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Planted raises another $21M to expand its growing plant-based meat empire (and add schnitzel)

By Devin Coldewey

Swiss alternative protein company Planted has raised its second round of the year, a CHF 19 million (about $21 million at present) “pre-B” fundraise that will help it continue its growth and debut new products. A U.S. launch is in the cards eventually, but for now Planted’s exclusively European customers will be able to give its new veggie schnitzel a shot.

Planted appeared in 2019 as a spinoff from Swiss research university ETH Zurich, where the founders developed the original technique of extruding plant proteins and water into fibrous structures similar to real meat’s. Since then the company has diversified its protein sources, adding oat and sunflower to the mix, and developed pulled pork and kebab alternative products as well.

Over time the process has improved as well. “We added fermentation/biotech technologies to enhance taste and texture,” wrote CEO and co-founder Christoph Jenny in an email to TechCrunch. “Meaning 1) we can create structures without form limitation and 2) can add a broader taste profile.”

The latest advance is schnitzel, which is of course a breaded and fried piece of pounded-thin meat style popular around the world, but especially in the company’s core markets of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Jenny noted that Planted’s schnitzel is produced as one piece, not pressed together from smaller bits. “The taste and texture benefit from fermentation approach, that makes the flavor profile mouth watering and the texture super juicy,” he said, though of course we will have to test it to be sure. Expect schnitzel to debut in Q3.

It’s the first of several planned “whole” or “prime” cuts, larger pieces that can be prepared like any other piece of meat — the team says their products require no special preparation or additives and can be dropped in as 1:1 replacements in most recipes. Right now the big cuts are leaving the lab and entering consumer testing for taste tuning and eventually scaling.

The funding round came from “Vorwerk Ventures, Gullspång Re:food, Movendo Capital, Good Seed Ventures, Joyance, ACE & Company (SFG strategy) and Be8 Ventures,” and was described as a follow-on to March’s CHF 17M series A. No doubt the exploding demand for alternative proteins and growing competition in the space has spurred Planted’s investors to opt for more aggressive growth and development strategies.

The company plans to enter several new markets over Q3 and Q4, but the U.S. is still a question mark due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel. Jenny said they are preparing so that they can make that move whenever it becomes possible, but for now Planted is focused on the European market.

(Update: This article originally misstated the new round as also being CHF 17M — entirely my mistake. This has been corrected.)

MGA Thermal raises $8M AUD led by Main Sequence for its modular energy storage blocks

By Catherine Shu

A photo of MGA Thermal co-founders Erich Kisi and Alex Post

MGA Thermal co-founders Erich Kisi and Alex Post. Image Credits: MGA Thermal

MGA Thermal wants to help utility companies transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources with shoebox-sized thermal energy storage blocks. The company says a stack of 1,000 blocks is about the size of a small car and can store enough energy to power 27 homes for 24 hours. This gives utility providers the ability to store large amounts of energy and have it ready to dispatch even when weather conditions aren’t ideal for generating solar or wind power. The modular blocks also make it easier to convert infrastructure, like coal-fired power plants, into grid-scale energy storage.

MGA Thermal announced today it has raised $8 million AUD (about $5.9 million USD), bring its total funding so far to $9 million AUD. The round was led by Main Sequence, a venture firm founded by Australia’s national science agency that recently launched a new $250 million AUD fund. Alberts Impact Capital, New Zealand’s Climate Venture Capital Fund, The Melt and returning investor CP Ventures participated, along with angel investors like Chris Sang, Emlyn Scott and Glenn Butcher.

Based in Newcastle, Australia, MGA Thermal was founded in April 2019 by Erich Kisi and Alexander Post after nearly a decade spent researching and developing miscibility gap alloys technology at the University of Newcastle. When asked to explain MGA tech in layperson’s terms, Kisi used a delicious analogy.

MGA Thermal’s blocks “essentially comprise metal particles that melt when heated embedded in an inert matrix material. Think of a block as being like a choc-chip muffin heated in a microwave. The muffin consists of a cake component, which holds everything in shape when heated, and the choc chips, which melt,” he told TechCrunch.

“The energy that goes into melting the choc chips is stored and can burn your mouth when you bite into the muffin,” he added. “Melting energy is more intense than merely heating something up and that melting energy is concentrated near the melting temperature so energy can be released in a consistent way.”

MGA Thermal's modular energy storage blocks

MGA Thermal’s modular energy storage blocks. Image Credits: MGA Thermal

Energy stored in MGA Thermal’s blocks can be used to heat water to power steam turbines and generators. In this scenario, blocks are designed with internal tubing for pumping and boiling water, or interact with a heat exchanger. Kisi said MGA Thermal’s blocks enable aging thermal power plans to continue running on renewable energy that would usually be switched off in situations like overheating caused by too much sun or high winds.

Other thermal energy solutions include heating low-cost solid materials in blocks or granules to high temperatures in an insulated container. But many of these materials aren’t good at moving thermal energy around and have temperature limitations, Kisi said. This means thermal energy decreases in temperature as it is discharged, making it less effective.

Another method for storing thermal energy involves molten salts that are heated by a renewable energy source and stored in a hot tank. The hot salt is then pumped through a heat exchanger to make steam, while colder (but still molten) salt is returned to a “cold” tank.

“These systems are widely used in concentrating solar thermal energy but have found little use elsewhere,” Kisi said. “That’s mostly because there is a large infrastructure cost for piping pumps and heaters, and a large amount of power is wasted keeping the salt from freezing.”

MGA Thermal is establishing a manufacturing plant in New South Wales to scale production of its blocks to commercial levels and plans to double its team over the next 12 months so it can make hundreds of thousands of blocks each month. It is also currently working with partners like Swiss company E2S Power ASG and US-based Peregrine Turbine Technologies to deploy its tech in Australia, Europe and North America. For example, E2S Power AG will use MGA Thermal’s tech to repurpose retired and active coal-fired thermal plants in Europe.

While MGA Thermal’s tech has many industrial use cases, like converting power stations, building off-grid storage and supplying power to remote communities and commercial spaces, it can also help consumers consume less fossil fuel. For example, MGA blocks can be used by households to store excess energy generated from rooftop solar panels or small wind turbines. Then that energy can be used to heat homes

“Around the world an estimated three billion people heat their homes by burning fuel,” said Kisi. “That’s a lot of CO2, especially in very cold climates.”

In a statement, Main Sequence partner Martin Duursma said, “A core focus of our new fund is uncovering the scientific discoveries, and helping to turn them into real, tangible technologies so we can reverse our climate impact. Erich Kisi and Alexander Post’s impressive deep research backgrounds, their expert team and innovative technology are paving the way for grid-scale energy storage and boosting the capability of a renewaBle energy future globally.”

