FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Yesterday — December 4th 2020Your RSS feeds

SunCulture wants to turn Africa into the world’s next bread basket, one solar water pump at a time

By Jonathan Shieber

The world’s food supply must double by the year 2050 to meet the demands from a growing population, according to a report from the United Nations. And as pressure mounts to find new crop land to support the growth, the world’s eyes are increasingly turning to the African continent as the next potential global breadbasket.

While Africa has 65% of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land, according to the African Development Bank, the countries on the continent face significant obstacles as they look to boost the productivity of their agricultural industries.

On the continent, 80% of families depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but only 4% use irrigation. Many families also lack access to reliable and affordable electricity. It’s these twin problems that Samir Ibrahim and his co-founder at SunCulture, Charlie Nichols, have spent the last eight years trying to solve.

Armed with a new financing model and purpose-built small solar power generators and water pumps, Nichols and Ibrahim, have already built a network of customers using their equipment to increase incomes by anywhere from five to ten times their previous levels by growing higher-value cash crops, cultivating more land and raising more livestock.

The company also has just closed on $14 million in funding to expand its business across Africa.

“We have to double the amount of food we have to create by 2050, and if you look at where there are enough resources to grow food and a lot of point — all signs point to Africa. You have a lot of farmers and a lot of land, and a lot of resources,” Ibrahim said.

African small farmers face two big problems as they look to increase productivity, Ibrahim said. One is access to markets, which alone is a huge source of food waste, and the other is food security because of a lack of stable growing conditions exacerbated by climate change.

As one small farmer told The Economist earlier this year, ““The rainy season is not predictable. When it is supposed to rain it doesn’t, then it all comes at once.”

Ibrahim, who graduated from New York University in 2011, had long been drawn to the African continent. His father was born in Tanzania and his mother grew up in Kenya and they eventually found their way to the U.S. But growing up, Ibrahim was told stories about East Africa.

While pursuing a business degree at NYU Ibrahim met Nichols, who had been working on large scale solar projects in the U.S., at an event for budding entrepreneurs in New York.

The two began a friendship and discussed potential business opportunities stemming from a paper Nichols had read about renewable energy applications in the agriculture industry.

After winning second place in a business plan competition sponsored by NYU, the two men decided to prove that they should have won first. They booked tickets to Kenya and tried to launch a pilot program for their business selling solar-powered water pumps and generators.

Conceptually solar water pumping systems have been around for decades. But as the costs of solar equipment and energy storage have declined the systems that leverage those components have become more accessible to a broader swath of the global population.

That timing is part of what has enabled SunCulture to succeed where other companies have stumbled. “We moved here at a time when [solar] reached grid parity in a lot of markets. It was at a time when a lot of development financiers were funding the nexus between agriculture and energy,” said Ibrahim.

Initially, the company sold its integrated energy generation and water pumping systems to the middle income farmers who hold jobs in cities like Nairobi and cultivate crops on land they own in rural areas. These “telephone farmers” were willing to spend the $5000 required to install SunCulture’s initial systems.

Now, the cost of a system is somewhere between $500 and $1000 and is more accessible for the 570 million farming households across the word — with the company’s “pay-as-you-grow” model.

It’s a spin on what’s become a popular business model for the distribution of solar systems of all types across Africa. Investors have poured nearly $1 billion into the development of off-grid solar energy and retail technology companies like M-kopa, Greenlight Planet, d.light design, ZOLA Electric, and SolarHome, according to Ibrahim. In some ways, SunCulture just extends that model to agricultural applications.

“We have had to bundle services and financing. The reason this particularly works is because our customers are increasing their incomes four or five times,” said Ibrahim. “Most of the money has been going to consuming power. This is the first time there has been productive power.”

 SunCulture’s hardware consists of 300 watt solar panels and a 440 watt-hour battery system. The batteries can support up to four lights, two phones and a plug-in submersible water pump. 

The company’s best selling product line can support irrigation for a two-and-a-half acre farm, Ibrahim said. “We see ourselves as an entry point for other types of appliances. We’re growing to be the largest solar company for Africa.”

With the $14 million in funding, from investors including Energy Access Ventures (EAV), Électricité de France (EDF), Acumen Capital Partners (ACP), and Dream Project Incubators (DPI), SunCulture will expand its footprint in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Senegal, Togo, and Cote D’Ivoire, the company said. 

Ekta Partners acted as the financial advisor for the deal, while CrossBoundary provided additional advisory support, including an analysis on the market opportunity and competitive landscape, under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Kenya Investment Mechanism Program

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Govtech intelligence platform, The Atlas for Cities, bought by Government Executive Media Group

By Jonathan Shieber

The Atlas for Cities, the 500 Startups-backed market intelligence platform connecting tech companies with state and local governments, has been acquired by the Growth Catalyst Partners-backed publishing and market intelligence company Government Executive Media Group.

The San Diego-based company will become the latest addition to a stable of publications and services that include the Route Fifty, publication for local government and the defense-oriented intelligence service, DefenseOne.

The Atlas provides peer-to-peer networks for state and local government officials to share best practices and is a marketing channel for the startups that want to sell services to those government employees. Through The Atlas, government officials can talk to each other, find case studies for best practices around tech implementations, and post questions to crowdsource ideas.

Government contractors can use the site to network with leadership and receive buyer intent data to inform their strategy in the sector, all while getting intelligence about the problems and solutions that matter to state and local jurisdictions across the nation. 

The Atlas delivers on GEMG’s promise to look for companies that complement and supplement the full suite of offerings that we provide to our partners to reach decision makers across all facets of the public sector,” said Tim Hartman, CEO of Government Executive Media Group, said in a statement.

Led by Ellory Monks and Elle Hempen, The Atlas for Cities launched in 2019 and is backed by financing from individual investors and the 500 Startups accelerator program. It now counts 21,000 government officials across 3,400 cities on its platform.

“State and local governments in the United States spend $3.7 trillion per year. That’s almost 20% of GDP,” said Elle Hempen, co-founder of The Atlas. “Our mission to increase transparency and access for local leaders has the opportunity to transform this enormous, inefficient market and enable tangible progress on the most important issues of our times.”

Helping big banks out-Affirm Affirm and out-Chime Chime gives Amount a $681 million valuation

By Jonathan Shieber

Amount, a new service that helps traditional banks compete in a digital world, has raised $81 million from none other than Goldman Sachs as it looks to help legacy fintech players compete with their more nimble digital counterparts.

The company, which spun out from the startup lending company Avant in January of this year, has already inked deals with Banco Popular, HSBC, Regions Bank and TD Bank to power their digital banking services and offer products like point-of-sale lending to compete with challenger banks like Chime and lenders like Affirm or Klarna.

“Most banks are looking for resources and infrastructure to accelerate their digital strategy and meet the demands of today’s consumer,” said Jade Mandel, a Vice President in Goldman Sachs’ growth equity platform, GS Growth, who will be joining the Board of Directors at Amount, in a statement. “Amount enables banks to navigate digital transformation through its modular and mobile-first platform for financial products. We’re excited to partner with the team as they take on this compelling market opportunity.”

Complimenting those customer facing services is a deep expertise in fraud prevention on the back-end to help banks provide more loans with less risk than competitors, according to chief executive Adam Hughes.

It’s the combination of these three services that led Goldman to take point on a new $81 million investment in the company, with participation from previous investors August Capital, Invus Opportunities and Hanaco Ventures — giving Amount a post-money valuation of $681 million and bringing the company’s total capital raised in 2020 to a whopping $140 million.

