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Plastiq raises $75M to help small businesses use credit cards more

2020, March 26 - 8:50am

When Eliot Buchanan tried to use his credit card to pay his Harvard tuition bill, the payment was rejected because the university said it doesn’t accept credit. Realizing the same problem exists for thousands of different transactions like board, rent and vendor payments, he launched Plastiq. Plastiq helps people use credit cards to pay, or get paid, for anything

Plastiq today announced that it has raised $75 million in venture capital in a Series D round led by B Capital Group. Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, Accomplice and Top Tier Capital Partners also participated in the round. The round brings the company’s total known venture capital raised to more than $140 million.

To use Plastiq, users enter their credit card information on Plastiq’s platform. In return, Plastiq will charge you a 2.5% fee and get your bills paid. While Plastiq was started with consumers in mind, SMBs have now accounted for 90% of the revenue, according to Buchanan. The new financing round will invest in building out features to give SMBs faster services around payments and processing. 

Plastiq provides a way for SMBs and consumers to pay their bills and make sure they have reliable cash flow. For example, restaurants sometimes have a drop in revenue due to seasonality or, as we’re experiencing now with COVID-19, pandemic lockdowns. Or tourism companies for cities that are struggling to attract visitors. Those companies still need cash flow, and using Plastiq’s service, they can use credit cards to pay suppliers even in an off season. 

There is no shortage of competition from other companies also trying to solve pain points in small-business cash flow. According to Buchanan, Plastiq’s biggest competitors are traditional lenders, as well as companies like Kabbage and Fundbox. Similar claims could be made about Brex, which offers a credit card for startups to access capital faster. 

Kabbage provides funding to SMBs through automated business loans. The SoftBank-backed company landed $200 million in a revolving credit line back in July, fresh off of landing strong partnerships with banks and giants like Alibaba to access more customers. Kabbage loans out roughly $2-3 billion to SMBs every year. 

Plastiq, according to its release, is also on track to make more than $2 billion in transactions. But unlike Kabagge, Plastiq doesn’t issue loans or credit, it just unlocks a payment opportunity.

“SMBs don’t need to be burdened with additional debt or additional loans,” Buchanan said. “So rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, let’s use a behavior they have already earned.” 

Buchanan would not disclose Plastiq’s current valuation or revenue, but he did say that it’s not too far away from $100 million in revenue run rate. The company’s revenue has grown 150% from 2018 to 2019. 

The company also noted that it has surpassed “well over 1 million users,” up 150% in unique new users from 2018 to 2019.

In terms of profitability, Buchanan said that “we could be profitable if we wanted to be,” noting that Plastiq’s revenue and margins could lead them toward profitability if they wanted to focus less on growth. But he added they don’t plan to “slow down” the growth engine any time soon — especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because the Series D round closed at the end of 2019, Buchanan said the pandemic did not impact the deal. However, the company had planned to time the announcement with tax season. Now, as small businesses struggle to secure capital and stay afloat due to lockdowns across the country, Plastiq’s new raise feels more fitting. 

“Our customers are more thankful for solutions like ours as traditional sources of lending are drying up and not as easy to access” Buchanan said. “Hopefully, we can measure how many businesses make it through this because of us.” 

The 140-person company is currently hiring across product and engineering roles.

Categories: Business News

Monday.com surpassed $130M ARR before the remote-work boom

2020, March 26 - 5:33am

As efforts to flatten the spread of COVID-19 pushes employees from their offices, remote work is undergoing a surge in popularity.

Well-known remote-work-friendly companies like Zoom have seen a rise in usage, while Slack has already reported that it is successfully converting new users into paying customers, which is pushing up its growth rate.

The pandemic is creating economic and social upheaval, but for a specific cohort of software companies that help distributed teams work together, it’s proven useful in business terms. But even before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, execs from a standout project management company swung by TechCrunch HQ to chat with the Equity crew about their business and growth: Monday.com. 

What does an interview with Monday.com’s Eran Zinman (co-founder and CTO) and Roy Mann (CEO) have to do with COVID-19? Well, if remote-productivity-friendly services Slack and Zoom are seeing usage spikes amidst the changes, Monday.com is likely benefiting from similar gains. And during our chat with the company’s brass, the pair told TechCrunch that their company had crossed the $130 million annual recurring revenue (ARR) mark by mid-February. Add in a COVID-19 usage boost and perhaps Monday.com (which doesn’t have a free tier) is seeing its growth accelerate.

Previously, Monday.com announced that it had reached the $120 million ARR mark, and TechCrunch had inducted it into the $100 million ARR club earlier this year.

Revenue expansion was not our only topic. We also chatted with the pair of execs about customer acquisition costs and how to a run a SaaS business without terrifying burn. The Monday.com crew had more news up their sleeve, like when they expect the unicorn to become cash-flow positive. 

We’ve excised a larger-than-usual chunk of the interview for sharing, as there’s a lot to take in:

After the jump, we dig a bit deeper into the obvious IPO candidate

Categories: Business News

Helm.ai raises $13M on its unsupervised learning approach to driverless car AI

2020, March 26 - 5:22am

Four years ago, mathematician Vlad Voroninski saw an opportunity to remove some of the bottlenecks in the development of autonomous vehicle technology thanks to breakthroughs in deep learning.

Now, Helm.ai, the startup he co-founded in 2016 with Tudor Achim, is coming out of stealth with an announcement that it has raised $13 million in a seed round that includes investment from A.Capital Ventures, Amplo, Binnacle Partners, Sound Ventures, Fontinalis Partners and SV Angel. More than a dozen angel investors also participated, including Berggruen Holdings founder Nicolas Berggruen, Quora co-founders Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo, professional NBA player Kevin Durant, Gen. David Petraeus, Matician co-founder and CEO Navneet Dalal, Quiet Capital managing partner Lee Linden and Robinhood co-founder Vladimir Tenev, among others.

Helm.ai will put the $13 million in seed funding toward advanced engineering and R&D and hiring more employees, as well as locking in and fulfilling deals with customers.

