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FamPay, a fintech aimed at teens in India, raises $38 million

2021, June 16 - 7:30am

How big is the market in India for a neobank aimed at teenagers? Scores of high-profile investors are backing a startup to find out.

Bangalore-based FamPay said on Wednesday it has raised $38 million in its Series A round led by Elevation Capital. General Catalyst, Rocketship VC, Greenoaks Capital and existing investors Sequoia Capital India, Y Combinator, Global Founders Capital and Venture Highway also participated in the new round, which brings FamPay’s to-date raise to $42.7 million.

The size of the new investment makes it one of the largest Series A rounds in India. TechCrunch reported early this month that FamPay was in talks with Elevation Capital to raise a new round.

Founded by Sambhav Jain and Kush Taneja (pictured above) — both of whom graduated from Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee in 2019 — FamPay enables teenagers to make online and offline payments.

The thesis behind the startup, said Jain in an interview with TechCrunch, is to provide financial literacy to teenagers, who additionally have limited options to open a bank account in India at a young age. Through gamification, the startup said it’s making lessons about money fun for youngsters.

Unlike in the U.S., where it’s common for teenagers to get jobs at restaurants and other places and understand how to handle money at a young age, a similar tradition doesn’t exist in India.

After gathering the consent from parents, FamPay provides teenagers with an app to make online purchases, as well as plastic cards — the only numberless card of its kind in the country — for offline transactions. Parents credit money to their children’s FamPay accounts and get to keep track of high-ticket spendings.

In other markets, including the U.S., a number of startups including Greenlight, Step and Till Financial are chasing to serve the teenagers, but in India, there currently is no startup looking to solve the financial access problem for teenagers, said Mridul Arora, a partner at Elevation Capital, in an interview with TechCrunch.

It could prove to be a good issue to solve — India has the largest adolescent population in the world.

“If you’re able to serve them at a young age, over a course of time, you stand to become their go-to product for a lot of things,” Arora said. “FamPay is serving a population that is very attractive and at the same time underserved.”

The current offerings of FamPay are just the beginning, said Jain. Eventually the startup wishes to provide a range of services and serve as a neobank for youngsters to retain them with the platform forever, he said, though he didn’t wish to share currently what those services might be.

Image Credits: FamPay

Teens represent the “most tech-savvy generation, as they haven’t seen a world without the internet,” he said. “They adapt to technology faster than any other target audience and their first exposure with the internet comes from the likes of Instagram and Netflix. This leads to higher expectations from the products that they prefer to use. We are unique in approaching banking from a whole new lens with our recipe of community and gamification to match the Gen Z vibe.”

“I don’t look at FamPay just as a payments service. If the team is able to execute this, FamPay can become a very powerful gateway product to teenagers in India and their financial life. It can become a neobank, and it also has the opportunity to do something around social, community and commerce,” said Arora.

During their college life, Jain and Taneja collaborated and built an app and worked at a number of startups, including social network ShareChat, logistics firm Rivigo and video streaming service Hotstar. Jain said their work with startups in the early days paved the idea to explore a future in this ecosystem.

Prior to arriving at FamPay, Jain said the duo had thought about several more ideas for a startup. The early days of FamPay were uniquely challenging to the founders, who had to convince their parents about their decision to do a startup rather than joining firms or startups as had most of their peers from college. Until being selected by Y Combinator, Jain said he didn’t even fully understand a cap table and dilutions.

He credited entrepreneurs such as Kunal Shah (founder of CRED) and Amrish Rau (CEO of Pine Labs) for being generous with their time and guidance. They also wrote some of the earliest checks to the startup.

The startup, which has amassed over 2 million registered users, plans to deploy the fresh capital to expand its user base and product offerings, and hire engineers. It is also looking for people to join its leadership team, said Jain.

Investors race to win early-stage startup deals in India

Categories: Business News

Edtech investors are flocking to SaaS guidance counselors

2021, June 16 - 7:15am

ApplyBoard, a startup that helps international students find opportunities to study abroad, announced today that it has nearly doubled its valuation in a little over a year. The Ontario-based company is now worth around $3.2 billion after raising a $300 million Series D round led by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board.

Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases.

ApplyBoard makes money from revenue-sharing agreements with colleges and universities. If a student attends a college after using their services, ApplyBoard receives a cut of the tuition. Meanwhile, the service, which helps students search and apply to schools, is free to use.

Co-founder and CEO Martin Basiri did not share specifics on revenue, but he confirmed that his company is growing its sales at a 400% year-over-year rate in 2021. For context, sales in 2019 hit $300 million, meaning that ApplyBoard is making at least $1.2 billion in sales this year.

These figures violate the prevailing edtech narrative from last year: Higher ed is dead! Students don’t want to attend college anymore. Bring back the gap year, but make it permanent!

Instead, this company is proving that the university tech stack is more lucrative than many assumed, especially if you look beyond content offerings and into back-end marketing support.

My take: Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases.

“Students want a seamless and pain-free application process”

ApplyBoard’s recent fundraising efforts shed a light on its strategy to become, effectively, a tech-savvy guidance counselor for the approximately 200,000 students that it has served to date.

The company raised a $55 million extension round in September to bring on a partner, Education Testing Services (ETS) Strategy Capital, the venture arm of the world’s largest nonprofit education testing and assessment organization. ETS helps administer the TOEFL English-language proficiency test and the GRE graduate admissions test.

The synergies there led ApplyBoard to launch ApplyProof, a service that helps admissions and immigrant officers verify documents that international students need to apply to colleges around the world. Today’s financing event similarly brings in a strategic investor, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

“The demand remains high post-pandemic and we continue to see a strong, pent-up demand from students wishing to study abroad,” Basiri said. “Students want a seamless and pain-free application process and be able to have all the information they need to make an informed decision.”

Categories: Business News

Uberall raises $115M, acquires MomentFeed to scale up its location marketing services

2021, June 16 - 5:00am

Location-based services may have had their day as a salient category for hot apps or innovative tech leveraging the arrival of smartphones, but that’s largely because they are now part of the unspoken fabric of how we interact with digital services every day: We rely on location-specific information when we are on search engines, when we are using maps or weather apps, when we are taking and posting photos and more.

Still, there remain a lot of gaps in how location information links up with accurate information, and so today a company that’s made it its business to address that is announcing some funding as it scales up its service.

Uberall, which works with retailers and other brick-and-mortar operators to help them update and provide more accurate information about themselves across the plethora of apps and other services that consumers use to discover them, is announcing $115 million in funding. Alongside that, the Berlin startup is making an acquisition: it’s buying MomentFeed, a location marketing company based out of Los Angeles, to continue scaling its business.

The funding is being led by London-based investor Bregal Milestone, with Level Equity, United Internet and Uberall management also participating. From what we understand from sources, the funding values Uberall at around $500 million, and the deal for MomentFeed was made for between $50 million and $60 million.

The business combination is building way more scale into the platform: Uberall said that together they will manage the online presence for 1.35 million business locations, making the company the biggest in the field, with customers including the gas station operator BP, KFC, clothes and food chain Marks and Spencer, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.

Florian Hübner, the CEO and co-founder of Uberall, noted in an interview that the companies have quite a lot of overlap, and in fact prior to the deal being made the companies worked together closely in the U.S. market, but all the same, MomentFeed has built some specific technology that will enrich the wider platform, such as a particularly strong tool for measuring sentiment analysis.

“Managing the online presence” is not a company’s website, nor is it its apps, but may nevertheless be its most common digital touchpoints when it comes to actually engaging with consumers online. It includes how those companies appear on local listings services like Yelp or TripAdvisor, or mapping apps like Google’s — which provide not just listings information like addresses and opening hours but also customer reviews — or social apps or location-based advertising. Altogether, when you are considering a company with multiple locations and the multiple touchpoints a consumer might use, it ends up being a complicated mess of places that need to be managed and kept up to date.