Think of Amount as a white-labeled digital banking service provider for luddite banks that hadn’t upgraded their services to keep pace with demands of a new generation of customers or the COVID-19 era of digital-first services for everything.

Banks pay a pretty penny for access to Amount’s services. On top of a percentage for any loans that the bank process through Amount’s services, there’s an up-front implementation fee that typically averages at $1 million.

The hefty price tag is a sign of how concerned banks are about their digital challengers. Hughes said that they’ve seen a big uptick in adoption since the launch of their buy-now-pay-later product designed to compete with the fast growing startups like Affirm and Klarna .

Indeed, by offering banks these services, Amount gives Klarna and Affirm something to worry about. That’s because banks conceivably have a lower cost of capital than the startups and can offer better rates to borrowers. They also have the balance sheet capacity to approve more loans than either of the two upstart lenders.

 “Amount has the wind at its back and the industry is taking notice,” said Nigel Morris, the co-founder of CapitalOne and an investor in Amount through the firm QED Investors. “The latest round brings Amount’s total capital raised in 2020 to nearly $140M, which will provide for additional investments in platform research and development while accelerating the company’s go-to-market strategy. QED is thrilled to be a part of Amount’s story and we look forward to the company’s future success as it plays a vital role in the digitization of financial services.”

FT Partners served as advisor to Amount on this transaction.

Orbit raises $4M for its community experience platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Orbit, a startup that is building tools to help organizations build communities around their proprietary and open-source products, today announced that it has raised a $4 million seed funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Martin Casado. A number of angel investors, including Chris Aniszczyk, Jason Warner and Magnus Hillestad, as well as the a16z’s Cultural Leadership Fund, also participated, in addition to previous backers Heavybit and Harrison Metal.

The company describes its service as a “community experience platform.” Currently, Orbit’s focus is on Developer Relations and Community teams, as well as open-source maintainers. There’s no reason the company couldn’t branch out into other verticals as well, though, given that its overall framework is really applicable across all communities.

Orbit team: Patrick Woods, Nicolas Goutay and Josh Dzielak

As Orbit co-founder Patrick Woods told me, community managers have generally had a hard time figuring out who was really contributing to their communities because those contributions can come in lots of forms and often happen across a wide variety of platforms. In addition, the sales and marketing teams also often don’t understand how a community impacts a company’s bottom line. Orbit aggregates all of these contributions across platforms.

“There is a lack of understanding around the ways in which community impacts go-to-market and business value,” Woods told me when I asked him about the genesis of the idea. “There’s a big gap in terms of the tooling associated with that. Many companies agree that community is important, but if you put $1 in the community machine today, it’s hard to know where that’s going to come out — and is it going to come out in terms of $0.50 or $100? This was a set of challenges that we noticed across companies of all sizes.”

Image Credits: Orbit

Especially in open-source communities, there will always be community members who create a lot of value but who don’t have a commercial relationship with a company at all. That makes it even harder for companies to quantify the impact of their communities, even if they agree that community is an important way to grow their business and that, in Orbit’s words, “community is the new pre-sales.”

At the core of Orbit (the company) is Orbit the open-source community framework. The founding team of Woods (CEO) and Josh Dzielak (CTO) developed this framework to help organizations understand how to best build what the team calls a “high gravity community” to attract new members and retain existing ones — and how to evaluate them. You can read more about the concept here.

Image Credits: Orbit

“We’re trying to reframe the discussion away from an extractive worldview that says how much value can we generate from this lead? It’s actually more about how much love can we generate from these community members,” Woods said. “Because, if you think about the culture associated with what we’re trying to do, it’s fundamentally creative and generative. And our goal is really to help people think less about value extraction and more about value creation.”

At the end of the day, though, no matter the philosophy behind your community-building efforts, there has to be a way to measure ROI and turn some of those community members into paying customers. To do that, Orbit currently pulls in data from sources like GitHub, Twitter and Discourse, with support for Slack and other tools coming soon. With that, the service makes it far easier for community managers to keep tabs on what is happening inside their community and who is participating.

Image Credits: Orbit

In addition to the built-in dashboards, Orbit also provides an API to help integrate all of this data into third-party services as well.

“One of the key understandings that drives the Orbit vision is that a community is not a funnel and building a community is not about conversions, but making connections; cultivating dialog and engagement; being open and giving back; and creating value versus trying to capture it,” a16z’s Casado writes. “The model has proven to be very effective, and now Orbit has built a product around it. We strongly believe Orbit is a must-have product for those building developer-focused companies.”

The company is already working with just under 150 companies and its users include the likes of Postman, CircleCI, Kubernetes and Apollo GraphQL.

The company will use the new round, which closed a few weeks ago, to, among other things, build out its go-to-market efforts and develop more integrations.

Thousands of U.S. lab results and medical records spilled online after a security lapse

By Zack Whittaker

NTreatment, a technology company that manages electronic health and patient records for doctors and psychiatrists, left thousands of sensitive health records exposed to the internet because one of its cloud servers wasn’t protected with a password.

The cloud storage server server was hosted on Microsoft Azure and contained 109,000 files, a large portion of which contained lab test results from third-party providers like LabCorp, medical records, doctor’s notes, insurance claims, and other sensitive health data for patients across the U.S., a class of data considered protected health information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Running afoul of HIPAA can result in steep fines.

None of the data was encrypted, and nearly all of the sensitive files were viewable in the browser. Some of the medical records belonged to children.

TechCrunch found the exposed data as part of a separate investigation. It wasn’t initially clear who owned the storage server, but many of the electronic health records that TechCrunch reviewed in an effort to trace the source of the data spillage were tied to doctors and psychiatrists and healthcare workers working at hospitals or networks known to use nTreatment. The storage server also contained some internal company documents, including a non-disclosure agreement with a major prescriptions provider.

The data was secured on Monday after TechCrunch contacted the company. In an email, NTreatment co-founder Gregory Katz said the server was “used as a general purpose storage,” but did not say how long the server was exposed.

Katz said the company would notify affected providers and regulators of the incident.

It’s the latest in a series of incidents involving the exposure of medical data. Earlier this year we found a bug in LabCorp’s website that exposed thousands of lab results, and reported on the vast amounts of medical imaging floating around the web.

S16 Angel Fund launches a community of founders to invest in other founders

By Mike Butcher

Ten years ago a group of young tech founders in Moscow decided to get an apartment together, at Shmitovskiy lane 16.

In time, the ecosystem around the group swelled to the point where today it now encompasses 300 entrepreneurs, executives, artists, and many other industries. The group now organizes the annual ‘Founders for Founders’ conference, in Russia and other locations. Just as in other places around the world, the members decided to help each other.

So they formed the Shmit16 Founder Community, and today they launch the S16 Angel Fund to invest in startups globally. Although tiny by investment standards (the funds first close will be $5 million) firm will focus on ‘founder-in-founder’ investments and has already backed 5 companies under this model. The fund plans to invest in five more companies in the next six months with an average of $250k ticket.

So far the Angel group has invested in AppFollow, Lokalize Simple, a fasting and diet management mobile app, and Anytype, a new operating environment for the modern internet.

The driving ethos of the S16 Fund is a focus on developing human potential and creating a productive peer context where information flows freely and participants can learn from each other.

Founding partners of the fund and community members include serial entrepreneurs Anatoly Marin, co-founder of Payment Systems (a mobile fintech in Eastern Europe); Aleks Shamis -partner at Dostavista (a crowdsourced same-day delivery service operating in 10 countries), Mikhail Peregudov, founder of Partiya Edy, recently acquired by Yandex ($YNDX), Oleg Bibergan, former Executive Director at Goldman Sachs, and others. Prior to this, the partners have invested in over 30 companies as individual angels.