Helm.ai is focused solely on the software. It isn’t building the compute platform or sensors that are also required in a self-driving vehicle. Instead, it is agnostic to those variables. In the most basic terms, Helm.ai is creating software that tries to understand sensor data as well as a human would, in order to be able to drive, Voroninski said.

That aim doesn’t sound different from other companies. It’s Helm.ai’s approach to software that is noteworthy. Autonomous vehicle developers often rely on a combination of simulation and on-road testing, along with reams of data sets that have been annotated by humans, to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.

Helm.ai says it has developed software that can skip those steps, which expedites the timeline and reduces costs. The startup uses an unsupervised learning approach to develop software that can train neural networks without the need for large-scale fleet data, simulation or annotation.

“There’s this very long tail end and an endless sea of corner cases to go through when developing AI software for autonomous vehicles, Voroninski explained. “What really matters is the unit of efficiency of how much does it cost to solve any given corner case, and how quickly can you do it? And so that’s the part that we really innovated on.”

Voroninski first became interested in autonomous driving at UCLA, where he learned about the technology from his undergrad adviser who had participated in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a driverless car competition in the U.S. funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And while Voroninski turned his attention to applied mathematics for the next decade — earning a PhD in math at UC Berkeley and then joining the faculty in the MIT mathematics department — he knew he’d eventually come back to autonomous vehicles. 

By 2016, Voroninski said breakthroughs in deep learning created opportunities to jump in. Voroninski left MIT and Sift Security, a cybersecurity startup later acquired by Netskope, to start Helm.ai with Achim in November 2016.

“We identified some key challenges that we felt like weren’t being addressed with the traditional approaches,” Voroninski said. “We built some prototypes early on that made us believe that we can actually take this all the way.”

Helm.ai is still a small team of about 15 people. Its business aim is to license its software for two use cases — Level 2 (and a newer term called Level 2+) advanced driver assistance systems found in passenger vehicles and Level 4 autonomous vehicle fleets.

Helm.ai does have customers, some of which have gone beyond the pilot phase, Voroninski said, adding that he couldn’t name them.

Categories: Business News

What we’ve learned from building 40,000+ links for clients

2020, March 26 - 2:08am
Amanda Milligan Contributor Share on Twitter Amanda Milligan is the marketing director at Fractl, a prominent growth marketing agency that’s helped Fortune 500 companies and boutique businesses alike earn quality media coverage, backlinks, awareness and authority.

Since our agency opened in 2012, we’ve learned a lot about how to build quality links through content marketing.

The industry has evolved for a variety of reasons, including Google’s algorithm updates and the state of digital media. We’ve had to change along with them.

Over the years, we’ve completely revamped the way we develop content ideas, report on results, identify pitch targets — everything except for our core belief: a combination of content marketing and digital PR is the best way to build top-tier links.

I want to share three of our biggest insights from our experiences adapting so you don’t have to start from scratch or wonder which of your processes needs an update.

Instead, you can get to building the best backlinks you can.

Building the best links requires original research
Categories: Business News

Y Combinator is fast-tracking investments in startups tackling COVID-19

2020, March 26 - 1:35am

Y Combinator wants to bring more startups through its accelerator that can help with the COVID-19 crisis, and the firm is looking to expedite the pace of its application process so it can put money behind the efforts sooner.

The accelerator’s most recent batch “presented” just last week in a virtual demo day that was adjusted in light of the early outbreak. Just a week later, the situation has progressed substantially, and YC’s team says they are looking to bring in a new class of startups to tackle issues relating to the pandemic.

YC shared some of the new fields it was looking to invest in specifically, which include testing and diagnostics, treatments and vaccines, hospital equipment and monitoring/data infrastructure. Startups that fit the bill will be fast-tracked, funded and tossed into a remote program immediately.

Y Combinator responding to COVID-19. https://t.co/Vx9RWQL3UM

— Michael Seibel (@mwseibel) March 25, 2020

YC is looking for companies that can be helpful, but at the same time it’s looking to invest in businesses that can remain viable post-crisis, the company says on its site:

For a startup to have an impact in time to address the current crisis, it will have to move faster than most people think is possible. This means the founders need to have domain expertise in the area; they also need to have a plan for how to have a significant impact globally in a short timeline. They also need to have a path to building a sustainable business after the crisis is over.

In addition to sharing details about funding new companies, YC also shared a website detailing some of the efforts to help being undertaken by their existing portfolio companies.

Categories: Business News

Online marketplace OfferUp raises $120M, acquires top competitor letgo

2020, March 26 - 1:26am

OfferUp, a top online and mobile marketplace app, announced this morning it’s raising $120 million in a new round of funding led by competing marketplace letgo’s majority investor, OLX Group, and others. As a part of the deal, OfferUp will also be acquiring letgo’s classified business, with OLX Group gaining a 40% stake in the newly combined entity.

Other investors in the new round include existing OfferUp backers Andreessen Horowitz and Warburg Pincus. The funds will be put toward continued growth, product innovation and monetization efforts, OfferUp says.

The round will close with the closing of the acquisition, which is expected to take place sometime in May. To date, OfferUp has raised $380 million.

The acquisition will see two of the largest third-party buying and selling marketplaces — outside of Craigslist, eBay and Facebook Marketplace, of course — become a more significant threat to the incumbents. Together, the new entity will have more than 20 million monthly active users across the U.S. For consumers, the deal means they’ll no longer have to list in as many apps when looking to unload some household items, electronics, furniture or whatever else they want to sell.

“My vision for OfferUp has always been to build a company that helps people connect and prosper,” said Nick Huzar, OfferUp CEO, in a statement about the acquisition. “We’re combining the complementary strengths of OfferUp and letgo in order to deliver an even better buying and selling experience for our communities. OLX Group has unparalleled expertise and clear success with growing online marketplace businesses, so they’ll be a great partner as we continue to build the widest, simplest, and most trustworthy experience for our customers.”