“We are the catalyst for this huge ecosystem where we enable the brands to use everything that the other tech platforms are offering in the best possible way,” Hübner told me. The tech platforms, meanwhile, are willing to work with middleware companies like Uberall to make the information on their services more accurate and complete by connecting with businesses when they have not managed to do so directly on their own. (And if you’ve ever been caught out by the wrong opening times on a Google Maps entry, or any other entry or piece of information elsewhere, you know this is an issue.)

And of course expecting any company with potentially hundreds of locations to provide the right details without a tool is also a nonstarter. “Casually updating 100,000 profiles is super hard,” Hübner said.

It also provides services to update information about vaccine and COVID-19 testing clinics, as well as other essential services that also have to contend with the same variations in location, opening hours and customer feedback as any other business on a site like Google Maps.

As the economy reopens, startups are uniquely positioned to recruit talent

Altogether, Uberall has built out a platform that essentially connects up all of those end points, so that an Uberall customer can use a dashboard to provide updates that populate automatically everywhere, and also to read and respond to reviews.

Conversely, Uberall also can look out for instances where a company is being unofficially represented, or misrepresented, and locks those down. Alongside those, it has built a location-based marketing service that also serves ads for its customers. It is somewhat akin to social media management tools, which let you manage social media accounts and social media marketing campaigns, except that it’s covering a much more fragmented and disparate set of places where a company might appear online.

The bigger picture here is that just as location-based marketing is a fragmented business, so is the business of providing services to manage it. This move reduces down that field a little more and improves the efficiency of scaling such services.

“As we saw the market trending towards consolidation, we considered several potential companies to merge with. Uberall was by far our most preferred,” said MomentFeed CEO Nick Hedges in a statement. “This combination makes enormous strategic sense for our customers, who represent the who’s-who of leading U.S. omni channel brands. It helps accelerate our already rapid pace of innovation, giving customers an even greater edge in the hyper-competitive world of ’Near Me’ Marketing.” After the deal closes, Hedges will become Uberall’s chief strategy officer and EVP for North America.

“We are thrilled to partner with the Uberall team for this next phase of growth. Our strategic investment will significantly accelerate Uberall’s ambition to become the leading ‘Near Me’ Customer Experience platform worldwide. Uberall’s differentiated full-suite solution is unsurpassed by competition in terms of integration and functionality, providing customers with a real edge to reach, interact with, and convert online customers. We look forward to supporting Florian, Nick and their talented team to deliver on their exciting innovation and expansion roadmap,” said Cyrus Shey, managing partner of Bregal Milestone, in a statement.

Categories: Business News

Extra Crunch roundup: TC Mobility recaps, Nubank EC-1, farewell to browser cookies

2021, June 16 - 4:56am

What, exactly, are investors looking for?

Early-stage founders, usually first-timers, often tie themselves in knots as they try to project the qualities they hope investors are seeking. In reality, few entrepreneurs have the acting skills required to convince someone that they’re patient, dedicated or hard-working.

Johan Brenner, general partner at Creandum, was an early backer of Klarna, Spotify and several other European startups. Over the last two decades, he’s identified five key traits shared by people who create billion-dollar companies.

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“A true unicorn founder doesn’t need to have all of those capabilities on Day One,” says Brenner, “but they should already be thinking big while executing small and demonstrating that they understand how to scale a company.”

Drawing from observations gleaned from working with founders like Spotify’s Daniel Ek, Sebastian Siemiatkowski from Klarna, and iZettle’s Jacob de Geer and Magnus Nilsson, Brenner explains where “VC FOMO” comes from and how it drives dealmaking.

We’re running a series of posts that recap conversations from last week’s virtual TC Mobility conference, including an interview with Refraction AI’s Matthew Johnson, a look at how autonomous delivery startups are navigating the regulatory and competitive landscape, and much more. There are many more recaps to come; click here to find them all.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch!

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch

How to identify unicorn founders when they’re still early-stage

How contrarian hires and a pitch deck started Nubank’s $30 billion fintech empire

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Founded in 2013 and based in São Paulo, Brazil, Nubank serves more than 34 million customers, making it Latin America’s largest neobank.

Reporter Marcella McCarthy spoke to CEO David Velez to learn about his efforts to connect with consumers and overcome entrenched opposition from established players who were friendly with regulators.

In the first of a series of stories for Nubank’s EC-1, she interviewed Velez about his early fundraising efforts. For a balanced perspective, she also spoke to early Nubank investors at Sequoia and Kaszek Ventures, Latin America’s largest venture fund, to find out why they funded the startup while it was still pre-product.

“There are people you come across in life that within the first hour of meeting with them, you know you want to work with them,” said Doug Leone, a global managing partner at Sequoia who’d recruited Velez after he graduated from grad school at Stanford.

Marcella also interviewed members of Nubank’s founding team to better understand why they decided to take a chance on a startup that faced such long odds of success.

“I left banking to make a fifth of my salary, and back then, about $5,000 in equity,” said Vitor Olivier, Nubank’s VP of operations and platforms.

“Financially, it didn’t really make sense, so I really had to believe that it was really going to work, and that it would be big.”

How contrarian hires and a pitch deck started Nubank’s $30 billion fintech empire

Despite flat growth, ride-hailing colossus Didi’s US IPO could reach $70B

Image Credits: Didi

In his last dispatch before a week’s vacation, Alex Wilhelm waded through the numbers in Didi’s SEC filing. The big takeaways?

“While Didi managed an impressive GTV recovery in China, its aggregate numbers are flatter, and recent quarterly trends are not incredibly attractive,” he writes.

However, “Didi is not as unprofitable as we might have anticipated. That’s a nice surprise. But the company’s regular business has never made money, and it’s losing more lately than historically, which is also pretty rough.”

Despite flat growth, ride-hailing colossus Didi’s US IPO could reach $70B

What’s driving the rise of robotaxis in China with AutoX, Momenta and WeRide

AutoX, Momenta and WeRide took the stage at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to discuss the state of robotaxi startups in China and their relationships with local governments in the country.

They also talked about overseas expansion — a common trajectory for China’s top autonomous vehicle startups — and shed light on the challenges and opportunities for foreign AV companies eyeing the massive Chinese market.

What’s driving the rise of robotaxis in China with AutoX, Momenta and WeRide

The air taxi market prepares to take flight

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

“As in any disruptive industry, the forecast may be cloudier than the rosy picture painted by passionate founders and investors,” Aria Alamalhodaei writes. “A quick peek at comments and posts on LinkedIn reveals squabbles among industry insiders and analysts about when this emerging technology will truly take off and which companies will come out ahead.”

But while some electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) companies have no revenue yet to speak of — and may not for the foreseeable future — valuations are skyrocketing.

“Electric air mobility is gaining elevation,” she writes. “But there’s going to be some turbulence ahead.”

The air taxi market prepares to take flight

The demise of browser cookies could create a Golden Age of digital marketing

Image Credits: Kwanchai Lerttanapunyaporn / EyeEm (opens in a new window)

Though some may say the doomsday clock is ticking toward catastrophe for digital marketing, Apple’s iOS 14.5 update, which does away with automatic opt-ins for data collection, and Google’s plan to phase out third-party cookies do not signal a death knell for digital advertisers.

“With a few changes to short-term strategy — and a longer-term plan that takes into account the fact that people are awakening to the value of their online data — advertisers can form a new type of relationship with consumers,” CTO Hunter Jensen writes in a guest column. “It can be built upon trust and open exchange of value.”

If offered the right incentives, Jensen predicts, “consumers will happily consent to data collection because advertisers will be offering them something they value in return.”

The demise of browser cookies could create a Golden Age of digital marketing

How autonomous delivery startups are navigating policy, partnerships and post-pandemic operations

Image Credits: Nuro

We kicked off this year’s TC Sessions: Mobility with a talk featuring three leading players in the field of autonomous delivery. Gatik co-founder and chief engineer Apeksha Kumavat, Nuro head of operations Amy Jones Satrom, and Starship Technologies co-founder and CTO Ahti Heinla joined us to discuss their companies’ unique approaches to the category.

