Building the infrastructure for chemistry.
(London)

Exogene
Fast discovery of safer immunotherapies.
(London)

Micrographia Bio
Engineering the chemical atlas for modern drug discovery.
(London)

my110
AI health coach transforming how we eat, exercise and recover.
(London)

Ochre Bio
Gene therapies to treat donor livers outside of the body.
(London)

Omnipresent
We take away the pain of operating global teams. Our clients can onboard employees anywhere in the world with a few mouse clicks.
(London)

Verchable
Building next generation video search using Computer Vision.
(London)

Volatile AI
Combining existing gas sensors with bio-inspired AI algorithms to monitor food aroma.
(London)

Cargoflip
An all-in-one platform to simplify international trade for businesses.
(Berlin)

ElementZero Biolabs
The next generation of tools for capturing genetic information.
(Berlin)

hier foods
An end-to-end procurement tool for regional food.
(Berlin)

Iskra
Low code, complete Machine Learning platform.
(Berlin)

Blendeez
Blendeez helps business users make CRM external and internal apps work together at scale with no technical skills.
(Paris)

Contreeb
We enable online shops and their consumers to balance their carbon footprint.
(Paris)

DeepLife
DeepLife creates digital twins of cell to accelerate drug discovery.
(Paris)

EyePick
EyePick builds a brain for robots to see, understand and act in the real-world.
(Paris)

Lynceus
Lynceus is building the world’s most reliable manufacturing quality prediction software.
(Paris)

Samp
Digital twins for industrial facilities – reliable knowledge for everyone.
(Paris)

X80 Security
Generating intelligent cyber defences through automatic threat simulation.
(Paris)

EF raises $115M new fund, aiming to create another 300-plus startups in the next three years

Categories: Business News

SendBird adds voice and video to popular chat API

2020, March 26 - 10:01pm

SendBird has built a highly successful business with a chat API, but the company never intended to stop there, and today it announced it was adding voice and video capabilities to its communications platform.

“We’re creating more of an interaction platform to allow not just text messaging, but also voice calling and video recording capabilities on top of our platform. So it becomes a more comprehensive offering,” CEO and co-founder John Kim told TechCrunch.

The new tools are built on an IP-based delivery system, so it doesn’t touch telephony, according to Kim. That should help give it some differentiation from another popular communications platform, Twilio.

Kim says that his company is currently number one in the chat API space, delivering 100 million interactions per month. This involves primarily powering chat in on-demand services like ride hailing and food delivery, and also online marketplaces and communities. More recently, Kim says he is seeing an uptick in digital health applications, something that is bound to continue as telehealth options abound as a practical way to get medical advice during the COVID-19 crisis.

Adding voice and video will definitely add to the resources required to deliver these services, but Kim says they have built the platform to handle it. “One of the things that clearly differentiate us from the rest of the market was our ability to scale. So we haven’t had any issues from the technical side of things with the increasing demand,” he said.

The company plans to bill for these services by the minute, which Kim says is an industry best practice for voice and video. SendBird lets developers add these capabilities with just a couple of lines of code, offering a similar value proposition to companies like Plaid (recently sold to MasterCard), Twilio and Stripe. It saves developers from having to build these capabilities themselves.

The company was founded in 2013, and was part of the Y Combinator Winter 2016 cohort. The company has over 200 employees today and has raised over $120 million, according to PitchBook data. Pitchbook pegged the company’s valuation at more than $287 million as of last May when it announced a $50 million Series B extension that brought the total Series B to $102 million.

SendBird snags additional $50M for messaging API tool, as it extends Series B to $102M

Categories: Business News

DataGuard, which provides GDPR and privacy compliance-as-a-service, raises $20M

2020, March 26 - 9:07pm

Watchdogs have started to raise the issue that new working practices and online activity necessitated by the spread of the coronavirus pandemic are creating new sets of privacy, security and data protection challenges. Today a startup is announcing a growth round of funding to help online businesses navigate those issues better.

DataGuard, a Munich-based startup that provides “GDPR-as-a-service,” is essentially a cloud-based platform to help those doing business online ensure they are compliant with various regional regulations and best practices around privacy by analysing customers’ data processing activities. It offers options and suggestions for improving privacy compliance, providing them with the ability to modify their IT infrastructure and internal processes to do so. The company has raised $20 million, money it will be using to continue expanding its business across Europe and the Americas and to continue investing in building out its technology.

