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Kafene raises $14M to offer buy now, pay later to the subprime consumer

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The buy now, pay later frenzy isn’t going anywhere as more consumers seek alternatives to credit cards to fund purchases.

And those purchases aren’t exclusive to luxuries such as Pelotons (ahem, Affirm) or jewelry someone might be treating themselves to online. A new fintech company is out to help consumers finance big-ticket items that are considered more “must have” than “nice to have.” And it’s just raised $14 million in Series A funding to help it advance on that goal.

Neal Desai (former CFO of Octane Lending) and James Schuler (who participated in Y Combinator’s accelerator program as a high schooler) founded New York City-based Kafene in July 2019. The pair’s goal is to promote financial inclusion by meeting the needs of what it describes as the “consumers that are left behind by traditional lenders.”

More specifically, Kafene is focused on helping consumers with credit scores below 650 purchase retail items such as furniture, appliances and electronics with its buy now, pay later (BNPL) model. Consider it an “Affirm for the subprime,” says Desai.

Global Founders Capital and Third Prime Ventures co-led the round, which also included participation from Valar, Company.co, Hermann Capital, Gaingels, Republic Labs, Uncorrelated Ventures and FJ labs.

“Historically, if you could access credit, you could go to the bank or use a credit card,” Third Prime’s Wes Barton told TechCrunch. “But if you had some unexpected expense, and had to miss a payment with the bank, there would be repercussions and you could fall into a debt trap.”

Kafene’s “flexible ownership” model is designed to not let that happen to a consumer. If for some reason, someone has to forfeit on a payment, Kafene comes to pick up the item and the customer is no longer under obligation to pay for it moving forward.

The way it works is that Kafene buys the product from a merchant on a consumers’ behalf and rents it back to them over 12 months. If they make all payments, they own the item. If they make them earlier, they get a “significant” discount, and if they can’t, Kafene reclaims the item and takes the loan loss.

Image Credits: Kafene

It’s a modern take on Rent-A-Center, which charges more money for inferior products, Desai believes.

“This is also a superior product to credit cards, and the size of that market is massive,” Barton said. “We want to take a huge chunk of credit card business in time, and give consumers the flexibility to quit at any point in time, and fly free, if you will.”

Such flexibility, Kafene claims, helps promote financial inclusion by giving a wider range of consumers options to alternative forms of credit at the point of sale.

It also helps people boost their credit scores, according to Desai, because if they buy out of the loan earlier than the 12-month term, their credit score goes up because Kafene reports them as a positive payer.

“In any situation where they don’t steal the item, their credit score improves,” he said. “Even if they end up returning it because they can’t afford it. In the long run, they can have a better credit score to qualify for a traditional loan product.”

Kafene rolled out a beta of its financing product in December of 2019 and then had to pause in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company essentially “hibernated” from March to June 2020 and re-launched out of beta last July.

By October, Kafene stopped all enrollment with merchants because it had more demand that it could handle — largely fueled by more people being financially strained due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021, the company was handling about $2 million a month in merchandise volume.

With its new capital, Kafene plans to significantly scale its existing lease-to-own financing business nationally, as well as to launch a direct-to-consumer virtual lease card.

Fintech all-star Nubank raises a $750M mega round

By Marcella McCarthy

In 2013, Colombian businessman David Velez decided to reinvent the Brazilian banking system. He didn’t speak Portuguese, nor was he an engineer or a banker, but he did have the conviction that the system was broken and that he could fix it. And as a former Sequoia VC, he also had access to capital.

His gut instinct and market analysis were right. Today, Nubank announced a $750 million extension to its Series G (which rang in at $400 million this past January), bringing the round to a total of $1.15 billion and their valuation to $30 billion — $5 billion more than when we covered them in January.

The extension funding was led by Berkshire Hathaway, which put in $500 million, and a number of other investors.

Velez and his team decided now was a good time to raise again, because, “We saw a great opportunity in terms of growth rate and we’re very tiny when compared to the incumbents,” he told TechCrunch.”

Nubank is the biggest digital bank in the world by number of customers: 40 million. The company started as a tech company in Brazil that offered only a fee-free credit card with a line of credit of R$50 (about USD$10). 

It now offers a variety of financial products, including a digital bank account, a debit card, insurance, P2P payment via Pix (the Brazilian equivalent of Zelle), loans, rewards, life insurance and an account and credit card for small business owners. 

Nubank serves unbanked or underserviced citizens in Brazil — about 30% of the population — and this approach can be extremely profitable because there are many more clients available.

The banking system in Brazil is one of the few bureaucracies in the country that is actually quite skillful, but the customer service remains unbearable, and banks charge exorbitant fees for any little transaction. 

Traditionally, the banking industry has been dominated by five major traditional banks: Itaú Unibanco, Banco do Brasil, Bradesco, Santander and Caixa Economica Federal. 

While Brazil remains Nubank’s primary market, the company also offers services in Colombia and Mexico (services launched in Mexico in 2018). The company still only offers the credit card in both countries.

“The momentum we’re seeing in Mexico is terrific. Our Mexican credit card net promoter score (NPS) is 93, which is the highest we’ve had in Nubank history. In Brazil the highest we’ve had was 88,” Velez said.

The company has been on a hiring spree in the last few months, and brought on two heavyweight executives. Matt Swann replaced Ed Wible (the original CTO and co-founder). Wible continues to be an important player in the company, but more in a software developer capacity. Swann previously served as CTO at Bookings.com and StubHub, and as CIO of the Global Consumer Bank at Citi, so he brings years of experience of scaling tech businesses, which is what Nubank is focused on now, though Velez wouldn’t confirm which countries are next.

The other major hire, Arturo Nunez, fills the new role of chief marketing officer. Nunez was head of marketing for Apple Latin America, amongst other roles with Nike and the NBA. 

It may sound a little odd for a tech company not to have had a head of marketing, but Nubank takes pride in having a $0 cost of acquisition (CAC). Instead of spending money on marketing, they spend it on customer service and then rely on word of mouth to get the word out.

Since we last spoke with Velez in January regarding the $400 million Series G, the company went from having 34 million customers to now having 40 million in a span of roughly 6 months. The funds will be used to grow the business, including hiring more people.

“We’ve seen the entire market go digital, especially people who never thought they would,” Velez said. “There is really now an avalanche of all backgrounds [of people] who are getting into digital banking.”

SoftBank pours up to $150M into GBM, a Mexico City-based investment platform

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Grupo Bursátil Mexicano (GBM) is a 35-year-old investment platform in the Mexican stock market. In its first three decades of life, GBM was focused on providing investment services to high net worth individuals and local and global institutions.

Over the past decade, the Mexico City-based brokerage has ramped up its digital efforts, and, in the past five years, has evolved its business model to offer services to all Mexicans with the same products and services it offers large estates.

Today, GBM is announcing it has received an investment of “up to” $150 million from SoftBank via the Japanese conglomerate’s Latin America Fund at a valuation of “over $1 billion.” The investment is being made through one of GBM’s subsidiaries and is not contingent on anything, according to the company.

Co-CEO Pedro de Garay Montero told TechCrunch that GBM has built an app, GBM+, that organizes and invests clients’ money through three different tools: Wealth Management, Trading and Smart Cash.

Last year was a “historic” one for the company, he said, and GBM went from having 38,000 investment accounts in January 2020 to more than 650,000 by year’s end. In the first quarter of 2021, that number had grown to over 1 million — representing more than 30x growth from the beginning of 2020.

For some context, according to the National Banking and Securities Commission (CNBV), there were only 298,000 brokerage accounts in Mexico at the end of 2019, and that number climbed to 940,000 by the end of 2020 — with GBM holding a large share of them.

Most of GBM’s clients are retail clients, but the company also caters to “most of the largest investment managers worldwide,” as well as global companies such as Netflix, Google and BlackRock. Specifically, it services 40% of the largest public corporations in Mexico and a large base of ultra high net worth individuals.

The company is planning to use its new capital in part to invest “heavily” in customer acquisition.

Montero said that half of its team of 450 are tech professionals, and that the company plans to also continue hiring as it focuses on growth in its B2C and B2B offerings and expanding into new verticals.

“We are improving our already robust financial education offering,” he added, “so that Mexicans can take control of their finances. GBM’s mission is to transform Mexico into a country of investors.”

Because Mexico is such a huge market — with a population of over 120 million and a GDP of more than $1 trillion — GBM is laser-focused on growing its presence in the country.

“The financial services industry is dominated by big banks and is inefficient, expensive and provides a poor client experience. This has resulted in less than 1% of individuals having an investment account,” Montero told TechCrunch. “We will be targeting clients through our own platform and internal advisors, as well as growing our base of external advisors to reach as many people as possible with the best investment products and user experience.”

