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Baidu beats estimates on strong video streaming growth

By Manish Singh

Chinese search giant Baidu on Monday posted a revenue of 26.33 billion yuan ($3.73 billion) for the quarter that ended in June, beating analysts’ estimates of 25.77 billion yuan ($3.65 billion) as its video streaming service iQIYI continues to see strong growth. The 19-year-old firm’s shares were up over 9% in extended trading.

The company, which is often called Google of China, said revenue of its core businesses grew 12% from the same period last year “despite the weak macro environment, our self-directed healthcare initiative, industry-specific policy changes and large influx of ad inventory.” Net income for the second quarter dropped to 2.41 billion yuan ($344 million).

“With Baidu traffic growing robustly and our mobile ecosystem continuing to expand, we are in a good position to focus on capitalizing monetization and ROI improvement opportunities to deliver shareholder value,” Herman Yu, CFO of Baidu, said in a statement.

Today’s results for Baidu, which has been struggling of late, should help calm investors’ worries. In recent years, as users move from desktop to mobile and rivals such as ByteDance win hundreds of millions of users through their mobile apps, many have cast doubt on Baidu’s ability to maintain its momentum and hold onto its advertising business. (On desktop, Baidu continues to command over three quarters of the Chinese market share.)

In the quarter that ended in March this year, Baidu posted its first quarterly loss since 2015, the year it went public.

Robin Li, Baidu co-founder and CEO, said Baidu app was being used by 188 million users everyday, up 27% from the same period last year. “In-app search queries grew over 20% year over year and smart mini program MAUs reached 270 million, up 49% sequentially,” said.

Baidu’s video streaming service iQIYI has now amassed over 100.5 million subscribers, up 50% year over year, the company said. Revenue from iQIYI stood at 7.11 billion yuan ($1.01 billion), up 15% since last year.

“On Baidu’s AI businesses, DuerOS voice assistant continues to experience strong momentum with installed base surpassing 400 million devices, up 4.5 fold year over year, and monthly voice queries surpassing 3.6 billion, up 7.5 fold year over year, in June. As mobile internet penetration in China slows, we are excited about the huge opportunity to provide content and service providers a cross-platform distribution channel beyond mobile, into smart homes and automobiles,” he added.

Revenue from online marketing services, which makes a significant contribution to overall sales, fell about 9% to 19.2 billion yuan ($2.72 billion).

Week in Review: Snapchat beats a dead horse

By Lucas Matney

Hey. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about how Netflix might have some rough times ahead as Disney barrels towards it.


3d video spectacles 3

The big story

There is plenty to be said about the potential of smart glasses. I write about them at length for TechCrunch and I’ve talked to a lot of founders doing cool stuff. That being said, I don’t have any idea what Snap is doing with the introduction of a third-generation of its Spectacles video sunglasses.

The first-gen were a marketing smash hit, their sales proved to be a major failure for the company which bet big and seemingly walked away with a landfill’s worth of the glasses.

Snap’s latest version of Spectacles were announced in Vogue this week, they are much more expensive at $380 and their main feature is that they have two cameras which capture images in light depth which can lead to these cute little 3D boomerangs. One one hand, it’s nice to see the company showing perseverance with a tough market, on the other it’s kind of funny to see them push the same rock up the hill again.

Snap is having an awesome 2019 after a laughably bad 2018, the stock has recovered from record lows and is trading in its IPO price wheelhouse. It seems like they’re ripe for something new and exciting, not beautiful yet iterative.

The $150 Spectacles 2 are still for sale, though they seem quite a bit dated-looking at this point. Spectacles 3 seem to be geared entirely towards women, and I’m sure they made that call after seeing the active users of previous generations, but given the write-down they took on the first-generation, something tells me that Snap’s continued experimentation here is borne out of some stubbornness form Spiegel and the higher-ups who want the Snap brand to live in a high fashion world and want to be at the forefront of an AR industry that seems to have already moved onto different things.

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

tumblr phone sold

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • WordPress buys Tumblr for chump change
    Tumblr, a game-changing blogging network that shifted online habits and exited for $1.1 billion just changed hands after Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) unloaded the property for a reported $3 million. Read more about this nightmarish deal here.
  • Trump gives American hardware a holiday season pass on tariffs 
    The ongoing trade war with China generally seems to be rough news for American companies deeply intertwined with the manufacturing centers there, but Trump is giving U.S. companies a Christmas reprieve from the tariffs, allowing certain types of hardware to be exempt from the recent rate increases through December. Read more here.
  • Facebook loses one last acquisition co-founder
    This week, the final remnant of Facebook’s major acquisitions left the company. Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell announced he was leaving. Now, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus are all helmed by Facebook leadership and not a single co-founder from the three companies remains onboard. Read more here.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Facebook’s turn in audio transcription debacle:
    [Facebook transcribed users’ audio messages without permission]
  2. Google’s hate speech detection algorithms get critiqued:
    [Racial bias observed in hate speech detection algorithm from Google]
  3. Amazon has a little email mishap:
    [Amazon customers say they received emails for other people’s orders]

Adam Neumann (WeWork) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. My colleague Danny Crichton wrote about the “tech” conundrum that is WeWork and the questions that are still unanswered after the company filed documents this week to go public.

WeWork’s S-1 misses these three key points

…How is margin changing at its older locations? How is margin changing as it opens up in places like India, with very different costs and revenues? How do those margins change over time as a property matures? WeWork spills serious amounts of ink saying that these numbers do get better … without seemingly being willing to actually offer up the numbers themselves…

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we published a major deep dive into the world’s next music unicorn and we dug deep into marketplace startups.

Sign up for more newsletters in your inbox (including this one) here.

Y Combinator-backed Holy Grail is using machine learning to build better batteries

By Jonathan Shieber

For a long, long time, renewable energy proponents have considered advancements in battery technology to be the holy grail of the industry.

Advancements in energy storage has been among the hardest to achieve economically thanks to the incredibly tricky chemistry that’s involved in storing power.

Now, one company that’s launching from Y Combinator believes it has found the key to making batteries better. The company is called Holy Grail and it’s launching in the accelerator’s latest cohort.

With an executive team that initially included Nuno Pereira, David Pervan, and Martin Hansen, Holy Grail is trying to bring the techniques of the fabless semiconductor industry to the world of batteries.

The company’s founders believe that the only way to improve battery functionality is to take a systems approach to understanding how different anodes and cathodes will work together. It sounds simple, but Pereira says that the computational power hadn’t existed to take into account all of the variables that go along with introducing a new chemical to the battery mix.

“You can’t fix a battery with just a component,” Pereira says. “All of the batteries that were created and failed in the past. They create an anode, but they don’t have a chemical that works with the cathode or the electrolyte.”

For Pereira, the creation of Holy Grail is the latest step on a long road of experimentation with mechanical and chemical engineering. “As a kid I was more interested in mechanical engineering and building stuff,” he says. But as he began tinkering with cars and became fascinated with mobility, he realized that batteries were the innovation that gave the world its charge.

In 2017 Pereira founded a company called 10Xbattery, which was making high-density lithium batteries. That company, launching with what Pereira saw as a better chemistry, encapsulated the industry’s problem at large — the lack

So, with the help of a now-departed co-founder, Pereira founded Holy Grail. “He essentially told me, ‘Do you want to take a step back and see if there’s a better way to do this?'” said Pereira.