OfferUp also acknowledged that mid-pandemic is an odd time to announce such a deal — especially at a time when the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting its own employees, its partners, and the buying and selling community itself. And this will continue for some time.

However, Huzar positions the deal as one that will allow the business to grow, despite the current state of affairs.

“This news helps us to continue to innovate and grow, in spite of these challenging times, and continue to deliver on that promise,” Huzar noted, in a company blog post.

For now, the OfferUp and letgo apps will remain separate experiences and no disruptions to any sales will be made. Consumers will also be able to download both apps to iOS and Android devices for the time being, too.

But soon, both sets of users will gain access to a larger network of buyers and sellers, along with nationwide shipping options, and trust and safety problems. We understand this will involve allowing users of both sets of apps to see more posts and interact with more buyers and sellers — so some sort of merging of the two networks is at play here. There will be additional changes to improve the user experience for all users in the future, as well, but the company isn’t sharing details on that today.

Letgo is bringing to the table an app with more than 100 million worldwide downloads, so there is a potential to reactivate some of the lapsed users who aren’t currently shopping or selling on its marketplace today. The two apps were often neck-and-neck in terms of their app store category rankings, though on iPhone OfferUp has maintained a slight lead. (See App Store and Google Play charts below.)

However, letgo’s business outside of North America will be separately owned and operated as part of the OLX Group, the companies said.

“Letgo and OfferUp have always shared the same core vision for how large America’s secondhand economy can become — harnessing tech innovation to bring about an extraordinarily positive impact on consumers’ wallets and also on the environment,” said letgo co-founder Alec Oxenford. “Bringing our apps together moves us much closer to that vision,” he added.

The deal is still subject to regulatory approval. If given, the combined businesses will be operated by OfferUp, headquartered in Bellevue, Wash. Huzar will continue to be CEO of OfferUp and chairman of the board. Oxenford, meanwhile, will join the board and serve as a senior advisor to OLX Group and Prosus.

Because the deal is still in the process of closing, the companies can’t speak to any team changes, including potential layoffs as a result of overlapping positions or other redundancies, we’re told.

 

Categories: Business News

Spotinst rebrands as Spot and announces new cloud spend dashboard

2020, March 26 - 12:30am

Spotinst, the startup that helps companies find lower-cost spot instances in the cloud, announced today that it was rebranding as Spot. It also announced a brand new cloud usage dashboard to help companies get a detailed view of their cloud spend.

Amiram Shachar, co-founder and CEO at Spot, says the new product is designed to give customers much greater insight and visibility into cloud usage and spending.

“With this new product we’re providing a more holistic platform that lets customers see all of their cloud spending in one place — all of their usage, all of their costs, what they are spending and doing across multiple clouds — and then what they can actually do [to deploy resources more efficiently],” Shachar told TechCrunch.

The visibility means that customers can see across cloud vendors and get a big picture view of how they are deploying cloud resources to optimize their usage, which could be useful for the financial side of the house and IT.

“We’re basically bifurcating all of our customers’ cloud infrastructure and telling them this is what you should run on spot instances, this is what you should run on reserved instances and this is why you should keep on-demand instances,” he said.

The new product builds on the company’s core competency: helping customers deploy cheaper spot and reserved instances from cloud infrastructure vendors in an automated fashion.

Spot instances are a product where cloud vendors deploy their unused resources for much lower cost, while reserved instances provide a discounted rate for buying resources in advance for a set price. However, spot instances have a big catch: when the cloud vendor needs those resources, you get kicked off. Spot helps in this regard by safely moving the workload to another available spot instance automatically.

Spot was founded in 2015 and has raised more than $52 million, according to Crunchbase. Shachar says the company is in the $30 million revenue range and this new product should help drive that higher.

Spotinst announces strategic partnership with AWS

Categories: Business News

Mammoth Media launches CatchUp, an app that summarizes the latest news and trending content

2020, March 26 - 12:01am

A new app called CatchUp might be useful for anyone who’s struggling to keep up with the latest headlines, podcasts and Netflix shows.

CatchUp is the latest offering from Mammoth Media, the startup behind chat fiction app Yarn and social polling app Wishbone. Founder and CEO Benoit Vatere told me that the product started out as a book summary app called Booknotes, but early users kept asking, “Why don’t you summarize more than books?”

So that’s exactly what CatchUp does, recapping the latest news and entertainment topics. The summaries should feel pretty familiar to anyone who’s watched videos on mobile social app — they’re vertically-oriented, broken up into slides, accompanied by text captions and last for just a few minutes.

Vatere told me that the topics are chosen based on what’s trending, either in Mammoth’s apps or more broadly in social media.

For example, when I opened CatchUp this morning, I watched a video laying out the basic info around the big topic one everyone’s mind: the coronavirus pandemic. Then I moved onto something lighter, a video breaking down the different streaming services available now.

It sounds like the CatchUp team is moving quickly. Vatere said they should be responsive to trends, creating new videos in just a day or two. At the same time, he said the app should offer a mix of news-y videos that will eventually disappear (“too much content kills retention in the app”) alongside more evergreen content.

Image Credits: Mammoth Media

He emphasized that this is very much an initial version of the app, and that the CatchUp team plans to iterate based on what users respond to. It’s English-only for now but could eventually add other languages. The company’s plans also include introducing monetization later on, starting with advertising and then eventually adding in-app purchases and subscriptions.

Vatere also suggested that while a CatchUp summary should stand on its own, it could also encourage deeper engagement.

“If you’re thinking, everybody is talking about ‘Love is Blind,’ what is this … you can listen for two minutes and understand the dynamic, understand what’s happening,” he said. “Then if it sounds really interesting to you, you can watch it. But if not, now you understand what’s being said.”

Mammoth Media introduces Choose Your Own Adventure-style storytelling to its chat fiction app Yarn

Categories: Business News

Public optimism doesn’t convert to checks, founders report

2020, March 25 - 11:52pm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

How quickly our world has changed. In late February, TechCrunch covered the news that TripActions, a unicorn four times over, had secured a $500 million credit line to help it scale its corporate travel-focused business; however, it became known yesterday that TripActions is undergoing stiff layoffs after the corporate travel market transformed from growing to moribund in light of the global outbreak of COVID-19.