When it comes to institutional clients, he believes there is “enormous potential” in serving both the large corporations and the SMEs “who have received limited services from banks.”

Juan Franck, investment lead for SoftBank Latin America Fund in Mexico, believes the retail investment space in Mexico is at an inflection point.

“The investing culture in Mexico has historically been low compared to the rest of the world, even when specifically compared to other countries in Latin America, like Brazil,” he added. “However, the landscape is quickly changing as, through technology, Mexicans are being provided more education around investing and more investment alternatives.”

In the midst of this shift, SoftBank was impressed by GBM’s “clear vision and playbook,” Franck said.

So, despite being a decades-old company, SoftBank sees big potential in the strength of the digital platform that GBM has built out.

“GBM is the leading broker in Mexico in terms of trading activity and broker accounts,” he said. “The company combines decades of industry know-how with an entrepreneurial drive to revolutionize the wealth management space in the country.”

SVB-led $100M investment makes Chipper Cash Africa’s ‘most valuable startup’

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Fintech in Africa is a goldmine. Investors are betting big on startups offering a plethora of services from payments and lending to neobanks, remittances and cross-border transfers, and rightfully soEach of these services solves unique sets of challenges. For cross-border payments, it’s the outrageous rates and regulatory hassles involved with completing transactions from one African country to another.

Chipper Cash, a three-year-old startup that facilitates cross-border payment across Africa, has closed a $100 million Series C round to introduce more products and grow its team.

It hasn’t been too long ago since Chipper Cash was last in the news. In November 2020, the African cross-border fintech startup raised $30 million Series B led by Ribbit Capital and Jeff Bezos fund Bezos Expeditions. This was after closing a $13.8 million Series A round from Deciens Capital and other investors in June 2020. Hence, Chipper Cash has gone through three rounds totalling $143.8 million in a year. However, when the $8.4 million raised in two seed rounds back in 2019 is included, this number increases to $152.2 million.

SVB Capital, the investment arm of U.S. high-tech commercial bank Silicon Valley Bank led this Series C round. Others who participated in this round include existing investors — Deciens Capital, Ribbit Capital, Bezos Expeditions, One Way Ventures, 500 Startups, Tribe Capital, and Brue2 Ventures. 

Chipper Cash was launched in 2018 by Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled. The pair met in Iowa after coming to the U.S. for studies. Following their stints at big names like Facebook, Flickr and Yahoo!, the founders decided to work on their own startup.

Last year, the company which offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services, was present in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya. Now, it has expanded to a new territory outside Africa. “We’ve expanded to the U.K., it’s the first market we’ve expanded to outside Africa,” CEO Serunjogi said to TechCrunch.

In addition and as a sign of growth, the company which boasts more than 200 employees plans to increase its workforce by hiring 100 staff throughout the year. The number of users on Chipper Cash has increased to 4 million, up 33% from last year. And while the company averaged 80,000 transactions daily in November 2020 and processed $100 million in payments value in June 2020, it is unclear what those figures are now as Serunjogi declined to comment on them, including its revenues.

When we reported its Series B last year, Chipper Cash wanted to offer more business payment solutions, cryptocurrency trading options, and investment services. So what has been the progress since then? “We’ve launched cards products in Nigeria and we’ve also launched our crypto product. We’re also launching our US stocks product in Uganda, Nigeria and a few other countries soon,” Serunjogi answered.

Crypto is widely adopted in Africa. African users are responsible for a sizeable chunk of transactions that take place on some global crypto-trading platforms. For instance, African users accounted for $7 billion of the $8.3 billion in Luno’s total trading volume. Binance P2P users in Africa also grew 2,000% within the past five months while their volumes increased by over 380%.

Individuals and small businesses across Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya account for most of the crypto activity on the continent. Chipper Cash is active in these countries and tapping into this opportunity is basically a no brainer. “Our approach to growing products and adding products is based on what our users find valuable. As you can imagine, crypto is one technology that has been widely adopted in Africa and many emerging markets. So we want to give them the power to access crypto and to be able to buy, hold, and sell crypto whenever,” the CEO added.

However, its crypto service isn’t available in Nigeria, the largest crypto market in Africa. The reason behind this is the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) regulation on crypto activities in the country prohibiting users from converting fiat into crypto from their bank accounts. To survive, most crypto players have adopted P2P methods but Chipper Cash isn’t offering that yet and according to Serunjogi, the company is “looking forward to any development in Nigeria that allows it to be offered freely again.”

The same goes for the investment service Chipper Cash plans to roll out in Nigeria and Uganda soon. Presently, Nigeria’s capital market regulator SEC is keeping tabs on local investment platforms and bringing their activities under its purview. Chipper Cash will not be exempt when the product is live in Nigeria and has begun engaging regulators to be ahead of the curve.

“As fintech explodes and as innovation continues to move forward, consumers have to be protected. We invest millions of dollars every year in our compliance programs, so I think working closely with the regulators directly so that these products are offered in a compliant manner is important,” Serunjogi noted. 

Six billion-dollar companies in Africa; the fifth fintech unicorn?

During our call, Serunjogi made some remarks about Nigeria’s central bank which resembles comments made by Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agboola back in March.

While acknowledging the central banks in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda for creating environments where innovation can thrive, he said: “Nigeria has probably the most exciting and vibrant tech ecosystem in Africa. And that’s credit directly to CBN for creating and fostering an environment that allowed multiple startups like ourselves and others like Flutterwave to blossom.”  

Most fintechs would argue that the CBN stifles innovation but comments from both CEOs seems to suggest otherwise. From all indication, Chipper Cash and Flutterwave strive to be on the right side of the country’s apex bank policies and regulations. It is why they are one of the fastest-growing fintechs in the region and also billion-dollar companies.

Obviously, we’re not getting into our valuation, but we’re probably the most valuable private startup in Africa today after this round. So that’s a reflection of the environment that regulators like CBN have created to allowed innovation and growth,” Serunjogi commented when asked about the company’s valuation.

Up until last week, the only private unicorn startup in Africa this year was Flutterwave. Then China-backed and African-focused fintech OPay came along as the company was reported to be in the process of raising $400 million at a $1.5 billion valuation. If Serunjogi’s comment is anything to go by, Chipper Cash might currently be valued between $1-2 billion thus joining the exclusive billion-dollar club.

But to be sure, I asked Serunjogi again if the company is indeed a unicorn. This time, he gave a more cryptic answer. “We’re not commenting on the size of our valuation publicly. One of the things that I’ve been quite keen on internally and externally is that the valuation of our company has not been a focus for us. It’s not a goal we’re aspiring to achieve. For us, the thing that drives us is that we have a product that is impactful to our users.”

Maijid Moujaled (CTO) and Ham Serunjogi (CEO)

Serunjogi added that this investment actualizes the importance of possessing a solid balance sheet and onboarding SVB Capital and getting existing investors to double down is a means to that end. According to him, a strong balance sheet will provide the infrastructure needed to support key long-term investments which will translate to more exciting products down the road.

“We look at our investors as key partners to the business. So having very strong partners around the table makes us a stronger company. These are partners who can put capital into our business, and we’re also able to learn from them in several other ways,” he said of the investors backing the three-year-old company.  

Just like Ribbit Capital and Bezos Expeditions in last year’s Series B, this is SVB Capital’s first foray into the African market. In an email, the managing director of SVB Capital Tilli Bannett, confirmed the fund’s investment in Chipper Cash. According to her, the VC firm invested in Chipper Cash because it has created an easy and accessible way for people living in Africa to fulfil their financial needs through enhanced products and user experiences.

“As a result, Chipper has had a phenomenal trajectory of consumer adoption and volume through the product. We are excited at the role Chipper has forged for itself in fostering financial inclusion across Africa and the vast potential that still lies ahead,” she added.

Fintech remains the bright spot in African tech investment. In 2020, the sector accounted for more than 25% of the almost $1.5 billion raised by African startups. This figure will likely increase this year as four startups have raised $100 million rounds already: TymeBank in February, Flutterwave in March, and OPay and Chipper Cash this May. All except TymeBank are now valued at over $1 billion, and it becomes the first time Africa has witnessed two or more billion-dollar companies in a year. In addition to Jumia (e-commerce), Interswitch (fintech), and Fawry (fintech), the continent now has six billion-dollar tech companies.

Here’s another interesting piece of information. The timeframe at which startups are reaching this landmark seems to be shortening. While it took Interswitch and Fawry seventeen and thirteen years respectively, it took Flutterwave five years; Jumia, four years; then OPay and Chipper Cash three years.

We reached out to the VC firm for comment regarding Chipper Cash’s valuation.

Indian logistics giant Delhivery raises $277 million ahead of IPO

By Manish Singh

Delhivery, India’s largest independent e-commerce logistics startup, has raised $277 million in what is expected to be the final funding round before the firm files for an IPO later this year.