The company pitches itself as science fiction coming from the future, but it relies on a combination of what are now fairly standard (at least in the research community) tools. Holy Grail’s pitch is that it can automate much of the research and development process to create new batteries that are optimized to the specifications of end customers.

“It’s hard for a human to do the experiments that you need and to analyze multidimensional data,” says Pereira. “There are some companies that only do the machine-learning part and the computational science part and sell the results to companies. The problem is that there’s a disconnection between experimental reality and the simulations.”

Using computer modeling, chemical engineering and automated manufacturing, Holy Grail pitches a system that can get real test batteries into the hands of end customers in the mobility, electronics, and utility industries orders of magnitude more quickly than traditional research and development shops.

Currently the system that Holy Grail has built out can make 700 batteries per day. The company intends to  build a pilot plant that will make batteries for electronics and drones. For automotive and energy companies, Holy Grail says it will partner with existing battery manufacturers that can support the kind of high-throughput manufacturing big orders will require.

Think of it like bringing the fabless chip design technologies and business models to the battery industry, says Pereira.

Holy Grail already has $14 million in letters of intent with potential customers, according to Pereira and is expecting to close additional financing as it exits Y Combinator.

To date the company has been backed by the London-based early stage investment firm Deep Science Ventures, where Pereira worked as an entrepreneur in residence.

Ultimately, the company sees its technology being applied far beyond batteries as a new platform for materials science discoveries broadly. For now, though the focus is on batteries.

“For the low volume we sell direct,” says Pereira. “While on high volume production, we will implement a pilot line through the system… we are able to do the research engineering with the small ones and test the big ones. In our case when we have a cell that works, it’s not something that works in a lab it’s something that works in the final cell.”

The future of car ownership: Cars-as-a-service

By Matt Burns

Car shoppers now have several new options to avoid long-term debt and commitments. Automakers and startups alike are increasingly offering services that give buyers new opportunities and greater flexibility around owning and using vehicles.

Cars-as-a-Service

In the first part of this feature, we explored the different startups attempting to change car buying. But not everyone wants to buy a car. After all, a vehicle traditionally loses its value at a dramatic rate.

Some startups are attempting to reinvent car ownership rather than car buying.

Don’t buy, lease

My favorite car blog Jalopnik said it best: “Cars Sales Could Be Heading Straight Into the Toilet.” Citing a Bloomberg report, the site explains automakers may have had the worst first half for new-vehicle retail sales since 2013. Car sales are tanking, but people still need cars.

Companies like Fair are offering new types of leases combining a traditional auto financing option with modern conveniences. Even car makers are looking at different ways to move vehicles from dealer lots.

Fair was founded in 2016 by an all-star team made up of automotive, retail and banking executives including Scott Painter, former founder and CEO of TrueCar.

TransferWise’s new debit card for the US fires the starting gun on a new war for travelers

By Mike Butcher

International money transfer service TransferWise, has made a significant incursion into the US market today, launching a MasterCard debit card alongside a multicurrency account. Mirroring the card it has already launched in the UK and Europe last year, the card will work in over 40 currencies without balance limits, and conversion fees will be competitive with current exchange rates. A similar card aimed at businesses will follow the consumer launch.

Co-founder Taavet Hinrikus told me that the card effectively makes the average person able to act like a millionaire when they are traveling. “Alternative ‘travel’ cards are four times more expensive for every dollar spent and are only available to the top 10% of people who pass credit checks and also pay hundreds of dollars per year,” he said.

He believes this card will democratize the whole market. That means it’s likely that US tourists in Europe or elsewhere will be hugely attracted to this card because they will be charged as if they were a local person, in the local currencies, without all the normal fees.

Transferwise is also pushing an immigration angle to the launch featuring Tan France (pictured), star of “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy”.

Key features of the account and debit card include international bank details for the UK, the US, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, meaning account and routing numbers that are unique to the account holder. Additionally, if a holder swipes a card in a currency they don’t have in their account, the card knows to choose the cheapest option from their available balances. The card is also free to get, with now no subscription, no sign-up fees, and no monthly maintenance fee. Holders can also freeze/unfreeze the card from the Transferwise app and receive push notifications every time they spend. It will also sync with Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay.

Hinrikus added: “Our goal is to offer bank details for every country in the world through one account — the world’s first global account — and we’re starting with five of the world’s top currencies. The 40-currency debit card completes the package, so we’re excited to be releasing the card in the US.

Earlier this year TransferWise said it was now valued at $3.5 billion after closing a $292 million secondary funding round. In November it reported an annual post-tax net profit of $8 million for the year ending March 2018. At the time it said it had five million users transacting $5 billion across its platform a month.

While Transferwise competes with the smaller Revolut and WorldRemit, as well as incumbents like Western Union and MoneyGram, with the launch of this new card it will also be breathing down the neck of Paypal.

Its investors include Old Mutual, Institutional Venture Partners, Andreessen Horowitz, Lead Edge Capital, Lone Pine Capital, Vitruvian Partners, BlackRock, Valar Ventures, Baillie Gifford, PayPal founder Max Levchin, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, among others.

Lifestyle goods resale marketplace StockX raises $110M, pushing valuation past $1B

By Darrell Etherington

Detroit-based StockX, which provides a way for people to resell luxury and lifestyle goods including streetwear, bags, watches and shoes, is now valued at over $1 billion based on its most recent raise of $110 million, just revealed by the New York Times. Alongside the raise, StockX is bringing on a new CEO – ecommerce vet and former eBay SVP Scott Cutler.

Cutler replaces co-founder Josh Luber at the helm of the company, but he’ll continue to be the “public face” of the company according to the NYT, which is not unusual for a founder-led company when it brings on more traditionally experienced executives to steer the startup through periods of aggressive growth and business maturation.

StockX’s success rode the sneaker culture boom of the past half-decade or so, as the startup first focused exclusively on acting as a resale source for shoes with high levels of hype. Their unique value prop, for consumers, was offering a verification service so that you knew when you were buying (often at a premium, and often so-called ‘deadstock’ or stuff that’s new in condition but not available through typical consumer sales channels) was the real deal.

The company expanded from there into new categories, first with watches, then handbags, and most recently streetwear – all categories where high potential for fraud mean that consumers are willing to pay more for some assurance of authenticity.

Also unique to StockX is its treatment of the marketplace as analogous to a public stock exchange, with shoe releases, watch, bag and clothing SKUs replacing companies as the trade commodity. The app for StockX displays charts trending value and features bids and calls, making it similar in concept to another company where new CEO Cutler has experience – the NYSE.

With this funding, the company will focus on growing its international business and also do more with selling new products, which it has done on occasion for select releases, but which hasn’t been a primary focus of its business to date.

South African SME finance startup Lulalend raises $6.5M Series A

By Jake Bright

South African digital lender Lulalend has raised a $6.5 million Series A round co-led by IFC and Quona Capital.

The Cape Town based startup uses an online application process and internal credit metrics to provide short-term loans to small and medium sized businesses that are often unable to obtain working capital.