S16 cofounder Anatoly Marin says: “There is a difference between helping a founder as someone whom you relate to on a human level, because you’ve been in these difficult places yourself, and helping a founder to get an ROI on your capital. The former helps shape relations where founders are open to share the most difficult subjects and get help. It is handy here that we’ve founded companies in different areas and can look at things from diverse perspectives.”

“The relationships in our community have always been about friendship, trust, and personal growth, with financial gains being an organic second-order outcome,” says S16 Angel Fund co-founder Aleks Shamis. “After 10 years, starting a fund was a natural next step in helping founders like ourselves.”

Beyond investment, S16 offers access to its network to help founders solve problems, find mentors and operators with business domain expertise such as go-to-market strategy, pricing, coaching for the executive team, and others.

Abacus.AI raises another $22M and launches new AI modules

By Frederic Lardinois

AI startup RealityEngines.AI changed its name to Abacus.AI in July. At the same time, it announced a $13 million Series A round. Today, only a few months later, it is not changing its name again, but it is announcing a $22 million Series B round, led by Coatue, with Decibel Ventures and Index Partners participating as well. With this, the company, which was co-founded by former AWS and Google exec Bindu Reddy, has now raised a total of $40.3 million.

Abacus co-founder Bindu Reddy, Arvind Sundararajan and Siddartha Naidu. Image Credits: Abacus.AI

In addition to the new funding, Abacus.AI is also launching a new product today, which it calls Abacus.AI Deconstructed. Originally, the idea behind RealityEngines/Abacus.AI was to provide its users with a platform that would simplify building AI models by using AI to automatically train and optimize them. That hasn’t changed, but as it turns out, a lot of (potential) customers had already invested into their own workflows for building and training deep learning models but were looking for help in putting them into production and managing them throughout their lifecycle.

“One of the big pain points [businesses] had was, ‘look, I have data scientists and I have my models that I’ve built in-house. My data scientists have built them on laptops, but I don’t know how to push them to production. I don’t know how to maintain and keep models in production.’ I think pretty much every startup now is thinking of that problem,” Reddy said.

Image Credits: Abacus.AI

Since Abacus.AI had already built those tools anyway, the company decided to now also break its service down into three parts that users can adapt without relying on the full platform. That means you can now bring your model to the service and have the company host and monitor the model for you, for example. The service will manage the model in production and, for example, monitor for model drift.

Another area Abacus.AI has long focused on is model explainability and de-biasing, so it’s making that available as a module as well, as well as its real-time machine learning feature store that helps organizations create, store and share their machine learning features and deploy them into production.

As for the funding, Reddy tells me the company didn’t really have to raise a new round at this point. After the company announced its first round earlier this year, there was quite a lot of interest from others to also invest. “So we decided that we may as well raise the next round because we were seeing adoption, we felt we were ready product-wise. But we didn’t have a large enough sales team. And raising a little early made sense to build up the sales team,” she said.

Reddy also stressed that unlike some of the company’s competitors, Abacus.AI is trying to build a full-stack self-service solution that can essentially compete with the offerings of the big cloud vendors. That — and the engineering talent to build it — doesn’t come cheap.

Image Credits: Abacus.AI

It’s no surprise then that Abacus.AI plans to use the new funding to increase its R&D team, but it will also increase its go-to-market team from two to ten in the coming months. While the company is betting on a self-service model — and is seeing good traction with small- and medium-sized companies — you still need a sales team to work with large enterprises.

Come January, the company also plans to launch support for more languages and more machine vision use cases.

“We are proud to be leading the Series B investment in Abacus.AI, because we think that Abacus.AI’s unique cloud service now makes state-of-the-art AI easily accessible for organizations of all sizes, including start-ups. Abacus.AI’s end-to-end autonomous AI service powered by their Neural Architecture Search invention helps organizations with no ML expertise easily deploy deep learning systems in production.”

 

LA-based A-Frame, a developer of celebrity-led personal care brands, raises cash for its brand incubator

By Jonathan Shieber

A-Frame, a Los Angeles-based developer of personal care brands supported by celebrities, has raised $2 million in a new round of funding led by Initialized Capital.

Joining Initialized in the round is the serial entrepreneur Moise Emquies, whose previous clothing lines, Ella Moss and Splendid, were acquired by the fashion holding company VFC in 2017.

A-Frame previously raised a seed round backed by cannabis dispensary Columbia Care. The company’s first product is a hand soap, Keeper. Other brands in suncare and skincare, children and babycare, and bath and body will follow, the company said.

“We partner with the investment groups at the agencies,” said company founder and chief executive, Ari Bloom. “We start interviewing different talent, speaking with their agents and their managers. We create an entity that we spin out. I wouldn’t say that we compete with the agencies.”

So far, the company has worked with CAA, UTA and WME on all of the brands in development, Bloom said. Two new brands should launch in the next couple of weeks.

As part of the round, actor, activist, and author Hill Harper has joined the company as a co-founder and as the company’s chief strategy officer. Emquies is also joining the company as its chief brand officer.

“Hill is my co-founder. He and I have worked together for a number of years. He’s with me at the holding company level. Identifying the opportunities,” said Bloom. “He’s bridging the gap between business and talent. He’s a part of the conversations when we talk to the agencies, managers and the talent. He’s a great guy that I think has a lot of respect in the agency and talent world.”

Initialized General Partner Alda Leu Dennis took point on the investment for Initialized and will take a seat on the company’s board of directors alongside Emquies. Other directors include Columbia Care chief executive, Nicholas Vita, and John D. Howard, the chief executive of Irving Place Capital.

“For us the calculus was to look at personal care and see what categories need to be reinvented because of sustainability,” said Bloom. “It was important to us once we get to a category what is the demographic opportunity. Even if categories were somewhat evolved they’re not all the way there… everything is in non-ingestible personal care. When you have a celebrity focused brand you want to focus on franchise items.”

The Keeper product is a subscription-based model for soap concentrates and cleansing hand sprays.

A serial entrepreneur, Bloom’s last business was the AR imaging company, Avametric, which was backed by Khosla Ventures and Y Combinator and wound up getting acquired by Gerber Technology in 2018. Bloom is also a founder of the Wise Sons Delicatessen in San Francisco.

“We first invested in Avametric at Initialized in 2013 and he had experience prior to that as well. From a venture perspective I think of these all around real defensibility of brand building,” said Dennis.

The investors believe that between Bloom’s software for determining market preferences, A-Frame’s roster of celebrities and the company’s structure as a brand incubator, all of the ingredients are in place for a successful direct to consumer business.

However, venture capitalists have been down this road before. The Honest Co. was an early attempt to build a sustainable brand around sustainable personal care products. Bloom said Honest provided several lessons for his young startup, one of them being a knowledge of when a company has reached the peak of its growth trajectory and created an opportunity for other, larger companies to take a business to the next level.

“Our goal is a three-to-seven year horizon that is big enough at a national scale that a global player can come in and internationally scale it,” said Bloom.

Mirantis brings extensions to its Lens Kubernetes IDE, launches a new Kubernetes distro

By Frederic Lardinois

Earlier this year, Mirantis, the company that now owns Docker’s enterprise business, acquired Lens, a desktop application that provides developers with something akin to an IDE for managing their Kubernetes clusters. At the time, Mirantis CEO Adrian Ionel told me that the company wants to offer enterprises the tools to quickly build modern applications. Today, it’s taking another step in that direction with the launch of an extensions API for Lens that will take the tool far beyond its original capabilities

In addition to this update to Lens, Mirantis also today announced a new open-source project: k0s. The company describes it as “a modern, 100% upstream vanilla Kubernetes distro that is designed and packaged without compromise.”