In a regulatory filing, the Gurgaon-headquartered startup disclosed it had raised $277 million in a round led by Boston-headquartered investment firm Fidelity. Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC, Abu Dhabi’s Chimera, and UK’s Baillie Gifford also participated in the new round, a name of which the startup didn’t specify.

The new round valued the 10-year-old startup at about $3 billion. Delhivery — which also counts SoftBank Vision Fund, Tiger Global Management, Times Internet, The Carlyle Group, and Steadview Capital among its investors — has raised about $1.23 billion to date. The startup didn’t comment on Sunday.

Delhivery began its life as a food delivery firm, but has since shifted to a full suite of logistics services in over 2,300 Indian cities and more than 17,500 zip codes.

It is among a handful of startups attempting to digitize the demand and supply system of the logistics market through a freight exchange platform.

Research and image: Bernstein

Its platform connects consigners, agents and truckers offering road transport solutions. The startup says the platform reduces the role of brokers, makes some of its assets such as trucking — the most popular transportation mode for Delhivery — more efficient, and ensures round the clock operations.

This digitization is crucial to address the inefficiencies in the Indian logistics industry that has long stunted the national economy. Poor planning and forecasting of demand and supply increases the carrying costs, theft, damages, and delays, analysts at Bernstein wrote in a report last month about India’s logistics market.

Delhivery, which says it has delivered over 1 billion orders, works with “all of India’s largest e-commerce companies and leading enterprises,” according to its website, where it also says the startup has worked with over 10,000 customers. For the last leg of the delivery, its couriers are assigned an area that never exceeds 2 sq km, allowing them to make several delivery runs a day to save time.

Indian logistics market’s TAM (total addressable market) is over $200 billion, Bernstein analysts said.

The startup said late last year that it was planning to invest over $40 million within two years to expand and increase its fleet size to meet the growing demand of orders as more people shop online amid the pandemic.

Meet Justos, the new Brazilian insurtech that just got backing from the CEOs of 7 unicorns

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Here in the U.S. the concept of using driver’s data to decide the cost of auto insurance premiums is not a new one.

But in markets like Brazil, the idea is still considered relatively novel. A new startup called Justos claims it will be the first Brazilian insurer to use drivers’ data to reward those who drive safely by offering “fairer” prices.

And now Justos has raised about $2.8 million in a seed round led by Kaszek, one of the largest and most active VC firms in Latin America. Big Bets also participated in the round along with the CEOs of seven unicorns including Assaf Wand, CEO and co-founder of Hippo Insurance; David Velez, founder and CEO of Nubank; Carlos Garcia, founder and CEO Kavak; Sergio Furio, founder and CEO of Creditas; Patrick Sigris, founder of iFood and Fritz Lanman, CEO of ClassPass. Senior executives from Robinhood, Stripe, Wise, Carta and Capital One also put money in the round.

Serial entrepreneurs Dhaval Chadha, Jorge Soto Moreno and Antonio Molins co-founded Justos, having most recently worked at various Silicon Valley-based companies including ClassPass, Netflix and Airbnb.

“While we have been friends for a while, it was a coincidence that all three of us were thinking about building something new in Latin America,” Chadha said. “We spent two months studying possible paths, talking to people and investors in the United States, Brazil and Mexico, until we came up with the idea of creating an insurance company that can modernize the sector, starting with auto insurance.”

Ultimately, the trio decided that the auto insurance market would be an ideal sector considering that in Brazil, an estimated more than 70% of cars are not insured. 

The process to get insurance in the country, by any accounts, is a slow one. It takes up to 72 hours to receive initial coverage and two weeks to receive the final insurance policy. Insurers also take their time in resolving claims related to car damages and loss due to accidents, the entrepreneurs say. They also charge that pricing is often not fair or transparent.

Justos aims to improve the whole auto insurance process in Brazil by measuring the way people drive to help price their insurance policies. Similar to Root here in the U.S., Justos intends to collect users’ data through their mobile phones so that it can “more accurately and assertively price different types of risk.” This way, the startup claims it can offer plans  that are up to 30% cheaper than traditional plans, and grant discounts each month, according to the driving patterns of the previous month of each customer. 

“We measure how safely people drive using the sensors on their cell phones,” Chadha said. “This allows us to offer cheaper insurance to users who drive well, thereby reducing biases that are inherent in the pricing models used by traditional insurance companies.”

Justos also plans to use artificial intelligence and computerized vision to analyze and process claims more quickly and machine learning for image analysis and to create bots that help accelerate claims processing. 

“We are building a design driven, mobile first and customer experience that aims to revolutionize insurance in Brazil, similar to what Nubank did with banking,” Chadha told TechCrunch. “We will be eliminating any hidden fees, a lot of the small text and insurance specific jargon that is very confusing for customers.”

Justos will offer its product directly to its customers as well as through distribution channels like banks and brokers.

“By going direct to consumer, we are able to acquire users cheaper than our competitors and give back the savings to our users in the form of cheaper prices,” Chadha said.

Customers will be able to buy insurance through Justos’ app, website, or even WhatsApp. For now, the company is only adding potential customers to a waitlist but plans to begin selling policies later this year..

During the pandemic, the auto insurance sector in Brazil declined by 1%, according to Chadha, who believes that indicates “there is latent demand rearing to go once things open up again.”

Justos has a social good component as well. Justos intends to cap its profits and give any leftover revenue back to nonprofit organizations.

The company also has an ambitious goal: to help make insurance become universally accessible around the world and the roads safer in general.

“People will face everyday risks with a greater sense of safety and adventure. Road accidents will reduce drastically as a result of incentives for safer driving, and the streets will be safer,” Chadha said. “People, rather than profits, will become the focus of the insurance industry.”

Justos plans to use its new capital to set up operations, such as forming partnerships with reinsurers and an insurance company for fronting, since it is starting as an MGA (managing general agent).

It’s also working on building out its products such as apps, its back end and internal operations tools as well as designing all its processes for underwriting, claims and finance. Justos’ data science team is also building out its own pricing model. 

The startup will be focused on Brazil, with plans to eventually expand within Latin America, then Iberia and Asia.

Kaszek’s Andy Young said his firm was impressed by the team’s previous experience and passion for what they’re building.

“It’s a huge space, ripe for innovation and this is the type of team that can take it to the next level,” Young told TechCrunch. “The team has taken an approach to building an insurance platform that blends being consumer centric and data driven to produce something that is not only cheaper and rewards safety but as the brand implies in Portuguese, is fairer.”

Penfold closes $8.5M to provide a full-stack pension in an app aimed at freelancers

By Mike Butcher

Penfold, a startup that offers a full-stack pension in a smartphone app, has closed an $8.5 million (£6 million) funding round, $4 million of which was from a crowdfunding campaign. The company is now approved by the FCA to operate a pension itself rather than relying on third parties and is aimed at freelancers who rarely save. The round was led by Bridford Group.

Penfold says it built the back-end infrastructure “from scratch,” CEO Pete Hykin told me. He said legacy providers are built up from “100s of consolidated schemes” and are often still paper-based and require an army of people to administer. Thus a tech-driven approach means fewer overheads and the ability to make an attractive offer to freelancers.

Hykin continued: “I was self-employed for two years so had no pension. I tried five times to set one up with Scottish Widows, Standard Life, AJ Bell, etc. I gave up, as all of them forced you to print something, call them or speak to an IFA. At a previous company, I set up a workplace pension for 70 staff and none of them engaged. Many left money on the table as a result.

“We rebuilt the entire back end of pensions so all processes can happen instantly, quick, flexibly and at a low cost. Then we put an amazing UX on it via a great app and amazing human customer service.” Features include search, track and consolidate old pensions, among others.

Hykin said users download the app, enter bare minimum legal details for KYC, choose one of five investment plans based on age/risk appetite, choose how to fund (recurring direct debit, open banking top up or transfer another pension). Then they receive HMRC 25% top ups until retirement.

A “Find my pension” tool is possibly the most powerful feature of this startup, where you put in the name of your old employer and it tracks down your old pension pot.

Its competitors include traditional providers such as Standard Life, Scottish Widows, Aviva and AJ Bell.

Pensions are definitely heading to apps. PensionBee recently arrived on the London Stock Exchange, for instance. PensionBee also recently announced self-employed offering.

Users will be charged an annual percentage fee on their pension balance (0.75%), but with no other fees. The other founders are Chris Eastwood (co-founder and co-CEO) and Stuart Robinson (co-Founder and CTO).

Brazilian proptech startup QuintoAndar lands $300M at a $4B valuation

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Fintech and proptech are two sectors that are seeing exploding growth in Latin America, as financial services and real estate are two categories in particular dire need of innovation in a region.