Lulalend will use the round to build its tech and data team and improve its ability to reach more SMEs in South Africa, according CEO Trevor Gosling—who co-founded the startup in 2014 with Neil Welman.

“The biggest thing is strengthening our balance sheet so we can access traditional debt funding to grow our loan book,” Gosling told TechCrunch on a call.

On the market for Lulalend’s business, Gosling highlighted IFC numbers indicating a $23 billion financing gap for South Africa’s SME’s—which are estimated to contribute 34 percent of the GDP for the country of 56 million.

Lulalend’s loan sizes range from around $1500 (≈ 20,000 South African Rand) up to $70,000, for 6 to 12 month tenors, requiring monthly payments of one-sixth or one-twelfth the total loan with monthly costs of 2 to 6 percent.

The most common loan is around $10,000 (≈ 148,000 Rand) over a 6 month term for a cost over principal of roughly $1700, according to Gosling.

Lulalend loan terms

SMEs can apply online and need a bank account to receive a loan disbursement. A high percentage of Lulalend’s approvals are processed automatically—without requiring manual due diligence—using the company’s proprietary credit scoring tech.

Loans by sector for the startup run pretty evenly across online commerce companies, manufacturing and distribution type businesses, and professional and business services firms.

Lula 197 2Lulalend does not release info on revenue or loan portfolio size, but Gosling said the company has a loss-rate below 4 percent and has reached profitability—something confirmed in the round due diligence process.

The startup has an internal data-base, developer team, and operates on Microsoft’s Azure cloud services. Co-Founder Neil Welman is the company’s CTO and brings previous experience in financial credit risk analysis.

“When we set up the company the biggest piece within the automation that we’ve had to solve for is the underwriting component and ability to score companies,” Gosling said.

That internal ability to assess loan risk and process loan applications (largely) straight through is how Lulalend is able to serve an under-served SME market. For many big South African banks, that require traditional due diligence and collateral, booking small loans doesn’t make economic sense, according to Gosling.

“With a very manual credit process and little automation, it doesn’t make…it….profitable to do $5000 loans,” he said.

As part of the $6.5 million Series A, investor Quona Capital (which is sponsored by fintech organization Accion) will join LulaLend’s board.

On why the fund invested in the startup, “We believe Lulalend’s tech-enabled scoring, combined with their ability to provide funding in a quick and transparent way, has the potential to…catalyze SME growth in South Africa,” said Quona Capital Partner Johan Bosini.

LulaLend co-founder Trevor Gosling said the the startup could consider expansion in the future but will remain focused on South Africa for now.

On long-term performance goals for the startup, he named generating revenue and lending volume as the primary target. “What we’re trying to achieve is building a $100 million loan book as quickly as possible and that’s what this raise is assisting us with,” he said.

“We believe if you build a quality business opportunities will present themselves, whether it’s through a strategic partnership or an IPO or whatever makes sense at that time.”

Gosling said Lulalend is also keeping its door opened to partnerships with big banks or telcos to provide access to finance to greater numbers of South Africa’s SMEs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With a portfolio including Acorns, Sweetgreen and Ro Health, Torch Capital raises $60M for its first fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Jonathan Keidan, the founder of Torch Capital, had already built a portfolio that included Acorns, Compass, Digital Ocean and Sweetgreen, before he raised single dollar for his inaugural venture capital fund, which just closed with $60 million.

Keidan, a consummate networker who began his professional career as a manager working with acts like The Nappy Roots, The Getaway People and a young John Legend, just managed to be in the right place at the right time, he says (thanks, in part, to his gift for gab).

The final close for Torch Capital’s first fund is just the beginning for Torch, which is angling to be one of the premiere firms for early stage consumer internet and consumer facing enterprise software.

The firm began raising its first fund in October 2017 and held a $40 million first close just about one year ago. Keidan and his partners had targeted $50 million for his first investment vehicle, but wound up hitting the hard cap of $60 million, in part due to high demand from the New York-based entrepreneurs that Keidan considers his peers.

In addition to backers like the George Kaiser Family Foundation and billionaire Hong Kong fashion mogul Silas Chou, Keidan was able to tap startup founders like Jennifer Fleiss, the co-founder of Rent the Runway; Casper co-founders Philip Krim and Neil Parikh; and Bryan Goldberg, the founder of Bleacher Report and owner of Bustle Media Group (which includes Gawker, Bustle, Elite Daily, Mic, The Outline, and The Zoe Report, which collectively form Bustle Digital Group).

“Because I’ve taken a more startup approach i was recruiting raising money and doing deals at the same time,” says Keidan. 

Screen Shot 2019 06 24 at 7.08.10 AM

A sampling of Torch Capital’s portfolio investments

Along with partners Sam Jones, a former London-based investment banker; Katie Reiner, an investor at the data-driven growth fund, Lead Edge Capital; Curtis Chang, a technology-focused investment banker from HSBC’ and Chantal Haldorsen, a serial startup executive; Keidan has certainly done deals.

He started investing as an angel while still working at his own media company InsideHook, and began forming special purpose vehicles for larger investments as soon as he departed, about three years ago.

For the first year-and-a-half, Jones and Keidan worked on the SPVS, which allowed them to put together a portfolio that included Acorns, Compass, Digital Ocean and Sweetgreen — as well as startups like ZocDoc and the ketchup brand, Sir Kensington’s.

Since launching the fund, Keidan and his partners did 15 investments in the first year — including investments into . the consumer-focused Ro Health, which sells erectile dysfunction medication, supplements for hair growth, and more recently menopausal products for women.

Torch Capital has also backed the fintech company, Harness Wealth, sustainable cashmere manufacturer and retailer, Naadam; and Splendid Spoon, a vegan breakfast and lunch prepared food provider akin to Daily Harvest.

Keidan’s interest in investment stems from his experience in the music industry. It was a time when Spotify was just beginning to emerge and Napster had already shaken up the market. The creation of digital platforms enabled artists to connect more directly with the consumer in a way that traditional companies couldn’t understand.

Instead of embracing the technology labels and artists fought it, and the writing on the wall (that the labels and artists would lose) became clear… at least for Keidan. 

Following some advice from mentors including the super-producer and music mogul, Quincy Jones, Keidan went to business school. He graduated from Columbia in 2007 with an MBA and then did what all former music managers do after their MBA training — he joined McKinsey as a consultant. The stint at McKinsey led Keidan to Jack Welch’s online education venture and from there, Keidan started InsideHook.

Keidan grew the company to over 2 million subscribers in the five years since he helped launch the business in 2012. From that perch he saw the rise of direct to consumer startups and began making angel investments. His first was ZocDoc, his second, Sir Kensingtons (which sold to Unilever) and his third was the real estate investment platform, Compass.

That track record was enough to convince Chou, the Hong Kong billionaire that turned around Tommy Hilfiger and built Michael Kors into a multi-billion dollar powerhouse in the world of ready to wear fashion.

Like the rest of the venture industry, Keidan sees the technology tools that have transformed much of business are now remaking the ease and reach of building direct to consumer brands. Unlike most, Keidan has spent time working on the ground up to develop brands (artists and songwriting talent in the music business).