It’s a single optimized binary without any OS dependencies (besides the kernel). Based on upstream Kubernetes, k0s supports Intel and Arm architectures and can run on any Linux host or Windows Server 2019 worker nodes. Given these requirements, the team argues that k0s should work for virtually any use case, ranging from local development clusters to private datacenters, telco clusters and hybrid cloud solutions.

“We wanted to create a modern, robust and versatile base layer for various use cases where Kubernetes is in play. Something that leverages vanilla upstream Kubernetes and is versatile enough to cover use cases ranging from typical cloud based deployments to various edge/IoT type of cases.,” said Jussi Nummelin, Senior Principal Engineer at Mirantis and founder of k0s. “Leveraging our previous experiences, we really did not want to start maintaining the setup and packaging for various OS distros. Hence the packaging model of a single binary to allow us to focus more on the core problem rather than different flavors of packaging such as debs, rpms and what-nots.”

Mirantis, of course, has a bit of experience in the distro game. In its earliest iteration, back in 2013, the company offered one of the first major OpenStack distributions, after all.

As for Lens, the new API, which will go live next week to coincide with KubeCon, will enable developers to extend the service with support for other Kubernetes-integrated components and services.

“Extensions API will unlock collaboration with technology vendors and transform Lens into a fully featured cloud native development IDE that we can extend and enhance without limits,” said Miska Kaipiainen, the co-founder of the Lens open-source project and senior director of engineering at Mirantis. “If you are a vendor, Lens will provide the best channel to reach tens of thousands of active Kubernetes developers and gain distribution to your technology in a way that did not exist before. At the same time, the users of Lens enjoy quality features, technologies and integrations easier than ever.”

The company has already lined up a number of popular CNCF projects and vendors in the cloud-native ecosystem to build integrations. These include Kubernetes security vendors Aqua and Carbonetes, API gateway maker Ambassador Labs and AIOps company Carbon Relay. Venafi, nCipher, Tigera, Kong and StackRox are also currently working on their extensions.

“Introducing an extensions API to Lens is a game-changer for Kubernetes operators and developers, because it will foster an ecosystem of cloud-native tools that can be used in context with the full power of Kubernetes controls, at the user’s fingertips,” said Viswajith Venugopal, StackRox software engineer and developer of KubeLinter. “We look forward to integrating KubeLinter with Lens for a more seamless user experience.”

Startup fundraising is the most tangible gender gap. How can we overcome it?

By Walter Thompson
Ximena Aleman Contributor
Ximena Aleman is co-founder and chief business development officer at Prometeo, an open banking platform that serves Latin America.

Year-in, year-out, the gender gap in venture capital investment continues to be a problem women founders face. While the gender gap in other areas (such as the number of women entering tech in general) may be on the right path, this disparity in funding seems to be stagnant. There has been little movement in the amount of VC dollars going to women-founded companies since 2012.

In fintech, the problem is especially prominent: Women-founded fintechs have raised a meager 1% of total fintech investment in the last 10 years. This should come as no surprise, given that fintech combines two sectors traditionally dominated by men: finance and technology. Though by no means does this mean that women aren’t doing incredible work in the field and it’s only right that women founders receive their fair share of VC investment.

In the short term, women founders can take action to boost their chances at VC success in the current investment climate, including leveraging their community and support network and building the necessary self-belief to thrive. In the long term, there needs to be foundational change to level the playing field for women entrepreneurs. VC funds must look at ways they can bring in more women decision-makers, all the way up to the top.

Let’s dive into the state of gender bias in VC investing as it stands, and what founders, stakeholders and funds themselves can do to close the gap.

Venture capital is far from a level playing field

In 2019, less than 3% of all VC investment went to women-led companies, and only one-fifth of U.S. VC went to startups with at least one woman on the founder team. The average deal size for female-founded or female co-founded companies is less than half that of only male-founded startups. This is especially concerning when you consider that women make up a much bigger portion of the founder community than proportionately receive investment (around 28% of founders are women). Add in the intersection of race and ethnicity, and the figures become bleaker: Black women founders received 0.6% of the funding raised since 2009, while Latinx female founders saw only 0.4% of total investment dollars.

The statistics paint a stark picture, but it’s a disparity that I’ve faced on a personal level too. I have been faced with VC investors who ask my co-founder — in front of me — why I was doing the talking instead of him. On another occasion, a potential investor asked my co-founder who he was getting into business with, because “he needed to know who he’d be going to the bar with when the day was up.”

This demonstrates a clear expectation on the part of VC investors to have a male counterpart within the founding team of their portfolio companies, and that they often — whether subconsciously or consciously — value men’s input over that of the women on the leadership team.

So, if you’re a female founder faced with the prospect of pitching to VCs — what steps can you take to set yourself up for success?

Get funded, as a woman

Women founders looking to receive VC investment can take a number of steps to increase their chances in this seemingly hostile environment. My first piece of advice is to leverage your own community and support network, especially any mentors and role models you may have, to introduce you to potential investors. Contacts that know and trust your business may be willing to help — any potential VC is much more likely to pay you attention if you come as a personal recommendation.

If you feel like you’re lacking in a strong support network, you can seek out female-founder and startup groups and start to build your community. For example, The Next Women is a global network of women leaders from progress-driven companies, while Women Tech Founders is a grassroots organization on a mission to connect and support women in technology.

Confidence is key when it comes to fundraising. It’s essential to make sure your sales, pitch and negotiation skills are on point. If you feel like you need some extra training in this area, seek out workshops or mentorship opportunities to make sure you have these skills down before you pitch for funding.

When talking with top male VCs and executives, there may be moments where you feel like they’re responding to you differently because of your gender. In these moments, channeling your self-belief and inner strength is vital: The only way that they’re going to see you as a promising, credible founder is if you believe you are one too.

At the end of the day, women founders must also realize that we are the first generation of our gender playing the VC game — and there’s something exciting about that, no matter how challenging it may be. Even when faced with unconscious bias, it’s vital to remember that the process is a learning curve, and those that come after us won’t succeed if we simply hand the task over to our male co-founder(s).

More women in VC means more funding for female founders

While there are actions that women can take on an individual level, barriers cannot be overcome without change within the VC firms themselves. One of the biggest reasons why women receive less VC investment than men is that so few of them make up decision-makers in VC funds.

A study by Harvard Business Review concluded that investors often make investment decisions based on gender and ask women founders different questions than their male counterparts. There are countless stories of women not being taken seriously by male investors, and subsequently not being seen as a worthwhile investment opportunity. As a result of this disparity in VC leadership teams, women-focused funds are emerging as a way to bridge the funding gender gap. It’s also worth noting that women VCs are not only more likely to invest in women-founded companies, but also those founded by Black entrepreneurs. In addition to embracing women and minority-focused investors, the VC community as a whole should ensure they’re bringing in more women leaders into top positions.

Gender equality in VC makes more business sense

From day one, the Prometeo team has made concerted efforts to have both men and women in decision-maker roles. Having women in the founding team and in leadership positions has been crucial in not only helping to fight the unconscious bias that might take place, but also in creating a more dynamic work environment, where diversity of thought powers better business decisions.

Striving for gender equality, both within the walls of VC funds and in the founder community, is also better for businesses’ bottom line. In fact, a study by Boston Consulting Group found that women-founded startups generate 78% for every dollar invested, compared to 31% from men-founded companies.

Here in Latin America, women founders receive a higher proportion of VC investment than anywhere else in the world, so it’s no surprise that women are leading the region’s fintech revolution. Having more women in leadership positions is ultimately a better bet for business.

