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Finite State lands $30M Series B to help uncover security flaws in device firmware

By Carly Page

Columbus, Ohio-based Finite State, a startup that provides supply chain security for connected devices and critical infrastructure, has raised $30M in Series B funding. 

The funding lands amid increased focus on the less-secure elements in an organizations’ supply chain, such as Internet of Things devices and embedded systems. The problem, Finite State says, is largely fueled by device firmware, the foundational software that often includes components sourced from third-party vendors or open-source software. This means if a security flaw is baked into the finished product, it’s often without the device manufacturers’ knowledge. 

“Cyber attackers see firmware as a weak link to gain unauthorized access to critical systems and infrastructure,” Matt Wyckhouse, CEO of Finite State, tells TechCrunch. “The number of known cyberattacks targeting firmware has quintupled in just the last four years.”

The Finite State platform brings visibility to the supply chains that create connected devices and embedded systems. After unpacking and analyzing every file and configuration in a firmware build, the platform generates a complete bill of materials for software components, identifies known and possible zero-day vulnerabilities, shows a contextual risk score, and provides actionable insights that product teams can use to secure their software.

“By looking at every piece of their supply chain and every detail of their firmware — something no other product on the market offers — we enable manufacturers to ship more secure products, so that users can trust their connected devices more,” Wyckhouse says.

The company’s latest funding round was led by Energize Ventures, with participation from Schneider Electric Ventures and Merlin Ventures, and comes a year after Finite State raised a $12.5 million Series A round. It brings the total amount of funds raised by the firm to just shy of $50 million. 

The startup says it plans to use the funds to scale to meet the demands of the market. It plans to increase its headcount too; Finite State currently has 50 employees, a figure that’s expected to grow to more than 80 by the end of 2021.  

“We also want to use this fundraising round to help us get out the message: firmware isn’t safe unless it’s safe by design,” Wyckhouse added. “It’s not enough to analyze the code your engineers built when other parts of your supply chain could expose you to major security issues.”

Finite State was founded in 2017 by Matt Wyckhouse, founder and former CTO of Battelle’s Cyber Business Unit. The company showcased its capabilities in June 2019, when its widely-cited Huawei Supply Chain Assessment revealed numerous backdoors and major security vulnerabilities in the Chinese technology company’s networking devices that could be used in 5G networks. 

Read more:

Square to buy ‘buy now, pay later’ giant Afterpay in $29B deal

By Mary Ann Azevedo

In a blockbuster deal that rocks the fintech world, Square announced today that it is acquiring Australian buy now, pay later giant Afterpay in a $29 billion all-stock deal.

The purchase price is based on the closing price of Square common stock on July 30, which was $247.26. The transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of 2022, contingent upon certain closing conditions. It values Afterpay at more than 30% premium to its latest closing price of A$96.66.

Square co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey said in a statement that the two fintech behemoths “have a shared purpose.”

“We built our business to make the financial system more fair, accessible, and inclusive, and Afterpay has built a trusted brand aligned with those principles,” he said in the statement. “Together, we can better connect our Cash App and Seller ecosystems to deliver even more compelling products and services for merchants and consumers, putting the power back in their hands.”

The combination of the two companies would create a payments giant unlike any other. Over the past 18 months, the buy now, pay later space has essentially exploded, appealing especially to younger generations drawn to the idea of not using credit cards or paying interest and instead opting for the installment loans, which have become ubiquitous online and in retail stores.

As of June 30, Afterpay served more than 16 million consumers and nearly 100,000 merchants globally, including major retailers across industries such as fashion, homewares, beauty and sporting goods, among others.

The addition of Afterpay, the companies’ statement said, will “accelerate Square’s strategic priorities” for its Seller and Cash App ecosystems. Square plans to integrate Afterpay into its existing Seller and Cash App business units, so that even “the smallest of merchants” can offer buy now, pay later at checkout. The integration will also give Afterpay consumers the ability to manage their installment payments directly in Cash App. Cash App customers will be able to find merchants and buy now, pay later (BNPL) offers directly within the app.

Afterpay’s co-founders and co-CEOs Anthony Eisen and Nick Molnar will join Square upon closure of the deal and help lead Afterpay’s respective merchant and consumer businesses. Square said it will appoint one Afterpay director to its board.

Shareholders of Afterpay will get 0.375 shares of Square Class A stock for every share they own. This implies a price of about A$126.21 per share based on Square’s Friday close, according to the companies.

Will there be more consolidation in the space? That remains to be seen, and Twitter is all certainly abuzz about what deals could be next. Here in the U.S., rival Affirm went public earlier this year. On July 30, shares closed at $56.32, significantly lower than its opening price and 52-week-high of $146.90. Meanwhile, European competitor Klarna — which is growing rapidly in the U.S. — in June raised another $639 million at a staggering post-money valuation of $45.6 billion.

No doubt the BNPL fight for the U.S. consumer is only heating up with this deal.

China roundup: Keep down internet upstarts, cultivate hard tech

By Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The tech industry in China has had quite a turbulent week. The government is upending its $100 billion private education sector, wiping billions from the market cap of the industry’s most lucrative players. Meanwhile, the assault on Chinese internet giants continued. Tech stocks tumbled after Tencent suspended user registration, sparking fears over who will be the next target of Beijing’s wrath.