Salesforce steps into RPA buying Servicetrace and teaming it with Mulesoft

By Ron Miller

Over the last couple of years, Robotic Process Automation or RPA has been red hot with tons of investor activity and M&A from companies like SAP, IBM and ServiceNow. UIPath had a major IPO in April and has a market cap over $30 billion. I wondered when Salesforce would get involved and today the company dipped its toe into the RPA pool, announcing its intent to buy German RPA company Servicetrace.

Salesforce intends to make Servicetrace part of Mulesoft, the company it bought in 2018 for $6.5 billion. The companies aren’t divulging the purchase price, suggesting it’s a much smaller deal. When Servicetrace is in the fold, it should fit in well with Mulesoft’s API integration, helping to add an automation layer to Mulesoft’s tool kit.

“With the addition of Servicetrace, MuleSoft will be able to deliver a leading unified integration, API management, and RPA platform, which will further enrich the Salesforce Customer 360 — empowering organizations to deliver connected experiences from anywhere. The new RPA capabilities will enhance Salesforce’s Einstein Automate solution, enabling end-to-end workflow automation across any system for Service, Sales, Industries, and more,” Mulesoft CEO Brent Hayward wrote in a blog post announcing the deal.

While Einstein, Salesforce’s artificial intelligence layer, gives companies with more modern tooling the ability to automate certain tasks, RPA is suited to more legacy operations, and this acquisition could be another step in helping Salesforce bridge the gap between older on-prem tools and more modern cloud software.

Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials says that it brings another dimension to Salesforce’s digital transformation tools. “It didn’t take Salesforce long to move to the next acquisition after closing their biggest purchase with Slack. But automation of processes and workflows fueled by realtime data coming from a growing variety sources is becoming a key to finding success with digital transformation. And this adds a critical piece to that puzzle for Salesforce/MulseSoft,” he said.

While it feels like Salesforce is joining the market late, in an investor survey we published in May Laela Sturdy, general partner at CapitalG told us that we are just skimming the surface so far when it comes to RPA’s potential.

“We’re a long way from needing to think about the space maturing. In fact, RPA adoption is still in its early infancy when you consider its immense potential. Most companies are only now just beginning to explore the numerous use cases that exist across industries. The more enterprises dip their toes into RPA, the more use cases they envision,” Sturdy responded in the survey.

Servicetrace was founded in 2004, long before the notion of RPA even existed. Neither Crunchbase nor Pitchbook shows any money raised, but the website suggests a mature company with a rich product set. Customers include Fujitsu, Siemens, Merck and Deutsche Telekom.

Why Square is shelling out $29B to snag BNPL player Afterpay

By Alex Wilhelm

Shares of Square are up this morning after the company announced its second-quarter earnings and that it will buy Afterpay, an Australian buy now, pay later (BNPL) player in a $29 billion deal. As TechCrunch reported this morning, Afterpay shareholders will receive 0.375 shares of Square in exchange for their existing equity.

Shares of Afterpay are sharply higher after the deal was announced thanks to its implied premium, while shares of Square are up 7% in early-morning trading.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

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Over the past year, we’ve written extensively about the BNPL market, usually from the perspective of earnings from companies in the space. Afterpay has been a key data source, along with the yet-private Klarna and U.S. public BNPL outfit Affirm. Recall that each company has posted strong growth in recent periods, with the United States arising as a prime competitive market.

Most recently, consumer hardware and services giant Apple is reportedly preparing a move into the BNPL space. Our read at the time was that any such movement by Cupertino would impact mass-market BNPL players more than niche-focused companies. Apple has a fintech base and broad IRL payment acceptance, making it a potentially strong competitor for BNPL services aimed at consumers; BNPL services targeted at particular industries or niches would likely see less competition from Apple.

From that landscape, let’s explore the Square-Afterpay deal. We want to know what Afterpay brings to Square in terms of revenue, growth and reach. We also want to do some math on the price Square is willing to pay for the company — and what that might tell us about the value of BNPL and fintech revenues more broadly. Then we’ll eyeball the numbers and try to decide if Square is overpaying for Afterpay.

What Afterpay brings to Square

As with most major deals these days, Square and Afterpay released an investor presentation detailing their argument in favor of their combination. Let’s dig through it.

Square is a two-part company. It has a large consumer business via Cash App, and it has a large business division that offers payments tech and other fintech services to corporate customers. Recall that Square is also building out banking services for its business customers and that Cash App also serves some banking and investing functionality for consumers.

The tale of two edtech IPOs

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines. Last week, Natasha and Alex jumped on Twitter Spaces to discuss the tale of two edtech IPOs: Duolingo, the consumer language learning company, and Powerschool, the enterprise K-12 software platform. It was a rare moment in the sun for the recently-revitalized sector, which saw two companies list on the NASDAQ on the same dang day.

Special shout out to our producer Chris Gates for handling this impromptu live chat, tech difficulties and all, and bringing it to your ears on this lovely Monday. Don’t forget that Equity is largely on break this week!

Here’s what we got into, featuring some edtech entrepreneurs nice enough to drop on by:

  • China’s edtech crackdown and how it is impacting startups both internationally and domestically. The regulations, one of which will force for-profit tutoring companies to turn into non-profits, are also getting the cold shoulder from U.S. edtech VCs, it seems.
  •  As Lightspeed Ventures investor Mercedes Bent so aptly put it, the news is somewhat ironic: “[T]he US edtech IPO market is on fire (after being dormant for so long) and the China edtech market is crumbling (after being on fire for so long).”
  • Evidence of that can be found in the Duolingo IPO pricing arc. The company first posted a strong estimate of its worth, raised its range, priced above that raised interval, and still managed to trade higher. The company is still up more than $30 from its IPO price.
  • Powerschool was a bit different. It priced at $18 per share, the low-end of its $18 to $20 range. The company is up from its IPO price, albeit a much more modest two, or three percent in today’s early trading.

In the second half of the show, we brought on the following host of edtech founders to share their hot takes about the current state of edtech:

Before we go, Equity is on a “break” this week, as we do some soul searching and refresh before our next run of shows. Obviously we still had to shaare this episode, and um, are recording another episode this week too, but you, my dear friend, will hear from us again next Monday.

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

BoxGroup closes on $255M across two funds to back startups at their earliest stages

By Mary Ann Azevedo

BoxGroup has quietly, yet diligently, been funding companies at the early stage for over a decade. The 11-year-old firm in fact was the first investor in Plaid, a fintech company that nearly got sold to Visa last year for billions of dollars.