Many aspects of the public market are now different: public companies are pulling guidance; the Olympics is postponed; domestic life has been overturned by lockdowns and social distancing recommendations; and at the heart of what this publication covers, the venture capital scene has changed as well — not that you could tell from reading Twitter, mind. VCs love to tweet that they are still writing checks, and in some cases, it’s even true.

Inside the investor community, however, there’s some calling bullshit on the idea that the venture capital market is matching anything like its prior pace of business. Here’s Gil Debner from Angular Ventures:

VC market has completely locked up. Growth stage bankers are reaching out to me (a very early-stage fund) to see if we want to join $10M rounds.

— Gil Dibner (@gdibner) March 24, 2020

And fintech angel Sheel Mohnot:

Just saw a company with a verbal $1.5m at $15m seed+ round from their lead seed investor become a $500k at $10m offer. Lots of this happening out there.

— Sheel Mohnot (@pitdesi) March 23, 2020

Founders are feeling the pinch. To better understand what the fundraising market is like for entrepreneurs today, TechCrunch asked founders to write in with fundraising stories. Below, we’ve compiled a fair number.

Many people asked to remain anonymous so most anecdotes are shielded. Normally, I wouldn’t grant such broad protections. But we’re all learning together, and I’m not after any particular point, so we can be generous. (Write in if you have your own story, and we may include it in a future piece.)

Deals and dreams

What founders sent in ran the gamut, but mostly fell into two camps:

  1. Deals were kaput and few (if any) investors are writing checks.
  2. While the investing market had slowed, it was still moving some, if only a little.

As a final programming note, I’ve mostly kept original formatting from the notes that were sent in; in some cases, very light edits have been made.

Deals are dead
Categories: Business News

SecondNature raises $16.4M for ‘healthy home’ subscription products like air and water filters

2020, March 25 - 11:21pm

After a confusing trip to the store to purchase an air filter back in 2012, two N.C. State University students, Thad Tarkington and Kevin Barry, came up with the idea to make this routine home maintenance purchase a subscription-based business. The following year, their startup FilterEasy had a few hundred subscribers. Fast forward to now, and that service — now called SecondNature — has grown its customer base to hundreds of thousands by expanding beyond its original direct-to-consumer model to also include industry partnerships.

Today, the N.C. Triangle-area company is announcing it’s closed on $16.4 million in Series C funding from new and existing investors, including strategic investor MANN+HUMMEL through its corporate venture group.

Other investors in the round include IDEA Fund Partners, Multiplier Capital, Lead Edge Capital, Arsenal Growth, One Better Ventures, Bonaventure Capital, NC State’s investor network WIN and UNC’s investor network CAN.

SecondNature began its life solving a common homeowner problem: helping people to remember to change the home’s air filter. Often, this is a forgotten task as there’s no built-in reminder or alerting system to signal when the filter’s time is up, unlike some other household products. Your smoke alarms blare when batteries are low. Lightbulbs go dark when it’s time for a change. But air filters just sit there, quietly collecting more dust as your air quality worsens and your energy bill climbs.

Tarkington says the idea to put air filters on subscription not only made sense as a way to remind homeowners to make the swap, but the model worked for retailers as well.

“It’s a product that’s not really well-suited for retail because they’re large, they take a lot of space and they’re easily damaged,” he says. “And generally, you have thousands of different sizes, so a retailer can only serve a certain percentage of the market.”

The founders soon left college and began to work full-time on the company. They later participated in The Iron Yard accelerator and raised $1.2 million in seed funding in 2015.

While the startup’s customer base of homeowners steadily grew, SecondNature found that it needed more channels than just direct-to-consumer (D2C) alone to increase sales. In the years that followed, the company began working with industry partners, including HVAC companies, real estate agents, utility companies and commercial properties. These categories have contributed to customer growth, but D2C remains the largest so far given its head start.

MANN+HUMMEL’s recent investment signals where SecondNature is headed next. The company no longer considers itself just an easier way to get your air filters. Instead, it’s now positioning itself as a “home wellness” brand that will eventually encompass a range of products that homeowners need to replace on a recurring basis.

For starters, this includes SecondNature’s newest product line: water filters.

“As we started growing, we found that people really appreciated the convenience of [our business],” says Tarkington. Plus, people were starting to talk about other things, like how filters helped with allergies and created a healthier home environment, he notes.

“We saw this big trend towards personal care — like what we put in or on our bodies,” Tarkington explains. “We spend a lot of time in our homes, so our indoor air quality and what we are drinking, from a water quality perspective, has become very important.”

It made sense, then, to expand the concept of a “healthy home” to also include water filtration.

In Q2 2020, SecondNature will launch its first two products in this water filtration space, which will include filters for your refrigerator water. One will be focused on improving the taste, quality and clarity of the water, while the other will be more about filtering out harmful particles from local water systems.

Going forward, the company plans to embrace anything that improves your home’s health, Tarkington says.

In the more immediate future, however, SecondNature may benefit from increased interest in home health products in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. For example, SecondNature’s MERV 13-rated “catch all” filter can reduce the odds of you catching the flu or a viral infection when someone in your home is sick. That’s because it’s able to catch about 87% of droplet nuclei that pass through. (To be clear, this is not a COVID-19 preventative; it’s about risk reduction — like washing your hands or sneezing into your elbow, for example.)

While some area’s of SecondNature’s business has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 — like commercial properties where rent may longer be coming in — Tarkington says business is good overall.

“Generally, demand for the product has gone up due to the nature of it,” he says.

It’s worth clarifying, though, that SecondNature isn’t aiming to market towards consumer fears due to the outbreak. Instead, it’s trying to help. The team has coordinated with hospitals to get them donated filtration media for masks, and it is now actively using its manufacturing facility and supply chain to get masks to hospitals in need. It has materials to produce around 800,000 masks on hand and plans to produce up to 2 million masks per month as long as it has the materials.