The trio discussed government regulation on autonomous driving, partnerships with big corporations like Walmart and Domino’s, and the ongoing impact the pandemic has had on interest in the space.

How autonomous delivery startups are navigating policy, partnerships and post-pandemic operations

Waabi’s Raquel Urtasun explains why it was the right time to launch an AV technology startup

Image Credits: Waabi via Natalia Dola

Raquel Urtasun, the former chief scientist at Uber ATG, is the founder and CEO of Waabi, an autonomous vehicle startup that came out of stealth mode last week. The Toronto-based company, which will focus on trucking, raised an impressive $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures.

Urtasun joined Mobility 2021 to talk about her new venture, the challenges facing the self-driving vehicle industry and how her approach to AI can be used to advance the commercialization of AVs.

Waabi’s Raquel Urtasun explains why it was the right time to launch an AV technology startup

Categories: Business News

Meet the mobile therapy startup backed by Christian Angermayer’s re:Mind Capital

2021, June 16 - 4:23am

Mental health startup Ksana Health has received $2 million in seed funding led by re:Mind Capital, the mental health VC arm of Christian Angermayer and Apeiron Investment Group. It’s a move informed by two trends: passive data collection, and a burgeoning mental health crisis in teens and young adults. 

Ksana Health is an Oregon-based company founded two years ago by University of Oregon Professor Nicholas Allen, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Digital Mental Health. Ksana’s platforms focus on collecting data related to mental health, and transfer that data from user to healthcare practitioners through an app. It’s, in essence, a mobile therapy app with a highly detailed dashboard of patient information. 

The company has 12 employees, and other investors in the round include WPSS Investments, Panoramic Ventures, the Telosity Fund, Palo Santo Venture Fund and Able Partners. 

So far, Ksana Health has one live product called the Effortless Assessment Research System (EARS), which is designed for institutions conducting clinical research. Participants in clinical trials can download an app and opt-in to sharing with the trial’s investigators data, including movement, location (via GPS), keystrokes and patterns in written language content (no specific messages are shared). The app’s connection also goes two ways: trial administrators can send out things like surveys to keep in touch with participants. 

The EARS product, says Allen, has already generated about $900,000 in revenue based on usage in clinical trials, but this most recent round of funding is geared toward another product called Vira, aimed at consumers. 

Vira will also passively collect data like exercise (via an accelerometer), screen time, keystrokes or location-based data via a smartphone or smart device. Screenshots from Vira’s dashboard also include sleep data, though that’s not specifically listed as a recorded variable on the company’s website at the moment. Instead of funneling that data to a clinical trial, the data will be accessible to a patient’s therapist. 

What happens to edtech when kids go back to school?

The user would give a therapist a personalized code that allows them to access data collected on their phone. Then, a therapist might discuss those habits, and program behavioral nudges to pop up on a phone during the day, reminding the user to exercise, or wind down before bed. 

“Basically what this system does is it allows some of the data that’s been collected by the way people use their cell phones in a day to day fashion [to be turned] into indicators of important health behaviors that we know are relevant to mental health — so things like sleep, physical activity, geographic mobility, mood, cognition, social connection,” Allen says. 

Vira is a major force of forward momentum for Ksana Health. The company was also selected as part of the insurance company Anthem Inc.’s, Digital Incubator program. That inclusion allows Vira to be trialed within Beacon Health Options, a behavioral health company with 37 million members. 

Vira has yet to launch, but the key audience, says Allen, is people 13 to 30 years old. Rates of mental health issues within this group have increased (even before the pandemic). 

In 2019, a study in “Abnormal Psychology” analyzing data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the rate of young adults (18 to 25) reporting signs of major depression jumped 63% (from 7.7 to 13.1%) between 2009 and 2017. Meanwhile, there was no significant increase in the percentage of older adults experiencing mental distress or depression in that study. 

The answer Vira seems to offer is extremely detailed data on well-being that will be funneled to a therapist. Data collection in the mental health space isn’t unheard of — some AI-based mental health chatbots do indeed analyze user conversations, but those conversations happen within the confines of an app. Vira, conversely, is capable of constantly collecting data on a variety of variables that are passively trackable by a phone, and have some bearing on mental health. 

Critically, there are no clinical trials of Vira itself right now, but the concept of the app is based on research that verifies each one of its individual parts. For instance, there is evidence that language used on social media can predict mood disorders, and that lack of sleep (or in some cases, excessive sleep) is linked to anxiety and depression

In some sense, Ksana Health is somewhat reminiscent of a cadre of software betting that improving mental health is partially a factor of increased vigilance of digital life, particularly among teens. AI-based software like GoGuardian for instance, has been used in school to record students keystrokes or search histories in an attempt to head off student suicides. 

GoGuardian was used in Clark County in Nevada, home to the fifth largest school district in the country, and flagged 3,100 potential signs of self-harm between June and October 2020.

Like GoGuardian, Ksana Health also catalogs digital activity as an indicator of mental health (note the inclusion of key strokes and language patterns, not just health variables like exercise), but Ksana Health’s focus also appears to be less on flagging harmful behavior automatically, and more about providing an extremely detailed data dashboard to a human therapist. 

“Our focus initially is to keep, for want of a better term, a human in the loop,” says Allen. Ksana Health also isn’t AI-based, so it may be harder to scale, but Allen sees this as a benefit, not a liability. 

“That’s why we’re focused on embedding this within practitioners,” he says. “There’s obvious appeal to the scale of a fully automated solution, you know you can scale it up very quickly. But I think the problems with safety are very significant in those systems.” 

This comprehensive array of data, but particularly the language component, says Jan Hardorp, a founding partner at re:Mind Capital, is one aspect that attracted the firm to Ksana Health. Hardorp will also have a seat on Ksana Health’s board. 

“We believe that language is very strong and variable, and then combined with other sensors, is a very good technological basis in order to assess and predict mental state and depression,” he says. 

The move fits within re:Mind’s somewhat unconventional approaches to mental health: Angermayer held a 22% stake in Compass Pathways, a company pursuing psychedelics as a fast-acting treatment for depression. That stake was worth about $316 million during the company’s September 2020 IPO. Angermayer’s other public investments span from cryptocurrencies to cannabis

Hardorp says that overall, re:Mind’s activities are focused on one-third novel treatments (like psychedelics), one-third brain computer interfaces and one-third technology. Ksana Health fits squarely in that third category. 

Allen says the company is already planning clinical trials of the Vira program in addition to the pilot program with Beacon Health. But Hardorp notes that so far, the lack of clinical trials on Vira itself hasn’t given him pause. He takes the strength of the EARS platform as a signal that Ksana Health’s platform is viable in the real world. 

“We’re quite confident that it’s really the same technology. The Vira product, if you want, is really a new front-end to existing technology and algorithms,” he says. 

At the moment, the Vira platform isn’t commercially available, but Allen is anticipating a launch in the first quarter of 2022. 


Categories: Business News

How to identify unicorn founders when they’re still early-stage

2021, June 16 - 3:11am
Johan Brenner Contributor Share on Twitter Johan Brenner, general partner at Creandum, early backer of iZettle, Klarna, Trade Republic, Vivino, Neo4J and many more.

As an early-stage VC, you spend time with hundreds of fantastic startups, trying to identify potential winners by thinking about market size, business model and competition. Nevertheless, deep down you know that in the long run, it all comes down to the team and the founder(s).

When we look at the most successful companies in our portfolio, their amazing performance is in large part thanks to the founders. However, even after 20 years in the industry, I have to admit that analyzing the team is still the most challenging part of the job. How do you evaluate a young first-time entrepreneur of an early-stage company with little traction?

The best founders are humble and well aware of their weaknesses and limitations as well as the potential challenges for their startup.

At Creandum, in the past 18 years, we have been fortunate to work with some of Europe’s most successful startup founders such as Daniel Ek from Spotify, Sebastian Siemiatkowski from Klarna, Johannes Schildt from Kry, Jacob de Geer and Magnus Nilsson from iZettle, Emil Eifrem from Neo4J, Christian Hecker from Trade Republic and many more.