It has seen a number of impressive exits over the years, proving an eye that can detect winners before the winners themselves may even realize it. In fact, it’s that early faith in companies that partner David Tisch believes has been key to BoxGroup’s success.

“If you’re starting a company and you’re going to raise money, that first yes is the hardest. And it’s that’s the one that gives you the confidence, the excitement – to know that there’s somebody out there that’s going to believe in this and give you money for it,” Partner David Tisch told TechCrunch. “We really do try to pride ourselves on being that first yes on a regular basis. So the earlier we meet companies, the better.”

Today, BoxGroup is announcing it has beefed up its war chest so that it can be that “first yes” to more companies with the closure of two new funds totaling $255 million of capital. BoxGroup Five is the firm’s fifth early stage fund, and is aimed at investing in emerging tech companies at the pre-seed and seed stages. BoxGroup Strive is its second opportunity fund that will back companies in their subsequent follow-on rounds. Each fund amounts to $127.5 million. 

Over the years, BoxGroup has made over 300 investments including having invested in the earliest rounds of Ro, Plaid, Airtable, Workrise, Scopely, Bowery Farms, Ramp, Titan, Warby Parker, Classpass, Guideline and Glossier. It has had a number of impressive exits in Flatiron Health, PillPack, Matterport, Oscar, Mirror, Bark, Bread and Trello. 

Besides being the first firm to write Plaid a check, BoxGroup was also the first investor in PillPack, which ended up selling to Amazon for just under $1 billion in 2018.

BoxGroup Five – the firm’s early-stage fund – will invest in about 40 to 50 new companies a year with investments ranging from $250,000 to $1 million.

“We want to be the second or third biggest check in a round,” Tisch said.

Image Credits: BoxGroup; Adam Rothenberg (left), Nimi Katragadda (bottom), Greg Rosen (top), David Tisch (right)

The opportunity fund occasionally makes later-stage investments in new companies, but mostly just continues to support companies it invested in at an earlier stage. For example, BoxGroup first invested in id.me in 2010.

“The company is sort of an 11-year overnight success that we’ve been backing for over a decade now,” Tisch said. “It’s an example of us just continuing to support companies through their life cycle.”

BoxGroup also pre-seeded digital healthcare startup Ro, but also funded every round it’s raised since, including its most recent $500 million funding at a $5 billion valuation

Tisch describes the BoxGroup six-person team as “generalists” in terms of the spaces it invests in, with a portfolio consisting of startups in the consumer, enterprise, fintech, healthcare, marketplace, synthetic biology and climate sectors.

Interestingly, BoxGroup’s last fund closures – which totaled $165 million – marked the first time the firm had accepted outside capital in nine years. Prior to that point, it had been funded with only personal capital. Its LPs are a mixed group of endowments, foundations and family offices.

For BoxGroup, building authentic relationships with founders is at the root of what the firm does, says Partner Nimi Katragadda. That includes taking bets on founders, sometimes more than once, even if one of their companies didn’t work out. It means backing just ideas in some cases, and people.

“This cannot be transactional, it has to be personal,” she said. “We want to go on a journey with someone for a decade as they build their business…. We’re comfortable with what early means, including a lot of assumptions, more vision than traction, and raw product.”

Partner Adam Rothenberg agrees, saying: “Our goal is to be the friend in the room. We believe in honesty, tough love, and transparency in building relationships with founders. We focus on the “how” more than the “what” — how a founder thinks, how they will build product, and how they think about attracting talent.”

With offices in San Francisco and New York, the firm will likely be growing in the near future as BoxGroup is looking to add on some “first-line investors,” Tisch said.

Recently, Greg Rosen was named a partner at the firm. Rosen originally joined BoxGroup in 2015, where he spent three years before leaving to join Benchmark. He re-joined BoxGroup in early 2020 and joins the firm’s three other partners: Tisch, Rothenberg and Katragadda. 

While the world of venture is crazy hot right now, Tisch said the firm keeps itself grounded with a wisdom that can only be gained with experience and in time.

“There is seemingly infinite capital waiting to be deployed,” he said. “Without calling the cycle, we know that over time markets go up and down…No matter where we are in a given cycle, smart and determined minds will come together to build important technology companies. Our job is to make sure we are meeting those founders and choosing wisely about which ones to partner with for 10+ year journeys.”

Singapore-based Nektar.ai gets $6M to help B2B sales team collaborate more effectively

By Catherine Shu

A photo of Nektar.ai founders Aravind Ravi Sulekha and Abhijeet Vijayvergiya

Nektar.ai founders Aravind Ravi Sulekha and Abhijeet Vijayvergiya

Organizing information about prospective deals is a challenging task for B2B sales teams, since salespeople usually rely on multiple tools (email, Zoom, WhatsApp, etc) to talk with buyer committees. It becomes even more unwieldy when sales teams work remotely. Nektar.ai is a B2B sales productivity startup that wants to help sales team by reducing the amount of time they spend on manual data entry and providing analytics that can increase their revenue. The Singapore-based company announced today it has raised $6 million in seed funding, led by B Capital Group.

3One4 Capital and returning investor Nexus Venture Partners also participated, along with angel investors like Amit Midha, president of Asia Pacific and Japan at Dell; Ritesh Agarwal the founder and CEO of OYO Hotels;, Kevin Merritt, former president of Tyler Technologies’ data and insights division; Evan Davidson, SentinelOne’s vice president of Asia Pacific and Japan; Deep Nishar, senior managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers; and Tom Donlea, Ekata’s vice president and general manager of APAC.

Combined with its previous round, $2.15 million led by Nexus Venture Partners and announced in November 2020, the new funding brings Nektar.ai’s total seed capital to $8.1 million. The company says this is one of the largest seed rounds ever for a SaaS company based in Asia. Nektar.ai’s workforce is remote-first and the company says half of its team are women.

Nektar.ai has been in stealth mode since it was founded in 2020 by Abhijeet Vijayvergiya and Aravind Ravi Sulekha, working with hundreds of clients in private beta mode. Its waitlist is currently open for sign-ups, with plans to launch publicly in the first half of 2022. Part of Nektar.ai’s seed funding will be used to build a go-to-market team focused on the United States.

Nektar.ai was designed for SaaS revenue teams who have to manage information across many channels, including email, calendars, web conferences, Slack, CRM tools, LinkedIn and WhatsApp. This makes it hard for them to collaborate, follow playbooks (or sets of best practices) and get a full understanding of their deals pipeline and revenue. Nektar.ai integrates with different apps, surfaces key data and delivers it to the most convenient collaboration tool for a team, like Slack.