The funding is coming from a single investor, London’s One Peak, and is the first outside funding for the company. We’re asking but it looks like DataGuard is not disclosing its valuation with this round.

The news is coming at a critical time in the world of venture funding. We are seeing a mix of deals that either were closed or close to closing before the worst of the pandemic reared its ugly head (meaning: some deals are just going to be put on ice, Zoom meeting or not); or are being done specifically to help with business continuity in the wake of all the interruption of normal life (that is, the business is too interesting not to help prop it up); or are closing specifically because the startup has built something that is going to demonstrate just how useful it is in the months to come.

As with the strongest of funding rounds, DataGuard into a couple of those categories.

On one hand, it has demonstrated a demand for its services before any of this hit. Today, the startup provides privacy policy services both to small and medium businesses as well as larger enterprises, and it has picked up 1,000 customers since launching in 2017.

“Millions of companies are striving to comply with privacy regulation such as GDPR or CCPA,” said Thomas Regier, (pictured, left) who co-founded the company with Kivanc Semen (right), in a statement.

“We are excited to partner with One Peak to help many more organizations across the globe become and remain privacy compliant. Our Privacy-as-a-Service solution provides customers with access to a proprietary full-stack platform and services from a dedicated team of data privacy experts. This enables customers to gain insights into their data processing activities and to operationalize privacy and compliance across their entire organization.”

Regier tells us that the company was bootstrapped to 100 employees, which also underscores the company’s capital efficiency, also especially attractive at the moment.

On the other, the wholesale shift to more online and remote working, combined with a giant surge in online traffic caused by more people staying at home to reduce the number of new Covid-19 cases, is driving a lot more traffic and stress testing to websites, apps and other online services.

All that creates precisely the kind of environment where we might, for a period, overlook some of the trickier and more exacting aspects of privacy policies, but which are nonetheless important to keep intact, not least because malicious hackers could take advantage of vulnerable situations, or regulators eventually refocus and come back with heavy fines, or consumers respond with bad PR and more.

“We have a truly horizontal product that has the potential to become an integral part of the tech stack in enterprises and SMBs alike,” said Semen in a statement. “We will use the funding to deliver on our product roadmap. We will achieve this in two ways: By increasing automation levels through improvements of the machine learning capabilities in our privacy software suite and by speeding up our development of new product categories.”

DataGuard is one of a number of startups that have emerged to help businesses navigate the waters of privacy regulations, which are usually not the core competencies of the companies but have become an essential part of how they can (and should) do business online.

Others include OneTrust, which also helps companies provide and run better data protection policies; and InCountry, which is specifically focused on providing services to help companies understand and comply with data protection policies that vary across different regions. OneTrust last year passed a $1 billion valuation, speaking to the huge opportunity and demand in this space.

OnePeak believes that DataGuard’s take on the proposition is one of the more effective and efficient, one reason it’s backed the team. “We are incredibly excited to back DataGuard’s world-class founding team,” says David Klein, co-founder and managing partner at One Peak, in a statement. “We are convinced that DataGuard’s cutting-edge software suite combined with its comprehensive service offering provides both enterprises and SMBs with an end-to-end solution that fulfils their data privacy needs across the board.”

Categories: Business News

Meri Williams steps down as CTO of UK challenger bank Monzo

2020, March 26 - 8:49pm

Monzo, the U.K. challenger bank that now counts over 4 million account holders, has lost its CTO, TechCrunch has learned.

According to multiple sources, Meri Williams, who joined the fast-growing fintech in September 2018 to much fanfare, announced internally that she was departing, saying that she wanted to voluntarily help with cost-cutting measures. However, it is worth noting that Williams had already cut back her involvement with Monzo and had been consulting for other tech companies. One source told TechCrunch she was most recently only working one day per week for Monzo.

Meanwhile, it is not clear who is taking up Williams CTO responsibilities, especially as previous CTO and Monzo co-founder Jonas Huckestein (pictured right, with Meri Williams) is thought to be on paternity leave. Monzo declined to comment.

Prior to holding the CTO role at Monzo, Williams worked at print and design company MOO — an early darling of the London startup ecosystem — and was brought to the bank for her experience “growing complex engineering organisations and managing fast-moving teams,” according to a press release issued at the time of her hire. Before working at MOO, she was Head of Engineering at M&S Digital and previously worked for the U.K.’s Government Digital Service.