COVID-19 isn’t just impacting its production line but also how the business operates. The company today has around 150 employees, two-thirds who work in fulfillment and distribution. To address the threat of COVID-19, SecondNature reorganized its two warehouses (in Ardmore, OK and Wilson, NC) to keep staff separated — including by creating additional break rooms. It’s also working to ensure all processes stay clean and sanitary. A dedicated team is focused on cleaning the facility, including wiping down doors, handles and other surfaces.

SecondNature’s additional funding will go towards expanding the businesses and hiring to support its plans for new products, including forthcoming first-party products it has now in R&D. As for what those may be, specifically, Tarkington hints they’ll focus on products where the company can “innovate and make a product better or a process better — maybe more environmentally-friendly.”

To date, SecondNature has raised $18.4 million.

Categories: Business News

Battery analytics software startup Twaice raises €11M Series A led by Creandum

2020, March 25 - 11:01pm

Twaice, the Munich-based startup that has built analytics software to help with battery management in electric vehicles and other devices, has raised €11 million in Series A funding.

Leading the round is European early-stage venture capital firm Creandum, with participation from existing investors Cherry Ventures, UVC Partners and Speedinvest, which backed the company’s earlier seed round.

Already used in trucks, cars, e-scooters and stationary power storage, the Twaice software creates a “digital twin” of battery systems by utilising sensor data, and physical and data-driven battery models. From here it claims to be able to analyse and make accurate real-time predictions about the “health status” of an energy storage system.

Use-cases include closing the loop between product development and application, as well as new possibilities such as predictive maintenance and extending a product’s warranty.

Twaice says the increasing popularity of lithium-ion batteries within the energy market is also accelerating its growth. “Stationary storage units, for example, are used to avoid increased grid fees or to stabilize the grid,” explains the startup. “However, due to their cost and complexity, batteries are especially challenging regarding significant test scopes during development, a lack of transparency about their condition, and remaining lifetime during operation”.

Meanwhile, Peter Specht, Principal at Creandum, says that the battery market is at an “inflection point,” driven by rapid electrification in the mobility and energy sectors. “Twaice predictive analytics solution unlocks a tremendous amount of value along the full battery lifecycle,” he says. “We were impressed by the deep battery expertise of the team, the sophistication of their analytics platform and rapidly growing customer demand. We’re thrilled to support the team along their journey to further scale and expand to new markets”.

Categories: Business News

Humio announces $20M Series B to advance unlimited logging tool

2020, March 25 - 11:00pm

Humio, a startup that has built a modern unlimited logging solution, announced a $20 million Series B investment today.

Dell Technologies Capital led the round with participation from previous investor Accel. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $32 million, according to the company.

Humio co-founder and CEO Geeta Schmidt says the startup wanted to build a solution that would allow companies to log everything, while reducing the overall cost associated with doing that, a tough problem due to the resource and data volume involved. The company deals with customers who are processing multiple terabytes of data per day.

“We really wanted to build an infrastructure where it’s easy to log everything and answer anything in real time. So we built an index-free logging solution which allows you to ask […] ad hoc questions over large volumes of data,” Schmidt told TechCrunch.

They are able to ingest so much data by using streaming technology, says company EVP of sales Morten Gram. “We have this real time streaming engine that makes it possible for customers to monitor whatever they know they want to be looking at. So they can build dashboards and alerts for these [metrics] that will be running in real time,” Gram explained.

What’s more, because the solution enables companies to log everything, rather than pick and choose what to log, they can ask questions about things they might not know, such as an on-going security incident or a major outage, and trace the answer from the data in the logs as the incident is happening.

Perhaps more importantly, the company has come up with technology to reduce the cost associated with processing and storing such high volumes of data. “We have thought a lot about trying to do a lot more with a lot less resources. And so, for example, one of our customers, who moved from a competitor, has gone from 80 servers to 14 doing the same volumes of data,” she said.

Deepak Jeevankumar, managing director and lead investor at Dell Technologies Capital, says that his firm recognized that Humio was solving these issues in a creative and modern way.

“Humio’s team has created a new log analysis architecture for the microservices age. This can support real-time analysis at full-speed ingest, while decreasing cost of storage and analysis by at least an order of magnitude,” he explained. “In a short-period of time, Humio has won the confidence of many Fortune 500 customers who have shifted their log platforms to Humio from legacy, decade-old architectures that do not scale for the cloud world.”

The company’s customers include Netlify, Bloomberg, HP Aruba and Michigan State University. It offers on-prem, cloud and hosted SaaS products. Today, the company also announced it was introducing an unlimited ingest plan for hosted SaaS customers.

Categories: Business News

ClassPass now offers live streamed workouts for those house-bound by coronavirus

2020, March 25 - 10:34pm

ClassPass, the fitness platform that connects gym-goers with the right studio/fitness class, has today announced that it’s dusting off its shuttered video product in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. With some tweaks.

ClassPass studio partners will today be able to offer live streamed classes on the platform. ClassPass has set up a system that allows these partners to set their own prices, date and time, and share a link to the streaming platform of their choice for their class, whether it be Instagram Live, Facebook Live, YouTube, Twitch, etc.

CEO Fritz Lanman said that the company, which has raised more than $500 million, is well capitalized to weather the metaphorical storm. However, ClassPass’s success relies on the health of its 30,000 studio partners, 90 percent of whom have closed their physical locations indefinitely across 30 countries.

With the new offering, studios will be able to keep offering their classes to a market in which demand for live-streamed or at-home workouts is skyrocketing.

Moreover, ClassPass will not be generating any revenue from these live streamed classes until June 1. In other words, 100 percent of the revenue from these live streamed classes will go towards the studios and wellness partners.

ClassPass launched a live video streaming product in March of 2018. The product was a sizable investment from the company, which set up a full broadcasting studio in Brooklyn. ClassPass Live, as it was called, also required users to have a ClassPass Live subscription, which came with a heart rate monitor for users to track their progress.