Vijayvergiya told TechCrunch that over the last six months, Nektar.ai accelerated product development because “we saw a strong demand for a guided selling solution in the market,” onboarding more than 200 prospects from its waitlist.

Nektar.ai launched a web console for managers, a Chrome extension and integrations with Salesforce, Google Workspace and Slack. It also added a new feature called Capture Bot, an AI-based system that automatically extracts important information from salespeople’ online interactions with buyer committees, surfacing data that would otherwise be tucked away in different inboxes and calendars. This increases the accuracy of their CRM tools and allows sales managers to see how engaged their teams are with potential customers and how prospective deals are progressing.

For individual representatives, Nektar.ai’s tools let them spend less time on manual data entry. They also get analytics like multithreading scores that help them identify how deals were won or lost. For example, Vijayvergiya said one client found they won deals if they had at least four contacts with a buyer committee after the demo stage. As a result, its sales representatives began engaging with more than four members of the buyer committee on all potential deals.

Another way Nektar.ai helps SaaS sales teams save money and time is building databases of first-party contacts from their inboxes. Vijayvergiya said one client was able to save $50,000 by organizing their existing contacts instead of purchasing third-party contact data.

In a statement, B Capital Group general partner Gabe Greenbaum said, “Nektar.ai’s solutions provide great value to distributed revenue teams, which is even more important as enterprises conduct further business across global markets. B Capital is always eager to work with experienced and knowledgeable founders, and we’re confident that Abhijeet, Aravind and the Nektar.ai team will continue their strong momentum on the path to becoming the industry-leading tool for enterprise sales productivity.”

Indian online insurer PolicyBazaar files for IPO, seeks to raise over $800 million

By Manish Singh

Indian online insurance aggregator PolicyBazaar has filed for an initial public offering in which it is seeking to raise $809 million, becoming the fourth startup in the past two months from the South Asian market to explore public markets.

In papers submitted to the market regulator in India, PolicyBazaar said it is looking to raise $504 million by issuing new shares while the rest will be driven by sale of shares by existing investors. Local media reports said the startup is looking to raise at a valuation of up to $6 billion.

The 12-year-old startup — backed by SoftBank, Falcon Edge Capital, Tiger Global, and InfoEdge — said it may consider raising about $100 million in a pre-IPO round.

PolicyBazaar serves as an aggregator that allows users to compare and buy policies — across categories including life, health, travel, auto and property — from dozens of insurers on its website without having to go through conventional agents. It operates in India as well as the Middle East.

PolicyBazaar website

In India only a fraction of the nation’s 1.3 billion people currently have access to insurance and some analysts say that digital firms could prove crucial in bringing these services to the masses. According to rating agency ICRA, insurance products had reached less than 3% of the population as of 2017.

An average Indian makes about $2,100 in a year, according to World Bank. ICRA estimated that of those Indians who had purchased an insurance product, they were spending less than $50 on it in 2017.

In a report early this year, analysts at Bernstein estimated that PolicyBazaar commands 90% of share in the online insurance distribution market. The platform, which competes with Acko as well as Amazon in India, also sells loans, credit cards and mutual funds. The startup says it sells over a million policies a month.

“India has an under-penetrated insurance market. Within the under-penetrated landscape, digital distribution through web-aggregators like Policybazaar forms <1% of the industry. This offers a large headroom for growth,” Bernstein analysts wrote to clients.

Zomato, which had a stellar public debut last month, as well as fintech firms Paytm and MobiKwik have filed for their initial public offerings in recent weeks.

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5 lessons from Duolingo’s bellwether edtech IPO of the year

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Duolingo landed onto the public markets this week, rallying excitement and attention for the edtech sector and its founder cohort. The language learning business’ stock price soared when it began to trade, even after the unicorn raised its IPO price range, and priced above the raised interval.

Duolingo’s IPO proves that public market investors can see the long-term value in a mission-driven, technology-powered education concern; the company’s IPO carries extra weight considering the historically few edtech companies that have listed.

Duolingo’s IPO proves that public market investors can see the long-term value in a mission-driven, technology-powered education concern; the company’s IPO carries extra weight considering the historically few edtech companies that have listed.

For those that want the entire story of Duolingo, from origin to messy monetization to historical IPO, check out our EC-1. It has dozens of interviews from executives, investors, linguists and competitors.

For today, though, we have fresh additions. We sat down with Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn earlier in the week to discuss not only his company’s IPO, but also what impact the listing may have on startups. Duolingo’s IPO can be looked at as a case study into consumer startups, mission-driven companies that monetize a small base of users, or education companies that recently hit scale. Paraphrasing from von Ahn, Duolingo doesn’t see itself as just an edtech company with fresh branding. Instead, it believes its growth comes from being an engineering-first startup.

Selling motivation, it seems, versus selling the fluency in a language is a proposition that international consumers are willing to pay for, and an idea that investors think can continue to scale to software-like margins.

1. The IPO event will bring “more sophistication” to Duolingo’s core service

Duolingo has gone through three distinct phases: Growth, in which it prioritized getting as many users as it could to its app; monetization, in which it introduced a subscription tier for survival; and now, education, in which it is focusing on tacking on more sophisticated, smarter technology to its service.

Robinhood’s CFO says it was ready to go public

By Alex Wilhelm

Robinhood priced at $38 per share this week, opened flat and closed its first day’s trading yesterday worth $34.82 per share, or a bit more than 8% underwater. The company posted a mixed picture today, falling early before recovering to breakeven in late-morning trading.

It wasn’t the debut that some expected Robinhood to have.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


To close out the week, we’re not going to noodle on banned Chinese IPOs or do a full-week mega-round discussion. Instead, let’s parse some notes from a chat The Exchange had with Robinhood’s CFO about his company’s IPO and go over a few reasonable guesses as to why we’re not wondering how much money Robinhood left on the table by pricing its public offering lower than it closed on its first day.

Let’s not be dicks about it. The time for Twitter jokes was yesterday. We’ll put our thinking caps on this morning.

Why Robinhood went public when it did

Chatting with Robinhood CFO Jason Warnick earlier this week, we wanted to know why this was the right time for Robinhood to go public.

Now, no public company CEO or CFO will come out and directly say that they are going public because they think that they can defend — or extend — their most recent private valuation thanks to current market conditions.

Instead, execs on IPO day tend to deflect the question, pivoting to a well-oiled bon mot about how their public offering is a mere milestone on their company’s long-term trajectory. For some reason in our capitalist society, during an arch-capitalist event, by a for-profit company, leaders find it critical to downplay their IPO’s importance.1

With that in mind, Warnick did not say Robinhood went public because the IPO market has recently rewarded big-brand consumer tech companies like Airbnb and DoorDash with strong debuts. And he didn’t say that with tech shares near all-time highs and a taste for high-growth concerns, the company was likely set to enter a market that would be willing to price it at a valuation that it found attractive.