Mike Hudack, former CTO of Deliveroo and now an ex-VC, has joined Monzo as Chief Product Officer

Categories: Business News

Stripe leads $20M Series A into Fast, which is building a universal checkout service for e-commerce

2020, March 26 - 7:00pm

Early this morning, Fast, a startup building platform-agnostic login and checkout services, announced that Stripe has led a $20 million investment into its business. Prior investors Index Ventures and Susa Ventures took part in the round. Susa previously participated in the company’s late-2019 round that Index led.

Coming in late March, the new capital is a quick-follow to Fast’s November seed round. Such a rapid-fire deal would have felt right at home in mid-2019; to see two consecutive rounds in less than a half-year in 2020, in contrast, feels aggressive, though that’s more a testament to how the market has changed than Fast’s ability to attract capital.

Fast was founded by Domm Holland, a serial entrepreneur, and Allison Barr Allen, best known for her time at Uber. Holland is the company’s CEO while Barr Allen has taken on Fast’s COO role.

As the venture capital market cools in the face of a global economic slowdown, let’s take a minute to unpack what Fast does to better understand why Stripe led its Series A so quickly after its preceding venture round.

What does Fast do?

Let’s explain Fast’s product by way of analogy. You and I read the news, and we buy things online. Logging into news services is a colossal pain in the backside, and if you’re buying something other than on Amazon, you probably have to re-login, which is irksome and slow and generally annoying.

Fast, per its name, wants to make logging in far quicker, and also wants to help you check out at online stores more simply, and, as before, rapidly. In an interview with TechCrunch, CEO Domm Holland said that Fast wants “to be the intermediary for all consumer interactions,” which he broke down as a “fancy way of saying we want to give you one-click login, one-click payments, one-click data everywhere.”

In short, Fast wants to be your profile for signing into services and buying goods online, everywhere that it can be. You can now begin to see why Stripe led the company’s Series A. If Stripe has built a way for lots of digital stores and businesses to accept payments, Fast wants to build the equivalent consumer solution for the other side of those transactions.

Notably, Fast wants to be a platform, allowing other companies to bring its service to other niches; my example of media before wasn’t idle, it was an example that I chewed over with Holland and Fast’s CEO Barr Allen during a call discussing how the company’s service might be used in the future.

At this point you’re probably wondering how Fast works in practice. Holland explained the process to TechCrunch using online shopping as the example. According to the CEO, the first time a user sees a Fast checkout button while buying a good or service, they are able to click it, at which point they’ll be prompted with a “short, optimized checkout form” that asks for five pieces of information (email, name, phone number, address and credit card information). After the user finishes inputting those details, Fast wraps the transaction and saves the consumer’s information. Per Holland, those credentials are stored so that the next time that same user sees a Fast button, they can power through the sale rapidly, because the company already knows who they are and how they pay. (Note: You’ll have to relog if you change devices, natch.)

You can see how the more places Fast is available the more useful it becomes; picking up money from Stripe then has advantages for Fast, as its new benefactor is integrated around the Web, a footprint that its new investment might be able to leverage to gain distribution of its own. And the deal bakes Stripe’s service even more deeply into a payment gateway of sorts that has ambitions to be work across the internet. (Fast makes money on a spread between the payment cost it charges its customers and what it pays Stripe.)

Today versus the future

Today, however, Fast’s login product is in-market, while its payments service has yet to see a wide rollout. With 20 million new dollars, however, we expect to see the firm’s checkout service in-market quickly. Indeed, the startup noted in a release that it intends to use its new capital to “accelerate the global rollout of Fast Checkout” and grow it staff.

Jumping from a $2.5 million raise to a $20 million investment in a few months is quick; Fast should have all the capital it could possibly need to build its vision for the next year. This brings us to our final point. Namely that if Fast succeeds, and its payments-and-login service does take off, it could provide a reasonable bulwark against whole-scale consumption of digital identity by major tech companies, and the siloing of identity amongst media companies that we see today.

Long have I dreamed of having a central login for my media accounts. Fast could, in theory, power such a service. That is, if no one snaps up the company first. On that point, Index’s Jan Hammer, the investor who led the company’s seed round, cited the company’s independence as a net-plus for Fast, saying that “many merchants would tell you they don’t trust Amazon, and many shoppers would admit that they don’t trust Google to store their credit cards because they both have different agendas.” There we agree. 

More when we see Fast around the Web.

Categories: Business News

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