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Varo Bank raises another $63M, led by NBA star Russell Westbrook

By Sarah Perez

Varo Bank, which last year became the first U.S. neobank to be granted a national bank charter, announced this morning it’s raised another $63 million in new funding. The round was led by NBA star Russell Westbrook, who will also join the startup as an advisor focused on the direction of Varo Bank’s programs aimed at underserved communities, including communities of color.

Westbrook’s investment came through Russell Westbrook Enterprises, which previously backed social avatar startup Genies.

Existing Varo Bank investors include Warburg Pincus, The Rise Fund, Gallatin Point Capital, HarbourVest Partners and funds managed by BlackRock. Varo Bank last year raised $241 million in Series D funding. With the additional funds, Varo Bank’s total raise to date is now $482.4 million.

Founded in 2017, Varo Bank competes with a growing number of all-digital banks operating in the U.S., including Chime, Current, N26, Level, Step, Moven, Empower Finance, Dave, GoBank, Aspiration, Stash, Zero and others.

Like most neobanks, Varo Bank offers an easily accessible bank account with no monthly fees or minimum balance requirements, and a modern mobile app experience. It also includes high-interest savings and provides customers with access to a network of 55,000 fee-free Allpoint ATMs. But Varo Bank doesn’t have any physical bank branches.

Varo announced last year it had been granted a national bank charter from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and secured regulatory approvals from the FDIC and Federal Reserve to open Varo Bank, N.A. — effectively becoming a “real” bank.

Today, Varo Bank has over 3 million bank accounts, and says its deposits are up by more than 900% year-over-year. Spend on the Varo platform is also up by over 300%, year-over-year.

Westbrook’s interest in working with Varo Bank has to do with its focus on making an impact on financial inequality through its banking services. Specifically, the company is committed to bringing up to two-day early payroll deposits, savings accounts that pay higher rates than the national average and a short-term cash advance line of credit, Varo Advance, that gives qualifying customers access to up to $100 as needed in the Varo Bank app. The credit line was launched in December 2020, and remains fee-free through March 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new funds will be used to expand Varo Bank’s services, as well as work with Westbrook to co-create a community impact program that focuses on building financial literacy in underserved communities, the company told TechCrunch.

“The banking system has ignored or underserved a large portion of the American population — particularly communities of color. I’m passionate about making lasting social change and creating a stronger and more inclusive system,” said Mr. Westbrook, in a statement about his investment. “I am excited and ready to work with Varo to be a part of an economic revitalization for those who never had the access they deserved,” he added.

Russell Westbrook Enterprises was exclusively advised by Jefferies LLC in this transaction, the company noted.

Correction, 2/18/21, 12:53 PM ET: Varo’s existing investors didn’t participate in this round, but other VCs, family offices and individuals did. Varo’s press release said the new funds “joined” a group of existing investors, which led to confusion. The article has been updated to clarify the existing investors were not actually in this round. 

Fintech Marqeta expands into credit card space days after filing for an IPO

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Marqeta is expanding into the consumer credit card space to help other brands launch credit card programs. 

The move comes just days after the payment card issuing company reportedly filed confidentially for an initial public offering, making it the latest fintech to make a move to the public markets.

The value of the IPO is expected to be around $10 billion, according to Reuters. Marqeta — which is working with Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase on the offering — is reportedly hoping to complete the IPO by April.

Oakland, California-based Marqeta raised $150 million last May at a $4.2 billion valuation, TechCrunch previously reported. Then in October, Mastercard put an undisclosed amount of money in Marqeta.

The company, which provides the tools for financial services platforms of all stripes to provide cards, wallets and other payment mechanisms, counts Cash App, Affirm, DoorDash, and Instacart among its customers. At the end of 2020, Marqeta says it had issued 270 million cards through its platform, up from 140 million at the end of 2019. The company, which has over 550 employees, is live in 35 countries.

Now, Marqeta is partnering with another startup, Deserve, on its new credit card initiative.

As Deserve CEO Kalpesh Kapadia explains it, his company’s technology and open API platform will power Marqeta’s program management services, including origination, underwriting, bank and bureau Integration, customer service, compliance and risk management. 

Marqeta founder and CEO Jason Gardner described Marqeta’s expansion into building new credit products as a “major milestone” for the company in building out a “truly comprehensive card issuing platform, able to support any card type.”

“This technology is complex, and we saw that this barrier to market had created an opportunity for us to take what we’ve learned helping customers innovate in the prepaid and debit space and adapt that to credit,” he told TechCrunch.

Marqeta is banking on the notion that any business currently issuing a card is looking, or currently working, on a credit card.

“These innovators want to launch modern card products but having to rely on legacy technology, which allows much less options for flexibility and personalization, has slowed down innovation,” Gardner added.

It’s also betting that consumers want more from credit cards than just paying for a purchase.

Image Credits: Marqeta

“They want seamless digital experiences, rewards that match their lifestyle, and personalized apps that track financial health, but there’s been little innovation that speaks to this,” he said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating touchless payments — as more people avoided in-person interaction and shopping — the demand for more digital financial offerings has exploded.

With its new initiative, Marqeta aims to be able to help its customers launch new customized credit card products “in a fraction of the time, with more flexible controls and features.”

 

For example, they will have what Marqeta describes as a modern credit system of record that can adjust account parameters, such as rewards, APR and credit lines, in real time based on custom rules. Customers will have the ability to instantly activate cardholders upon approval and provision cards directly into digital wallets.

Gardner called Menlo Park-based Deserve “an ideal first strategic partner” in its expansion into the credit card market.