Chilean fintech Xepelin secures $230M in debt and equity from Kaszek, high-profile angels

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Chilean startup Xepelin, which has created a financial services platform for SMEs in Latin America, has secured $30 million in equity and $200 million in credit facilities.

LatAm venture fund Kaszek Ventures led the equity portion of the financing, which also included participation from partners of DST Global and a slew of other firms and founders/angel investors. LatAm- and U.S.-based asset managers and hedge funds — including Chilean pension funds — provided the credit facilities. In total over its lifetime, Xepelin has raised over $36 million in equity and $250 million in asset-backed facilities.

Also participating in the round were Picus Capital; Kayak Ventures; Cathay Innovation; MSA Capital; Amarena; FJ Labs; Gilgamesh and Kavak founder and CEO Carlos Garcia; Jackie Reses, executive chairman of Square Financial Services; Justo founder and CEO Ricardo Weder; Tiger Global Management Partner John Curtius; GGV’s Hans Tung; and Gerry Giacoman, founder and CEO of Clara, among others.

Nicolás de Camino and Sebastian Kreis founded Xepelin in mid-2019 with the mission of changing the fact that “only 5% of companies in all LatAm countries have access to recurring financial services.”

“We want all SMEs in LatAm to have access to financial services and capital in a fair and efficient way,” the pair said.

Xepelin is built on a SaaS model designed to give SMEs a way to organize their financial information in real time. Embedded in its software is a way for companies to apply for short-term working capital loans “with just three clicks, and receive the capital in a matter of hours,” the company claimed.

It has developed an AI-driven underwriting engine, which the execs said gives it the ability to make real-time loan approval decisions.

“Any company in LatAm can onboard in just a few minutes and immediately access a free software that helps them organize their information in real time, including cash flow, revenue, sales, tax, bureau info — sort of a free CFO SaaS,” de Camino said. “The circle is virtuous: SMEs use Xepelin to improve their financial habits, obtain more efficient financing, pay their obligations, and collaborate effectively with clients and suppliers, generating relevant impacts in their industries.”

The fintech currently has over 4,000 clients in Chile and Mexico, which currently has a growth rate “four times faster” than when Xepelin started in Chile. Over the past 22 months, it has loaned more than $400 million to SMBs in the two countries. It currently has a portfolio of active loans for $120 million and an asset-backed facility for more than $250 million.

Overall, the company has been seeing a growth rate of 30% per month, the founders said. It has 110 employees, up from 20 a year ago.

Xepelin has more than 60 partnerships (a number that it said is growing each week) with midmarket corporate companies, allowing for their suppliers to onboard to its platform for free and gain access to accounts payable, revenue-based financing. The company also sells its portfolio of non-recourse loans to financial partners, which it says mitigates credit risk exposure and enhances its platform and data play.

“When we talk about creating the largest digital bank for SMEs in LatAm, we are not saying that our goal is to create a bank; perhaps we will never ask for the license to have one, and to be honest, everything we do, we do it differently from the banks, something like a non-bank, a concept used today to exemplify focus,” the founders said.

Both de Camino and Kreis said they share a passion for making financial services more accessible to SMEs all across Latin America and have backgrounds rooted deep in different areas of finance.

“Our goal is to scale a platform that can solve the true pains of all SMEs in LatAm, all in one place that also connects them with their entire ecosystem, and above all, democratized in such a way that everyone can access it,” Kreis said, “regardless of whether you are a company that sells billions of dollars or just a thousand dollars, getting the same service and conditions.”

For now, the company is nearly exclusively focused on the B2B space, but in the future, it believes several of its services “will be very useful for all SMEs and companies in LatAm.” 

“Xepelin has developed technology and data science engines to deliver financing to SMBs in Latin America in a seamless way,” Nicolas Szekasy, co-founder and managing partner at Kaszek Ventures, said in a statement.The team has deep experience in the sector and has proven a perfect fit of their user-friendly product with the needs of the market.”

Chile was home to another large funding earlier this week. NotCo, a food technology company making plant-based milk and meat replacements, closed on a $235 million Series D round that gives it a $1.5 billion valuation.

Growth is not enough

By Natasha Mascarenhas

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

We were a smaller team this week, with Natasha and Alex together with Grace and Chris to sort through a week that brought together both this quarter’s earnings cycle, and the Q3 IPO rush. So, it was just a little busy!

Before we get to topics, however, a note that we are having a lot of fun recording these live on Twitter Spaces. We’ve found a hacky way to capture local audio and also share the chats live. So, hit us up on Twitter so you can hang out with us. It’s fun – and we may even bring you up on stage to play guest host.

Ok, now, to the Great List of Subjects:

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

Robinhood’s stock drops 8% in its first day’s trading

By Alex Wilhelm

Robinhood priced its public offering at $38 per share last night, the low end of its IPO range. The company was worth around $32 billion at that price.

But once the U.S. consumer investing and trading app began to allow investors to trade its shares, they went down sharply, off more than 10% in the first hours of its life as a floating stock. Robinhood recovered some in later trading, but closed the day worth $34.82 per share, off 8.37%, per Yahoo Finance.

The company sold 55,000,000 shares in its IPO, generating gross proceeds of $2.1 billion, though that figure may rise if its underwriting banks purchase their available options. Regardless, the company is now well-capitalized to chart its future according to its own wishes.

So, why did the stock go down? Given the hungry furor we’ve seen around many big-brand, consumer-facing tech companies in the last year, you might be surprised that Robinhood didn’t close the day up 80%, or something similar. After all, DoorDash and Airbnb had huge debuts.

Thinking out loud, a few things could be at play:

  • Robinhood made a big chunk of its IPO available to its own users. Or, in practice, Robinhood curtailed early retail demand by offering its investors and traders shares at the same price and level of access that big investors were given. It’s a neat idea. But by doing so, Robinhood may have lowered unserved retail interest in its shares, perhaps reshaping its early supply/demand curve.
  • Or maybe the company’s warnings that its trading volumes could decline in Q2 2021 scared off some bulls.

Regardless, in the stonk and meme-stock era, Robinhood’s somewhat downward debut is a bit of a puzzler. More as the company’s stock finds its footing and we dig more deeply into investor sentiment regarding its future performance.