Closing the gender gap in VC funding is no simple task, but it’s one that must be undertaken. With the help of internal VC reform and external initiatives like community building, training opportunities and women-focused support networks, we can work toward finally making the VC game more equitable for all.

Gowalla is being resurrected as an augmented reality social app

By Lucas Matney

Gowalla is coming back.

The startup, which longtime TechCrunch readers will likely recall, was an ambitious consumer social app that excited Silicon Valley investors but ultimately floundered in its quest to take on Foursquare before an eventual $3 million acquihire in 2011 brought the company’s talent to Facebook.

The story certainly seemed destined to end there, but founder Josh Williams tells TechCrunch that he has decided to revive the Gowalla name and build on its ultimate vision by leaning on augmented reality tech.

“I really don’t think [Gowalla’s vision] has been fully realized at all, which is why I still want to scratch this itch,” Williams tells TechCrunch. “It was frankly really difficult to see it shut down.”

After a stint at Facebook, another venture-backed startup and a few other gigs, Williams has reacquired the Gowalla name, and is resurrecting the company with the guidance of co-founder Patrick Piemonte, a former Apple interface designer who previously founded an AR startup called Mirage. The new company was incubated inside Form Capital, a small design-centric VC fund operated by Williams and Bobby Goodlatte .

Founders Patrick Piemonte (left) and Josh Williams (right). Image credit: Josh Williams.

Williams hopes that AR can bring the Gowalla brand new life.

Despite significant investment from Facebook, Apple and Google, augmented reality is still seen as a bit of a gamble with many proponents estimating mass adoption to be several years out. Apple’s ARKit developer platform has yielded few wins despite hefty investment and Pokémon Go — the space’s sole consumer smash hit — is growing old.

“The biggest AR experience out there is Pokémon Go, and it’s now over six years old,” Williams says. “It’s moved the space forward a lot but is still very early in terms of what we’re going to see.”

Williams was cryptic when it came to details for what exactly the new augmented reality platform would look like when it launches. He did specify that it will feel more like a gamified social app than a social game, though he also lists the Nintendo franchise Animal Crossing as one of the platform’s foundational inspirations.

A glimpse of the branding for the new Gowalla. Image credit: Josh Williams

“It’s not a game with bosses or missions or levels, but rather something that you can experience,” Williams says. “How do you blend augmented reality and location? How do you see the world through somebody else’s eyes?”

A location-based social platform will likely rely on users actually going places, and the pandemic has largely dictated the app’s launch timing. Today, Gowalla is launching a waitlist, Williams says the app itself will launch in beta “in a number of cities” sometime in the first-half of next year. The team is also trying something unique with a smaller paid beta group called the “Street Team,” which will give users paying a flat $49 fee early access to Gowalla as well as “VIP membership,” membership to a private Discord group and some branded swag. A dedicated Street Team app will also launch in December.

Stotles secures funding for platform which brings transparency to government tenders, contracts

By Mike Butcher

The public sector usually publishes its business opportunities in the form of ‘tenders,’ to increase transparency to the public. However, this data is scattered, and larger businesses have access to more information, giving them opportunities to grab contracts before official tenders are released. We have seen the controversy around UK government contracts going to a number of private consultants who have questionable prior experience in the issues they are winning contracts on.

And public-to-private sector business makes up 14% of global GDP, and even a 1% improvement could save €20B for taxpayers per year, according to the European Commission .

Stotles is a new UK startup technology that turns fragmented public sector data — such as spending, tenders, contracts, meeting minutes, or news releases — into a clearer view of the market, and extracts relevant early signals about potential opportunities.

It’s now raised a £1.4m seed round led by Speedinvest, with participation from 7Percent Ventures, FJLabs, and high-profile angels including Matt Robinson, co-founder of GoCardless and CEO at Nested; Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas, COO at Go -Cardless; Charlie Songhurst, former Head of Corporate Strategy at Microsoft; Will Neale, founder of Grabyo; and Akhil Paul. It received a previous investment from Seedcamp last year.

Stotles’ founders say they had “scathing” experiences dealing with public procurement in their previous roles at organizations like Boston Consulting Group and the World Economic Forum.

The private beta has been open for nine months, and is used by companies including UiPath, Freshworks, Rackspace, and Couchbase. With this funding announcement, they’ll be opening up an early access program.

Competitors include: Global Data, Contracts Advance, BIP Solutions, Spend Network/Open Opps, Tussel, TenderLake. However, most of the players out there are focused on tracking cold tenders, or providing contracting data for periodic generic market research.

Jam raises $3.5 million to Figma-tize product collaboration

By Lucas Matney

The web of collaboration apps invading remote work toolkits have led to plenty of messy workflows for teams that communicate in a language of desktop screenshots and DMs. Tracing a suggestion or flagging a bug in a company’s website forces engineers or designers to make sense of the mess themselves.  While task management software has given teams a funnel for the clutter, the folks at Jam question why this functionality isn’t just built straight into the product.

Jam co-founders Dani Grant and Mohd Irtefa tell TechCrunch they’ve closed on $3.5 million in seed funding and are ready to launch a public beta of their collaboration platform which builds chat, comments and task management directly onto a website, allowing developers and designers to track issues and make suggestions quickly and simply

The seed round was led by Union Square Ventures, where co-founder Dani Grant previously worked as an analyst. Version One Ventures, BoxGroup and Village Global also participated alongside some noteworthy angels including GitHub CTO Jason Warner, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia, and former Robinhood VP Josh Elman.

Like most modern productivity suites, Jam is heavy on integrations so users aren’t forced to upend their toolkits just to add one more product into the mix. The platform supports Slack, Jira, GitHub, Asana, Loom and Figma, with a few more in the immediate pipeline. Data syncs from one platform to the other bidirectionally so information is always fresh, Grant says. It’s all built into a tidy sidebar.

Grant and Irtefa met as product managers at Cloudflare, where they started brainstorming better ways to communicate feedback in a way that felt like “leaving digital sticky notes all over a product,” Grant says. That thinking ultimately pushed the duo to leave their jobs this past May and start building Jam.

The startup, like so many conceived during this period, has a remote founding story. Grant and Irtefa have only spent four days together in-person since the company was started, they raised their seed round remotely and most of the employees have never met each other in-person.

The remote team hopes their software can help other remote teams declutter their workflows and focus on what they’re building.

“On a product team, the product is the first tab everyone opens and closes,” Grant says. “So we’re on top of your product instead of on some other platform”

Jam’s interface

Twentyeight Health is a telemedicine company expanding access to women’s health and reproductive care

By Jonathan Shieber

New York’s Twentyeight Health is taking the wildly telemedicine services for women’s health popularized by companies like Nurx and bringing them to a patient population that previously hadn’t had access. 

The mission to provide women who are Medicaid or underinsured should not be deprived of the same kinds of care that patients who have more income security or better healthcare coverage enjoy, according to the company’s founder, Amy Fan.

The mission, and the company’s technology, have managed to convince a slew of investors who have poured $5.1 million in seed funding into the new startup. Third Prime led the round, which included investments from Town Hall Ventures, SteelSky Ventures, Aglaé Ventures, GingerBread Capital, Rucker Park Capital, Predictive VC, and angel investors like Stu Libby, Zoe Barry, and Wan Li Zhu.

“Women who are on Medicaid, who are underinsured or without health insurance often struggle to find access to reproductive health services, and these struggles have only increased with COVID-19 pandemic limiting access to in-person appointments,” said Amy Fan, co-founder of Twentyeight Health, in a statement. “We are fighting for healthcare equity, ensuring that all women, particularly BIPOC women and women from low-income backgrounds, can access high quality, dignified and convenient care.”