ClassPass Live eventually shuttered as the company reorganized its priorities to focus on global expansion and its corporate program. However, thousands of workouts from that product (in both video and audio form) have remained on the app for subscribers as an on-demand workout from home option.

Those video and audio workouts are now available for free to anyone who is signed in to the ClassPass app. For the live streamed workouts from studio partners, ClassPass users will need to use their in-app credits to purchase those classes. That said, they do not have to be a subscriber — users can simply purchase credits a la carte in the app and use them towards classes.

Existing ClassPass users will notice that their credits have been rolled over since the coronavirus pandemic has been keeping folks at home.

So far, 500 studios have been onboarded to start providing live streamed workouts and classes.

Asked if this video business could become the permanent, primary business for the company, Lanman said that it’s possible, but unlikely.

“Frankly, we already did this experiment,” said Lanman. “When we did ClassPass Live, customers said this is incredible, high quality stuff. That it’s a great experience. But you cannot yet replicate the real world experience digitally. The ambience. The immersiveness (sic). The sense of community.”

He said that in the future, people will want some offline offerings across a variety of things.

“Our job as a platform company is not to take an overly prescriptive point of view as to what’s best for each individual customer,” said Lanman. “Our job is to give partners a choice around how they want to merchandize and curate different experiences across offline, video, audio, one to many, one to one, etc. And then, we need to allow customers to choose how they want to allocate their time and their budget between offline and digital.”

Alongside the launch of ClassPass’s live video workout product, the company is also introducing other initiatives to help the fitness industry during this pandemic.

The first is a Partner Relief Fund, which allows users to donate to their favorite studios right from within the app. Moreover, ClassPass will match all donations up to $1 million.

The company is also calling on governments across the globe, via a change.org petition, to offer immediate financial assistance, alongside rent, loan and tax relief, for fitness businesses in particular. Thus far, the petition has signatures from Joey Gonzalez (Barry’s Bootcamp CEO), Andy Stenzler (Rumble CEO), Travis Frenzel (Flywheel Sports CEO) and more.

Categories: Business News

Espressive lands $30M Series B to build better help chatbots

2020, March 25 - 10:00pm

Espressive, a four-year-old startup from former ServiceNow employees, is working to build a better chatbot to reduce calls to company help desks. Today, the company announced a $30 million Series B investment.

Insight Partners led the round with help from Series A lead investor General Catalyst along with Wing Venture Capital. Under the terms of today’s agreement, Insight founder and managing director Jeff Horing will be joining the Espressive Board. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $53 million, according to the company.

Company founder and CEO Pat Calhoun says that when he was at ServiceNow he observed that, in many companies, employees often got frustrated looking for answers to basic questions. That resulted in a call to a Help Desk requiring human intervention to answer the question.

He believed that there was a way to automate this with AI-driven chatbots, and he founded Espressive to develop a solution. “Our job is to help employees get immediate answers to their questions or solutions or resolutions to their issues, so that they can get back to work,” he said.

They do that by providing a very narrowly focused natural language processing (NLP) engine to understand the question and find answers quickly, while using machine learning to improve on those answers over time.

“We’re not trying to solve every problem that NLP can address. We’re going after a very specific set of use cases which is really around employee language, and as a result, we’ve really tuned our engine to have the highest accuracy possible in the industry,” Calhoun told TechCrunch.

He says what they’ve done to increase accuracy is combine the NLP with image recognition technology. “What we’ve done is we’ve built our NLP engine on top of some image recognition architecture that’s really designed for a high degree of accuracy and essentially breaks down the phrase to understand the true meaning behind the phrase,” he said.

The solution is designed to provide a single immediate answer. If, for some reason, it can’t understand a request, it will open a help ticket automatically and route it to a human to resolve, but they try to keep that to a minimum. He says that when they deploy their solution, they tune it to the individual customers’ buzzwords and terminology.

So far they have been able to reduce help desk calls by 40% to 60% across customers with around 85% employee participation, which shows that they are using the tool and it’s providing the answers they need. In fact, the product understands 750 million employee phrases out of the box.

The company was founded in 2016. It currently has 65 employees and 35 customers, but with the new funding, both of those numbers should increase.

Categories: Business News

TripActions reportedly lays off hundreds amid COVID-19 travel freeze

2020, March 25 - 8:10pm

The coronavirus demand crunch has taken another bite: Palo Alto-based corporate travel-focused unicorn, TripActions, reportedly laid off hundreds of staff yesterday.

Per this post on Blind — written by someone with a verified TripActions email address — the company fired 350 people. Business Insider reported the same figure yesterday. While the Wall Street Journal said the layoffs amount to between one-quarter to one-fifth of the startup’s total staff, citing a person familiar with the situation.

In an email to CrunchBase News TripActions confirmed it has axed jobs in response to the COVID-19 global health crisis — saying it has “cut back on all non-essential spend”. Although it did not confirm exactly how many employees it has fired.

“[We] made the very difficult decision to reduce our global workforce in line with the current climate,” TripActions wrote in the statement. “We look forward to when the strength of the global economy and business travel inevitably return and we can hire back our colleagues to rejoin us in our mission to make business travel effortless for our customers and users.”

“This global health crisis is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes, and our hearts go out to everyone impacted around the world, including our own customers, partners, suppliers and employees,” it added. “The coronavirus has had [a] wide-reaching effect on the global economy. Every business has been impacted including TripActions. While we were fortunate to have recently raised funding and secured debt financing, we are taking appropriate steps in our business to ensure we are here for our customers and their travelers long into the future.”

Per the post on Blind, TripActions is providing one week of severance to sacked staff and medical cover until end of month. “With [the coronavirus pandemic] going on you think they would do better,” the OP wrote. The layoffs were made by Zoom call, they also said.

We’ve reached out to TripActions for comment.

Travel startups are facing an unprecedented nuclear winter as demand has fallen off a cliff globally — with little prospect of a substantial change to the freeze on most business travel in the coming months as rates of COVID-19 infections continue to grow exponentially outside China.