Incisive observers point out that the new wave of stringent regulations against China’s internet and education firms has long been on Beijing’s agenda and there’s nothing surprising. Indeed, the central government has been unabashed about its desires to boost manufacturing and contain the unchecked powers of its service industry, which can include everything from internet platforms, film studios to after-school centers.

A few weeks ago I had an informative conversation with a Chinese venture capitalist who has been investing in industrial robots for over a decade, so I’m including it in this issue as it provides useful context for what’s going on in the consumer tech industry this week.

Automate the factories

China is putting robots into factories at an aggressive pace. Huang He, a partner at Northern Light Venture Capital, sees three forces spurring the demand for industrial robots — particularly ones that are made in China.

Over the years, Beijing has advocated for “localization” in a broad range of technology sectors, from enterprise software to production line automation. One may start to see Chinese robots that can rival those of Schneider and Panasonic a few years down the road. CRP, an NLVC-backed industrial robot maker, is already selling across Southeast Asia, Russia and East Europe.

On top of tech localization, it’s also well acknowledged that China is facing a severe demographic crisis. The labor shortage in its manufacturing sector is further compounded by the reluctance of young people to do menial factory work. Factory robots could offer a hand.

“Youngsters these days would rather become food delivery riders than work in a factory. The work that robots replace is the low-skilled type, and those that still can’t be taken up by robots pay well and come with great benefits,” Huang observed.

Large corporations in China still lean toward imported robots due to the products’ proven stability. The problem is that imported robots are not only expensive but also selective about their users.

“Companies need to have deep technical capabilities to be able to operate these [Western] robots, but such companies are rare in China,” said Huang, adding that the overwhelming majority of Chinese enterprises are small and medium size.

With the exceptions of the automotive and semiconductor industries, which still largely rely on sophisticated, imported robots, affordable, easy-to-use Chinese robots can already meet most of the local demand for industrial automation, Huang said.

China currently uses nearly one million six-axis robots a year but only manufactures 20% of them itself. The gap, coupled with a national plan for localization, has led to a frenzy of investments in industrial robotics startups.

The rush isn’t necessarily a good thing, said Huang. “There’s this bizarre phenomenon in China, where the most funded and valuable industrial robotic firms are generating less than 30 million yuan in annual revenue and not really heard of by real users in the industry.”

“This isn’t an industry where giants can be created by burning through cash. It’s not the internet sector.”

Small-and-medium-size businesses are happily welcoming robots onto factory floors. Take welding for example. An average welder costs about 150,000 yuan ($23,200) a year. A typical welding robot, which is sold for 120,000 yuan, can replace up to three workers a year and “doesn’t complain at work,” said the investor. A quality robot can work continuously for six to eight years, so the financial incentive to automate is obvious.

Advanced manufacturing is not just helping local bosses. It will eventually increase foreign enterprises’ dependence on China for its efficiency, making it hard to cut off Chinese supply chains despite efforts to avoid the geopolitical risks of manufacturing in China.

“In electronics, for example, most of the supply chains are in China, so factories outside China end up spending more on logistics to move parts around. Much of the 3C manufacturing is already highly automated, which relies heavily on electricity, but in most emerging economies, the power supply is still quite unstable, which disrupts production,” said Huang.

War on internet titans

The shock of antitrust regulations against Alibaba from last year is still reverberating, but another wave of scrutiny has already begun. Shortly after Didi’s blockbuster IPO in New York, the ride-hailing giant was asked to cease user registration and work on protecting user information critical to national security.

On Tuesday, Tencent stocks fell the most in a decade after it halted user signups on its WeChat messenger as it “upgrades” its security technology to align with relevant laws and regulations. The gaming and social media giant is just the latest in a growing list of companies hit by Beijing’s tightening grip on the internet sector, which had been flourishing for two decades under laissez-faire policies.

Underlying the clampdowns is Beijing’s growing unease with the service industry’s unscrutinized accumulation of wealth and power. China is unequivocally determined to advance its tech sector, but the types of tech that Beijing wants are not so much the video games that bring myopia to children and algorithms that get adults hooked to their screens. China makes it clear in its five-year plan, a series of social and economic initiatives, that it will go all-in on “hard tech” like semiconductors, renewable energy, agritech, biotech and industrial automation like factory robotics.

China has also vowed to fight inequality in education and wealth. In the authorities’ eyes, expensive, for-profit after-schools dotting big cities are hindering education attainment for children from poorer areas, which eventually exacerbates the wealth gap. The new regulatory measures have restricted the hours, content, profits and financing of private tutoring institutions, tanking stocks of the industry’s top companies. Again, there have been clear indications from President Xi Jinping’s writings to bring off-campus tutoring “back on the educational track.” All China-focused investors and analysts are now poring over Xi’s thoughts and directives.

Acrew Capital, Jeff Bezos back Colombia-based proptech La Haus’ $100M debt, equity round

By Mary Ann Azevedo

La Haus, which has developed an online real estate marketplace operating in Mexico and Colombia, has secured $100 million in additional funding, including $50 million in equity and $50 million in debt financing.