To ensure that its catering to underserved communities, the company works with Bottomless Closet, a workforce entry program for women, and the 8 colleges in the City University of New York ecosystem including LaGuardia College, which has 45,000 students with 70% coming from families making less than $30,000 in annual income.

The company’s services are currently available across Florida, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania and it’s the only telemedicine company focused on contraception services to accept Medicaid.

In another example of how awesome this company is, it’s also working to provide free birth control for women who aren’t able to pay out of pocket and are uninsured through a partnership with Bedsider’s Contraceptive Access Fund. The company also donates 2% of its revenue to Bedsider and the National Institute for Reproductive Health. (Y’all, this company is amaze.)

To sign up for the service, new customers fill out a medical questionnaire online. Once the questionnaire is reviewed by a US board-certified doctor within 24 hours customers can access over 100 FDA-approved brands of birth control pills, patches, rings, shots, and emergency contraception and receive a shipment within three days.

Twentyeight Health provides ongoing care through online audio consultations and doctor follow up messages to discuss issues around updating prescriptions or addressing side effects, the company said.

“Today, low-income women are three times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy than the average woman in the U.S., and nearly one-third of physicians nationwide aren’t accepting new Medicaid patients,” said Bruno Van Tuykom, co-founder of Twentyeight Health, in a statement. “This underscores why offering high-quality reproductive care that is inclusive of people across race, income bracket, or health insurance status is more important than ever.”

Launched in 2018, Twentyeight Health said it would use the new cash to continue to expand its services across the U.S.

 

Odell Beckham Jr. turned to Mojichat’s advertising features during his inaugural live-stream

By Jonathan Shieber

Mojiit, the Los Angeles-based company behind the popular avatar generation service Mojichat, has landed one of its highest-profile users with the launch of Odell Beckham Jr.’s live stream over the weekend.

As Odell Beckham Jr. did his first live stream with the gaming superstar Dr. Disrespect, he turned to Mojichat to create the pop-up onscreen emote that danced above a logo from Scuf Gaming, a retailer of customized controllers.

Customized, branded emotes are one of the ways that companies are trying to make it easier for live-streamers to make money off of their shows. Companies like Mochjichat argue that it’s a more elegant solution for gamers to use, because it doesn’t take viewers away from the live stream, where they could potentially miss some of the action.

Typically, streamers rely on advertising revenue from pre-roll, mid-roll and post-roll advertising, according to Mojichat co-founder Jeremy Greene. Alongside his wife, Janelle, Greene built Mojichat into one of the premier names in avatar development. As competitors crowded in, the company has been diversifying its products to allow for influencers to begin using their digital avatars as a monetization source.

“No streamer… wants to run a pre-roll,” said Greene. “The first thing about Mojichat that made us very successful from the very beginning, you have to hunt down someone to make your custom emotes for you.”

Earlier this year, the company partnered with DoorDash on a similar activation for a concert to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club as part of a broad celebrity effort to raise money to alleviate food insecurity for families affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Any time someone sends a communication, that will trigger an alert that floats as a Mojichat animation on top of the screen,” Greene said of the earlier activation. 

The way that Greene describes the service — and Janelle and his larger vision for the company — is to be the next generation of adserver for the live-streaming market.

“My plan is to become the avatar solution for all of Unity,” Greene told me earlier. “We will offer up our platform to every single gaming platform or mobile developer to plug and play… I would consider us… we’re like the Google Admob for live stream.”

Companies like Streamlabs are integrating Mojichat’s features into their streaming offerings. and the work with Dr. Disrespect and Odell Beckham Jr. show just how much demand there is for these types of offerings.

“The avatar space is going to be won in the gaming community,” Greene said.

Mojichat already has 12,000 streamers using the technology right now, and through a partnership inked earlier this year the company expects to push more ads through the service.

“Nobody wants to sit on a stream for 15 hours a day,” said Greene.

“It’s really wrong that streamers can’t make as much money as YouTubers… a streamer can spend all day on Twitch and they are forced to run these pre-rolls… [meanwhile] Jake Paul can upload a video to YouTube and make $300,000… That’s really why I built Mojichat… I wanted to make gamers’ lives easier… We are going to build custom software for gamers that makes their lives easier.”

Kroger, one of America’s largest grocery chains, experiments with ghost kitchens and delivery in the Midwest

By Jonathan Shieber

The Kroger Co., one of the biggest grocery chains in the Midwest is dipping its toe into on-demand delivery and the ghost kitchen craze through a partnership with an Indianapolis-based startup, ClusterTruck.

Supermarkets would seem to be logical places to site the kinds of ghost kitchens that have caught investor’s eye over the past few years and it wouldn’t be the first time that business models from startup companies bubbled up into large national brands, who are better positioned to capitalize on the trends.

Think about the various meal prep kits that launched and raised millions of dollars before being taken over or copied by big retail groceries. Meal prep kits are everywhere in the grocery store these days and supermarkets have had hot food counters dating back decades at least.

Through the partnership with ClusterTruck, Kroger is expanding on a pilot conducted last year, where the grocer set aside 1,000 square feet at participating stores in Carmel and Indianapolis, Indiana and Columbus, Ohio for ClusterTruck staff to cook meals for delivery and in-store pickup.

“Kroger remains focused on providing our customers with fresh food and experiences enabled by industry-leading insights and transformative technology,” said Dan De La  Rosa, Kroger’s group vice president of fresh merchandising, in a statement. “The new on-premise  kitchen, in partnership with ClusterTruck, is an innovation that streamlines ordering,  preparation and delivery, supporting Kroger as we meet the sustained customer demand for quick, fresh restaurant-quality meals, especially as we navigate an unprecedented health crisis that has affected every aspect of our lives, including  mealtime.” 

The idea, according to Kroger, is to continue to capitalize on the shift to digital deliveries and sales. In the second quarter of the year, the company said it saw over 100% growth in its digital sales.

Ghost kitchens (or cloud kitchens) caught investors’ attention when Uber co-founder and former chief executive Travis Kalanick raised over a hundred million dollars to make the idea his next big bet after Uber. Interest and investment into the model, which sees companies offer food prep and storage spaces for would-be food truck and delivery entrepreneurs, soared. Kalanick’s CloudKitchens have gone on to raise several hundreds of millions of dollars and spawned competitors like the Pasadena, Calif.-based company Kitchen United.

Not everyone is convinced that the dark kitchen or cloud kitchen trend is all that it’s made out to be. My colleagues at TechCrunch have taken the idea to task for its reliance on some WeWork -ian assumptions around margins.

But if anything could make the model go, it’s the combination of existing infrastructure and digital efficiencies. That’s likely what Kroger is hoping to leverage.

It’s an interesting experiment at least and one worth tracking.

Here’s the curtain raise on the Sight Tech Global agenda

By Ned Desmond

The goal of Sight Tech Global, a virtual, global event on December 2-3, 2020, is to gather the world’s top experts who are applying advanced technologies, notably AI, to the future of accessibility and assistive tech for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Today we’re excited to roll out most of the agenda. There are another half-dozen sessions and breakouts still to come, notably sessions on AI bias and civil rights. What we’ve discovered over the many weeks of research and conversation is a consistent, strong interest on the part of researchers, technologists and product and design thinkers to convene and talk over the future — its promises, challenges and even threats.

We’re delighted to have top-level talent from virtually every leading technology company, many research universities and some startups ready for fireside chats and small panel discussions with expert moderators. Some sessions will take questions from our audience as well.