However TripActions is one of the highest valued and best financed of such startups — securing a $500M credit facility for a new corporate product only last month, when we noted Crunchbase had more than $480M in tracked equity funding for the company, including a $250M Series D TripActions raised in June from investors including a16z, Group 11, Lightspeed and Zeev Ventures.

Ahead of making the layoffs the company had already paused all hiring, per one former technical sourcer for the company writing on LinkedIn.

Three travel startups tell us how they’re responding to the coronavirus crisis

Categories: Business News

France announces $4.3B plan to support startups

2020, March 25 - 7:28pm

France’s Ministry of State for Digital Affairs Cédric O and public investment bank Bpifrance announced a comprehensive support plan for startups this morning. Some French startups are going to face revenue issues as well as funding issues in the coming months.

The French government wants to temporarily bridge that gap with refinancing and liquidity measures — overall it represents $4.3 billion (€4 billion).

“Startups represent a growing part the economy — especially when it comes to jobs,” Cédric O said in a statement. “They are also working on innovative products and services that have been particularly useful during the lockdown, such as telemedicine appointments, remote work solutions or deliveries.”

France has already announced a widespread economic support plan. French companies that are facing revenue issues can skip tax payments as well as rent and utility bills. The French government is mobilizing $320 billion (€300 billion) in liquidity support, which should make it much easier to get a loan as the government is backing loans.

More importantly, if your company has to stop its operations, France has a short-time working scheme to avoid layoffs. Employees receive 84% to 100% of their salary — the government will reimburse companies.

And yet, startups are always on the verge of bankruptcy. That’s why the French government is going one step further with a startup-focused support plan with additional measures.

First, startups that were in the process of raising a new funding round will be able to raise a bridge round through Bpifrance’s PIA (Programme d’Investissements d’Avenir). Some VC firms might retract term sheets, others might slow down their investment pace. Bpifrance is putting $86.7 million (€80 million) on the table. Private investors will co-invest as much as $86.7 million (€80 million) as well.

Second, the government is detailing liquidity support measures for startups. Just like other companies, they can borrow money as part of the $320 billion (€300 billion) liquidity scheme. For startups, they can borrow as much as two years of payroll for employees based in France or 25% of annual revenue — whichever is higher. This should represent $2.2 billion (€2 billion).

Third, startups can get tax returns more quickly, and in particular VAT returns and tax returns on research and development investments (crédit d’impôt recherche). This represents a liquidity injection of $1.6 billion (€1.5 billion).

Fourth, Bpifrance is speeding up public support payments. It is going to transfer $270 million (€250 million) ahead of schedule.

Categories: Business News

Looking back at Zoom’s ascent a year after it filed to go public

2020, March 25 - 7:34am

Zoom, a video chat service then popular with corporations, filed to go public on March 22, 2019.

Best known in venture and corporate circles, Zoom was far from a household name at the time. However, the groundwork for its 2020-era consumer breakthrough during the novel coronavirus epidemic was detailed during its IPO march in the years leading up to its public debut.

The company didn’t begin trading until mid-April last year, but it was through its March 2019 IPO filing that its name took on new prominence; here was a quickly growing software as a service (SaaS) business that was posting profits at the same time. As the rate at which unprofitable companies went public set records, Zoom’s growth and positive net income helped it gain brand recognition even before its shares began to trade.

Investors certainly recognized this was a rarity among SaaS companies, sending its IPO share price up 72% in its first day. The company’s equity has risen more than 100% since that first close, more than doubling in less than a year. Not bad in a market that has turned ice-cold in recent weeks.

To understand how Zoom became so valuable as a business — and later as a consumer product — let’s go back in time to consider its product and business strategies. As we’ll see, to become the video chat tool that everyone is using today, Zoom had to beat a host of entrenched competition. And it did so while making money, helping set the financial stage for its prominence today.

Product history
Categories: Business News

Swiss startup Creal is building display tech for the next generation of AR/VR headsets

2020, March 25 - 6:10am

After years of hype, the AR/VR space has certainly grown quieter as of late, but some investors are still coalescing behind a vision that the technologies could one day replace mobile if the technical kinks can be worked out.

Creal is a Swiss startup that’s working on some fundamental display technologies that could make VR and AR headsets more comfortable with more life-like optics.

The startup raised a $7.4 million Series A last year from Investiere and DAA Capital Partners. The company announced this week that they received grant funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program to continue working on their light-field display tech.

Can Apple keep the AR industry alive?

Light-field displays are a category of displays that are quite a bit different than anything you’ve seen. While existing AR and VR headsets can show you stereoscopic 3D by displaying slightly different images to each of your eyes, future headsets will allow you to change what’s in and out of focus based on where your eyes are looking. The big optics issue this solves for is called the vergence-accommodation conflict, and it allows for interacting with objects closer to your face and functionally makes reading in VR quite a bit more effective as well.

Here’s a “through-the-lens” demo of the startup’s technology from a video posted last year:

There are varying degrees of how the technology is implemented. Magic Leap rolled out a lightweight version of its technology in its headset that leverages a pair of focal planes that are switched between with eye-tracking. This “varifocal” approach is also something that Facebook is investing in; they’ve showcased prototype headsets that allow users to shift their focus between multiple planes.

Oculus shows off its latest next-generation headset prototypes

Creal is having to deal with some of the same struggles as its big company counterparts have when it comes to making sacrifices in order to miniaturize the technology. Integrating their tech into a virtual reality headset is the nearest-term target for the company, though they have ambitions to integrate into lightweight AR headsets within the next several years.

Startups building tech like Creal may be particularly at risk to a global recession, when investment in frontier technologies typically takes a big hit. A prolonged period of economic instability will almost certainly tilt the scales in the favor of big tech companies like Facebook, as startups approaching the same advances will likely be forced to push out roadmaps and cut costs in order to survive.

While Oculus has seen some recent success in expanding the VR market niche, augmented reality hardware has been an incredibly tough sell for startups. A number of companies in the space shut down last year, including Meta, ODG and Daqri. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that Magic Leap was positioning itself for a sale after raising billions of dollars in funding.