The new capital was obtained as an extension to the company’s Series B, the first tranche of which closed in January. With the latest infusion, Medellin, Colombia-based La Haus has now secured $135 million total for the round and over $158 million in funding since its 2017 inception.

San Francisco Bay Area venture firms Acrew Capital and Renegade Partners co-led the round, which also included participation from Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Expeditions, Endeavor Catalyst, Moore Strategic Ventures, Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Rappi’s Simon Borrero, Maluma, and Gabriel Gilinski. Existing backers who put money in this round include Greenspring Associates, Kaszek, NFX, Spencer Rascoff’s 75 & Sunny Ventures, Hadi Partovi and NuBank’s David Velez. 

Jerónimo Uribe (CEO), Rodrigo Sánchez-Ríos (president), Tomás Uribe (chief growth officer) and Santiago Garcia (CTO) founded the company after Jerónimo and Tomas met Sánchez-Ríos at Stanford University. Prior to La Haus they started and ran Jaguar Capital, a Colombian real estate development company with over $350 million of completed retail and residential projects. 

The company declined to reveal at what valuation the extension was raised, with Sánchez-Ríos saying only that it was “a significant increase” from January.

The Series B extension follows impressive growth for the startup, which saw the number of transactions conducted on its Mexico portal climb by nearly 10x in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the 2020 second quarter. With over 500 homes selling on its platform (via lahaus.com and lahaus.mx) the company is “the market leader in selling new housing in Spanish-speaking Latam by an order of magnitude,” its execs claim.  La Haus expects to have facilitated more than $1 billion in annualized gross sales by the end of the year. 

The startup was founded with the mission of making it easier for people to buy homes and helping “solve LatAm’s extreme housing inequality.” Its end goal is to accelerate access to new housing by both generating and curating supply and demand and then matching it with its technology, noted Sánchez-Ríos. 

“In the last six months, our chief product officer has built a product that allows this to happen 100% digitally,” he said. “Before it would take a lot of time, people involved and visits. We want to provide people looking for a home a similar experience as to people looking for their next flight at delta.com.”

It has done that by embedding its software to developers’ new projects so that it can bring that digital experience to its users. 

“They are able to view the projects on our sites, we match them and then they can see in real time which units of a particular tower are available, and then select, sign and pay for everything digitally,” Sánchez-Río said.

Image credit: La Haus

The need for new housing in the region and other emerging markets in general is acute, they believe. And the pace of building new homes is slow because small and mid-sized developers – who are responsible for building the majority of new homes in Latin America – are cash constrained. At the same time, mortgages are mostly not affordable for consumers, with banks extending only a fraction of the credit to individuals compared to the U.S., and often at far worse terms. 

What La Haus is planning to do with its new capital – particularly the debt portion – is go beyond selling homes via its marketplace to helping extend financing to both developers and potential buyers.It plans to take the proprietary data it has been able to glean from the thousands of real estate transactions conducted on it platform to extend capital to developers and consumers “more quickly, with much lower risk and at better terms.”

Already, what the startup has accomplished is notable. Being able to purchase a home 100% digitally is not that easy even in the U.S. Pulling that off in Latin America – which has historically trailed behind in digital adoption – is no easy feat. By year’s end, La Haus intends to be in every major metropolitan area in Mexico and Colombia. 

Its ultimate goal is to be able to help new, sustainable homes “to be built faster, alleviating the inequality caused by lack of access to inventory.”

To Acrew Capital’s Lauren Kolodny, La Haus is building a solution specific to the issues of Latin America’s housing market, rather than importing business models – such as iBuying – from the U.S.

“For many people in the United States home equity is their largest asset. In Latin America, however, consumers have been challenged with an impenetrable real estate market stacked against consumers,” she wrote via email. “La Haus is removing barriers to home ownership that stifles millions of people from achieving financial security. Specifically, Latin America has no centralized MLS, very costly interest rates, no transactional transparency, and few online informational tools.”

La Haus, Kolodny added, is breaking down these barriers by consolidating listings online, offering pricing transparency and educating consumers about their financing options.

Acrew first invested in the startup in its $10 million Series A and has been impressed with its growth over time.

“They have a unique focus on new housing — a massive industry worldwide, but especially in emerging markets where new housing is so necessary,” Kolodny said. “The management team…knows real estate in Latin America better than anyone we’ve met.”

For its part, the La Haus team is excited to put its new capital to work. As Sánchez-Río put it, “$50 million goes a lot further in Mexico and Colombia than in the U.S.”

“We are going to be very aggressive in Mexico and Colombia, and plan to go from four to at least 12 markets by the end of the year,” Jeronimo told TechCrunch. “We’re also excited to roll out our financing solution to developers and buyers.”

Ford expects semiconductor rebound, new vehicle demand to increase 2021 profits

By Rebecca Bellan

Despite semiconductor shortages peaking during the second quarter of 2021, Ford says it delivered better-than-expected operating results by leveraging strong demand for new vehicles, like its Bronco SUV, according to its most recent earnings report.