After a while, we realized that these incredible entrepreneurs all share some fundamental characteristics. They all have lots of energy, work hard, show patience, perseverance and resilience. But on top of that, all these unicorn founders share five key traits that, as an investor, you should look for when you back them at an early stage.

They know what they don’t know

Many people expect a typical startup founder to be very confident and have a strong sales mentality. While they should definitely live up to those expectations, the best founders are also humble and well aware of their weaknesses and limitations as well as the potential challenges for their startup.

They keep wanting to learn, improve and grow the business beyond what average people have the energy and drive to manage.

Categories: Business News

Solar concentration startup Heliogen basks in $108M of new funding

2021, June 16 - 2:49am

Sunlight is a great source of energy, but it rarely gets hot enough to fry an egg, let alone melt steel. Heliogen aims to change that with its high-tech concentrated solar technique, and has raised more than a hundred million dollars to test its 1,000-degree solar furnace at a few participating mines and refineries.

We covered Heliogen when it made its debut in 2019, and the details in that article still get at the core of the company’s tech. Computer vision techniques are used to carefully control a large set of mirrors, which reflect and concentrate the sun’s light to the extent that it can reach in excess of 1,000 degrees Celsius, almost twice what previous solar concentrators could do. “It’s like a death ray,” founder Bill Gross explained then.

That lets the system replace fossil fuels and other legacy systems in many applications where such temperatures are required, for example mining and smelting operations. By using a Heliogen concentrator, they could run on sunlight during much of the day and only rely on other sources at night, potentially halving their fuel expenditure and consequently both saving money and stepping toward a greener future.

Heliogen’s new tech could unlock renewable energy for industrial manufacturing

Both goals hint at why utilities and a major mining and steel-making company are now investors. Heliogen raised a $25 million A-2, led by Prime Movers Lab, but soon also pulled together a much larger “bridge extension round” in their terminology of $83 million that brought in the miner ArcelorMittal, Edison International, Ocgrow Ventures, A.T. Gekko and more.

The money will be used both to continue development of the “Sunlight Refinery,” as Heliogen calls it, and deploy some actual on-site installations that would work in real production workflows at scale. “We are constantly making design and cost improvements to increase efficiency and decrease costs,” a representative of the company told me.

One of those pilot sites will be in Boron, California, where Rio Tinto operates a borates mine and will include Heliogen’s tech as part of its usual on-site processes, according to an MOU signed in March. Another MOU with ArcelorMittal will “evaluate the potential of Heliogen’s products in several of ArcelorMittal’s steel plants.” Facilities are planned in the U.S., MENA and Asia Pacific areas.

Beyond mining and smelting, the technique could be used to generate hydrogen in a zero-carbon way. That would be a big step toward building a working hydrogen infrastructure for next-generation fuel supply, since current methods make it difficult to do without relying on fossil fuels in the first place. And no doubt there are other industrial processes that could benefit from a free and zero-carbon source of high heat.

“We’re being granted the resources to do more projects that address the most carbon-intensive human activities and work toward our goals of lowering the price and emissions of energy for everyone on the planet,” Gross said in a release announcing the round(s). “We thank all of our investors for enabling us to pursue our mission and offer the world technology that will allow it to achieve a post-carbon economy.”

What’s behind this year’s boom in climate tech SPACs?

Categories: Business News

Europe’s tech leaders define a strategy to create tech giants

2021, June 16 - 2:20am

A group of 200 startup founders, investors, associations and government members are backing a manifesto and a set of recommendations in order to create the next wave of tech giants in Europe. Today, French President Emmanuel Macron is hosting an event in Paris with some of the members of this group called Scale-Up Europe.

Companies, investors and associations that signed the manifesto include Alan, Axel Springer, Bpifrance, Darktrace, Deutsche Startups, Doctolib, Eurazeo, Flixbus, France Digitale, Glovo, La French Tech, N26, OVHcloud, Shift Technology, Stripe, UiPath and Wise.

“To achieve all that, I’ll follow your ambition — 10 technology companies that are worth €100 billion or more by 2030,” Macron said.

That’s an ambitious goal — that’s why Scale-Up Europe has laid out a roadmap and is issuing a report. While it is backed by both private actors and public institutions, it could be considered as a sort of lobbying effort for the European Commission and European governments.

There are a handful of key topics in those recommendations. And it starts with funding. In particular, the group thinks Europe is still lagging behind when it comes to late-stage investments. The biggest VC funds aren’t as big as the biggest VC funds in the U.S. or in China.

The French government has been working on a way to foster late-stage funds and investments in public tech companies in France. “On funding, we’ve seen the success of the Tibi initiative at the French level. We think we should follow that model at the European level,” a source close to Macron told me.

It means that Europe should consider using public funding as a multiplier effect for VC funds. The European Investment Fund is already pouring a lot of money in VC funds. But Scale-Up Europe recommends associating private funds of funds, sharing risk and pooling public investment banks for increased collaboration.

Macron announces €5 billion late-stage investment pledge from institutional investors

The second topic is foreign talent. Some countries already have a tech worker visa. The group thinks it should be standardized across the European Union with some level of portability for social rights.

A couple of years ago, an open letter called “Not Optional” also highlighted some discrepancies with stock option schemes. Today’s report states once again that some governments should adopt more favorable rules with stock options.

30 European startup CEOs call for better stock option policies

The third topic revolves around deep tech startups. According to the report, Europe isn’t doing enough to foster more deep tech startups and investors. Recommendations include standardizing patent transfer frameworks. Those schemes are important if you want to turn a research project into a company. It also says that the European Innovation Council could also take on a larger role in defining a deep tech roadmap.

Scale-Up Europe then highlights some recommendations to improve relationships between big corporations and startups. These are mostly tax breaks, R&D tax benefits and other fiscal incentives. (I’m personally not convinced there will be more European tech giants if we incentivize acquisitions with tax breaks.)

Finally, the group of investors, founders and government members behind Scale-Up Europe think there should be a European tech mission that works a bit like La French Tech in France. This tech mission could clear regulatory hurdles, promote startups and more.

Overall, those recommendations are mostly focused on making it easier to create — and grow — a startup in Europe. Investors as well as startup employees who hold stock options will be quite pleased to see that it’ll be easier to make money quickly. It’ll be interesting to see whether the European Commission reuses some of these recommendations.

To be fair, those are actionable recommendations. And yet, building a tech giant is a complicated task. Tech giants tend to control a large chunk of their tech stack, including in areas such as cloud hosting, payments, analytics, advertising and artificial intelligence.

Many European startups are currently built on APIs, frameworks and platforms that are built in the U.S. or in China. Scale-Up Europe misses the point on this front. Scaling European startups isn’t a gold rush. It’s a long process that requires continuous investments that start from the bottom of the tech stack and moves upward.

12 Paris-based VCs look at the state of their city

Categories: Business News

Refraction AI’s Matthew Johnson-Roberson on finding the middle path to robotic delivery

2021, June 16 - 1:56am

Refraction AI calls itself the Goldilocks of robotic delivery. The Ann Arbor-based company, which recently raised a $4.2 million seed round and expanded operations to Austin, was founded by two University of Michigan professors who think delivery via full-size autonomous vehicles (AV) is not nearly as close as many promise and sidewalk delivery comes with too many hassles and not enough payoff. Their “just right” solution? Find a middle path, or rather, a bike path.

The company’s REV-1 robot, which co-founder and CTO Matthew Johnson-Roberson debuted on the TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility stage in 2019, was built on a foundation of a bicycle. At about 4 feet tall and 32 inches wide, the three-wheeled vehicle can travel at up to 15 miles per hour, which means it can stop quickly to avoid obstacles while still being faster than a human.

The intermediate speed also means that the REV-1 doesn’t need to see as far ahead as a full-size AV, which allows it to function well on radars, sensors and cameras instead of requiring expensive lidar, according to the company.