When the event dates are closer, we will add dates and times to each of these sessions as well as announce additional speakers. Register today to get a free pass and please browse the first edition of the Sight Tech Global agenda below.

Seeing AI: Where does Microsoft’s blockbuster app go from here?

With ever more powerful computer and data resources available in the cloud, Microsoft’s Seeing AI mobile app is destined to become a steadily better ally for anyone with vision challenges. Co-founder Saqib Shaikh leads the engineering team that’s charting the app’s cloud-enabled future.

Saqib Shaikh, co-founder of Seeing AI, Microsoft
Moderator: Devin Coldewey, TechCrunch

The future according to OrCam

As AI-based computer vision, voice recognition and natural language processing race ahead, the engineering challenge is to design devices that can perceive the physical world and communicate that information in a timely manner. Amnon Shashua’s OrCam MyEye is the most sophisticated effort yet to merge those technologies in a seamless experience on a dedicated device.

Amnon Shashua, co-founder of OrCam and Mobileye
Moderator: Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch

Accessibility from the wheels up: The Waymo self-driving taxi

If people who are blind or visually impaired find Uber and Lyft liberating, imagine how they will feel summoning a self-driving ride from an app on their mobile phones. But wait, how exactly will they locate the cars and what happens when they climb in? Presenter Clem Wright is responsible for the self-driving taxi’s accessibility, and he will be joined by leadership from two organizations closely involved in that effort: The Lighthouse for the Blind SF and the Foundation for Blind Children.

Clem Wright, Accessibility product manager, Waymo
/> Marc Ashton, CEO, Foundation for Blind Children
Bryan Bashin, CEO, Lighthouse for the Blind
Moderator: Kirsten Korosec, TechCrunch

Our AI future is already here

Whether it’s Alexa, Tesla or Facebook, AI is already deeply embedded in our daily lives. Few understand that better than Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, a scientist who developed the first speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system as a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon, led Google in China and held senior roles at Microsoft and Apple. Today, Dr. Lee runs Sinovation Ventures, a $2 billion fund based in China, is president of the Sinovation’s Artificial Intelligence Institute and has 50 million followers on social media.

Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, chairman and CEO, Sinovation Ventures
/> Moderator: Ned Desmond, Sight Tech Global

The future of AT devices and the companies that make them

Dedicated devices versus accessible platforms? Victor Reader Stream versus iPhones and Alexa? How will AT companies take advantage of a world with cloud data and edge computational power, AI algorithms and more demanding customers than ever? Humanware, eSight and APH are already looking far into that future.

Gilles Pepin, CEO, Humanware
Greg Stilson, head of Global Innovation, APH
Charles Lim, CTO, eSight
Moderator: Betsy Beaumon, CEO, Benetech

If the Jetsons had screen readers, would they be using keyboard commands?

The screen reader is arguably the most consequential digital technology ever for people who are blind or visually impaired. At the same time, screen readers depend on a dizzying array of keyboard commands, and — when it comes to reading websites in a browser — they struggle with the ugly reality of poor website accessibility. New technologies may lead the way to better outcomes.

Glen Gordon, Software fellow, Vispero; architect, JAWS
James Teh, Accessibility engineer, Mozilla; co-founder, NVDA
Léonie Watson, director, TetraLogical
Moderator: Matt King, Accessibility technical program manager, Facebook

Alexa, what is your future?

When Alexa launched six years ago, no one imagined that the voice assistant would reach into millions of daily lives and become a huge convenience for people who are blind or visually impaired. This fall, Alexa introduced personalization and conversational capabilities that are a step-change toward more human-like home companionship. Amazon’s Josh Miele and Anne Toth will discuss the impact on accessibility as Alexa becomes more capable.

Anne Toth, director, Alexa Trust at Amazon
Josh Miele, principal accessibility researcher, Lab126 at Amazon
/> Moderator: Devin Coldewey, TechCrunch

Augmented reality and perception: What’s the best way to get the message across?

It’s one thing for an AI-based system to “know” when it’s time to turn left, who came through the door or how far away the couch is: It’s quite another to convey that information in a timely fashion with minimal distraction. Researchers are making use of haptics, visual augmented reality (AR), sound and language to figure out the right solutions.

Amos Miller, Product strategist, Microsoft AI and Research
Ashley Tuan, VP Medical Devices, Mojo Vision
Sile O’Modhrain, associate professor, Performing Arts Technology, University of Michigan
Moderator: Nick Giudice, professor of Spatial Informatics, University of Maine

Wayfinding: Finding the mark

Map apps on mobile phones are miraculous tools accessible via voice output, but mainstream apps don’t announce the detailed location information (which people who are blind or visually impaired really want), especially inside buildings and in public transportation settings. Efforts in the U.S. and U.K. are improving accessible navigation.

Tim Murdoch, founder and CEO, Waymap
Nick Giudice, professor of Spatial Informatics, University of Maine
Moderator: Mike May, chief evangelist, GoodMaps

Computer vision, AI and accessibility: What’s missing from this picture?

For an AI to interpret the visual world on behalf of people who are blind or visually impaired, the AI needs to know what it’s looking at, and no less important, that it’s looking at the right thing. Mainstream computer vision databases don’t do that well — yet.

Danna Gurari, assistant professor and director of the Image and Video Computing Group, University of Texas
Patrick Clary, product manager, AI and accessibility, Google
/> Moderator: Roberto Manduchi, professor CS and Engineering, UC Santa Cruz

Keep an out for more sessions and breakouts later this month. In the meantime, registration is open. Get your pass today!

Sight Tech Global is eager to hear from potential sponsors. We’re grateful to current sponsors Amazon, Ford, Google, Microsoft, Mojo Vision, Waymo, Wells Fargo and Humanware. All sponsorship revenues go to the nonprofit Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which has been serving the Silicon Valley area for 75 years.

Special thanks to the Sight Tech Global advisors — Tech Matters Jim Fruchterman, UC Santa Cruz’s Roberto Manduchi, Verizon Media’s Larry Goldberg, Facebook’s Matt King and Be My Eyes’ Will Butler — who are playing an invaluable role on this project.

Austin-based EmPath’s employee training and re-skilling service snags seed funding from B Capital

By Jonathan Shieber

By the time Felix Ortiz III left the Army in 2006, the Brooklyn, NY native had spent time taking classes at the City University of New York and St. John’s. Those experiences led him to found ViridisLearning, which aimed to give universities a better way to track student development to help graduates land jobs.

Now he’s taken the learnings of that attempt to reshape education into the corporate world and raised over $1 million in financing from investors including B Capital, the investment firm launched jointly by the Boston Consulting Group and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and Subversive Capital.

The goal of Ortiz’s newest startup, EmPath, is to provide corporate employees with a clear picture of their current skills based on the work they’re already doing at a company and give them a roadmap to up-skilling and educational opportunities that could land them a better, higher paying job.

The company has an initial customer in AT&T, which has rolled out its services across its entire organization, according to Ortiz.

From starting out in a shared apartment in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Ortiz’s family history took a turn as his father became assistant speaker of the house in New York’s legislature and his mother operated a mental health clinic in the city.

When Ortiz enlisted in the Army at 17, he continued to pursue his education, and served as a Judge Advocate General for the Army at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. From there, Ortiz launched his first education venture, a failed startup that attempted to teach skills for renewable energy jobs online. The Green University may no longer exist, but it was the young entrepreneur’s first foray into education.

A road that would continue with ViridisLearning and lead to the launch of EmPath.

Along the way, Ortiz enlisted the help of an experienced developer in the online education space — Adam Blum.