In April, Ford had expected to lose about 50% of its planned Q2 production, resulting in a profit loss for the period. However, the automaker was able to generate companywide adjusted earnings before interest and taxes of $1.1 billion, according to the report.

With demand for the Mustang Mach-E, which CEO Jim Farley said is already profitable on Wednesday’s earnings call, and other Ford vehicles up 7x from last year, Farley said “the business is ‘spring loaded’ for a rebound when semiconductor supplies stabilize and more closely match demand,” according to a statement released by Ford.

Looking ahead, the company said it “has lifted its target for full-year adjusted free cash flow to between $4 billion and $5 billion, supported by expected favorable second-half working capital as vehicle production increases with anticipated improvement in availability of semiconductors.”

Outwardly, Ford appears to be optimistic, but when pressed during the call, Farley was slightly more cautious and realistic.

“We do see the chip issue running through this year and we could see it bleeding into the first part of next year,” he said. “We’ve had discussions with the FAB suppliers. They’re telling us that they’re reallocating capital, they’re increasing supply for automotive, etc. But I think this is one of those things where we need to see the relief coming through before we can really feel comfortable that we’re out of the woods here.”

Farley said the industry is seeing signs of improvement in the flow of chips now in the third quarter, but “the situation remains fluid.”

He’s not wrong. Semiconductor sales in May were up 4.1% over April, which saw sales increase 1.9% over March 2021, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association. Additionally, a World Semiconductor Trade Statistics report released in June forecasts global annual sales to increase 19.7% in 2021 and 8.8% in 2022. Earlier this month, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company said it expects the shortage of semiconductors in the manufacturing space to be greatly reduced starting this quarter due to its increased production efforts. The company said it already increased microcontroller unit production by 30% YOY in the first half of the year and intends to bring that up to over 30% pre-pandemic 2018 levels.

Sounds promising, but not everyone is on the same page here. Singapore-based Flex, a global chip manufacturer, recently warned that the global chip shortage would last into mid-2022, worsened by the increased demand for cars, especially electric ones, as well as pandemic-induced purchases of video game consoles, tablets, laptops and other entertaining electronics.

Just as Ford is trying to reduce battery supply anxiety by becoming the manufacturer via battery cell partnerships with SK Innovation, Farley said Ford is also working closely with semiconductor fabricators and suppliers to help them with future projections of how many chips it expects to need.

A big reason there’s a semiconductor shortage is because automakers cut their orders when the pandemic caused a drop in sales last spring. But when Q3 2020 rolled around and demand for passenger vehicles rebounded, chipmakers were already spoken for, filling orders from customers in consumer electronics and IT.

In Ford’s defense, it’s not easy to predict a pandemic and how many chips one would need for that. Let’s hope this doesn’t lead to a hoarding scenario like the Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020.

How AI Will Help Keep Time at the Tokyo Olympics

By Jeremy White
Omega, the official timekeeper of the Games, is now using computer vision and motion sensors for events like swimming, gymnastics, and beach volleyball.

Space Jam and the Fury of an Algorithm Scorned

By Brian Barrett
The reboot—along with Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines—portray vengeful AIs as jilted geniuses. That revolution shouldn’t be televised.

Microsoft’s cyber startup spending spree continues with CloudKnox acquisition

By Carly Page

Microsoft has acquired identity and access management (IAM) startup CloudKnox Security, the tech giant’s fourth cybersecurity acquisition this year.

The deal, the terms of which were not disclosed, is the latest cybersecurity acquisition by Microsoft, which just last week announced that it’s buying threat intelligence startup RiskIQ. The firm also recently acquired IoT security startups CyberX and Refirm Labs as it moved to beef up its security portfolio. Security is big business for Microsoft, which made more than $10 billion in security-related revenue in 2020 — a 40% increase from the year prior.

CloudKnox, which was founded in 2015 and emerged from stealth two years later, helps organizations to enforce least-privilege principles to reduce risk and help prevent security breaches. The startup had raised $22.8 million prior to the acquisition, with backing from ClearSky, Sorenson Ventures, Dell Technologies Capital, and Foundation Capital. 

The company’s activity-based authorization service will equip Azure Active Directory customers with “granular visibility, continuous monitoring and automated remediation for hybrid and multi-cloud permissions,” according to a blog post by Joy Chik, corporate vice president of identity at Microsoft. 

Chik said that while organizations were reaping the benefits of cloud adoption, particularly as they embrace flexible working models, they often struggled to assess, prevent and enforce privileged access across hybrid and multi-cloud environments.

“CloudKnox offers complete visibility into privileged access,” Chik said. “It helps organizations right-size permissions and consistently enforce least-privilege principles to reduce risk, and it employs continuous analytics to help prevent security breaches and ensure compliance. This strengthens our comprehensive approach to cloud security.”

In addition to Azure Active Directory, Microsoft also plans to integrate CloudKnox with its other cloud security services including 365 Defender, Azure Defender, and Azure Sentinel.

Commenting on the deal, Balaji Parimi, CloudKnox founder and CEO, said: “By joining Microsoft, we can unlock new synergies and make it easier for our mutual customers to protect their multi-cloud and hybrid environments and strengthen their security posture.”

The Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals 2021 starts tomorrow

By Alexandra Ames

Get ready for a startup throwdown of global proportions (literally). We’re the proud hosts of the Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) Global Finals, and the pitch competition action starts tomorrow, July 22 at 9:00 am (PT).

Pro housekeeping tip: Attending this virtual pitch fest is 100% free, but you need to register here first.

Not familiar with XTC? It’s the world’s largest pitch competition focused on solving humanity’s most vexing challenges. You gotta love a competition that serves the greater good — and a startup ecosystem for purpose-driven companies determined to build a more sustainable, equitable, healthy, inclusive and prosperous world.

The road to the XTC finals was crowded, to say the least. More than 3,700 startups from 92 countries applied to compete in one of these categories: Agtech, Food & Water, Cleantech & Energy, Edtech, Enabling Tech, Fintech, Healthtech and Mobility & Smart Cities.

Talk about a daunting endeavor. Team XTC, which consisted of deeply experienced investors, entrepreneurs and executives, winnowed down that field to these seven competing finalists: Wasteless, Mining and Process Solutions, Testmaster, Dot Inc., Hillridge Technology, Genetika+ and Fotokite.

Tomorrow’s competition takes place in two rounds, and each startup team will have to bring its best if they hope to impress this panel of judges — all leaders in sustainability and social impact.

Young Sohn, co-founder, XTC and chairman at Harmann International; Bill Tai, co-founder, XTC and partner emeritus, Charles River Ventures; Regina Dugan, president and CEO of Wellcome Leap; Jerry Yang, founder/partner of AME Cloud Ventures and co-founder of Yahoo!; Lars Reger, CTO and EVP at NXP Semiconductors; and Michael Zeisser, managing partner at FMZ Ventures.

In a classic, “but wait, there’s more” moment, the day also features several presentations from some of the leading voices in sustainability. Take a look at the two examples below, and check out the complete XTC finals agenda and the roster of speakers:

  • The Keynote Address: Tune in as Beth Bechdol, the deputy director-general at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, provides an update on the latest from her agency.
  • Waste Matters: According to the EPA, the U.S. alone produces 292.4 million tons of waste a year. Can technology help this massive — and growing — issue? Leon Farrant (Green Li-Ion), Matanya Horowitz (AMP Robotics) and Elizabeth Gilligan (Material Evolution) will discuss their companies’ unique approaches to dealing with the problem.

The Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals starts tomorrow, July 22. Join us and thousands of people around the world for this free, virtual pitch competition. Register here for your free ticket.

DNSFilter secures $30M Series A to step up fight against DNS-based threats

By Carly Page

DNSFilter, an artificial intelligence startup that provides DNS protection to enterprises, has secured $30 million in Series A funding from Insight Partners.

DNSFilter, as its name suggests, offers DNS-based web content filtering and threat protection. Unlike the majority of its competitors, which includes the likes of Palo Alto Networks and Webroot, the startup uses proprietary AI technology to continuously scan billions of domains daily, identifying anomalies and potential vectors for malware, ransomware, phishing, and fraud. 

“Most of our competitors either rent or lease a database from some third party,” Ken Carnesi, co-founder and CEO of DNSFilter tells TechCrunch. “We do that in-house, and it’s through artificial intelligence that’s scanning these pages in real-time.” 

The company, which counts the likes of Lenovo, Newegg, and Nvidia among its 14,000 customers, claims this industry-first technology catches threats an average of five days before competitors and is capable of identifying 76% of domain-based threats. By the end of 2021, DNSFilter says it will block more than 1.1 million threats daily.

DNSFilter has seen rapid growth over the past 12 months as a result of the mass shift to remote working and the increase in cyber threats and ransomware attacks that followed. The startup saw eightfold growth in customer activity, doubled its global headcount to just over 50 employees, and partnered with Canadian software house N-Able to push into the lucrative channel market.  

“DNSFilter’s rapid growth and efficient customer acquisition are a testament to the benefits and ease of use compared to incumbents,” Thomas Krane, principal at Insight Partners, who has been appointed as a director on DNSFilter’s board. “The traditional model of top-down, hardware-centric network security is disappearing in favor of solutions that readily plug in at the device level and can cater to highly distributed workforces”

Prior to this latest funding round, which was also backed by Arthur Ventures (the lead investor in DNSFilter’s seed round), CrowdStrike co-founder and former chief technology officer  Dmitri Alperovitch also joined DNSFilter’s board of directors. 

Carnesi said the addition of Alperovitch to the board will help the company get its technology into the hands of enterprise customers. “He’s helping us to shape the product to be a good fit for enterprise organizations, which is something that we’re doing as part of this round — shifting focus to be primarily mid-market and enterprise,” he said.

The company also recently added former CrowdStrike vice president Jen Ayers as its chief operating officer. “She used to manage their entire managed threat hunting team, so she’s definitely coming on for the security side of things as we build out our domain intelligence team further,” Carnesi said.

With its newly-raised funds, DNSFilter will further expand its headcount, with plans to add more than 80 new employees globally over the next 12 months.

“There’s a lot more that we can do for security via DNS, and we haven’t really started on that yet,” Carnesi said. “We plan to do things that people won’t believe were possible via DNS.”