Johnson-Roberson has spent nearly 20 years in academic robotics. Universities are home to many of the advances in field robotics, but the average person doesn’t see many such applications everyday when they look out their window. This desire to make something that is useful to the general public has been a huge motivator for the academic-turned-founder.

The following interview, part of an ongoing series with founders who are building transportation companies, has been edited for length and clarity. 

TechCrunch: You unveiled Refraction AI on the TechCrunch stage two years ago. How has it evolved since?

Matthew Johnson-Roberson: It’s been a really exciting ride. At that time, we had one vehicle — the one that we rolled out on stage — and now we have 25 vehicles in Ann Arbor and Austin, which we just announced. So things have changed quite a bit in the intervening years. We had already predicted a lot of changes around food delivery, specifically, and lots of those were accelerated by the pandemic.

Categories: Business News

Elisity raises $26M Series A to scale its AI cybersecurity platform

2021, June 16 - 1:55am

Elisity, a self-styled innovator that provides behavior-based enterprise cybersecurity, has raised $26 million in Series A funding.

The funding round was co-led by Two Bear Capital and AllegisCyber Capital, the latter of which has invested in a number of cybersecurity startups, including Panaseer, with previous seed investor Atlantic Bridge also participating.

Elisity, which is led by industry veterans from Cisco, Qualys and Viptela, says the funding will help it meet growing enterprise demand for its cloud-delivered Cognitive Trust platform, which it claims is the only platform intelligent enough to understand how assets and people connect beyond corporate perimeters.

The platform looks to help organizations transition from legacy access approaches to zero trust, a security model based on maintaining strict access controls and not trusting anyone — even employees — by default, across their entire digital footprint. This enables organizations to adopt a “work-from-anywhere” model, according to the company, which notes that most companies today continue to rely on security and policies based on physical location or low-level networking constructs, such as VLAN, IP and MAC addresses, and VPNs.

Cognitive Trust, the company claims, can analyze the unique identity and context of people, apps and devices, including Internet of Things (IoT) and operational technology (OT), wherever they’re working. The company says through its AI-driven behavioral intelligence, the platform can also continuously assess risk and instantly optimize access, connectivity and protection policies.

Bring CISOs into the C-suite to bake cybersecurity into company culture

“CISOs are facing ever-increasing attack surfaces caused by the shift to remote work, reliance on cloud-based services (and often multi-cloud) and the convergence of IT/OT networks,” said Mike Goguen, founder and managing partner at Two Bear Capital. “Elisity addresses all of these problems by not only enacting a zero trust model, but by doing so at the edge and within the behavioral context of each interaction. We are excited to partner with the CEO, James Winebrenner, and his team as they expand the reach of their revolutionary approach to enterprise security.”

Founded in 2018, Elisity — whose competitors include the likes of Vectra AI and Lastline — closed a $7.5 million seed round in August that same year, led by Atlantic Bridge. With its seed round, Elisity began scaling its engineering, sales and marketing teams to ramp up ahead of the platform’s launch. 

Now it’s looking to scale in order to meet growing enterprise demand, which comes as many organizations move to a hybrid working model and seek the tools to help them secure distributed workforces. 

“When the security perimeter is no longer the network, we see an incredible opportunity to evolve the way enterprises connect and protect their people and their assets, moving away from strict network constructs to identity and context as the basis for secure access,” said Winebrenner. 

“With Elisity, customers can dispense with the complexity, cost and protracted timeline enterprises usually encounter. We can onboard a new customer in as little as 45 minutes, rather than months or years, moving them to an identity-based access policy, and expanding to their cloud and on-prem[ise] footprints over time without having to rip and replace existing identity providers and network infrastructure investments. We do this without making tradeoffs between productivity for employees and the network security posture.”

Elisity, which is based in California, currently employs around 30 staff. However, it currently has no women in its leadership team, nor on its board of directors. 

How startups can go passwordless, thanks to zero trust

Categories: Business News

Meet Nickson, the furniture-as-a-service startup that Barack Obama’s ex-financial adviser just backed

2021, June 16 - 1:03am

Ever toured an apartment and fell in love with the model unit?

You’re not alone. Harvard Business School grad Cameron Johnson is a former institutional real estate investor and Greystar exec turned startup founder who realized that very often, “renters would try to rent the model apartment.”

This got him thinking. People would love to rent a model apartment in a building, and no one likes to move. This spelled opportunity in Johnson’s mind.

So in 2017, he came up with the idea of Nickson, a Dallas-based startup that fully furnishes apartments on demand.

Image Credits: CEO and founder Cameron Johnson / Nickson

“I thought ‘What if you gave people the ability to simply rent the model, or the ability to add everything in their space needs with a few clicks, similar to how a cable modem comes to your house,’” CEO Johnson said. “I wondered, ‘Why can’t we do that for everything else?’”

But Nickson doesn’t just provide furniture such as beds and sofas, it delivers all the essentials too — from extension cords to pots and pans to silverware to curtain rods. By partnering with a variety of retailers, the startup claims that it allows users “to make their new spaces move-in ready in as little as 3 hours.” 

Users take a style quiz and share apartment layout details. Nickson’s designers create an initial layout based on the dimensions of an apartment, desired functions (such as work from home) and the volume of furnishings based on a person’s lifestyle. Once the layout is complete, Nickson creates a custom design, including all furnishings and home goods. 

Upon signing up, users pay a one-time installation fee for the furniture-as-a-service offering, and then a monthly subscription charge for the duration of a lease — starting at $199 a month for a studio to $500 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. The startup also offers concierge services such as a household supply starter kit and maid service, as an add-on to its flat monthly subscription.

Nickson is currently only live in the Dallas market, but plans to expand into other cities over the next 12 months, including expanding its beta tests in Austin and Houston. And it’s just raised a $12 million Series A to help it advance on that goal. 

A fund managed by Pendulum Opportunities LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Pendulum Holdings LLC, led the Series A round, which also included participation from Motley Fool Ventures, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest and Backstage Capital. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the global supply chain, leading to delivery delays for consumers. Nickson has purchased items over time that it stores as local inventory, making it even more attractive to renters who don’t want to deal with delays and hunting down furniture and essentials, Johnson said. The convenience Nickson offers led to its user base growing 700% in 2020 compared to the year prior, he added.

Robbie Robinson, co-founder and CEO of Pendulum, said his firm was drawn to invest in Nickson due to a combination of Johnson’s “vision, secular shifts toward renting and subscription consumption and the company’s disruptive business model.” (Robinson is President Barack Obama’s former financial adviser, and recently founded Pendulum to invest $250 million in founding startups of color).

Kabir Ahmed, vice president at Pendulum, added that he believes Nickson’s model is superior to the concept of renting one-off furniture pieces in that it offers an “end-to-end, turnkey solution.”

“This seamless experience is highly differentiated and offers a compelling value proposition for the consumer,” he said.

Of course, Nickson is not the only company attempting to turn the stodgy furniture rental industry on its head. Other startups offering similar services as Nickson include Oliver Space, Fernish and The Landing.

But Nickson claims that it stands out from the competition in that it “takes care of everything” beyond furniture (including artwork and toilet brushes) and that it can curate space and bring it all in before a renter even shows up.

“No other competitor in this space offers this level of service, detail or turnaround,” Johnson says. “You can literally arrive at your new home with a suitcase and toothbrush, and it’s ready to ‘live in.'”

Fifth Wall’s Brendan Wallace and Hippo’s Assaf Wand discuss proptech’s biggest opportunities

Categories: Business News

Apple Watch accessory maker Wristcam raises $25M

2021, June 16 - 1:00am

Last week word got out that Facebook was taking another big step into first-party hardware with the planned launch of its own smartwatch. The most intriguing part of the report was the inclusion of not one but two cameras. Other wearable makers have flirted with video and images on wrist-worn devices, but the feature is far from mainstream.