Categories: Business News

Control each other’s apps with new screensharing tool Screen

2020, March 25 - 5:33am

It’s like Google Docs for everything. Screen is a free interactive multiplayer screensharing app that gives everyone a cursor so they can navigate, draw on, and even code within the apps of their co-workers while voice or video chatting. Screen makes it easy and fun to co-design content, pair program, code review or debug together, or get feedback from a teacher.

Jahanzeb Sherwani sold his last screensharing tool ScreenHero to Slack, but it never performed as well crammed inside the messaging app. Five years later, he’s accelerated the launch of Screen to today and made it free to help all the teams stuck working from home amidst coronavirus shelter-in-place orders. 

Sherwani claims that Screen is “2x-5x faster than other screen sharing tools, and has between 30ms-50ms end-to-end latency. Most other screen sharing tools have between 100ms-150ms.” For being built by just a two-person team, Screen has a remarkable breadth of features that are all responsive and intuitive.

A few things you can do with Screen:

  • Share your screen from desktop on Mac, Windows and Linux while chatting over audio or video calling in a little overlaid window, or join a call and watch from your browser or mobile
  • Use your cursor on someone else’s shared screen so you can control or type anything just like it was your computer
  • Overlay drawing on the screenshare so you can annotate things like “this is misspelled” or “move this there”, with doodles fading away after a few second unless your hold down your mouse or turn on caps lock
  • Post ephemeral text comments so you can collaborate even if you have to be quiet
  • Launch Screen meetings from Slack and schedule them Google Calendar integration
  • Share invite links with anyone with no need to log in or be at the same company, just be careful who you let control your Screen

Normally Screen is free for joining meetings, $10 per month to host them, and $20 per person per month for enterprise teams. But Sherwani writes that for now it’s free to host too “so you can stay healthy & productive during the coronavirus outbreak.” If you can afford to pay, you should though as “We’re trying this as an experiment in the hope that the number of paid users is sufficient to pay for our running costs to help us stay break-even.”

Sherwani’s new creation could become an acquisition target for video call giants like Zoom, but he might not be so willing to sell this time around. Founded in 2013, Screenhero was incredibly powerful for its time, offering some of the collaboration tools now in Screen. But after it was acquired by Slack after raising just $1.8 million, Screenhero never got the integration it deserved.

“We finally shipped interactive screen sharing almost three years later, but it wasn’t as performant as Screenhero, and was eventually removed in 2019” Sherwani writes. “Given that it was used by a tiny fraction of Slack’s user-base, and had a high maintenance cost, this was the correct decision for Slack .” Still, he explains why a company like Screen is better off independent. “Embedding one complex piece of software in another imposes a lot more constraints, which makes it more expensive to build. It’s far easier to have a standalone app that just does one thing well.”

Screen actually does a lot of things well. I tried it with my wife, and the low latency and extensive flexibility made it downright delightful to try co-writing this article. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of social use cases springing up if teens get ahold of Screen. The whole concept of screensharing is getting popularized by apps like Squad and Instagram’s new Co-Watching feature that launched today.

The new Co-Watching feature is like screensharing just for Instagram

Eventually, Screen wants to launch a virtual office feature so you can just instantly pull co-workers into meetings. That could make it feel a lot more like collaborating in the same room with someone, where you can start a conversation at any time. Screen could also democratize the remote work landscape by shifting meetings from top-down broadcasts by managers to jam sessions where everyone has a say.

Sherwani concludes, “When working together, everyone needs to have a seat at the table”.

Categories: Business News

Motion website blocker aims to improve your focus online as you WFH

2020, March 25 - 4:26am

Y Combinator’s latest class of startups arrived to a fairly lukewarm public reception last week as the world melted down in the midst of the accelerator’s virtual demo day. While the startups didn’t anticipate launching into mid-pandemic markets, some seem more poised to succeed in this new environment than others.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been playing around with one of those startups’ tools. Motion, a free Chrome productivity plugin, tries to lead you away from visiting sites that you feel aren’t great for your productivity. It was a nice-to-have tool for the weeks preceding SF’s shelter in place mandate, but since I’ve started working from home full-time, all-the-time, forever, the tool has become a welcome way to separate my for-work online browsing and the for-boredom online browsing after 6pm.

A plugin that blocks websites you don’t want to visit is hardly revolutionary. There are plenty of these plugins already, but as is the case with all software, sometimes a few UX advances make all the difference. With Motion, the differentiation is the underlying psychology of the product, which eschews the central focus on black lists and white lists, instead promoting the idea of helpful pushes more in spirit with OS-level screen-time apps.

After installing Motion, you can set your productive hours and designate the sites you deem as beneficial and harmful to your productivity. For instance, I wanted to cut out Reddit, Facebook and YouTube from my work-hours browsing. Now, going forward, any time that you type in the URL of an offending website, the plugin will throw you a full-page alert that you can dismiss or temporarily hush.

Telling it that you need a minute will actually toss a countdown timer onto the screen, pushing you to get what you “need” out of Facebook or Reddit. Once that timer runs out, you can extend your abbreviated binge or take the preferred route — clicking a button that closes out the tab. The UX of the app makes room for exceptions, but still pushes users to reduce time on those sites, a big differentiator from more absolutist options.

One of Motion’s best features offers a diagnosable snapshot of your web browsing habits when you first open your browser each day. The screen shares the time you spent on each site during the previous day, allowing you to track how the tool has reduced your browsing time on certain sites and identify other URLs that you may also want to block.

Motion as a product is still in its early stages of evolution, and I’ve seen a number of improvements over my few weeks of usage, what I’ll be most curious to see is how the founding team shapes the product into a viable business moving forward. The free Chrome plug-in as a service model hasn’t proven itself yet, but the founding team has ambitions for creating paid tiers and enterprise products down the road, once the core product has been built out a bit more.

Motion co-founders Omid Rooholfada, Ethan Yu and Harry Qi

 

Categories: Business News

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