The company, which acquired Web Shrinker in 2018, also expects there to be more acquisitions on the cards going forward. “There are some potential companies that we’d be looking to acquire to speed up our advancement in certain areas,” Carnesi said.

Collectiv Food raises $16M Series A to connect food producers directly with kitchens

By Mike Butcher

In the modern world, we tend to like to know where our food comes from and this has massively influenced professional kitchens. For decades, food suppliers have sat on one side and distribution channels (restaurants and the like) on the other. But large wholesalers in the middle have traditionally crushed producers on prices and late payments. Professional kitchens can circumvent this by going direct to food producers. But they can’t manage hundreds of direct relationships. It’s just not been possible. Until the Internet.

Collectiv Food is a new startup that addresses this with a new take on the food supply chain model. It directly sources products from suppliers, unlocking price advantages for both suppliers and buyers, it says. Its competitors include Brakes, Bidfood, and Transgourmet.

It’s now raised £12M / $16M in its Series A funding round led by VNV Global, along with VisVires New Protein (VVNP), Octopus Ventures, Norrsken VC, and existing investors, including Partech, Colle Capital, and Mustard Seed. Frontline Ventures was the earliest investor in 2017.

Launched in 2019, Collectiv so far operates in the UK and France. It operates by sourcing food directly from producers, disintermediating the wholesaler middleman, and delivering straight to professional kitchens. Customers include restaurants, hotels, catering firms, meal-kit companies, and dark kitchens. The company claims that this approach (which also involves multiple distribution points across cities) generates 50% less CO2 emissions than traditional supply methods better prices, fresher products, transparency, traceability, and more reliable service.

Customers include Big Mamma Group, The Hush Collection, Dirty Bones, Megan’s, Crussh, Butchies, Cocotte, Tossed, and Fresh Fitness Food. 

Collectiv founder Jeremy Hibbert-Garibaldi said in a statement: “We’re being pushed by a combination of strong tailwinds: end-consumers demanding a better understanding of provenance; cities implementing air pollution regulations that limit large freight; a post-Covid hospitality industry desperate to improve margins but with limited staff availability to facilitate this in-house. Combined with our innovative model, we’re able to set our sights on not only becoming a European leader in food distribution over the next few years, but even a global one.”

Björn von Sivers, Investment Manager at VNV Global, said: “Collectiv’s innovative managed marketplace connects a fragmented supply of producers with the very fragmented demand of professional kitchens, creating improved transparency amongst other clear network improvements for all stakeholders.”

In his former profession as a Forensic Accountant, Hibbert-Garibaldi came across the business model for Collectiv after he investigated one of the largest supermarket chains in the UK and their food wholesale leg, mainly for violations of codes of conduct, such as how they were behaving with their suppliers. “I quickly realized that food supply chains were broken, with too much opacity and malpractice, and at the end of the day not benefiting any sides of the marketplace,” he said.

Engrained with a passion for food from his French and Italian origins, he quit his job and spend months in restaurant kitchens to understand the problems they faced: “I wanted to understand why it was so hard for them to source good products, know exactly where their food was coming from, and receive these products reliably and sustainably whenever they needed them. Using this I built my case study to get out to investors and start the business.”

It remains to be seen if Collectiv can scale, or take a chunk out of the vast food supply chain industry, but if it ends up appealing both to suppliers and distributors it will be very interesting to watch.

Bielefeld survey highlights an emerging B2B, crypto, deep tech ecosystem

By Mike Butcher

Welcome to the city survey of Bielefeld, Germany, part of our ongoing survey into European cities. If you’d like your city featured, just fill in this form and add your city name. Once we have enough entries from a city, we will put your city on TechCrunch!

According to local media reports, Bielefeld’s has experienced a tech boom in recent years, with accelerators like the local Founders Foundation (backed by the Bertelsmann Foundation) and Garage 33 (at the University of Paderborn) attracting a new wave of young company founders to the East Westphalia-Lippe region.

Notable startups to emerge include Semalytix, Valuedesk, Zahnarzt-Helden, StudyHelp, PartWorks and AMendate.

Unfortunately, Bielefeld suffers from the same ailment the rest of Germany is subject to: Most startups gravitate to Berlin, followed by Munich, then Hamburg (according to an initiative from UnternehmerTUM in Munich).

However, as Business Punk magazine found earlier this year, the Ostwestfalen-Lippe region in northern North Rhine-Westphalia is home to some of Germany’s biggest companies. That means startups aiding large organizations to digitize post-pandemic have ready access to some of Germany’s largest companies and institutions.

Our survey respondents pointed out that the region is strong in sectors such as B2B because of the many old-school B2B companies in the manufacturing area. There is fairly ready access to many large family offices such as Dr. Oetker, Miele, CLAAS, Schüco and Bertelsmann, so there is a lot of capital available.

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“The region has a good momentum for startups in general, [largely] because of Founders Foundation. At the same time, them being the only institutional driver leads to a certain monoculture,” said one.

Deep tech technologies are a feature of the ecosystem, but there are “almost no B2C or direct-to-consumer” startups, said another respondent.