Industry leader Apple certainly doesn’t seem to be rushing into the idea, so Wristcam went and did it for them with the launch of a band sporting its own camera capable of shooting 4K images and 1080p video. The product launched late last year, following a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Now its makers are going a more traditional funding route, announcing a $25 million raise led by Marker LLC. “We will use the funding to scale our team, Wristcam production, go to market, and R&D of our computer vision engine for wearables,” CEO Ari Roisman told TechCrunch.

Part of that funding involves effectively doubling the company’s headcount by early next year and helping deliver updates to some of the demands and concerns that have arisen since the product’s “public beta” launch in December.

Among the forthcoming features are live video. The company says it has sold “thousands” of units, which currently retail for $299 through the Wristcam site — so $20 more than a Watch SE. The company says it ran into COVID-19 supply chain issues earlier this year, but has pushed through and is now fulfilling orders daily.

In spite of Facebook’s apparent interest in wrist-base imaging, Roisman says he’s not concerned about possible Sherlock from Apple.

“I see camera continuing to be a core part of the iPhone strategy, with DSLR quality equivalence, including Pro offerings priced north of $1,000,” the exec says. “Meanwhile, I see continued Apple Watch focus on quantified health and wellness, as opposed to power, data and real estate intensive functionality that could conflict with the iPhone strategy.”

Extra Crunch members get unlimited access to 12M stock images for $99 per year

Apple Watch Series 6 review

Categories: Business News

As the economy reopens, startups are uniquely positioned to recruit talent

2021, June 16 - 12:50am
Art Zeile Contributor Share on Twitter Art Zeile is the CEO of DHI Group, which operates Dice, the leading tech career marketplace connecting employers with skilled technology professionals.

We are amidst a sprawling renegotiation between employers and employees as to the very nature of work, and no one has more leverage than skilled technologists — many of whom feel unmoored from their current jobs.

Our 2021 Technologist Sentiment Report — which in the second quarter polled technology professionals who mostly work at bigger organizations — shows 48% of tech professionals expressed an interest in changing companies this year, up from 40% in the fourth quarter of 2020, and a big jump from 32% in the second quarter last year.

It’s a unique moment, one that creates an unusual opportunity for startup founders on the hunt for talent.

We are amidst a sprawling renegotiation between employers and employees as to the very nature of work, and no one has more leverage than skilled technologists.

Fast-growing upstarts have a lot of advantages. Bigger companies may be more likely to attempt to recreate the office environment of the past — especially if they have leased space and a built environment that will be difficult to unwind. Startups are often nontraditional and may be able to react to create the hybrid work environments many technologists crave as the economy reopens.

While all startups are certainly not focused on being disruptive, they often rely on cutting-edge technology and processes to give their customers something truly new. Many are trying to change the pattern in their particular industry. So, by definition, they generally have a really interesting mission or purpose that may be more appealing to tech professionals.

A migration of tech talent just as the economy is revving up would be disruptive and could also play to startup strengths. The market for tech talent is already strong: Tech hiring has increased every month since November, according to our last tech jobs report released in May. Great data engineers, developers, business analysts and the like are in red-hot demand, and unemployment in tech is just above 2.4% percent, versus 5.5% percent in the economy overall.

Categories: Business News

Mayor Bill Peduto will be speaking at TechCrunch City Spotlight: Pittsburgh on June 29

2021, June 16 - 12:30am

Last week we announced that Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian will be speaking at our upcoming City Spotlight: Pittsburgh event. Today, we’re excited to announce another big guest: Mayor Bill Peduto.

The event will be held on June 29. You can register here for free to listen to our conversations with Mayor Peduto and Jahanian, among others.

An alumni of both Carnegie Mellon University and Pennsylvania State University, Peduto served on Pittsburgh’s City Council for a dozen years before being elected mayor in 2014. I’ve spoken with the mayor on numerous occasions, and aside from being one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders, he’s also a staunch proponent of the startup scene bolstered by local universities like CMU.

“Having two world-class research universities allows us to draw the companies here in order to be able to utilize that talent. At the same time, that talent is building out the startup community,” Peduto told me in a recent conversation. “The other components of the startup community are now, for the first time, being properly invested in. I think what you’re seeing change over the past five years in Pittsburgh is West Coast VCs aren’t looking to move startups to California. They’re looking to invest in Pittsburgh.”

Calling all Yinzers, TechCrunch is (virtually) headed to Pittsburgh!

Having resources like those universities has been instrumental in building out Pittsburgh’s startup community. But the city — which long bore the scars of rustbelt depression — has traditionally had difficulty retaining much of its talent, losing out to better-known startup ecosystems in places like New York and San Francisco.

But that’s changing — and the city is changing along with it. Pittsburgh currently has one of the world’s most vibrant robotic startup ecosystems, is at the center of much of the world’s autonomous vehicle research and has birthed successful companies like Duolingo.

Event organizer Matt Burns will be speaking to Mayor Peduto about the challenges and successes in building up such an ecosystem.

We’re still looking for startups to participate in the event. It’s free to register and participate in networking and watch the event (click here to register). It’s also free to apply to pitch your startup at the event (click here to apply). We’re looking for early-stage companies from the greater Pittsburgh area that can give a two-minute pitch to a panel of local venture capitalists in exchange for feedback.

Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian is speaking at TechCrunch City Spotlight: Pittsburgh

Categories: Business News

Construction robotics firm Dusty raises $16.5M

2021, June 16 - 12:29am

It certainly follows then that some leading construction robotics companies are able to strike while the iron is hot with some healthy raises. Today, Bay Area-based Dusty Robotics announced a $16.5 million Series A. Led by Canaan Partners and featuring NextGen Venture Partners, Baseline Ventures, Root Ventures and Cantos Ventures, the round brings the startup’s full funding up to $23.7 million.

“We have an enormous amount of demand from customers across the U.S., and around the world,” founder and CEO Tessa Lau told TechCrunch. “In addition to growing our team, we will be expanding our fleet of robots and building more robots to service this demand.”

Canaan partner Rich Boyle adds that the pandemic has helped accelerate some of the already existing demand.

“Both markets are incredibly active and evolving quickly, I believe mostly due to longer-term trends. Those include things like continued improvements in AI and labor shortages in key industries, as well as the decreasing price of robotic hardware. That said, COVID has driven changes in how people are thinking about the design, construction and ongoing utilization of real estate assets, and it’s driven substantial changes in behavior — how we work, how we live, how we shop, and some of those changes that were accelerated by COVID we think are here to stay.”

The Dusty team is still fairly lean at about 17 employees, largely located in Mountain View. The startup’s first product is the Field Printer, a robot that prints out plans on the floor of construction sites. The company likens the maps to “Ikea Instructions.” The autonomous bot has been used by Swinerton, DPR Construction, Build Group and Pankow Builders, among others.

“We just released our third-generation hardware platform, which was designed from the ground up by our team in Mountain View to be purpose-built for producing accurate and speedy layout on construction sites,” says Lau. “We’ve been working on this product since fall of 2018 and have incorporated lessons learned from completing over 1 million square feet of production layout into this third-generation design.”

Watch experts from Boston Dynamics, Built, Dusty and Toggle discuss robotic construction at TC Sessions: Robotics


Categories: Business News

Mar Hershenson joins us at TechCrunch Disrupt on how to craft your pitch deck

2021, June 16 - 12:17am

Pitching is the single most important skill a founder needs to refine to be successful in building a startup. You can’t attract a co-founder, teammates, customers or investors without a well-crafted pitch about your product and vision, and so learning how to pitch and communicate effectively tends to be the first gateway to early entrepreneurial success.

While books and talks galore have been published on pitching, the reality is that the art of the pitch deck is a constantly changing fashion. The pandemic last year upended notions of how to draft a deck, given that founders had to pitch virtually on shared screens. As always, those aesthetics continue to change: VCs are busier than ever, seeing more companies than ever, and have to wade through ever more decks in their quest to find the next startups to back.

As we enter a hybrid investing world with a mix of online and in-person pitching, getting the pitch deck right has changed again — and remains just as important as ever.