The creator of OpenEd, the largest educational open resource catalog online, which used machine learning to infer skills from the online activity of children, and the founder of Auger.ai, a toolkit to bring machine learning and predictive modeling to skill development, Blum immediately saw the opportunity EmPath presented.

“Inferring skills for employees using their corporate digital footprint and inferring those skills for potential jobs… where you identified skill gaps using inferred skills for courses to suggest remedial resources to plug education gaps,” just makes sense, Blum said. “It was a much more powerful vision.”

Blum still holds an equity stake in Auger.ai, but considers the work he’s doing with EmPath as the company’s chief technology officer to be his full time job now. “Building this out with felix was more exciting in terms of the impact it would have,” Blum said. 

EmPath already is fully deployed with AT&T and will be adding three Fortune 1,000 companies as customers by the end of the month, according to Ortiz.

The young startup also has a powerful and well-connected supporter in Carlos Gutierrez, the former chief executive officer of Kellogg, and the Secretary of Commerce in the George W. Bush White House.

“Lacking a college degree throughout my career, I had to develop my own skills to enable my climb up the corporate ladder. The technology didn’t exist to help guide me, but in today’s world, professionals should not have to upskill blindly,” said former Commerce Secretary and EmPath co-founder Carlos Gutierrez, in a statement. “We created a technology platform that can help transform an organization’s culture by empowering employees and strengthening talent development. This technology was a game changer even before the Covid-19 pandemic, and now that corporate budgets are tighter, it is even more important for companies to accelerate skills development and talent growth.” 

Rolling up the latest in startup health insurance offerings, Sana Benefits raises $20.8 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Sana Benefits, a manager of self-funded insurance plans for small businesses, said it has raised $20.8 million in a recent round of funding as it looks to roll up all of the latest startup health benefit providers into a convenient package for small businesses.

Self-financed insurance plans are set up by companies to pay out of pocket for their employees’ health care and are typically cheaper, because employers can pick and choose which services they offer.

According to Sana Health co-founder Will Young, most companies wind up spending too much because they buy off-the-shelf plans from the big insurance companies like United Healthcare, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna, Cigna or Humana.

The company touts partnerships with startups like Beam Dental for dental coverage, PlushCare for telemedicine, Calm and Ginger.io for mental wellness, ClassPass for physical fitness, and Maven Clinic for maternity care.

Its pitch attracted the attention of Gigafund, Trust Ventures and mark vc, which came in to back the company’s $20.8 million series A round.

“Sana’s disruptive model for health insurance empowers small businesses to both cut costs and improve employee benefits,” said Stephen Oskoui, Managing Partner of Gigafund, in a statement. “We believe that only a win-win solution like Sana can make a real dent in the healthcare crisis.”

What do employees get? Sana’s plans range from health insurance offerings with a $4,000 deductible and $6,650 in out of pocket maximum payments of $6,650 to a $0 deductible plan with a $1,250 out of pocket maximum expense for individuals.

“We save our customers 20 percent on what they would get on a traditional plan,” according to Young. “From the perspective of our client company. Self insured means technically the company is offering insurance and buying insurance itself.”

The company makes money by managing the health insurance plans for customers and direct and distribute the plans. It currently operates in Texas and Kentucky with plans to bring its services to Illinois later this year.

Competing with both Perfect Day and Beyond Meat, Chile’s NotCo raises $85 million to expand to the US

By Jonathan Shieber

NotCo, the Chilean food technology company making plant-based milk and meat replacements, has confirmed the close of a new $85 million round of funding to take the company’s products into the US market.

The announcement confirms earlier reporting from TechCrunch that the company had raised new capital, but according to people with knowledge of the investment, the valuation for the company is roughly $300 million, and not the $250 million TechCrunch previously reported.

The funding came from new investors including the consumer-focused private equity firm L Catterton Partners, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s Future Positive investment firm, and the giant venture capital firm, General Catalyst. Previous investors including Kaszek Ventures, The Craftory, Bezos Expeditions (the personal investment firm for Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos), Endeavor Catalyst, IndieBio, Humbolt Capital and Maya Capital, all of which have followed on in this round.

NotCo makes a hamburger substitute that’s currently being marketed at Burger King and Papa John’s restaurants in Chile as part of its NotBurger and NotMeat brands and has a line of dairy products including NotIceCream, NotMayo and NotMilk.

Both markets are not small. With milk alone being a multi-billion dollar category that NotCo chief executive Matias Muchnick believes his company can dominate in both Latin America and the US. That trajectory will put it on a collision course with well-funded competitors like Perfect Day, which raised $300 million in financing earlier this year and launched a new consumer brand subsidiary, the Urgent Company, for products made with its milk substitutes.

For longtime investors in the company, like Kaszek Ventures managing partner, Nicolas Szekasy, the new financing for NotCo validates his firm’s early faith that a company from Santiago, Chile could compete in some of the world’s largest consumer markets.

“We continue to actively support the company since its early days with a strong conviction of the potential that NotCo has to be the leading global player in the food-tech space. In this uncertain time, consumers have amplified their appetite for the plant-based world,” said Szekasy in a statement. “In parallel, COVID has allowed us to see that meat production is not only environmentally harmful and inefficient, but also that its supply chain is fragile. So we are happy to witness an inflection point where plant-based products are becoming an increasing proportion of a new normal, once they can actually taste amazing like we see NotCo crafting.”

Joining the company to help with its international expansion plans are a clutch of seasoned executives from large multi-national food brands. Flavia Buchmann, a former executive at Coca-Cola overseeing the company’s Sprite brand has been tapped as the company’s new chief marketing officer. Former Danone executives Luis Silva and Catriel Giuliano are taking the reins as heads of global business development and research and development, respectively. And Jose Menendez a former banker at Jeffries and executive at Tapad, is now NotCo’s global chief operating officer.

A flood of venture capital dollars have come into the food space since NotCo first burst on the scene and many of these deals are operating at the intersection of novel biomanufacturing technologies and food science. But NotCo’s take on foodtech is more akin to Beyond Meat’s than Impossible Foods or Perfect Day.

The company isn’t making biologically engineered foods, it’s taking its taxonomy of existing foods and determining which combinations of plant ingredients will most closely mimic all aspects of the animal products they’re replacing.

So a closer analogy would be companies like Just or the newly funded Climax Foods. Muchnick said that the difference is in where these companies are spending their time. Instead of focusing on a protein that can act as a one for one replacement for casein or the carbohydrate lactose, NotCo is trying to replicate the whole product — the entire sensorial panel of a particular food.

“Flavors, taste, smell, color, and the interaction between all of them and the molecular components in food,” said Muchnick. “It’s not just the concept of how limited we are to replicating products and how limited to using AI to address other challenges in the food industry.”

For Muchnick, the biggest opportunity for NotCo is dairy. While the company has plans to introduce a number of new products including a chicken replacement to compliment its line of NotBurger and NotMeat products, it’s really the dairy business where the company wants to land and expand.

It’s looking to cut a deal with a large quick service restaurant along with deals for an online channel and a direct to consumer play.

As it grows, consumers can expect to see the company’s brands recede into the background as Muchnick looks to focus on supplying products to other vendors.

“We partnered upstream and downstream,” Muchnick said. The company works with suppliers including Ingredion, ADM, and Cargill and downstream has product partners who will incorporate its milk substitute into other products.

What we want is to be the catalyst of change with many other companies. Why don’t we become the enabler. We’re becoming the Intel inside of other products.”

At that scale, the company would be a prime candidate for public investors, and if Muchnick has his way the company will get there. “We are aiming to have a $300 million company by 2024 with 70 percent of that business in the US,” he said. 

❌