We have more coming on the company’s debut, including notes from an interview with the company’s CFO about its IPO coming tomorrow morning on Extra Crunch

Why Latin American venture capital is breaking records this year

By Anna Heim

Today we’re wrapping our multi-week exploration of the global venture capital market’s second-quarter performance. We’ve gone around the world, working to better understand the geyser of cash flowing into today’s startups. But we’ve saved the best for last: Latin America.

At a glance, the Latin American venture capital and startup market appears similar to what we’ve seen from other growing ecosystems. Like the U.S., Canadian, European, Indian and African startup hubs, Latin America is seeing venture capital activity set records.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


But inside the big numbers is a surprising picture of a startup market in the process of maturing while outside money hunts for breakout opportunities.

To help us in our exploration of Latin America’s epic second quarter, we collected notes and observations from NXTP’s Gonzalo Costa, Magma Partners’ Nathan Lustig and ALLVP’s Federico Antoni. We also have data from Dealroom, CB Insights, the Global Private Capital Association (GPCA) and ALLVP.

Today we’re digging into the data, yes, but also the human potential behind the startup rush. According to Antoni, the Latin American startup market of today “is a story about talent, not about capital.” Echoing the point in a recent piece about “the Latin American startup opportunity,” U.S. venture capital firm Sequoia wrote that it has “been blown away by the quality of founders in the current wave.” So we’ll have to do more than just read charts.

The union of talent and money is what startup markets need to thrive. But there are other reasons why Latin American startups are so frequently in the news today, including structural factors, such as strong digital penetration and quick e-commerce growth.

Those trends could have long lives. NXTP’s Costa made a bullish argument: The portion of “market capitalization from technology companies in Latin America is only 2.5% today compared to 40%+ in the U.S,” and his firm expects the two numbers to “converge in the long-term.” Our read of that set of data points is that there are a host of future Latin American public tech companies being founded — and funded — today.

Let’s talk about Latin American venture capital data, dig into which countries are rising stars in the region, learn how quickly Latin American startups have to go cross-border, and explore how quickly capital is recycling in the ecosystem – always a key test for startup-market longevity.

A venture capital wave

Latin America is on pace for all-time records in venture capital dollars raised and venture capital rounds in 2021. According to CB Insights data, startups in the region have already raised $9.3 billion in 2021’s first six months from 414 deals. The same data set indicates that in all of 2020, startups in the region raised $5.3 billion across 526 deals. And in case you’re worried that we’re comparing to an unfairly COVID-impacted year, in 2019 the numbers were $5.3 billion (again) from 614 individual deals.

This year is different, and the second quarter of 2021 was simply an outlier event. With some $7.2 billion invested in Latin American startups, Q2 2021’s closest rival in terms of quarterly venture totals was the second quarter of 2017, when $2.6 billion was invested.

Colombia’s Merqueo bags $50M to expand its online grocery delivery service across Latin America

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Merqueo, which operates a full-stack, on-demand delivery service in Latin America, has landed $50 million in a Series C round of funding.

IDC Ventures, Digital Bridge and IDB Invest co-led the round, which also included participation from MGM Innova Group, Celtic House Venture Partners, Palm Drive Capital and previous shareholders. The financing brings the Bogota, Colombia-based startup’s total raised to $85 million since its 2017 inception.

Merqueo CEO and co-founder Miguel McAllister knows a thing or two about the delivery space in Latin America, having also co-founded Domicilios.com, a Latin American food delivery company that was bought by Berlin-based Delivery Hero and later merged with Brazil’s iFood.

McAllister describes Merqueo as a “pure-play online supermarket with a fully integrated grocery delivery service” that sources directly from large brands and local suppliers, bypassing intermediaries and “delivering directly from its dark store network.” (Dark stores are traditional retail stores that have been converted to local fulfillment centers.”

Merqueo offers more than 8,000 products, including fresh foods, packaged goods, home essentials, beverages and frozen products. It currently operates in more than 25 cities in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil and has over 600,000 users.

Image Credits: Merqueo

It must be doing something right. The startup is close to $100 million in “run-rate revenue,” according to McAllister, having grown more than 2.5x in 2020. Merqueo also reached positive cash flow in Colombia, its most mature market. Over the last year, large Latin American retail chains and retailers have approached the company about potentially acquiring it, McAllister said.

Part of the company’s success might be attributed to the speed and flexibility it offers. Users can choose how and when to receive their groceries according to their needs, with the startup offering delivery in as little as 10 minutes or three to four hours. Users can also schedule delivery of their groceries in two-hour intervals for the same day or the next day.

Also, owning and controlling the “entire” vertical supply chain gives it the ability to obtain better margins, offer competitive pricing and achieve healthy unit economics, according to McAllister.

Merqueo plans to use its new capital in part to expand geographically. The company is currently in phase one of its expansion to Brazil, entering initially in Sao Paulo later this month. Next year, it expects to launch in other Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Fortaleza and Salvador de Bahia.

The market opportunity in Latin America is massive considering that online grocery sales only represent just 1% of the market –– far lower than in the U.S., EU or China, for example. Other players in the increasingly crowded space include GoPuff in the U.S., Getir out of Turkey and Mexico-based Jüsto, which raised $65 million in a Series A led by General Atlantic earlier this year.

“The pandemic accelerated the adoption of online grocery shopping in LatAm,” McAllister told TechCrunch. “The region went from 0.3% share of online groceries to 1%. And after the pandemic, we are seeing a 50% increase in the pace of user adoption.” Overall, the $85 billion e-commerce market in Latin America is growing rapidly, with projections of it reaching $116.2 billion in 2023.

Currently, Merqueo has over 1,300 employees in LatAm, up 60% from last year. It plans to continue hiring with the proceeds from the Series C round as well work “to become the largest and most ambitious dark stores network of Latin America.”

Alejandro Rodríguez, managing partner at IDC Ventures, is naturally bullish on Merqueo’s potential.

“From all the opportunities we looked into, Merqueo is undoubtedly the most advanced in the region. … The Merqueo team has proved they know how to scale the business and how to get to profitability,” Rodríguez told TechCrunch.

Online grocery delivery is a business with many technical and operational complexities, he said. In his view, Merqueo’s technology and operational expertise allow it to tackle those issues in a way that has led to “the best customer experience that we have seen in a scalable way.”

“They have the best combination of both great service metrics and healthy unit economics,” Rodríguez added.

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

By Mary Ann Azevedo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: La Haus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student labor marketplace Pangea closes $2M seed round

By Alex Wilhelm

Pangea, a Providence, Rhode Island-based startup that connects youthful talent and businesses in need of freelance labor, announced this morning that it has closed an oversubscribed $2 million seed round.