That’s why we’re excited to be hosting Mar Hershenson, the founding managing partner of Pear VC, on one of our most perennially popular panels — How to Craft Your Pitch Deck, which will happen on the Extra Crunch stage at the all-virtual TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 coming up this September 21-23.

Hershenson has been a longtime venture capitalist and has consistently invested at the founding stages of startups. She has backed IPO’d companies like Guardant Health and DoorDash, as well as startups such as Aurora Solar, BioAge and Branch. Perhaps most importantly, in our survey of founders last year, Hershenson was one of the top-ranked VCs in the world in terms of founder recommendations.

The VCs who founders love the most

Her background is as a technical builder and entrepreneur. In addition to nabbing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford, Hershenson co-founded three companies before heading into venture: Barcelona Design, Sabio Labs and Revel Touch.

On this panel, Hershenson will discuss what’s changed when it comes to pitch decks in 2021, how she evaluates pitch decks in her day-to-day investing work, and whether and how pitch decks evolve and expand from first connection to final pitch meeting. We’ll also be taking questions from the audience to ensure that we cover all the strategies and tactics you have questions on about this critical skill.

So come join Hershenson (and all of our other fantastic speakers) at Disrupt 2021 online this September 21-23.

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Categories: Business News

SkyWatch raises $17.2M for its Earth observation data platform

2021, June 15 - 11:24pm

Waterloo-based SkyWatch was among the first startups to recognize that the key to unlocking the real benefits of the space economy lay in making Earth observation data accessible and portable, and now the company has raised a $17.2 million Series B to help it further that goal. Fresh on the heals of a partnership with Poland-based satellite operator SatRevolution, SkyWatch is now set to bridge the gulf between satellite startups and customers in a bigger way as it lowers the barriers to entry for new companies focused on high-tech spacecraft payloads.

The new round of funding was led by new investor Drive Capital, and included participation from existing investors including Bullpen Capital, Space Capital, Golden Ventures and BDC Ventures. SkyWatch CEO and co-founder James Slifierz told me that bringing Drive on was a major win for the Series B.

“Drive is a firm that has actually been researching the space industry for a few years now, and looking for an opportunity that would be their first space technology investment,” he said. “Not their first in the [GTA-Waterloo] area, they’re based out of Columbus, Ohio, made up of Silicon Valley veterans. They were a little early to the trend of believing that a majority of the really interesting and large opportunities would eventually evolve outside of the Bay Area and outside of New York City.”

SkyWatch definitely fits the bill, having built strong revenue pipeline for an Earth observation data platform that makes the information collected by the many observation satellites on orbit accessible to private industry, in a way that doesn’t require re-architecting existing systems or handling huge amounts of data in unfamiliar formats.

This fresh funding will help SkyWatch accelerate the rollout of its TerraStream product, a new platform that the company developed to provide full-service data management, ordering, processing and delivery for satellite companies. This allows SkyWatch to not only make data collected by Earth observation satellites like those operated by SatRevolution accessible to customers — but also to source customers for those companies, too, effectively handling both sales and delivery, which many satellite startups born from a technical or academic background don’t start out equipped to tackle.

“My favorite analogy for TerraStream is it’s Shopify for space companies,” Slifierz said. “It takes away a lot of the complexity of going to market. So if you want to build an amazing shoe brand today, Shopify enables you to not have to worry about the logistics, and shipping, and the inventory management, the website, storefront and all that; it allows you to focus on the things that will build value in your company, which is the quality of your product, and your brand.”

He added that just like Shopify depends on the existence of a rich third-party ecosystem to support its platform, so does SkyWatch, and that ecosystem is only now reaching maturity after years of infrastructure development, including things like the proliferation of launch startups, ground station build out, data warehousing and more.

Ultimately, what SkyWatch provides is the ability to go to market “faster and more profitably,” Slifierz says, which is a major shift for hard tech satellite startups working on new and improved sensor capabilities, often spinning out of research labs at academic institutions.

“The strongest value proposition is that we give you instant access to hundreds of customers, which we’re growing at a very fast pace on the EarthCache [SkyWatch’s commercial satellite imagery marketplace] side. So in that way, we sort of joke, it’s like Shopify for space, but also integrated with the AWS marketplace.”

SkyWatch can also actually help identify demand, by providing satellite-side customers with real data to back up signals of what the market is actually looking for. Slifierz says that’s helped them advise partners on how to tweak their offering to meet a real need, which is beneficial in an industry where research and tech development often lead payload design, with actual demand as a somewhat secondary consideration.

What’s next for space tech? 9 VCs look to the future

Categories: Business News

Canadians are polite, but we’re still recruiting your biotech talent, America

2021, June 15 - 11:23pm
Michael May Contributor Share on Twitter Michael May is the president and CEO of the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine.
Jayson Myers Contributor Share on Twitter Jayson Myers is the CEO of Next Generation Manufacturing Canada.

Canada made headlines during U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration for its efforts to lure STEM workers north. Trump is gone now, but Canada hasn’t stopped trying to recruit talent from its neighbor — and one of the hottest fronts in this talent war is biotech.

For generations of Canadian engineers, coders and researchers, Silicon Valley’s better salaries and weather were a siren call. But four years of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, policy and visa restrictions gave Canadian tech companies and governments a competitive advantage.

After Trump took office in 2016, Canada’s federal government boosted the tech ecosystems of cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver by creating a program to fast-track immigration. Canadian tech leaders climbed aboard with campaigns to tempt more workers north. In Quebec, the industry even persuaded Quebec’s notoriously immigration-shy provincial government to accept as many as 14% more newcomers.

The pandemic-driven exodus from Silicon Valley has sent large numbers of Canadian expatriates flocking home. The number of Canadians applying for the U.S. H-1B program has fallen dramatically, accelerating a decade-long trend.

Canadians have been broadly supportive of government spending to beat back COVID-19 and hasten the transition to a new economy.

Still, Canadian tech and political leaders remain concerned about the inbound flow of talent to key sectors like advanced manufacturing, clean tech and biotechnology. They’re pressing every button they can to chip away at long-held American advantages.

Much of the action is in biotech. COVID-19 has exposed Canada’s lack of vaccine manufacturing capacity, but the country has a vibrant biotech and life-sciences research sector, driven by an excellent university ecosystem and several thousand startup ventures doing cutting-edge research. Many of these firms have cashed in on the pandemic biotech investment boom, racking in a record amount of venture capital in 2020.

But while this influx has changed the funding landscape, many Canadian companies are still trying to reach scale. The Canadian tech ecosystem is full of talent but it hasn’t traditionally developed, recruited and retained enough of the senior people these firms need to develop into global powerhouses.

They don’t just need scientists — they need business leaders. A recent survey of Toronto-area hubs and ventures revealed that biomedical engineering, regenerative medicine and related firms are suffering significant shortages of senior executives, top managers and scientific specialists, who gravitate toward the better pay and opportunities of the U.S. industries.

At a recent summit of Canada’s Innovation Economy Council (IEC), which both our organizations belong to, industry leaders spoke of unfilled jobs in global regulatory affairs and business development, even chief medical officers. These are hybrid roles that require the kind of technical and business acumen forged from both academic training and progressive leadership roles in the workplace.

Canadian universities, hubs and venture-capital firms are reacting to this need by building specialized training institutes and programs. And scaling Canadian companies are trying to fill the gaps by using newly raised cash to recruit heavily in the U.S. and beyond, offering remote work and flexible work hours while striking partnerships and investigating untapped talent pools.

Against this backdrop, Canada’s federal government just delivered its first full budget in two years. It’s one of the most activist tech-spending plans the country has ever rolled out, showing how seriously the federal government is about building out advanced industries and creating STEM jobs at a time when global markets are moving away from the country’s traditional energy exports, natural resources and manufactured goods. The budget includes college research partnerships, hiring subsidies, grants, and support for incubators and hubs. Critically, there is also a $2.2 billion commitment for building a life-sciences talent pipeline.