Commenting on the investment scene in the city, survey respondents said investors have “strong bonds to the industry and Mittelstand.” However, another commented that there are “only very few local investors with NRW or OWL focus like EnjoyVenture (Technologiefonds OWL), but not much more.”

That said, companies get decent attention from “national” investors, and Founders Foundation has really boosted the scene in the region. Angels are also becoming more active, and “there is a strong business angel community in Bielefeld who have been really supportive of the new startup scene.”

We surveyed:

Jonathan Maycock, co-founder and CEO, margin

Louis Schulze, ecosystem development manager, Founders Foundation

Stefan Trockel, founder and CEO, Mercury.ai

Jasper Steinlechner, CTO, Pektogram

Victoria Erdbrügger, co-founder and managing director, circuly

Manuel Rüsing, CTO, Synctive

Conner Kuhlmeyer, founder, reportio

Miriam Kleiner, talent acquisition manager, Founders Foundation

 


Jonathan Maycock, co-founder and CEO, margin

Which sectors is Bielefeld’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
We are strong in the cryptotrading ecosystem. We are most excited by the adoption of Bitcoin as a financial asset by corporates and institutions as well as the ongoing network effect and adoption by the masses. We need to add support for DeFi trading venues alongside the centralized exchanges we already support.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Semalytix, Zahnarzt-Helden, Coindex and Valuedesk.

What is the tech investment scene like in Bielefeld? What’s their focus?
Since Founders Foundation started in Bielefeld in 2016 the startup scene has exploded. We joined the first accelerator and since then 24 startups have been founded and come through its programs. There is a strong business angel community in Bielefeld that has been really supportive of the new startup scene.

With the shift to remote working, do you think will people stay in Bielefeld, move out, or will people move in?
We switched completely to home office once the pandemic got underway. For us, it has worked really well and we now have three employees who work outside of Bielefeld. Everything is more flexible now.

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?
Sebastian Borek (CEO of the Founders Foundation), Eduard R. Doerrenberg (managing director, Dr. Wolff Group).

Where do you think Bielefeld’s tech scene will be in five years?
As Bielefeld is in the heart of the German “Mittelstand”, there are huge opportunities for tech startups to help these large industries take a leap forward with technical solutions using AI, blockchain and other technologies. The city is well served by Bielefeld University, which turns out highly qualified CS graduates every year. Especially with the superb backing of the Founders Foundation, the startup ecosystem in Bielefeld has a bright future.

Louis Schulze, ecosystem development manager, Founders Foundation

Which sectors is Bielefeld’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
B2B, deep tech technologies.

Ring’s latest security updates are good, but still opt-in

By Zack Whittaker

Ring, the video doorbell maker dubbed the “largest civilian surveillance network the U.S. has ever seen,” is rolling out new but long overdue security and privacy features.

The Amazon-owned company’s reputation was bruised after a spate of account breaches in late 2019, in which hackers broke into Ring user accounts and harassed children in their own homes. Then, taking advantage of Ring’s weak security practices, hackers had developed bespoke software to brute-force the passwords on Ring accounts, which at this point were only protected by the user’s password. All the while, there were several caches of Ring user passwords floating around the dark web. Ring initially blamed its users for using weak passwords (like “password” and “12345678,” which Ring allowed users to set as passwords), but a couple of months later the company acknowledged its failings by rolling out mandatory two-factor authentication by text message. It was a good start, aimed at making it more difficult — albeit only slightly — to curb the bulk of automated account hijacks.

But now Ring is going a step further by rolling out app-based two-factor authentication, which many companies already offer (and have for some time) as it provides the far more secure delivery of two-factor codes using an encrypted connection, compared to text messages, which are susceptible to interception.

Ring is also enabling CAPTCHA in its apps to add another hurdle aimed at making automated login attempts more difficult by prompting users to prove they aren’t a robot.

Also announced is the launch of video end-to-end encryption, which Ring first rolled out earlier this year as a technical preview. One of Ring’s most flaunted (though highly controversial) features is allowing users to share video footage directly with more than 1,800 local police departments that are partnered with Ring. That said, police with a search warrant can always just demand the footage from Ring instead. Video end-to-end encryption will mean that any video captured from a Ring device can only be accessed by the account owner — and not Ring, or any of its law enforcement partners.

Ring’s CTO Josh Roth said in a blog post that Ring believes that “our customers should control who sees their videos.” If that were true, Ring would have switched on end-to-end encryption to all users, giving every account owner privacy by default. But that would interfere with the company’s efforts to expand its police partnerships, which in turn help to get Ring devices into the hands of local residents.

Compared to past security updates, which didn’t go nearly far enough, Ring’s new features make meaningful changes that give users the choice to make their accounts more secure and their data private. But the keyword there is “choice,” since users will have to opt-in to the new features. That isn’t unusual in itself; companies seldom force security changes on users fearing that it would add friction to the user experience, though recovering from an account hack because of poor security controls is undoubtedly worse.

Switching to app-based two-factor authentication is easy, just go to Ring’s account settings and switch from codes sent by text message to codes delivered by an authenticator app. We have a whole explainer on why it’s important, why you should use an app, and which apps you might want to use.