Pangea CEO and co-founder Adam Alpert told TechCrunch that his company had set out to secure $1.5 million, but wound up raising more. We’re hearing that somewhat often these days.

IDEA Fund Partners’ Lister Delgado led the round. Other investors in the transaction included Unpopular Ventures, Brown Angel Group, PJC and a number of individuals.

The startup graduated from Y Combinator earlier in the year, raising a check from the accelerator and another $350,000 since it closed a $400,000 pre-seed round last April. All told, Pangea has raised around $3 million.

The startup runs a marketplace that links college-age talent to companies in need of their services. Given the skillset of many college students, social media and web developer work are popular on the Pangea platform.

The model is scaling. Per Alpert and his co-founder John Tambunting, gross merchandise volume (GMV), or the value of sold services on Pangea’s market, rose 400% on a year-over-year basis in Q2 2021. And the CEO disclosed earlier in July that the company’s GMV rose 40% in the preceding four weeks.

For context, TechCrunch reported that Pangea was “facilitating $50,000 in transactions between college freelancers and businesses” in March 2021. That figure should now be heading toward the $100,000 monthly GMV run-rate threshold. We’ll annoy the company for new growth figures when Q3 ends.

The latest Pangea round was a priced event, meaning that the startup has graduated from the comfortable early-stage realm of SAFEs and other related instruments. The seed round values the company into the modest end of the eight-figure range.

What will Pangea use the money for? To scale its human capital. The company, currently four full-time staff, intends to more than double to nine.

And because it is based in Providence, a cheaper market than New York or San Francisco, its new capital will give it more time to grow. Alpert told TechCrunch that its seed capital will give it “20-25 product cycles,” the first time that we’ve heard runway expressed in that particular manner. We like it.

The CEO said that building in Providence, a “smaller city,” allows Pangea to better focus. And he said that because investors are now willing to invest remotely, the location is not particularly remote.

The startup is not the only upstart technology company in town. Alpert told TechCrunch that the Providence startup scene is starting to grow, saying that “a year ago, there was very little happening, but now there are now several other venture-backed, seed-stage startups here all working on the same floor as us.”

TechCrunch recently swung by the company’s office where its staff and collected summer interns were meeting. (Disclosure: Your scribe is not a very good photographer):

Image Credits: Alex Wilhelm. Look! A startup in an office! Doing things!

Adam Alpert, Tae Sam Lee Zamora, Kacie Galligan, John Tambunting. Via the company.

Pangea now has more capital than it has ever had to keep building out its product lineup, scale GMV and start extending its runway with revenue growth. Let’s see how far this seed round can take it, and how long it takes the startup to reach Series A scale.

GGV Capital gave this real estate startup founder a term sheet 48 hours after meeting

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Realm, which aims to help homeowners maximize the value of their property with its data platform, has raised $12 million in Series A funding led by GGV Capital.

Existing backers Primary Venture Partners, Lerer Hippeau and Liberty Mutual Strategic Ventures also participated in the round, bringing the New York-based startup’s total raised to $15 million.

Liz Young founded Realm, launching the platform earlier this year with the goal of providing “a one-stop-shop for accessible, actionable home advice.”

So far, Realm says it has helped over 20,000 homeowners “uncover” an average of $175,000 in property value. Its user base is growing 20% month over month.

What makes the company different from other valuation offerings out there, according to Young, is that rather than telling owners what their homes are worth today, Realm can tell them what their home could be worth after renovations in months and years to come.

“There are a ton of tools and services that make it easier to buy or sell your home, but once you move, it’s a total black box,” she said. “You’re left trying to cobble together advice from fragmented, often biased resources to navigate big, expensive decisions. There’s nowhere else consumers spend so much money, with such little actionable information.”

For example, using data extracted from a variety of sources such as tax assessors and its own users, Realm can do things like tell a homeowner in real time how their property value will change if they do things like make over a bathroom or add a new deck. Its algorithms can assess a property and offer advice on what projects are most likely to add value.

“The public data that we acquire, the data we ingest from users, and the data that we build ourselves has allowed us to build the most robust and unique actionable real estate data set in the U.S.,” Young told TechCrunch.

Realm’s database is free and according to Young, offers insights on over 70 million single family detached homes across the U.S.

Part of that is determined by zoning data, which tells people where they can and cannot build on a property.

“It’s really important because square feet is one of the biggest drivers of home value,” Young said. “So if you’re trying to understand how much a home’s worth or could be worth, you really have to understand the local zoning rules.”

Image Credits: Realm

Realm’s marketplace offering, where an adviser connects owners to contractors, architects and lenders that can carry out the company’s recommendations, is currently only live in California, but will be expanding to new markets over the next 12 months.

“People can digitally consume our free insights but a lot want help interpreting them,” Young said.

The company plans to use its new capital to “improve the quality and sophistication of the platform’s data insights” and toward hiring across its data science, engineering, marketing and operations teams. It will also continue to develop its proprietary data sets and models, which offer homeowners across the country personalized analysis of over 70 million homes.
A lot of Realm’s business is driven by its relationships with agents and word of mouth via its existing user base.

Jeff Richards, GGV managing partner and new Realm board member, said that when his firm backs at the Series A level, its bet is “100% on the founder.”

“I met Liz when she was raising her seed round in July 2020 and was blown away,” he told TechCrunch. “She’s smart, ambitious and has a deep background in the space she’s going after. Although it was early, I could tell she was thinking big.”

Founder and CEO Liz Young. Image Credits: Realm

He points out that GGV Capital, with $2.5 billion in assets under management, is a long-time investor in other proptechs including Opendoor, Divvy Homes, Belong and Airbnb.

“Zillow made it easy for people to find a home to buy. Opendoor made it easy to buy and sell a home,” Richards told TechCrunch. “Airbnb made it easy to rent a home for a short-term vacation. Belong is making it easy to rent a home for the long term.”

Realm, according to Richards, was right in GGV’s “sweet spot.”

“No one has zeroed in on helping the individual homeowner manage their home, and that’s the opportunity area Liz is going after,” he said. “We kept in touch after the seed round, she pinged me to talk about her A, we met up and I gave her a term sheet 48 hours later.”

In general, Richards believes that residential real estate is one of the biggest spend categories in the U.S. and yet is still virtually untouched by technology.

Home sales are over $1.6 trillion annually, home improvement is one of the biggest categories in the U.S. at over $500 billion annually, and the average home renovation project in the U.S. is around $15,000, with many spending over $50,000.