Everything that Torch Capital invests in has at least one eye on an end consumer, whether that’s direct consumer investments like Ro, Sweetgreen or the business surveying startup, Perksy.

Torch invests between $500,000 and $1 million in seed deals and will invest anywhere between $1 million to $3 million in Series A deals, according to Keidan.

“What makes a consumer company successful at scale is very different than enterprise software or consumer internet deals,” said Keidan. “VCs were having trouble getting their heads around this… [their companies] were overvalued too early… and when they couldn’t meet those goals they were doing things that were detrimental to the brand.”

Keidan thinks he has a better approach.

“Between InsideHook and watching companies grow and my own investments i’d seen the nuances of what it takes to get to scale,” he said.

Why eVTOLs could be providing regional air service sooner than you think

By Darrell Etherington

At Uber’s Elevate summit in Washington, DC earlier this month, researchers, industry leaders and engineers gathered to celebrate the approaching advent of on-demand air service. For Dr. Anita Sengupta, co-founder and Chief Product Office at Detroit’s Airspace Experience Technologies (abbreviated ASX), it was an event full of validation of her company’s specific approach to making electric vertical take-off and landing craft a working, commercially viable reality.

ASX’s eVTOL design is a tilt-wing design, which is distinct from the tilt-rotor design you might see on some of the splashier concept vehicles in the category. As you might’ve inferred from the name of each type of aircraft, with tilt-wing designs the entire wing of the aircraft can change orientation, while on tilt-rotor, just the rotor itself adjust independent of the wing structure.

The benefits of ASX’s tilt-wing choice, according to Sengupta, is speed to market and compatibility with existing regulatory and pilot licensing frameworks – and that’s why ASX could be providing cargo transport service relatively quickly for paying customers, with passenger travel to follow once regulators and the public get comfortable with the idea.

ASX founding team Jon Rimanelli and Dr. Anita Sengupta. Credit: ASX

“Depending upon the aircraft configuration you selected, like us, for example, we’re basically a fixed wing aircraft,” Sengupta explained. “So we would not be classified as a rotorcraft, we’d be classified as a fixed wing aircraft with multi-engine, just with obviously special certification features for the VTOL capability. And of course, special check out for the pilots, but the pilots also would be fixed wing aircraft, pilots, they wouldn’t be helicopter pilots.”

ASX’s vehicle design means that it can either take off vertically when space is tight, or do a more traditional short horizontal take off like the airplanes we use every day. That not only makes it easier to use for pilots with more conventional training and experience, but it also means it can slot into existing infrastructure relatively easily and make use of underused regional airports that already dot the U.S.

“Most people who don’t fly for fun don’t realize that there are general aviation airports all over the place, that are underutilized, because only people like me, who fly for fun [Sengupta is also a pilot], use them frequently,” she said. ” Like where we’re located at Detroit City Airport, on a given day, there could sometimes only be like three planes that go in and out of it. So this is infrastructure, which is already funded, paid for and operated by governments, but isn’t utilized. And you can use them in this new UAM [Urban Air Mobility] space, whether it’s for people or for cargo, it’s actually a really good thing, because the challenge of any new transportation system is the cost of infrastructure.”

ASX has also moved quickly to get aircraft up in the sky, which is better help in terms of its own path to commercialization. It’s built six scaled down demonstration and testing aircraft, including five one-fifth scale and one that’s one-third the size of the eventual production version. These testing aircraft can demonstrate all their modes of flight within easy view of the Detroit City Airport airspace control and monitoring.

“We believe, and when you’re really cash strapped your small company, getting a lot of work at the subscale just allows you to do a lot more iterating, prototyping, and learning, basically how to control the vehicle,” Sengupta told me. “From a software perspective, it’s only when you get to that point, when you’re comfortable with a configuration, that it’s really worth your while to go off and build the full scale one. So with this next round [of funding, ASX’s second after raising just over $1 million last year]we’re going to go off and build this out at scale.”

Ultimately, Sengupta and ASX want to help usher in an era of air travel that creates efficiencies by changing the economics of regional and electric flight, and its attracting interest from investors and industry partners alike, including global transportation service provider TPS Logistics, with which it just signed a new MOU to work together on sussing out the opportunities of the eVTOL logistics market.

“Right now you you see a lot of congestion in airports, within beings, you’re going to have congestion coming in, you’re going to have to build a different professional parking lots and runways and all kinds of huge expense, if you can use these general aviation airports as regional centers to do that travel, you can take it away from the commercial, so they actually solve a lot of other problems,” Sengupta said. “For routes of let’s say 300 miles, you probably would need to do a hybrid power solution first, just because the energy density better isn’t there yet. But that’s the whole nicer than having it be fully fueled. And then hopefully […] hydrogen fuel cells is obviously something where you can get the energy needed in each of those regional flights. So by kick-starting this electric aviation use case for the shorter range, urban flights, you kind of kickstart the industry to push it over to fully electric vehicles for regional travel.”

SpaceRyde wants to make access to space more available and more affordable

By Darrell Etherington

Life can be tough for a small satellite operator – it may be relatively cheap and easy to build small sats (or CubeSats, as they’re sometimes called), but arranging transportation for those satellites to get to orbit is still a big challenge. That’s why SpaceRyde is pursuing a novel way of launching light payloads, that could help small sat companies skip the line, and save some cash in the process.

SpaceRyde’s co-founders, wife and husband team Saharnaz Safari and Sohrab Haghighat, saw the opportunity to address this growing customer base by making launches easier by reducing the impact of one of the biggest complicating factors of getting stuff into space: Earth’s atmosphere.

In an interview, Safari explained that SpaceRyde’s technology works by making it possible to use a relatively tiny rocket rather than a huge one by attaching it to a stratospheric balloon and launching from much closer to orbit. Because of the size of the rocket and the lift limitations of the balloons, SpaceRyde ends up carrying much smaller payloads than say, SpaceX or Rocket Lab, but on the upside, clients don’t have to share rides like they do with the big rocket providers.

“Just getting a ride to orbit for these small satellite, even if they have the money, or they want to pay as much as they’re getting charged right now, on big rockets, is a big problem,” Safari said. “Because they have to wait until a mission with their parameters, to the orbit they want, the inclination they want, all that becomes available and then if there’s space, they can, you know, hitch a ride. So it’s more or less like a bus system.”

No one loves waiting for the bus, least of all the emerging crop of space startups hoping to build sustainable businesses. Many of these young companies, like fellow Canadian startup Wyvern, are looking to launch and operate small sats as the backbone of their go-to-market plan. Trouble is, they’re at the whim of whatever primary client current launch providers are serving, with launch condition requirements for the largest, most expensive satellites on board dictating when, where and if launches will happen for the tag-along smaller customers.

SpaceRyde’s stratospheric balloon-based rocket launch platform concept.

“What we’re building is, instead of this bus system, where it’s a set schedule, and it can get delayed,” Safari explained. “We want to give them the taxi or Uber service to space, where they buy an entire rocket and we provide the payload capacity that smaller satellite companies typically use in one launch, and so they can basically buy the entire rocket, and they can put a bunch of their satellites, depending on how big their satellites are, and then they just tell us where they want us to drop it for them.”