Brazil’s QuintoAndar, which has developed a real estate marketplace focused on rentals and sales, has seen impressive growth in recent years. Today, the São Paulo-based proptech has announced it has closed on $300 million in a Series E round of funding that values it at an impressive $4 billion.

The round is notable for a few reasons. For one, the valuation — high by any standards but especially for a LatAm company — represents an increase of four times from when QuintoAndar raised a $250 million Series D in September 2019.

It’s also noteworthy who is backing the company. Silicon Valley-based Ribbit Capital led its Series E financing, which also included participation from SoftBank’s LatAm-focused Innovation Fund, LTS, Maverik, Alta Park, an undisclosed U.S.-based asset manager fund with over $2 trillion in AUM, Kaszek Ventures, Dragoneer and Accel partner Kevin Efrusy.

Having backed the likes of Coinbase, Robinhood and CreditKarma, Ribbit Capital has historically focused on early-stage investments in the fintech space. Its bet on QuintoAndar represents clear faith in what the company is building, as well as its confidence in the startup’s plans to branch out from its current model into a one-stop real estate shop that also offers mortgage, title, insurance and escrow services.

The latest round brings QuintoAndar’s total raised since its 2013 inception to $635 million.

Ribbit Capital Partner Nick Huber said QuintoAndar has over the years built “a unique and trusted brand in Brazil” for those looking for a place to call home.

“Whether you are looking to buy or to rent, QuintoAndar can support customers through the entire transaction process: from browsing verified inventory to signing the final contracts,” Huber told TechCrunch. “The ability to serve customers’ needs through each phase of life and to do so from start to finish is a unique capability, both in Brazil and around the world.”

QuintoAndar describes itself as an “end-to-end solution for long-term rentals” that, among other things, connects potential tenants to landlords and vice versa. Last year, it expanded also into connecting a home buyers to sellers.

Image Credits: QuintoAndar

TechCrunch spoke with co-founder and CEO Gabriel Braga and he shared details around the growth that has attracted such a bevy of high-profile investors.

Like most other businesses around the world, QuintoAndar braced itself for the worst when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year — especially considering one core piece of its business is to guarantee rents to the landlords on its platform.

“In the beginning, we were afraid of the implications of the crisis but we were able to honor our commitments,” Braga said. “In retrospect, the pandemic was a big test for our business model and it has validated the strength and defensibility of our business on the credit side and reinforced our value proposition to tenants and landlords. So after the initial scary moments, we actually felt even more confident in the business that we are building.”

QuintoAndar describes itself as “a distant market leader” with more than 100,000 rentals under management and about 10,000 new rentals per month. Its rental platform is live in 40 cities across Brazil, while its home-buying marketplace is live in four. Part of its plans with the new capital is to expand into new markets within Brazil, as well as in Latin America as a whole.

The startup claims that, in less than a year, QuintoAndar managed to aggregate the largest inventory among digital transactional platforms. It now offers more than 60,000 properties for sale across Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belho Horizonte and Porto Alegre. To give greater context around the company’s growth of that side of its platform: In its first year of operation, QuintoAndar closed more than 1,000 transactions. It has now surpassed the mark of 8,000 transactions in annualized terms, growing between 50% and 100% quarter over quarter.

As for the rentals side of its business, Braga said QuintoAndar has more than 100,000 rentals under management and is closing about 10,000 new rentals per month. The company is not profitable as it’s focused on growth, although it’s unit economics are particularly favorable in certain markets such as Sao Paulo, which is financing some of its growth in other cities, according to Braga.

Now, the 2,000-person company is looking to begin its global expansion with plans to enter the Mexican market later this year. With that, Braga said QuintoAndar is looking to hire “top-tier” talent from all over.

“We want to invest a lot in our product and tech core,” he said. “So we’re trying to bring in more senior people from abroad, on a global basis.”

Some history

CEO Braga and CTO André Penha came up with the idea for QuintoAndar after receiving their MBAs at Stanford University. As many startups do, the company was founded out of Braga’s personal “nightmare” of an experience — in this case, of trying to rent an apartment in Sao Paulo.

The search process, he recalls, was difficult as there was not enough information available online and renters were forced to provide a guarantor, or co-signer, from the same city or pay rent insurance, which Braga described as “very expensive.”

“Overall, I felt it was a very inefficient and fragmented process with no transparency or tech,” Braga told me at the time of the company’s last raise. “There was all this friction and high cost involved, just real tangible problems to solve.”

The concept for QuintoAndar (which can be translated literally to “Fifth Floor” in Portuguese) was born.

“Little by little, we created a platform that consolidated supply and inventory in a uniform way,” Braga said.

The company took the search phase online for the first time, according to Braga. It also eliminated the need for tenants to provide a guarantor, thereby saving them money. On the other side, QuintoAndar also works to help protect the landlord with the guarantee that they will get their rent “on time every month,” Braga said.

It’s been interesting watching the company evolve and grow over time, just as it’s been fascinating seeing the region’s startup scene mature and shine in recent years.

This $250 million growth fund will divert half its profits to historically Black colleges and universities

By Connie Loizos

There’s been a lot of talk about racial equality in the year since George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, but achieving it is far easier said than done given the current state of affairs. Consider: according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, historically Black colleges and universities have $15,000 on average in endowment per student, while comparable non-HBCUs have $410,000 on average in endowment per student.

That matters, a lot. While higher learning institutions are almost universally focused on diversifying their student base, HBCUs are largely responsible for the nation’s Black middle class, and the larger the endowment, the stronger the school and its ability to support its educators, researchers, and in the case of public HBCUs, its public service mission. Venture capitalist Jamison Hill says that his own father, who attended North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, has long maintained that “if it weren’t for that experience, there’s no way he could have gone on to get a high-paying job, where he met my mother, who laid the foundation for the success of our family.”

Hill, who most recently spent more than six years with Bain Capital Ventures, is now doing something to protect that legacy, along with a kind of dream team that features Laura Weidman Powers, who has cofounded or led numerous impact-focused startups and nonprofits, including Code2040; and Luci Fonseca, who helped establish the Institute for Black Economic Mobility at McKinsey & Co. and has focused on impact investing at Salesforce Ventures, among her other roles.

All three have joined the four-year-old venture firm Base10 Partners to invest a new, $250 million growth-stage fund — the firm’s first later-stage vehicle — and fully half the profits from that fund will be directed to HBCUs to create student scholarships and support university endowments.

It’s a brilliant play on the part of Base10, a Bay Area outfit that closed its second early-stage fund last year with $250 million in capital commitments. Called the Advancement Initiative, the fund has already managed to work checks into eight high-fliers — Attentive, Nubank, Brex, Plaid, Aurora Solar, Wealthsimple, CircleCI, and KeepTruckin.

In each case, the fund participated in heavily oversubscribed rounds, but given its mission, the companies’ founding teams made room for its capital, as did other investors. (As an added sweetener, Base10 has promised to create scholarships in the name of each of these portfolio companies to fund the education of HBCU STEM students. Think: The Plaid Scholarship, The Brex Scholarship, and so forth.)

A fresh take on how the venture world can help close the racial inequality gap in the U.S., it could conceivably prove even more effective than other initiatives, including that of LPs who are increasingly pushing VCs to diversify their investing ranks.

The fund could be particularly impactful if it inspires copycat efforts. HBCUs confer nearly half of all STEM degrees for African-American students, says Base10, yet all 107 HBCU endowments combined are equal to just 7% of Stanford’s roughly $30 billion endowment.

So how will it work? For now, says Hill, the idea is to operate the fund as any growth-stage fund, meaning the overarching criteria is to back companies with the potential to produce outsize returns, no matter the skin color of their founders. Ultimately, however — “our hope is that this is not one and done,” says Hill — the idea is to drive change even further by layering in requirements about who can receive a check from the outfit.

As for the fund’s returns, some will flow directly back to particular HBCUs because they are limited partners in the Advancement Initiative fund, including the private university Howard University in Washington, D.C. and Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida.

Indeed, while the fund’s LPs also include earlier Base10 backers, along with organizations that serve minority communities and impact- and mission-oriented foundations, the Advancement Initiative was particularly focused on “removing any barriers to HBCUs investing,” says Weidman Powers, adding that it invited them to invest with “no fees, no minimums, no real closing date.”

The rest of the returns being set aside from HBCUs will be poured into a donor-advised fund that’s focused on increasing financial inclusion for the many institutions that do not currently have endowments large enough to support a private market strategy.

Given the late-stage of the companies it is backing — and the buzzy deals into which it’s getting — it’s likely, too, there will be profits.

“We’ve found that a lot of companies are very willing to have a conversation with us,” says Fonseca, who says the idea is to plug between $10 million an $20 million into each of the fund’s portfolio companies. “The toughest part is just getting in front of the CEO,” she adds. “Once we get in front of that person and we tell that story, we tell them the vision, they’re immediately sold.”