Canadians have been broadly supportive of government spending to beat back COVID-19 and hasten the transition to a new economy. An IEC/Campaign Research poll conducted in early April found 3:1 public support for investments in postsecondary STEM education and similarly strong support for government investment in advanced manufacturing, including biotech. That’s just what it takes to compete with a neighbor 10 times your size.

It’s fair to say that Canada won’t drain the U.S. of all its research scientists and Big Pharma CEOs anytime soon. But with an influx of investment capital, a burgeoning tech ecosystem and a concerted policy effort to build, recruit and retain a self-sustaining talent ecosystem, it’s flying under the radar as a place the industry increasingly wants to be.

In other words, America, take note: Canada is actively working to attract your biotech talent.

Categories: Business News

Edge computing startup Macrometa gets $20M Series A led by Pelion Venture Partners

2021, June 15 - 11:00pm

Macrometa, the edge computing cloud and global data network for app developers, announced today it has raised a $20 million Series A. The round was led by Pelion Venture Partners, with participation from returning investors DNX Ventures (the Japan and U.S.-focused enterprise fund that led Macrometa’s seed round), Benhamou Global Ventures (BGV), Partech Partners, Fusion Fund, Sway Ventures and Shasta Ventures.

The startup, which is headquartered in Palo Alto, with operations in Bulgaria and India, plans to use its Series A on feature development, acquiring more enterprise customers and integrating with content delivery networks (CDN), cloud and telecom providers. It will hire for its engineering and product development centers in the United States, Eastern Europe and India, and add new centers in Ukraine, Portugal, Greece, Mexico and Argentina.

The company’s last round of funding, a $7 million seed, was announced just eight months ago. Its Series A brings Macrometa’s total raised since it was founded in 2017 to $29 million.

Macrometa, an edge computing service for app developers, lands $7 million seed round led by DNX

As part of the new round, Macrometa expanded its board of directors, adding Pelion general partner Chris Cooper as a director, and Pelion senior associate Zain Rizavi and DNX Ventures principal Eva Nahari as board observers.

Macrometa’s global data network combines a globally distributed noSQL database and a low-latency stream data processing engine, enabling web and cloud develops to run and scale data-heavy, real-time cloud applications. The network allows developers to run apps concurrently across its 175 points of presence (PoPs), or edge regions, around the world, depending on which one is closest to an end user. Macrometa claims that the mean roundtrip time (RTT) for users on laptops or phones to its edge cloud and back is less than 50 milliseconds globally, or 50x to 100x faster than cloud platforms like DyanmoDB, MongoDB or Firebase.

Macrometa co-founder and CEO Chetan Venkatesh. Image Credits: Macrometa

Since its seed round last year, the company has accelerated its customer acquisition, especially among large global enterprises and web-scale players, co-founder and chief executive officer Chetan Venkatesh told TechCrunch. Macrometa also made its self-service platform available to developers, who can try its serverless database, pub/sug, event processing and stateful compute runtime for free.

Macrometa recently became one of two distributed data companies (the other one is Fauna) partnered with Cloudflare for developers building new apps on Workers, its serverless application platform. Venkatesh said the combination of Macrometa and Cloudflare Workers enables data-driven APIs and web services to be 50x to 100x faster in performance and lower latency compared to the public cloud.

Cloudflare launches Workers Unbound, the next evolution of its serverless platform

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated Macrometa’s business significantly, said Venkatesh, because its enterprise and web-scale customers needed to handle the unpredictable data traffic patterns created by remote work. The pandemic also “resulted in several secular and permanent shifts in cloud adoption and consumption,” he added, changing how people shop, consume media, content and entertainment. That has “exponentially increased the need for handling dynamic bursts of demands for application infrastructure securely,” he said.

One example of how enterprise clients use Macrometa is e-commerce providers who implemented its infrastructure with their existing CDN and cloud backends to provide more data and AI-based personalization for shoppers, including real-time recommendations, regionalized search at the edge and local data geo-fencing to comply with data and privacy regulations.

Some of Macrometa’s SaaS clients use its global data network as a global data cache for handling surges in usage and keep regional copies of data and API results across its regional data centers. Venkatesh added that several large telecom operators have used Macrometa’s data stream ingestion and complex event processing platform to replace legacy data ingest platforms like Splunk, Tibco and Apache Kafka.

In a statement, Pelion Venture Partners general partner Chris Cooper said, “We believe the next phase of computing will be focused on the edge, ultimately bringing cloud-based workloads closer to the end user. As more and more workloads move away from a centralized cloud model, Macrometa is becoming the de facto edge provider to run data-heavy and compute-intensive workloads for developers and enterprises alike, globally.”

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BookClub checks out a shiny new $20 million Series A

2021, June 15 - 11:00pm

Serial edtech entrepreneur David Blake, who co-founded Degreed and launched LearnIn, is living the dream of any book worm. He reads at least one book a week, talks to the authors behind it and unpacks his biggest questions around the subtlest of passages.

And it’s all thanks to his latest startup, BookClub, which first launched in September to bring author-led book clubs to readers. “With Degreed, it’s big, it’s enterprise and it’s structural. It brought a deep sense of fulfillment, it felt rigorous and challenging” he said. “BookClub has felt joyful, a lot of fun, and like a blessing in my life.”

The platform gives authors a chance to hold book groups, share exclusive video-based interviews and engage in questions readers might have. And months after announcing its existence and $6 million seed raise, BookClub is back to announce a $20 million Series A round, led by Signal Peak Ventures. Other investment firms that participated in the round include GSV Ventures, Maveron, Backstage Capital​ and Pelion Venture Partners​.

Blake often describes BookClub as “MasterClass meets Goodreads.” It’s fitting that he got the founders of both of those companies on his cap table as well, with Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder of MasterClass and founder of, and Otis Chandler, co-founder and previous CEO of Goodreads, joining the Series A round.

How is edtech spending its extra capital?

The capital comes as BookClub prepares to open its private beta, which includes thousands of readers, to the public by July. Along with opening up for business, BookClub is investing heavily in adding more authors to its platform. So far, there are 11 books featured on BookClub’s website from writers such as Emily Chang, Lara Prescott, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr.

Blake declined to give specifics for how many books are in production, but said that BookClub’s plan is to hit 200 books for its service by the end of 2021.

The startup is currently experimenting with two services to bring author-led discussions to readers. One service is that users can find a book and then click through videos as they progress through the book. When BookClub was recording with Emily Chang, the author of “Brotopia,” it produced eight to 12 hours of content, which ranges from Q&A to readings to behind-the-scenes musings on writing the book, Blake explained.

“A lot of that sounds simple, but in a lot of ways it is special in its own way,” Blake said. “If you grew up in most places in America, there weren’t New York Times best-sellers coming to your local indie bookstore and just doing readings…in a lot of ways, this is able to democratize a lot of what authors do to engage the big cities [on book tours] but for everyone else,” he said.

The first rule of BookClub? No boring book clubs.

The other service is similar to Oprah’s Book Club, a long-existent discussion series where Oprah interviews a different author behind a book each month. BookClub’s version of this is picking an author to discuss their book, as well as a series of books with similar themes, in an interview-style format. For example, Barbara Corcoran is discussing her book, “Shark Tales,” as well as five other books in an entrepreneurship-featured club.

One limitation for BookClub is figuring out how to generate enthusiasm through its platform. Book clubs often start off with the best of intentions, but then fall apart due to lack of accountability or limited interest among members to invest in deeper conversations. The startup will have to find a way, beyond author appeal, to integrate excitement without being overly prescriptive in its prompts. Another limitation might be the authors themselves. Because the startup’s products only work with living authors, it is missing out on a chunk of classical text.

The company might need to figure out a different way to represent authors, the non-living or camera shy, to reach what Blake views as its ultimate goal.

“Right now, statistically, the chance that we’ve covered one of the books on your nightstand is pretty low,” he said. “We want to get there, fast.”

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