SpaceRyde is early in its own journey, having been founded less than a year ago. But Haghighat, the company’s CEO in addition to being Safari’s husband and co-founder, has a PhD in Aerospace, Aeronatical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Toronto and was an early employee of success story Cruise Automation. Safari brings business and sales expertise, as well as a Master’s degree in Bioanalytical Chemistry from the University of Waterloo . But more important than either of their credentials, they’ve already demonstrated a sub-scale prototype of their system in action.

Earlier this year, SpaceRyde launched a stratospheric balloon carrying a scaled down version of their launch platform and rocket in Northern Ontario, Canada. The test wasn’t a complete success – a modification to the off-the-shelf rocket engine they used didn’t work exactly as expected – but it did demonstrate that their in-flight launch platform orientation tech worked as intended, and Safari says the malfunction that did occur is relatively easy to fix.

Next up for SpaceRyde is to work towards a full-scale demonstration of their platform, which Safari says should happen sometime next year. The company is hiring to grow its small team and accelerate its pace of development, and Safari says they’re excited specifically about the potential SpaceRyde has to bring back domestic launch capabilities to Canada – the country hasn’t had a rocket launch in 21 years.

For the private space economy, the startup can’t commercialize its product fast enough: Safari says they’ll be able to offer their launches at “around half” of what their customers would be charged currently (thanks to using mostly off-the-self rocket parts and balloons), but again she stressed that it’s actually not cost, but availability that is the biggest challenge for most.

Get your tickets to the TechCrunch 14th Annual Summer Party

By Emma Comeau

Hey startuppers, it’s time to save the date and get your ticket to the best Silicon Valley soiree of the season. This year marks the 14th return of the TechCrunch Summer Party — a time to relax, connect and imbibe with your startup siblings.

We’re excited to announce that we’re hosting more than 1,000 guests at the beautiful Park Chalet, San Francisco’s coastal beer garden. Come out, kick back, grab a drink and enjoy a variety of tasty bites, while enjoying the park views. We’re also excited to announce our VC firm partners for the event: August Capital, Battery Ventures, Data Collective, and Uncork Capital.

Tickets to this popular event will go fast, which means get them while you can! Tickets are available on a rolling basis, so if you miss out on this batch, don’t despair. Simply sign up here and we’ll let you know when the next release is announced.

Beyond the food, drink and convivial atmosphere, you’ll be among your peers to celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit that drives you to build the future. TechCrunch parties are notorious for networking magic, and you just never know when you’ll meet your next investor, co-founder or future unicorn. Why not do it over a beer at the Park Chalet?

Here’s one historic example. Box founders Aaron Levie and Dylan Smith met one of their first investors, DFJ, at a party hosted by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. True story.

Check out the pertinent Summer Party details:

  • When: July 25 from 5:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
  • Where: Park Chalet in San Francisco
  • How much: $95

Join us for a relaxing night of sipping, noshing and networking in a beautiful setting overlooking the ocean. You might even win some great door prizes — including TechCrunch swag and tickets to Disrupt San Francisco 2019.

Whether you make a life-changing connection or walk away inspired, it’ll be a night to remember. This event will sell out quickly. Buy your 14thAnnual Summer Party ticket today.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at the TechCrunch 14th Annual Summer Party? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

The Stanford connections behind Latin America’s multibillion-dollar startup renaissance

By Jonathan Shieber

The houses along the tree-lined blocks of Josina Avenue in Palo Alto, with their big back yards, swimming pools and driveways are about as far removed from the snarls of traffic, sputtering diesel engines, and smoggy air of South America’s major metropolises as one can get.

But it was in one of those houses, about a twelve-minute bicycle ride from Stanford University, that the seed was planted for what has become a renaissance in technology entrepreneurship in Latin America.

Back in 2010, when Adeyemi Ajao, Carlo Dapuzzo, and Juan de Antonio were students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business they could not predict that they would be counted among the vanguard of investors and entrepreneurs transforming Latin America’s startup economy.

At the time, Ajao was negotiating the sale of his first business, the Spanish social networking company, Tuenti, to Telefonica (in what would be a $100 million exit). Carlo Dapuzzo was in Palo Alto taking a break from his job at Monashees, which at that time was a small, early-stage investment fund based in Brazil focused on investing in Latin America. Juan de Antonio had left a job as a consultant at BCG to attend Stanford’s business school on a Fulbright scholarship.

In just two years, Ajao would be a founding investor in de Antonio’s ride-hailing business, Cabify, focused on Latin America and Europe; and Dapuzzo would be seeding the ride-hailing service 99Taxis. Today, Cabify is worth over $1 billion and has focused its business primarily on Latin America while 99 was sold to the Chinese ride-hailing company Didi for $1 billion — making it one of the largest deals in Latin America’s young startup history.

The three men are now at the center of a vast web of startups whose intersection can, in many cases, be traced back to the house on Josina Avenue where Dapuzzo and de Antonio lived and where Ajao spent much of his free time.

“It’s the same dynamics as the PayPal Mafia,” says Ajao. “The new unicorn batches which started in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil. Although they’re all trans-national, they all know each other and literally they are all friends and all co-investors in each other’s companies and they all have links to Silicon Valley… and… more importantly… to Stanford.”

Carlo Dapuzzo, Adeyemi Ajao, and Juan de Antonio at Stanford University

Stalled economic engines

If Ajao’s enthusiasm sounds familiar, that’s because it is. There was another wave of interest in Latin America that started surging nearly a decade ago, but crashed nearly five years into what was supposed to be the time of the region’s explosive growth in the global scene.

Back in 2008, as the U.S. was sliding into recession, global economists cast about for countries whose economic might could potentially provide some antidote to the toxic assets that were poisoning the global financial system in America and Western Europe. It was then that the concept coined by a Goldman Sachs economist back in 2001 (in the aftermath of another financial shock) baked Brazil, Russia, India and China into a BRIC — a group of nations that, as a bloc, could create enough growth to keep the global economy moving upwards.

All of them were growing at a rapid clip, albeit at different speeds and from different starting trajectories. But they were still all humming. Investment — from large financial institutions, private equity and venture capital firms — all began flowing into the four countries.

In Brazil and across Latin America, companies from the U.S. began to cast their eyes South for growth. That’s when Groupon began to make inroads into the region. When Groupon acquired the Chilean company ClanDescuento, it served as a starting gun for activity across multiple geographies.

Two years after that acquisition by Groupon, Redpoint’s Brazilian investment vehicle, Redpoint eVentures was able to close on a $130 million fund for Brazilian and Latin American investments in just under four months. While Brazil held the bulk of the capital, many of the largest startup companies were being launched out of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Globant, Despegar, MercadoLibre, and OLX were all lucrative deals for the investors who made them. Today, they remain solid companies, but they didn’t create the ecosystem that both local investors and entrepreneurs were hoping for. Brazil’s Peixe Urbano was also a rising star at the time, but it too wound up selling, in its case to Chinese internet Baidu. Indeed, the Peixe Urbano funding gave investors like Benchmark’s Matt Cohler their first exposure to the region.

A 2012 default on Argentinian debt derailed the economy and Brazil’s economy began seizing up at around the same time. Then, in 2014, Brazil was hit by both an economic and political collapse that shook the country’s stability and ushered in a two-year-long recession.