Wayflyer raises $76M to provide ‘revenue-based’ financing to e-commerce merchants

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Wayflyer, a revenue-based financing platform for e-commerce merchants, has raised $76 million in a Series A funding round led by Left Lane Capital.

“Partners” of DST Global, QED Investors, Speedinvest and Zinal Growth — the family office of Guillaume Pousaz (founder of Checkout.com) — also put money in the round. The raise comes just after Wayflyer raised $100 million in debt funding to support its cash advance product, and 14 months after the Dublin, Ireland-based startup launched its first product.

With an e-commerce boom fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wayflyer is the latest in a group of startups focused on the space that has attracted investor interest as of late. The company aims to help e-commerce merchants “unlock growth” by giving them access to working capital (from $10,000 up to $20 million) so they can improve cash flow and drive sales. For example, more cash can help these merchants do things like buy more inventory in bulk so they can meet customer demand and save money. 

In a nutshell, Wayflyer uses analytics and sends merchants cash to make inventory purchases or investments in their business. Those merchants then repay Wayflyer using a percentage of their revenue until the money is paid back (plus a fee charged for the cash advance). So essentially, the merchants are using their revenue to get financing, hence the term revenue-based financing. The advantage, Wayflyer says, is that companies make repayments as a percentage of their sales. So if they have a slow month, they will pay back less. So, there’s more flexibility involved than with other mechanisms such as traditional bank loans.

Co-founder Aidan Corbett believes that in a crowded space, Wayflyer’s use of big data gives it an edge over competitors.

Corbett and former VC Jack Pierse spun Wayflyer out of a marketing analytics company that Corbett had also started, called Conjura, in September 2019.

“Jack came to me and said, ‘You should stop using our marketing analytics engine to do these big enterprise SaaS solutions, and instead use them to underwrite e-commerce businesses for short-term finance,’ ” Corbett recalls.

And so he did.

“We just had our heads down and started repurposing the platform for it to be an underwriting platform,” Corbett said. It launched in April 2020, doing about $600,000 in advances at the time. In March of 2021, Wayflyer did about $36 million in advances.

“So, it’s been a pretty aggressive kind of growth,” Corbett said.

Over the past six months alone, the company has seen its business grow 290% as it has deployed over $150 million of funding across 10 markets with a focus on the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia. About 75% of its customers are U.S. based.

Wayflyer plans to use its new capital toward product development and global expansion with the goal of entering “multiple” new markets in the coming months. The company recently opened a sales office in Atlanta, and also has locations in the U.K., the Netherlands and Spain.

To Corbett, the company’s offering is more compelling than buy now, pay later solutions for consumers for example, in that it is funding the merchant directly and able to add services on top of that.

“There’s a lot more opportunity for companies like ourselves to differentiate because essentially, we focus on the merchants. And when we underwrite the merchant by getting data from the merchant, there’s a lot of additional services that you can put in on top,” Corbett explained. “Whereas with buy now, pay later, you get information on the consumer, and there’s not as much room to add additional services on top.”

For example, if a business requests an advance and either is not approved for one, or doesn’t choose to take it, Wayflyer’s analytics platform is free to anybody who signs up to help them optimize their marketing spend.

“This is a critical driver of value for e-commerce businesses. If you can’t acquire customers at a reasonable price, you’re not going to be around very long. And a lot of early-stage e-commerce businesses struggle with that,” Corbett said.

It also can pair up a merchant with a marketing analytics “specialist” to analyze its marketing performance or an inventory “specialist” to look at the current terms and price a business is getting from a supplier.

“Our focus from the very beginning is really supporting the merchants, not just providing them with working capital,” Corbett said.  

Another way the company claims to be different is in how it deploys funds. As mentioned above, merchants can pay the money back at varied terms, depending on how sales are going. The company makes money by charging a principal on advances, and then a “remittance rate” on revenues until the total amount is paid back.

“We tend to be more flexible than competition in this way,” Corbett said. “Also, some competitors will pay invoices on merchants’ behalf or give them a pre-charged card to use on advertising spend,” Corbett said. “We always give cash into a merchant’s account.” 

Wayflyer recently inked an agreement with Adobe Commerce, a partnership it said would provide a new channel to further amplify its growth with the goal of funding 8,000 e-commerce businesses in the first year of the partnership.

For his part, Left Lane Capital Partner Dan Ahrens said that his firm was impressed by Wayflyer’s “nuanced understanding of what will drive value for their clients.”

“The team’s focus, specialization, and deep analytical expertise within the e-commerce market also drives superior underwriting,” he told TechCrunch. “Their explosive growth has not come about by taking on undue risk. We are big believers that their underwriting will only improve with scale, and that Wayflyer will be able to compound its competitive advantages over time.”

As mentioned, this is an increasingly crowded space. Earlier this month, Settle announced it had raised $15 million in a Series A funding round led by Kleiner Perkins to give e-commerce and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies access to non-dilutive capital.

African fintech OPay is reportedly raising $400M at over $1.5B valuation

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Chinese-backed and Africa-focused fintech platform OPay is in talks to raise up to $400 million, The Information reported today. The fundraising will be coming two years after OPay announced two funding rounds in 2019 — $50 million in June and $120 million Series B in November.

The $170 million raised so far comes from mainly Chinese investors who have begun to bet big on Africa over the past few years. Some of them include SoftBank, Sequoia Capital China, IDG Capital, SoftBank Ventures Asia, GSR Ventures, Source Code Capital.

In 2018, Opera, popularly known for its internet search engine and browser, launched the OPay mobile money platform in Lagos. It didn’t take long for the company to expand aggressively within the city using ORide, a now-defunct ride-hailing service, as an entry point to the array of services it wanted to offer. The company has tested several verticals — OBus, a bus-booking platform (also defunct); OExpress, a logistics delivery service; OTrade, a B2B e-commerce platform; OFood, a food delivery service, among others.

While none of these services has significantly scaled, OPay’s fintech and mobile money arm (which is its main play) is thriving. This year, its parent company Opera reported that OPay’s monthly transactions grew 4.5x last year to over $2 billion in December. OPay also claims to process about 80% of bank transfers among mobile money operators in Nigeria and 20% of the country’s non-merchant point of sales transactions.Last year, the company also said it acquired an international money transfer license with a partnership with WorldRemit also in the works.

It’s quite surprising that none of OPay’s plans to expand to South Africa and Kenya (countries it expressed interest in during its Series B) has come to fruition despite its large raises. The company blamed the pandemic for these shortcomings. However, earlier this year, the country set up shop in North Africa by expanding to Egypt. This next raise, likely a Series C, will be instrumental in the company’s quest for expansion, both geographically and product offerings. Per The Information, OPay’s valuation will increase to about $1.5 billion, three times its valuation in 2019.

We reached out to OPay, but they declined to comment on the story.

Visa takes a swipe in fintech, builds new online marketplace

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The relationships between banks and fintechs are multi-faceted.

In some cases, they partner. In many cases, they compete. In other cases, one acquires or invests in the other.

Well, today, an announcement by global payments giant Visa is aimed at helping facilitate banks and fintechs’ ability to work together.

Specifically, Visa said today it has expanded its Visa Fintech Partner Connect, a program designed to help financial institutions quickly connect with a “vetted and curated” set of technology providers. 

I talked with Terry Angelos, senior vice president and global head of fintech at Visa, to understand just exactly what that means.

“Global fintech investment last year was $105 billion,” Angelos said. “There were about 2,861 deals in venture, PE and M&A. So literally over $100 billion is going into fintech, which is more than the combined tech budgets of every bank in the U.S. As a result, a lot of innovation that is occurring in fintech is funded by venture dollars. We’re trying to bring that innovation to our clients, whether they are banks, processors or other fintechs.”

The program initially launched in Europe in November of 2020, and now is available in the U.S., Asia Pacific, Latin American and CEMEA (Central Europe, Middle East and Africa). Visa has worked to identify fintechs that can help banks and financial institutions (that are clients of Visa’s) as well as other fintechs “create digital-first experiences, without the cost and complexity of building the back-end technology in-house.

Local teams will run programs in the respective regions, and vet and manage partners in the following categories: account opening, data aggregation, analytics and security, customer engagement and new cardholder services and operations and compliance.

So far, Visa has identified about 60 partners that offer a range of technologies — from back-office functions to new front-end services, according to Angelos. Those partners include Alloy, Jumio, Argyle, Fidel, FirstSource, TravelBank, Canopy, Hummingbird and Unit21, among others. Twenty-four are located in the U.S.