“I’ve owned a home for 17 years and almost everything I do with respect to the home is the same as it was over a decade ago. The only thing that has really changed is I can manage my thermostat and cameras with my phone,” Richards said. “Literally everything else is the same — the way I do renovations, the way I find contractors to do repairs, the way I pay my mortgage, etc. — exactly the same. That’s ridiculous! Liz sees a huge opportunity here, and so do we. The market is enormous. So there will be many, many winners.”

Employee engagement platform Culture Amp raises $100M at a $1.5B valuation

By Catherine Shu

Culture Amp was founded in 2009 to let companies conduct anonymous employee surveys, but since then, its focus has expanded to helping employers turn the data they collect into action. The company announced today it has raised $100 million in Series F funding, led by returning investors Sequoia Capital India and TDM Growth Partners. The round bumps Culture Amp’s valuation to $1.5 billion, more than double what it was after the company’s Series D in 2019.

New investor Salesforce Ventures, along with existing backers Felicis Ventures, Blackbird Ventures, Index Ventures, Sapphire Ventures, Skip Capital, Grok Ventures and Global Founders Capital also participated in the round.

Culture Amp is now used by more than 4,000 organizations with a total of 25 million employees. Its clients range in size from about 20 to 30 people to more than 150,000 employees, and include Salesforce, Unilever, PwC, KIND, SoulCycle and BigCommerce.

From its start as a survey platform, Culture Amp has grown to encompass analytics for managers, like turnover prediction and team goal tracking. It also has a sizable online community where users can connect and book workshops, including ones run by diversity, equity and inclusion experts. Culture Amp recently held a virtual version of Culture First, its annual event, with over 20,000 participants.

Founder and chief executive officer Didier Elzinga told TechCrunch that he sees Culture Amp’s Series F as a “validation of the HR space in general.”

“I think for a long time, the HR space and HR tech space have been viewed as not that interesting or important, but what we see now is that people are the most important thing that most companies have, so what can we do to craft their experiences,” he added. “I think it’s a really interesting step for the space as a whole, for an organization like Culture Amp to have made it to this level of revenue, fundraising and valuation.”

The company still has most of its funds from its Series E, but the new round will allow it to “work at a whole other level of scale,” Elzinga said. Culture Amp launched in Australia, and about two-thirds of its revenue comes from the United States. It is also growing in Europe, so some of its new funding will be used on its dual data centers. Elzinga added that the raise also gives Culture Amp a warchest to spend on acquisitions.

Over the past year and a half, employers have dealt with two major issues: a remote workforce coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and growing calls for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Culture Amp saw more employers addressing DEI in surveys; for example, the number of companies who asked employees questions like do they “build teams that are diverse” increased about 30% in 2020. Clients have access to surveys created with behavioral psychologists, including ones designed to see if women, people of color or people who use English as a second language are feeling disengaged and, if so, how to help them.

To understand the pandemic’s impact, the platform introduced well-being templates, asking if employees are feeling overwhelmed, how they feel about messaging from company leaders and gauging their willingness to return to the office.

Surveys are answered anonymously and data is aggregated to protect the privacy of individual employees. To help companies act on the results they get, Culture Amp provides what it calls an “Inspiration Engine,” or practices that have worked for other companies.

Since Culture Amp works with a large group of employers, it is able to create benchmarks by industry, size and region. This allows companies to see how their employee engagement compares to others in the same space.

Another feature, Skills Coach, is based on behavioral science research and helps managers develop “soft skills” through two-minute interactive exercises that are delivered by Slack or email.

“The experience that employees have is the thing we want to up level, but the way we want to do it and what we’re focused on is lifting managers’ capability to delivery that employee experience,” Elzinga said. Skills Coach was designed to fit into busy workdays and its usage has tripled over the past year, he added.

“We think that for all the progress we have made, we’re still at the beginning of actually delivering on that employee experience,” he added. “I think the last two years have shown us how important mental well-being is, how important diversity and inclusion is, and how important it is for leaders to truly listen to their people and then to act on that and follow up.”

Other employee feedback platforms include Lattice, Glint and Qualtrics. Elzinga said the main way Culture Amp differentiates is its team of “People Scientists,” or organizational and behavioral psychologists who design surveys, work in its product team as analysts and serve as consultants for clients.

“We see ourselves at the point now where we have enough data that we can start to do primary research on a lot of these issues and we’re looking at how can the data we are developing help inform the space in general, not just ‘here’s what our customers are doing,’ but research that shows how this correlates to that in a situation,” said Elzinga. “The people science component is a hugely important to us.”

In a statement about its investment in Culture Amp, TDM Growth Partners co-founder Hamish Corlett said, “Organizations are living in a world of unprecedented change, and the last 12 months have only accelerated this. We have seen first hand the power that Culture Amp’s unrivaled data set and unique insights have inside boardrooms globally, and we expect this only to amplify in the coming years.”

Japanese sneaker platform SODA raises $56.4M, acquires rival Monokabu

By Catherine Shu

Just half a year after leading SODA’s Series B, SoftBank Ventures Asia is raising its bet on the Tokyo-based sneaker resell platform. The early-stage venture capital arm of SoftBank Group announced today it has returned to lead SODA’s Series C, which currently totals $56.4 million.

Other investors include South Korean sneaker reselling platform KREAM (another SoftBank Ventures Asia portfolio company), Altos Ventures and JAFCO.

Launched in 2018, SODA runs SNKRDUNK, one of Japan’s largest sneaker reselling platforms with about 2.5 million monthly users. Along with its new funding, SODA announced it has acquired rival Monokabu. SODA said that the deal means its share of Japan’s sneaker resale industry is now 80%, making it the market leader by far.

A SoftBank Ventures Asia spokesperson told TechCrunch the fund decided to invest in SODA again because the company’s growth has increased rapidly since its previous funding. SODA’s post-money valuation is now about 24 billion JPY, or about $218 million USD.

Part of SODA’s Series C funding will also be used to expand into other Asian markets, starting with Indonesia and the Philippines next year because both countries have growing e-commerce markets and a large percentage of Generation Zs, an ideal combination for SNKRDUNK.  

 

The company’s previous funding, its $22 million Series B, was announced in January. At the time, Uchiyama told TechCrunch demand for sneakers remained high despite the pandemic’s economic impact and increased adoption of online shopping also helped drive sales.

SODA claims it hit record sales in May 2021, growing 900% year-over-year. Despite COVID-19, many sneaker C2C marketplaces, like StockX, have also seen their sales increase.

SNKRDUNK will work closely with KREAM to share knowledge about sneaker authentication, inventory management, logistics and other operations-related areas, with the goal of increasing their share of the Asian sneaker resell market.

In addition to KREAM and SODA, SoftBank Ventures Asia is also an investor in China-based sneaker trading platform Nice.

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