Ultimately, the Brazilian component of the BRIC miracle, that would have potentially ushered in a brighter future for the broader region, didn’t materialize.

The next starting gun

Ajao began investing in Latin America as an angel investor during the beginnings of the downturn in Brazil and when Argentina was also seizing up. It’s also when Dapuzzo made the initial bet on 99Taxis — bringing Ajao in as an investor — and Cabify launched, eventually bringing its service to Mexico and seeing huge growth in the Latin American market.

500 Startups expanded to Mexico around the same period, in what turned out to be a prescient move. Because even as the broader economies were slowing, technology adoption — fueled by rising smartphone sales and new internet-enabled mobile services — was speeding up.

Groupon’s push into the region taught a new consumer market about the pleasures of venture-backed e-commerce, but it was ride-hailing that truly paved the way for Latin America’s future success. Many factors played a role, from the rise of smartphones to the stabilization and growth of economies in the region outside of Argentina and Brazil and the return of a generation of founders who gained exposure and experience in Silicon Valley.

Here again, the house on Josina Street and the friends that were made over the course of the two-year grad school program at Stanford would play a critical role.

“99 was the second start and this new generation of founders,” said one investor with a deep knowledge of the region.

A taxi driver uses the 99 taxi app for smartphones in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on October 11, 2018. (Photo via Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)

A herd of unicorns

Ajao also sees 99 as ground zero for the network that has spawned a unicorn stampede in Latin America. It’s a group of companies that covers everything from financial services, mobility and logistics, food delivery and even pet care.

In some ways it’s an extension and culmination of the American on-demand thesis, with allowances for the unique characteristics of the region’s varied economies and cultural experience, investors and entrepreneurs said.

“In my mind 99 had a lot to do with what is happening right now with the current PayPal mafia [of Latin America] because they became the first big new exit on the continent,” Ajao says.

Entrepreneurs from 99 spun out to form Yellow, a dockless scooter and bike-sharing company that was initially backed by Monashees, Grishin Robotics and Base10 Partners — the venture firm that Ajao co-founded and which closed a $137 million venture fund just nine months ago.

Monashees and Base10 also co-invested in Grin, a Mexico City-based dockless scooter company. Together the two companies managed to raise over $100 million before merging into one company earlier this. That deal ultimately provided a challenger to the automotive-based ride-sharing businesses that were beginning to encroach on the scooter business.

The growth of 99Taxis and the rise of startups in Latin America ultimately convinced David Velez, a former venture investor with Sequoia Capital to return to Brazil and try his hand at entrepreneurship as well. A year behind Ajao, de Antonio and Dapuzzo at Stanford, Velez was also friendly with the group.

Velez worked at Sequoia Capital and saw the opportunity that Latin America presented as an investment environment. After starting Sequoia Capital Latin America he transitioned into an entrepreneurial role and became the co-founder of Nubank, which would be Sequoia’s first Latin America investment. Now a $4 billion financial technology powerhouse, the Nubank deal was yet another proof point that the Latin American market had come of age — and another branch on a tree that has its roots in Stanford’s business school and the Silicon Valley venture community.

The final piece of this intersecting web of investments and relationships is Rappi — the Colombian delivery service business that was also backed by Monazhees and Base10. The first company from Latin America to enter YCombinator and the first investment from the new Silicon Valley power player, Andreessen Horowitz, Rappi epitomizes the new generation of Latin American startups.

“The way we think about this part of the world is as a massive market with 700 million people living on the continent and really dense cities,” says Rappi co-founder and president, Sebastian Mejia. “And it’s a region where the tech stack hasn’t been built, which gives you an opportunity to solve problems and create digital champions that look more similar to China than the U.S.”

Mejia epitomizes what Ajao calls a new breed of startup entrepreneur that doesn’t necessarily look to other markets for inspiration or business models, but solves local problems for a local customer, rather than a global one.

“Being local was more of a competitive advantage than a disadvantage and we can solve problems in a better way than a Silicon Valley company or a Chinese company could,” says Mejia. “What we’re starting to see now is that those changes in perspective allow us to build bigger companies.”

In all, Monashees and Base10 have invested in companies operating in Latin America that have a combined valuation of over $6 billion between them. Through the extended network of Stanford connections and the startups that Velez has brought to the table that number is higher than $10 billion.

A bicycle courier working for Colombian online delivery company “Rappi”, rides his bike in Bogota, on October 11, 2018. (Photo via John Vizcaino/AFP/Getty Images)

The next $10 billion

If the Latin American market was once overlooked by venture investors like Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Benchmark or Accel, that’s certainly no longer the case.

Funds are pouring into the region at an unprecedented clip, driven by SoftBank and its interest on the continent following its commitment to launching a new $2 billion fund in the region and its subsequent $1 billion investment in Rappi.

“Latin America is on the cusp of becoming one of the most important economic regions in the world, and we anticipate significant growth in the decades ahead,” said Masayoshi Son, chairman and CEO of SBG, in a statement when SoftBank launched its fund.

“SBG plans to invest in entrepreneurs throughout Latin America and use technology to help address the challenges faced by many emerging economies with the goal of improving the lives of millions of Latin Americans,” he added.

Son is likely thinking about the 375 million internet users in Latin America and the 250 million smartphone users across the region. It’s also worth noting that retail e-commerce has been a huge driver of economic growth despite other economic obstacles. The region’s e-commerce has grown to $54 billion in 2018 up from $29.8 billion in 2015.

Even more critically, there are some key areas where innovation and new services are still sorely needed. Access to transportation isn’t great for the roughly 79% of the 700 million people across South America who live in cities. Then there are 400 million people across Latin America who are either unbanked or underbanked. Healthcare is another area where a lack of investment to date could create potential opportunities for new startups.

More generally, poor infrastructure remains a significant problem that companies like Rappi and another SoftBank investment, Loggi, are looking to make inroads into.

“Latin America was for many years, underinvested,” says de Antonio, whose Cabify business has managed to score a valuation of over $1 billion largely based on the opportunities ahead of it in the Latin American market. “You will see a bit more money to catch up. The market is big… and potentially huge… I’m a big believer that it’s a good moment now to invest.”

For de Antonio, Cabify, Rappi, and other startups are only now hitting their stride. In the future, they stand to enable a host of other opportunities, he believes.

“The entrepreneurial mindset is really ingrained in Latin America… the difference is maybe there wasn’t an ecosystem to help these ideas to scale.. .there are huge fortunes in the region but they typically… they have a lot of their assets invested in the region… but they need to diversify,” said de Antonio. “Until recently there hasn’t been an active funding market for all of these startups.”

For de Antonio and Ajao, one of the critical lessons that they learned from their time at Stanford and being exposed to the broader Silicon Valley ecosystem was the notion of collaboration.

“This is something we learned from San Francisco,” de Antonio said. “The way companies help each other is something that we haven’t seen people do before. And usually when you are a young company this can be the difference between being successful or a failure.

Less than 1 year after launching its corporate card for startups, Brex eyes $2B valuation

By Kate Clark

Brex, the fintech business that’s taken the startup world by storm with its sought after corporate card tailored for entrepreneurs, is raising millions in Series D funding less than a year after it launched, TechCrunch has learned.