“So much of fintech focus and coverage is about disrupting existing banks. Everyone is trying to disrupt everyone, including fintechs like PayPal,” Angelos told TechCrunch. “Venture numbers are certainly very large. What we’re realizing is there is a significant opportunity to pair up a lot of venture-backed companies with our existing clients. It runs a little bit against us versus them approach you typically hear about.”

Visa clients can get in touch with program partners via the Visa Partner website and get benefits such as reduced implementation fees and pricing discounts. 

“The Fintech Connect program is about both helping to identify and curate interesting fintech companies and then create a favorable commercial partnership for our clients so they can engage with these Fintech Connect partners,” Angelos said.

So, what does Visa gain from all this?

“Our goal is that all of our clients are in a position to build better digital experiences for their consumers,” he told TechCrunch. “We would love it if every bank had the latest tools in order to onboard clients and build digital experiences.”

One of its partners, for example, is virtual card startup Extend. 

“There are fintechs that provide this today such as TripActions, Ramp and Divvy,” Angelos points out. “But what Visa is doing is looking at ‘How can we enable our banking clients to do something similar?’ So we’re bringing innovation into our ecosystem so that anyone can take advantage.”

It can also help companies such as TripActions, Ramp or Divvy with other complementary technologies for security posture, for example.

“The net beneficiary is to hopefully move more spending onto those rails,” Angelos said. “For example, if you look at B2B spend, there’s about $120 trillion of it annually. We believe about $20 trillion of that is card eligible. Today, Visa captures about $1 trillion of that. So, another $19 trillion is available for Visa to capture through our partners if our banks and fintechs can build these kinds of solutions to enable B2B payments.”

To be clear, Visa also invests in startups from time to time. But this initiative is distinct from those efforts, although a couple of its partners have been recipients of funding from Visa.

Dabbel gets $4.4M to cut CO2 by automating HVAC control for commercial buildings

By Natasha Lomas

Düsseldorf-based proptech startup Dabbel is using AI to drive energy efficiency savings in commercial buildings.

It’s developed cloud-based self-learning building management software that plugs into the existing building management systems (BMS) — taking over control of heating and cooling systems in a way that’s more dynamic than legacy systems based on fixed set-point resets.

Dabbel says its AI considers factors such as building orientation and thermal insulation, and reviews calibration decisions every five minutes — meaning it can respond dynamically to changes in outdoor and indoor conditions.

The 2018-founded startup claims this approach of layering AI-powered predictive modelling atop legacy BMS to power next-gen building automation is able to generate substantial energy savings — touting reductions in energy consumption of up to 40%.

“Every five minutes Dabbel reviews its decisions based on all available data,” explains CEO and co-founder, Abel Samaniego. “With each iteration, Dabbel improves or adapts and changes its decisions based on the current circumstances inside and outside the building. It does this by using cognitive artificial intelligence to drive a Model-Based Predictive Control (MPC) System… which can dynamically adjust all HVAC setpoints based on current/future conditions.”

In essence, the self-learning system predicts ahead of time the tweaks that are needed to adapt for future conditions — saving energy vs a pre-set BMS that would keep firing the boilers for longer.

The added carrot for commercial building owners (or tenants) is that Dabbel squeezes these energy savings without the need to rip and replace legacy systems — nor, indeed, to install lots of IoT devices or sensor hardware to create a ‘smart’ interior environment; the AI integrates with (and automatically calibrates) the existing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

All that’s needed is Dabbel’s SaaS — and less than a week for the system to be implemented (it also says installation can be done remotely).

“There are no limitations in terms of Heating and Cooling systems,” confirms Samaniego, who has a background in industrial engineering and several years’ experience automating high tech plants in Germany. “We need a building with a Building Management System in place and ideally a BACnet communication protocol.”

Average reductions achieved so far across the circa 250,000m² of space where its AI is in charge of building management systems are a little more modest but a still impressive 27%. (He says the maximum savings seen at some “peak times” is 42%.)

The touted savings aren’t limited to a single location or type of building/client, according to Dabbel, which says they’ve been “validated across different use cases and geographies spanning Europe, the U.S., China, and Australia”.

Early clients are facility managers of large commercial buildings — Commerzbank clearly sees potential, having incubated the startup via its early-stage investment arm — and several schools.

A further 1,000,000m² is in the contract or offer phase — slated to be installed “in the next six months”.

Dabbel envisages its tech being useful to other types of education institutions and even other use-cases. (It’s also toying with adding a predictive maintenance functionality to expand its software’s utility by offering the ability to alert building owners to potential malfunctions ahead of time.)

And as policymakers around the global turn their attention to how to achieve the very major reductions in carbon emissions that are needed to meet ambitious climate goals the energy efficiency of buildings certainly can’t be overlooked.

“The time for passive responses to addressing the critical issue of carbon emission reduction is over,” said Samaniego in a statement. “That is why we decided to take matters into our own hands and develop a solution that actively replaces a flawed human-based decision-making process with an autonomous one that acts with surgical precision and thanks to artificial intelligence, will only improve with each iteration.”

If the idea of hooking your building’s heating/cooling up to a cloud-based AI sounds a tad risky for Internet security reasons, Dabbel points out it’s connecting to the BMS network — not the (separate) IT network of the company/building.

It also notes that it uses one-way communication via a VPN tunnel — “creating an end-to-end encrypted connection under high market standards”, as Samaniego puts it.

The startup has just closed a €3.6 million (~$4.4M) pre-Series A funding round led by Target Global, alongside main incubator (Commerzbank’s early-stage investment arm), SeedX, plus some strategic angel investors.

Commenting in a statement, Dr. Ricardo Schaefer, partner at Target Global, added: “We are enthusiastic to work with the team at Dabbel as they offer their clients a tangible and frictionless way to significantly reduce their carbon footprint, helping to close the gap between passive measurement and active remediation.”

 

Amount raises $99M at a $1B+ valuation to help banks better compete with fintechs

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Amount, a company that provides technology to banks and financial institutions, has raised $99 million in a Series D funding round at a valuation of just over $1 billion.

WestCap, a growth equity firm founded by ex-Airbnb and Blackstone CFO Laurence Tosi, led the round. Hanaco Ventures, Goldman Sachs, Invus Opportunities and Barclays Principal Investments also participated.

Notably, the investment comes just over five months after Amount raised $86 million in a Series C round led by Goldman Sachs Growth at a valuation of $686 million. (The original raise was $81 million, but Barclays Principal Investments invested $5 million as part of a second close of the Series C round). And that round came just three months after the Chicago-based startup quietly raised $58 million in a Series B round in March. The latest funding brings Amount’s total capital raised to $243 million since it spun off from Avant — an online lender that has raised over $600 million in equity — in January of 2020.

So, what kind of technology does Amount provide? 

In simple terms, Amount’s mission is to help financial institutions “go digital in months — not years” and thus, better compete with fintech rivals. The company formed just before the pandemic hit. But as we have all seen, demand for the type of technology Amount has developed has only increased exponentially this year and last.

CEO Adam Hughes says Amount was spun out of Avant to provide enterprise software built specifically for the banking industry. It partners with banks and financial institutions to “rapidly digitize their financial infrastructure and compete in the retail lending and buy now, pay later sectors,” Hughes told TechCrunch.

Specifically, the 400-person company has built what it describes as “battle-tested” retail banking and point-of-sale technology that it claims accelerates digital transformation for financial institutions. The goal is to give those institutions a way to offer “a secure and seamless digital customer and merchant experience” that leverages Amount’s verification and analytics capabilities. 

Image Credits: Amount

HSBC, TD Bank, Regions, Banco Popular and Avant (of course) are among the 10 banks that use Amount’s technology in an effort to simplify their transition to digital financial services. Recently, Barclays US Consumer Bank became one of the first major banks to offer installment point-of-sale options, giving merchants the ability to “white label” POS payments under their own brand (using Amount’s technology).

The pandemic dramatically accelerated banks’ interest in further digitizing the retail lending experience and offering additional buy now, pay later financing options with the rise of e-commerce,” Hughes, former president and COO at Avant, told TechCrunch. “Banks are facing significant disruption risk from fintech competitors, so an Amount partnership can deliver a world-class digital experience with significant go-to-market advantages.”

Also, he points out, consumers’ digital expectations have changed as a result of the forced digital adoption during the pandemic, with bank branches and stores closing and more banking done and more goods and services being purchased online.

Amount delivers retail banking experiences via a variety of channels and a point-of-sale financing product suite, as well as features such as fraud prevention, verification, decisioning engines and account management.

Overall, Amount clients include financial institutions collectively managing nearly $2 trillion in U.S. assets and servicing more than 50 million U.S. customers, according to the company.

Hughes declined to provide any details regarding the company’s financials, saying only that Amount “performed well” as a standalone company in 2020 and that the company is expecting “significant” year-over-year revenue growth in 2021.