But the biggest change Ring users can make is to switch on end-to-end encryption on their accounts by going through the advanced settings of Ring’s control center. Switching on end-to-end encryption won’t limit what you can do with your account or stop you from sharing video footage with friends, family, or the police, but it will give you peace of mind knowing that you will have control of your data and what you do with it, and not Ring.

End-to-end moving startup Updater buys on-demand moving startup Dolly

By Lucas Matney

Moving services giant Updater is bringing on the team from Dolly as the New York company looks to expand its scope of offerings with the acquisition of the on-demand startup known for helping consumers execute small-scale moves.

Dolly connects users in need of moving a large item like a piece of furniture with a contractor ready to lend a hand. Like competing services such as Lugg, the app has been a popular solution for picking up items from peer-to-peer marketplaces like Craigslist. Dolly boasts a partnership with Facebook Marketplace that has allowed its users to coordinate picking up items with the service, available in 45 major cities across the US, according to their website.

In addition to its user-facing service, Dolly has also built a major business partnering with retailers directly allowing them to tap into their mover network and coordinate same-day delivery for customers. Dolly’s retail partners include companies like Costco, Lowe’s and The Container Store.

A price tag for the deal wasn’t disclosed and couldn’t be learned. Dolly raised $17.2 million over several rounds, including a $7.5 million Series B in May of 2019. The startup’s backers include Maveron, Hyde Park Venture Partners and Version One Ventures.

As part of the acquisition, Dolly will be living on an independent, wholly-owned subsidiary of Updater.

The SoftBank-backed Updater is an “invite-only” service focused on building a more premium end-to-end moving experience. The team has partnered with a number of major brokerage firms whose customers are given the option to use Updater’s services to coordinate their move, pairing them with moving companies who use Updater’s MoveHQ software platform. Today, a quarter of US household moves are facilitated using one of Updater’s products, the company says.

The firm has raised nearly $200 million since its founding in 2010. Dolly’s acquisition will allow Updater to expand their services to customers that are “conducting a small move or don’t want to book a full-service moving company,” CEO David Greenberg tells TechCrunch. “We want to be the go-to place for Americans to conquer their move.”

Vaayu’s carbon tracking for retailers raises $1.6M, claims it could cut CO2 in half by 2030

By Mike Butcher

Carbon tracking is very much the new hot thing in tech, and we’ve previously covered more generalist startups doing this at scale for companies, such as Plan A Earth out of Berlin.

But there’s clearly an opportunity to get deep into a vertical sector and tailor solutions to it.

That’s the plan of Vaayu, a carbon tracking platform aimed specifically at retailers. It has now raised $1.57 million in pre-seed funding in a round led by CapitalT. Several Angels also took part, including Atomico’s Angel Program, Planet Positive LP, Saarbrücker 21, Expedite Ventures, and NP-Hard Ventures.

Carbon tracking for the retail fashion industry, in particular, is urgently needed. Unfortunately, the fashion industry remains responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, which ads up to more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Vaayu says it integrates with various point-of-sale systems, such as Shopify and Webflow. It then pulls in data on logistics, operations, and packaging to monitor, measure, and reduce their carbon emissions. Normally, retailers calculate emissions once a year, which is obviously far less accurate.

Vaayu was founded in 2020 by Namrata Sandhu (CEO) former head of Sustainability at fashion retailer Zalando, as well as Anita Daminov (CPO) and Luca Schmid (CTO). Vaayu currently has 25 global brand customers, including Missoma, Armed Angels, and Organic Basics.

Commenting on the fundraise, Namrata Sandhu, CEO, Vaayu, said: “We have only nine short years left to achieve the UN’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and as the third-largest contributor to global emissions, retailers need to take action — and fast. Vaayu is here to help retailers measure, monitor, and reduce their carbon footprint at scale across the entire supply chain — something that I know from my own experience can be complex and expensive.

Speaking to me over a call, Sandhu told me: “Putting the focus on retail basically allows us to automate the calculation, which means in three clicks you can get your carbon footprint right away. That then allows us to really accurate data, and with that, we can basically do reductions specific to the business but using software, rather than any kind of manual intervention or a kind of ‘intermediate’ state where you need to put together an Excel sheet. Because we focus on retail we can automate the entire process and also automate the reductions.”

“We are delighted to be backed by female-led CapitalT who understood us and our vision right from the start. We look forward to developing Vaayu further in the coming months so we can reach as many retailers as possible and help put the brakes on the impending climate crisis,” she added.

Janneke Niessen, founding partner, CapitalT commented: “We are very excited to join Vaayu on their mission to reduce carbon emission for retailers worldwide. The Vaayu product is very scalable and its quick and easy implementation allows for fast adoption. We are confident that with this experienced team, Vaayu will soon be one of the fastest-growing climate tech companies in Europe and the world.”

The Pentagon Scrubs a Cloud Deal and Looks to Add More AI

By Tom Simonite
The JEDI program had become a legal and political morass. Microsoft won the $10 billion contract, but Amazon and Oracle sued to block the deal.

A Global Smart-City Competition Highlights China’s Rise in AI

By Khari Johnson
Chinese entrants swept all five categories, featuring technologies to improve civic life. But the advances could also be tools for surveillance.
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