Bloomberg reports Brex is raising at a $2 billion valuation, though sources tell TechCrunch the company is still in negotiations with both new and existing investors. Brex didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Kleiner Perkins is leading the round via former general partner Mood Rowghani, who left the storied venture capital fund last year to form Bond alongside Mary Meeker and Noah Knauf. As we’ve previously reported, the Bond crew is still in the process of allocating capital out of Kleiner’s billion-dollar Digital Growth Fund III.

Bond, which recently closed on $1.25 billion for its debut effort and made its first investment, is not participating in the round for Brex, sources confirm to TechCrunch. Bond declined to comment.

Brex, a graduate of Y Combinator’s winter 2017 cohort, has raised $182 million in VC funding, reaching a valuation of $1.1 billion in October 2018 three months after launching its corporate card for startups and less than a year after completing YC’s accelerator program.

Most recently, Brex attracted a $125 million Series C investment led by Greenoaks Capital, DST Global and IVP. The startup is also backed by PayPal founders Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, and VC firms such as Ribbit Capital, Oneway Ventures and Mindset Ventures, according to PitchBook.

The company’s pace of growth is unheard of, even in Silicon Valley where inflated valuations and outsized rounds are the norm. Why? Brex has tapped into a market dominated by legacy players in dire need of technological innovation and, of course, startup founders always need access to credit. That, coupled with the fact that it’s capitalized on YC’s network of hundreds of startup founders — i.e. Brex customers — has accelerated its path to a multi-billion-dollar price tag.

Brex doesn’t require any kind of personal guarantee or security deposit from its customers, allowing founders near-instant access to credit. More importantly, it gives entrepreneurs a credit limit that’s as much as 10 times higher than what they would receive elsewhere.

Investors may also be enticed by the fact the company doesn’t use third-party legacy technology, boasting a software platform that is built from scratch. On top of that, Brex simplifies a lot of the frustrating parts of the corporate expense process by providing companies with a consolidated look at their spending.

“We have a very similar effect of what Stripe had in the beginning, but much faster because Silicon Valley companies are very good at spending money but making money is harder,” Brex co-founder and chief executive officer Henrique Dubugras told me late last year.

Stripe, for context, was founded in 2010. Not until 2014 did the company raise its unicorn round, landing a valuation of $1.75 billion with an $80 million financing. Today, Stripe has raised a total of roughly $1 billion at a valuation north of $20 billion.

Dubugras and Brex co-founder Pedro Franceschi, 23-year-old entrepreneurs, relocated from Brazil to Stanford in the fall of 2016 to attend the university. They dropped out upon getting accepted into YC, which they applied to with a big dreams for a virtual reality startup called Beyond. Beyond quickly became Brex, a name in which Dubugras recently told TechCrunch was chosen because it was one of few four-letter word domains available.

Brex’s funding history

March 2017: Brex graduates Y Combinator
April 2017: $6.5M Series A | $25M valuation
April 2018: $50M Series B | $220M valuation
October 2018: $125M Series C | $1.1B valuation
May 2019: undisclosed Series D | ~$2B valuation

In April, Brex secured a $100 million debt financing from Barclays Investment Bank. At the time, Dubugras told TechCrunch the business would not seek out venture investment in the near future, though he did comment that the debt capital would allow for a significant premium when Brex did indeed decide to raise capital again.

In 2019, Brex has taken steps several steps toward maturation.Recently, it launched a rewards program for customers and closed its first notable acquisition of a blockchain startup called Elph. Shortly after, Brex released its second product, a credit card made specifically for ecommerce companies.

Its upcoming infusion of capital will likely be used to develop payment services tailored to Fortune 500 business, which Dubugras has said is part of Brex’s long term plan to disrupt the entire financial technology space.

SoundCloud buys artist distribution platform Repost Network

By Jon Russell

The past year has seen Spotify embark on a series of acquisitions to beef up its service, particularly on podcast content. Now it is the turn of SoundCloud, another European music startup — albeit one that had lost its way in recent years — to go deal-making: the Berlin-based company has picked up Repost Network, a service that helps artists get the most out of SoundCloud.

The deal is undisclosed and it actually was announced last week, although it was not widely reported — perhaps an anecdotal sign of SoundCloud’s position as a relative outsider in today’s streaming market.

Once a pioneer of online distribution for artists, it has watched Sweden-headquartered Spotify takes its service global with a total audience of over 200 million monthly listeners. The competition includes services from Apple and Google as well as the likes of Pandora, Deezer and Jay-Z-owned Tidal.

Soundcloud had its come-to-Jesus-moment some 18 months ago when it raised a $169.5 million Series F fund led by New York investment bank Raine Group and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek.

That deal, announced in August 2017, was very much kiss-of-life that saved SoundCloud from bankruptcy — just a month earlier, it laid off 40 percent of its staff to slash costs. The investment also saw a change at the top as former Vimeo CEO Kerry Trainor replaced co-founder Alex Ljung as CEO. The new money took SoundCloud to nearly $470 million raised, and the pre-money valuation was said to be $150 million — down from a previous of high of $700 million from previous rounds.

Still, things have progressed enough for this acquisition, which is SoundCloud’s second ever. The company said the purchase will enable its top artists to access Repost Network’s tools, which include streaming distribution, analytics dashboards and content protection.

That restructuring, painful as it was, looks to have put the focus on the fundamentals. Filings from the company indicate that its revenue grew 80 percent year-on-year to reach €90.7 million ($102 million) in 2017, while losses narrowed by 27 percent to reach €51.4 million, or $58 million. Those results are from the beginning of Trainor’s tenure, we’ll have to wait on its newest filings to get a clearer picture of how things are going.

SoundCloud’s first acquisition was back in 2012 when it paid $10 million purchase of Instinctiv, a music management startup.

Startups Weekly: VCs are drunk on beverage startups

By Kate Clark

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a newsletter published every Saturday that dives into the week’s most noteworthy venture deals, fundraises, M&A transactions and trends. Let’s take a quick moment to catch up. Last week, I wrote about an alternative to venture capital called revenue-based financing and before that, I jotted down some notes on one of VCs’ favorite spaces: cannabis tech. Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets.

This week, I want to share some thoughts — questions, rather — on beverages. Just as my inbox has been full of cannabis-related pitches, it’s also been packed with descriptions of new…drinks. Perhaps the most noted so far is Liquid Death, canned water for the punk rock crowd, because why not? Liquid Death has attracted nearly $2 million in funding from angel investors like Away co-founder Jen Rubio and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Before I tell you about a few other up-and-coming beverage makers, I must beg the question: Does the beverage industry need disrupting?

Founders say yes. Why? For one, because millennials, according to various studies, are consuming less alcohol than previous generations and are therefore seeking non-alcoholic beverage alternatives. Enter Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirits company, for example. Or Haus, launching this summer, an all-natural apéritif distilled from grapes that has a lower alcohol content than most hard liquors. Haus, like any good consumer startup in 2019, is shipped directly to your door.