Amount plans to use its new capital to further accelerate R&D by investing in its technology and products. It also will be eyeing some acquisitions.

“We see a lot of interesting technology we could layer onto our platform to unlock new asset classes, and acquisition opportunities that would allow us to bring additional features to our platform,” Hughes told TechCrunch.

Avant itself made its first acquisition earlier this year when it picked up Zero Financial, news that TechCrunch covered here.

Kevin Marcus, partner at WestCap, said his firm invested in Amount based on the belief that banks and other financial institutions have “a point-in-time opportunity to democratize access to traditional financial products by accelerating modernization efforts.”

“Amount is the market leader in powering that change,” he said. “Through its best-in-class products, Amount enables financial institutions to enhance and elevate the banking experience for their end customers and maintain a key competitive advantage in the marketplace.”

Sequoia leads $5M pre-seed in Egypt’s 1-month-old digital bank Telda

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Egypt has a population of over 100 million people. The country has a high mobile and internet penetration necessary for a young and tech-savvy population with 61% below 30. But despite its youthful population, two out of every three individuals are currently unbanked in Egypt. It’s the same situation in MENA, where only 40% of the population have access to a bank account.

Digital banks have enormous potential in the region. Today, a newly launched one, Telda is announcing a $5 million pre-seed round to digitize how Egyptians save, send, and spend money.

Two weeks ago, we reported that Egyptian e-commerce fulfillment startup Flextock had raised the largest pre-seed in MENA. But that has changed today with Telda’s fundraise surpassing that record with a considerable margin in both MENA and Africa (Autochek’s $3.4 million) for now.

Telda was launched last month by CEO Ahmed Sabbah and CTO Youssef Sholqamy. Before Telda, Sabbah was the co-founder and CTO of Egypt’s ride-hailing company Swvl, and Sholqamy, a former senior engineer in Uber’s infrastructure team. Sabbah said he and his co-founder had been looking at the fintech space at their former workplaces. However, after his experience using N26 while visiting a friend in Berlin in 2015, his eyes opened to the possibilities of digital banking in Egypt.

“I was fond of the idea, and it was coming from a huge pain of payments we had in Egypt and the region. And for me, I was kind of like waiting for this to happen in Egypt, or if not, I thought I’ll tap into the opportunity someday,” he told TechCrunch. “Youcef and I have been like watching out the space for a while when the first digital bank started like six years ago, and watching how they grew in markets where we think banking is more mature than this region. So imagine an opportunity in a region like Egypt where banking is even way, way less mature.”

The North African country is one of the highest consumer spending markets in Africa. Its private consumption accounts for nearly 85% of its nominal GDP, and only 4% of its overall GDP is cashless. In essence, Egypt is heavily cash reliant, and card usage in the country is very much in its infancy. Disheartened by the non-customer-centric banking experiences, Telda was launched to provide an alternative.

Telda

Image Credits: Telda

Like any digital bank globally, Telda enables customers to create a free account to send and receive money. And also a card to use online, in stores, make withdrawals and pay bills. But while the service is currently live, Telda cards are yet to be distributed to existing and new customers.

Telda affirmed that it is the first company to receive a license from the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) under its new regulations to issue cards and onboard customers digitally. And by doing so, the one-month-old company has made major progress in a relatively short time, even though obtaining that license took lengthy dialogue with regulators.

“First movers will usually have to make all the effort with the regulators and with the bank and try to pave the way. So this was one of the hardest parts — convincing regulators to trust and regulate our banking business and to provide payment financial services to our consumers,” the CEO said. But because Telda’s proposition aligns with the CBE’s vision of digitizing payments in the country, it had little choice but to grant them the license.

A different issue the company has faced was finding a partner bank to provide these services. And to do that, Telda had to convince the bank that their services were complementary and wouldn’t entirely overlap.

“That means basically trying to be as much independent as possible from the infrastructure of the bank. This was quite crucial for us to be able to move right and as fast as a startup, not as slow and pretty much tied to the pace of the bank’s technology and operations,” he continued.

Due to the founders’ experience in Swvl and Uber, the importance of building a great team cannot be overemphasized. There’s barely any blueprint to look at in launching a digital bank in Egypt, so Telda is building how it knows best: hiring exceptional talent. According to the CEO, the team comprises Egyptians who returned to the North African country to build Telda after working for corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, Uber, Noon, and McKinsey.

MENA appears to be ripe for a digital banking experience. Per GSMA Intelligence, 280 million people in the region are mobile internet users, and growth is not slowing down. The frustration with traditional banks is particularly acute with the younger generation, who crave a simple, user-friendly, and transparent experience. Telda has been able to onboard an impressive list of investors, including Sequoia Capital, for this reason.

The giant US VC firm led the pre-seed round as Berlin-based Global Founders Capital (GFC) and emerging markets-focused fund Class 5 Global participated.

Telda is Sequoia’s first venture in Africa, MENA, and the wider GCC region. Eight years ago, the VC giant led an infamous seed investment in Latin American digital bank Nubank before it began to go full throttle. Now with more than 38 million customers, Nubank is the world’s largest digital bank with a valuation of $25 billion. Sequoia will be looking for a similar success story in Telda.

“There are many parallels between Brazil and Egypt. Both countries boast a large, young, talented, and tech-savvy population with a strong appetite to innovate,” said Sequoia Partner George Robson of the investment. “We are delighted to partner with Telda and earmark our first investment in the region.”

Telda intends to fast-track its card production and distribution with this new funding. The company said it currently has more than 30,000 signups already, with half of that already requesting cards. It also plans to capitalize on Sequoia’s name for hiring and expansion, the CEO continued.

I think hiring is key for us. We want to scale the team into a world-class team that’s willing to tap into the opportunity. What we aspire for is basically growing in Egypt, start to deliver cards for the early adopters, and we see ourselves reaching close to a million cards in our first year.”

Investments in Egypt have been growing in leaps and bounds over the past three years, accompanied by a growing, vibrant ecosystem. Egypt recorded the largest number of investment deals last year per Partech Africa. With 86 deals completed, the country contributed 24% to the total number of deals made on the continent

GFC partner Roel Janssen referring to the budding ecosystem in his statement, said: “We are highly impressed by Sabbah and Sholqamy and love their vision for building the region’s leading digital banking app, and we are proud to be part of their journey. It is GFC’s first investment in Egypt, and we see that Egypt has the potential to become an important hub in the global tech ecosystem.”

Class 5 global managing partner Youcef Oudjane said, Money has become a medium of self-expression — a form of identity — not solely a store of value. Telda has done a remarkable job of embedding their culture and values in the product, in both functionality and design.

Update: An earlier part of this article stated that Sequoia had made a few Sub-Saharan African investments in startups like Healthlane and OPay. However, those investments were executed by Sequoia China (a subsidiary of Sequoia) and a Sequoia scout, respectively.

Hundreds of SPACs waiting in the woods

By Natasha Mascarenhas

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

The fully vaxxed and officially fully immune took over the podcast this week, with Natasha and Danny co-hosting the show while the inimitable Alex is out from Shot No. 2. Grace and Chris, as always, were behind the scenes making sure we sound pretty and don’t fall down too many punny board game rabbit holes after vacation.

Here’s the rundown of what we got into:

And that’s where we break! Follow the podcast on Twitter, be kind to your humans, and be the kindest to yourself. Back sooner than you can raise a $25 million pre-seed round for an audio app for Dogecoin lovers.

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

As concerns rise over forest carbon offsets, Pachama’s verified offset marketplace gets $15 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Restoring and preserving the world’s forests has long been considered one of the easiest, lowest cost, and simplest ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

It’s by far the most popular method for corporations looking to take an easy first step on the long road to decarbonizing or offsetting their industrial operations. But in recent months the efficacy, validity, and reliability of a number of forest offsets have been called into question thanks to some blockbuster reporting from Bloomberg.

It’s against this uncertain backdrop that investors are coming in to shore up financing for Pachama, a company building a marketplace for forest carbon credits that it says is more transparent and verifiable thanks to its use of satellite imagery and machine learning technologies.

That pitch has brought in $15 million in new financing for the company, which co-founder and chief executive Diego Saez Gil said would be used for product development and the continued expansion of the company’s marketplace.

Launched only one year ago, Pachama has managed to land some impressive customers and backers. No less an authority on things environmental than Jeff Bezos (given how much of a negative impact Amazon operations have on the planet), gave the company a shoutout in his last letter to shareholders as Amazon’s outgoing chief executive. And the largest ecommerce company in Latin America, Mercado Libre, tapped the company to manage an $8 million offset project that’s part of a broader commitment to sustainability by the retailing giant.

Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund is an investor in the latest round, which was led by Bill Gates’ investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Other investors included Lowercarbon Capital (the climate-focused fund from über-successful angel investor, Chris Sacca), former Über executive Ryan Graves’ Saltwater, the MCJ Collective, and new backers like Tim O’Reilly’s OATV, Ram Fhiram, Joe gebbia, Marcos Galperin, NBA All-star Manu Ginobilli, James Beshara, Fabrice Grinda, Sahil Lavignia, and Tomi Pierucci.

That’s not even the full list of the company’s backers. What’s made Pachama so successful, and given the company the ability to attract top talent from companies like Google, Facebook, SapceX, Tesla, OpenAI, Microsoft, Impossible Foods and Orbital Insights, is the combination of its climate mission applied to the well-understood forest offset market, said Saez Gil.

“Restoring nature is one of the most important solutions to climate change. Forests, oceans and other ecosystems not only sequester enormous amounts of CO2from the atmosphere, but they also provide critical habitat for biodiversity and are sources of livelihood for communities worldwide. We are building the technology stack required to be able to drive funding to the restoration and conservation of these ecosystems with integrity, transparency and efficiency” said Diego Saez Gil, Co-founder and CEO at Pachama. “We feel honored and excited to have the support of such an incredible group of investors who believe in our mission and are demonstrating their willingness to support our growth for the long term”. 

Customers outside of Latin America are also clamoring for access to Pachama’s offset marketplace. Microsoft, Shopify, and Softbank are also among the company’s paying buyers.

It’s another reason that investors like Y Combinator, Social Capital, Tobi Lutke, Serena Williams, Aglaé Ventures (LVMH’s tech investment arm), Paul Graham, AirAngels, Global Founders, ThirdKind Ventures, Sweet Capital, Xplorer Capital, Scott Belsky, Tim Schumacher, Gustaf Alstromer, Facundo Garreton, and Terrence Rohan, were able to commit to backing the company’s nearly $24 million haul since its 2020 launch. 

“Pachama is working on unlocking the full potential of nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Carmichael Roberts from BEV, in a statement. “Their technology-based approach will have an enormous multiplier effect by using machine learning models for forest analysis to validate, monitor and measure impactful carbon neutrality initiatives. We are impressed by the progress that the team has made in a short period of time and look forward to working with them to scale their unique solution globally.” 

 

Click Studios asks customers to stop tweeting about its Passwordstate data breach

By Zack Whittaker

Australian security software house Click Studios has told customers not to post emails sent by the company about its data breach, which allowed malicious hackers to push a malicious update to its flagship enterprise password manager Passwordstate to steal customer passwords.

Last week, the company told customers to “commence resetting all passwords” stored in its flagship password manager after the hackers pushed the malicious update to customers over a 28-hour window between April 20-22. The malicious update was designed to contact the attacker’s servers to retrieve malware designed to steal and send the password manager’s contents back to the attackers.

In an email to customers, Click Studios did not say how the attackers compromised the password manager’s update feature, but included a link to a security fix.

But news of the breach only became public after Danish cybersecurity firm CSIS Group published a blog post with details of the attack hours after Click Studios emailed its customers.

Click Studios claims Passwordstate is used by “more than 29,000 customers,” including in the Fortune 500, government, banking, defense and aerospace, and most major industries.

In an update on its website, Click Studios said in a Wednesday advisory that customers are “requested not to post Click Studios correspondence on Social Media.” The email adds: “It is expected that the bad actor is actively monitoring Social Media, looking for information they can use to their advantage, for related attacks.”

“It is expected the bad actor is actively monitoring social media for information on the compromise and exploit. It is important customers do not post information on Social Media that can be used by the bad actor. This has happened with phishing emails being sent that replicate Click Studios email content,” the company said.

Besides a handful of advisories published by the company since the breach was discovered, the company has refused to comment or respond to questions.

It’s also not clear if the company has disclosed the breach to U.S. and EU authorities where the company has customers, but where data breach notification rules obligate companies to disclose incidents. Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual global revenue for falling foul of Europe’s GDPR rules.

Click Studios chief executive Mark Sandford has not responded to repeated requests (from TechCrunch) for comment. Instead, TechCrunch received the same canned autoresponse from the company’s support email saying that the company’s staff are “focused only on assisting customers technically.”

TechCrunch emailed Sandford again on Thursday for comment on the latest advisory, but did not hear back.

Google Pay update adds grocery offers, transit expansions and spending insights

By Sarah Perez

Following November’s overhaul of Google Pay, which saw the service expanding into personal finance, the company today is rolling out a new set of features aimed at making Google Pay more a part of its users’ everyday lives. With an update, Google Pay will now include new options for grocery savings, paying for public transit, and categorizing their spending.

Through partnerships with Safeway and Target, Google Pay users will now be able to browse their store’s weekly circulars that showcase the latest deals. Safeway is bringing over 500 stores to the Google Pay platform, and Target stores nationwide will offer a similar feature. Google Pay users will be able to favorite the recommended deals for later access. And soon, Google Pay will notify you of the weekly deals when you’re near a participating store, if location is enabled.

Image Credits: Google

Another update expands Google Pay’s transit features, which already today support buying and using transit tickets across over 80 cities in the U.S. New additions arriving soon now include major markets, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. This follows Apple Pay’s recently added and much welcomed support for the Bay Area’s Clipper card. The company is also integrating with Token Transit to expand transit support to smaller towns across the U.S.

Soon, the Google Pay app will also allow Android users to access transit tickets from the app’s homescreen through a “Ride Transit” shortcut. They can then purchase, add, or top up the balance on transit cards. Once purchased, you’ll be able to hold up your transit card to a reader — or show a visual ticket in the case there’s no reader.

Image Credits: Google

The final feature is designed for those using Google Pay for managing their finances. With last year’s revamp, Google partnered with 11 banks to launch a new kind of bank account it called Plex. A competitor to the growing number of mobile-only digital banks, Google’s app serves as the front-end to the accounts which are actually hosted by the partner banks, like Citi and Stanford Federal Credit Union.

As a part of that experience, Google Pay users will now gain better access into their spending behavior, balances, bills, and more via an “Insights” tab. Here, you’ll be able to see what your balance is, what bills are coming due, get alerts about larger transactions, and tracking spending by either category or business. As Google is now automatically categorizing transactions, that means you’ll be able to search for general terms (like “food”) as well as by specific business names (like “Burger King”), Google explains.

Image Credits: Google

These features are a part of Google’s plan to use the payments app to gain access more data on users, who can then be targeted with offers from Google Pay partners.

When the redesigned app launched, users were asked to opt in to personalization features which could help the app show users better, more relevant deals. While Google says it’s not providing your data directly to these third-party brands and retailers, the app provides a conduit for those businesses to reach potential customers at a time when the tracking industry is in upheaval over Apple’s privacy changes. Google ability to help brands reach consumers through Google Pay could prove to be a valuable service, if the is able to grow its user base, and encourage more to opt in to the personalization features.

To make that happen, you can expect Google Pay to roll out more useful or “must have” features in the weeks to come.

Vivid Money raises $73 million to build a European financial super app

By Romain Dillet

German startup Vivid Money has raised a new $73 million Series B funding round (€60 million) led by Greenoaks with existing investor Ribbit Capital also participating. Following today’s funding round, Vivid Money has reached a valuation of $436 million (€360 million).

Vivid Money could be considered as a Revolut competitor designed specifically for the Eurozone. Built on top of Solarisbank for the banking infrastructure, the company lets you send, receive, spend, invest and save money in different ways.

When you create an account, you get a German IBAN that starts with DE as well as a metal card. There are no card details on the card itself — everything is available in the app instead. Like other fintech startups, Vivid Money lets you control your card from the app — you can lock it and unlock it, add it to Google Pay and Apple Pay, etc.

After that, you can top up your account and hold dozens of different currencies. When you pay with your card abroad, the startup applies a small mark-up on the current exchange rate — you should get a better exchange rate than what you usually get with a regular bank.

In addition to this fairly standard feature set, Vivid Money offers stock trading with fractional shares. You can invest in stocks and ETFs and there’s no commission. Similarly, you can buy, hold and share cryptocurrencies from the app. The startup has partnered with CM Equity AG for those features.

The company also has a cashback program and a premium subscription for €9.90 per month. Paid users get higher limits on free cash withdrawals, the ability to create a virtual card, support for additional currencies and better cashback rewards.

Finally, users can create sub-accounts called pockets. You can move money around from one pocket to another and add other users to your pockets. Each pocket has its own IBAN, which means that you can pay for certain bills with a separate pocket. You can also associate your card with a specific pocket for upcoming purchases.

Vivid Money has managed to add a ton of features in no time. It now has a ton of money on its bank account. Now let’s see if it can attract a significant user base to compete with other, well-established European fintech players.

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