Beverages are being disrupted, there's no stopping it. pic.twitter.com/DMEg88t4iO

— Kate Clark (@KateClarkTweets) May 21, 2019

Bev, a canned wine business that recently raised $7 million in seed funding from Founders Fund, thinks marketing in the alcohol industry is the problem. Founder Alix Peabody designed a line of female-focused canned rosé. If you’re wondering why alcohol needs to be gendered in such a way, you’re not alone. Peabody explained most alcohol brands cater to men, and that’s a problem.

“The joke I like to make is there’s a go-to type of alcohol for every type of bro and we just don’t have that for women,” Peabody told TechCrunch earlier this year.

Finally, the wellness movement is taking over, driving VCs toward some odd upstarts. From wellness chat and journaling apps to therapy substitutes to fitness companies, stick wellness in a pitch and investors will take a second look. More Labs, for example, is backed with $8 million in VC funding. The company is readying the launch of Liquid Focus, a biohacking-beverage that claims to “solve modern-day stressors without the negative side effects.” Finally, Elements, “an elevated functional wellness beverage formulated with clinical levels of adaptogens to give your body exactly what it needs in four categories (focus, vitality, calm, and rest) for specific cognitive functions” (damn, what copy), recently launched. It doesn’t appear to be funded yet, but let’s just give it a few months.

There’s more where that came from, but I’m done for now. On to other news.

IPO Corner

I almost skipped IPO corner this week because no big-name companies dropped or amended their S-1s or completed a highly anticipated IPO, as has been the case basically every week of 2019. But I decided I better give a quick update on Luckin Coffee’s tough second week on the stock market. Luckin Coffee, if you aren’t familiar, is Starbucks’ Chinese rival. The company raised more than $550 million after pricing at $17 per share a little over a week ago. Immediately the stock skyrocketed 20 percent to a roughly $5 billion market cap; then came concerns of the company’s lofty valuation, major cash burn and uncertain path to profitability.  Luckin has dropped around 25 percent since closing its debut trading day. It closed Friday down 3 percent.

More changes at Y Combinator

Y Combinator, the popular accelerator program and investment firm announced this week that it has promoted longtime partner Geoff Ralston to president. This comes two months after former president Sam Altman stepped down to focus his efforts full-time on OpenAI. The promotion of Ralston is an unsurprising choice for YC, an organization that employs roughly 60 people, many of whom have been affiliated with it in one way or another for years.

M&A

Automattic acquires subscription payment company Prospress

Shopify quietly acquires Handshake, an e-commerce platform for B2B wholesale purchasing 

Streem buys Selerio in an effort to boost its AR conferencing tech

As Amex scoops up Resy, a look at its acquisition history 

Fundraising

The Los Angeles ecosystem is $76 million stronger this week as Fika Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital firm, announced its sophomore investment fund. Fika invests roughly half of its capital exclusively in startups headquartered in LA, with a particular fondness for B2B, enterprise and fintech companies. The firm was launched in 2017 by general partners Eva Ho and TX Zhuo, formerly of Susa Ventures and Karlin Ventures, respectively. The pair raised $41 million for the debut effort, opting to nearly double that number the second time around as a means to participate in more follow-on fundings.

Startup capital

DoorDash raises $600M at a $12.7B valuation
TransferWise completes $292M secondary round at a $3.5B valuation
Auth0 raises $103M, pushes its valuation over $1B
Canva gets $70M at a $2.5B valuation
Payment card startup Marqeta confirms $260M round at close to $2B valuation
Modsy scores $37M to virtually design your home
Sun Basket whips up $30M Series E
Zero raises $20M from NEA for a credit card that works like debit
Nigeria’s Gokada raises $5.3M for its motorcycle ride-hail biz

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another great week of interesting deep dives. This week, TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney went deep on Getaround’s acquisition of Drivy for his latest installment of The Exit, a new series at TechCrunch where we chat with VCs who were in the right place at the right time and made the right call on an investment that paid off. Here are some of the other Extra Crunch pieces that stood out this week:

Equity

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I discuss how startups are avoiding IPOs and VC’s insatiable interest in food delivery startups.

Using full-body MRIs, Ezra can now detect 11 cancers in men and 13 in women

By Jonathan Shieber

When Ezra first launched about six months ago, the company was using magnetic resonance imaging machines to test for prostate cancer in men.

But the company’s founder, Emi Gal, always had a larger goal.

“One of the biggest problems in cancer is that there’s no accurate, fast, painless, way to scan for cancer anywhere in the body” Gal said at the time of his company’s debut.

Now he’s several steps closer to a solution. Rather than having to do painful biopsies which often come with significant side effects, Gal’s software can now be used to slash the cost for a full-body MRI scan designed to screen for 11 different types of cancer in men and another 13 types of cancer in women (who have more organs that are likely to develop cancer).

The scans take about an hour and costs just $1,950, compared with the $5,000 to $10,000 that a full-body MRI scan can cost.

That’s still a steep price for customers to pay out of pocket. Insurance companies won’t pay for Ezra’s screens… yet. The company is in talks with some insurance companies and expects to have some pilot projects up in the last quarter of 2018 and first quarter of 2020. The goal, says Gal, is to have Ezra covered by insurers and self-employed insurers.

It’s hard to overstate how vitally important early cancer screening is for patients.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 1.7 million new cases of cancer diagnosed in the U.S. in 2019. For 600,000 people that diagnosis will be a death sentence. Roughly half of cancer patients are detected in the late stage of the disease and only two out of ten late-stage cancer patients survive longer than five years.

Gal knows the toll that can take on patients and families all too well. The serial entrepreneur, who started his first company at 20 and sold it at 30, volunteered at a hospice in his hometown of Bucharest, and became determined to come up with a screen to detect cancer earlier.

Gal started working on Ezra’s cancer-screening toolkit last year, with patient data taken from the National Institute of Health and supplemented with 150 cancer screens from additional patients.

Ezra initially came to market with a single test to screen for prostate cancer using machine learning to diagnose the screens coming off of an abbreviated MRI scan that takes 20 minutes.

All of the MRI sequences that Gal’s company uses are FDA approved, but the machine learning algorithms the company has developed has not been cleared, yet.

While Ezra can screen for different cancers, the firm’s technology doesn’t offer a diagnosis. That’s still up to a physician and requires additional testing. “We’re turning MRIs from what is a diagnostic test into a screening test,” says Gal.

“What we’ve done is removed the sequences not necessary for screening and brought the liver scan down to 15 minutes [and] the total scanning time down to an hour,” Gal says.

Rather than building out its own network of MRI machines to conduct the tests, Ezra has partnered with the MRI facility network RadNet on testing. The company also offers post-diagnosis consultations to help direct patients who are diagnosed with cancer to seek proper treatment.

The company is currently working in nine centers across New York and intends to expand to San Francisco and Los Angeles later this year.

Gal’s vision for early cancer screening was appealing enough to rake in $4 million in financing from investors including Founders Future, Credo Ventures, Seedcamp, Esther Dyson and other angel investors including SoundCloud co-founder Alex Ljung.

Ultimately, Ezra’s success will hinge on whether it can continue to drive down costs with its direct-to-consumer pitch, or become a diagnostic tool that insurers embrace.

“Over time, our goal is to build different AIs for different organs to decrease the cost even further,” says Gal.

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