“We plan to offer program management services for customers using our credit card issuing platform through an ecosystem of partners,” he said. “They are a good DNA fit for what we’re trying to accomplish – with a strong belief in the power of open APIs to increase speed to market, and also targeting innovators looking to build truly modern card products. They’re experienced in the credit card space, which has a unique set of requirements, and have a unique approach to underwriting.”

For its part, Deserve says its B2B business has been growing in recent years, with it currently adding one prospect every week and one new partner to its business every month. More than 1.5 million consumers have applied and interacted with its platform over the past three years and the company is currently serving hundreds of thousands of customers (directly and indirectly), with tens of millions of dollars transacting every month on its platform, according to Kapadia.

Deserves also manages the entire credit card infrastructure for companies like Sallie Mae in the cloud, whereby consumers applying for and using Sallie Mae credit cards are engaging with Deserve behind the scene. It also provides origination services to companies such as BankMobile. Other fintechs such as Opploans, BlockFi and Earnest use its entire credit card infrastructure to launch their credit products. 

The credit market is dominated by legacy technologies, high cost of operations and lack of customization and speed,” Kapadia told TechCrunch. “Marqeta’s leading card-issuing platform paired with Deserve’s digital card expertise will enable further innovation in the credit industry and provide consumers with superior card experiences.”

 

 

With over 1.3 million users, Nigerian-based fintech FairMoney wants to replicate growth in India

By Tage Kene-Okafor

There are over 1.7 billion underbanked people globally, the majority of which are from emerging markets. For them, accessing loans can be difficult, which is a problem fintechs try to solve. One way they do this is by promoting financial inclusion by underwriting credit via a proprietary algorithm.

One such company is FairMoney, which describes itself as “the mobile banking revolution for emerging markets.” FairMoney, founded by Laurin Hainy, Matthieu Gendreau and Nicolas Berthozat, is a licensed online lender that provides instant loans and bill payments to underserved consumers in emerging markets.

Three years after launching its mobile lending service in Nigeria, the company set up shop in India, Asia’s second-most populous country in August 2020.

Before expanding, FairMoney experienced exponential growth in Nigeria in terms of loans disbursement. Last year, it disbursed a total loan volume of $93 million, representing a 128% increase from 2019 and a staggering 3,189% growth rate from its first year of operation in 2018. As it stands, the company is projecting a $140 million loan disbursement volume by the end of 2021. 

“I think we’ve been able to disburse 25-30% more than some of our competitors and I think we’re a market leader,” Hainy, the company’s CEO told TechCrunch. But compared with traditional banks, it was the seventh-largest digital financial services provider in that area.

FairMoney has come a long way since its Nigeria launch in 2017. In its first year of operation, the company had little over 100,000 users. Now, it claims to have 1.3 million unique users who have made over 6.5 million loan applications. FairMoney offers loans from ₦1,500 ($3.30) to ₦500,000 ($1,110.00) with its longest loan facility standing at 12 months. Annual percentage rates fall within 30% to 260% — the high APR, Hainy says, is due to higher default rates in Nigeria. That said, FairMoney also claims to have an NPL ratio lower than 10%. 

According to the CEO, data-driven insights was behind the choice to expand to India. The Indian market is quite similar to Nigeria’s. In the Asian country, only 36% of adults have access to credit, leaving an untapped market of about 141 million people microfinance banks do not serve. But unlike Nigeria, India has better unit economics for the lending business and a more friendly regulatory environment.

“If our ambition is to build the leading mobile bank for emerging markets, we need to start with very large markets,” Hainy said. “We tested our products in 10 different markets checking out for things like what the yield economics is like, NPLs, cost of risk, customer acquisition cost, cost of infrastructure and India stood out to us.”

FairMoney Nigeria team

Following its expansion six months ago, FairMoney claims to have processed more than half a million loan applications from over 100,000 unique users. This number trickles down to 5,000-6,000 loan applications per day with APR standing at 12-36%. Hainy says the company has achieved this with zero ad spend or marketing. 

Due to the daunting logistics behind international expansions, it’s challenging for an African-based startup to expand outside the shores of the continent. Although a rarity, there are a couple of startups to have undertaken such a task. Last year, Nigerian fintech Paga with 15 million users and a network of over 24,000 agents acquired Ethiopian software company Apposit to fast-track its expansion into Ethiopia and Mexico. 

FairMoney is on a similar path, as well. And with over 100 staff spread across Nigeria, France, and Latvia, the company hopes to build an engineering and marketing team in India.

Last month, it hired the services of Rohan Khara to become its chief product officer (CPO) and facilitate the expansion. Khara was the former head of product for financial services for Indonesian super app Gojek and held senior roles at Microsoft, Quikr and MobiKwik. Hainy says with Khara’s wealth of experience building consumer products in large emerging markets — India and Indonesia — FairMoney is poised for massive growth in Nigeria and India.

“We both share the vision that financial services in emerging markets need fixing and for us, Rohan brings the expertise to see FairMoney scale from almost a million users to 10 or 20 million users.”

FairMoney French team

Born in Germany to a Nigerian father and German mother, Hainy began his entrepreneurial journey in 2015 by launching a food delivery company in Sweden. Seven months later, he founded Le Studio VC, a Paris-based startup studio and €15 million fund he ran as CEO for three years.

“After those three years, I realised that being an investor wasn’t for me yet. I felt I was too young and I wanted to build something myself,” he said.

Neobanks like Revolut in the UK and N26 in Germany were picking up across Europe. Hainy wanted to create such for Nigeria after noticing how much people lacked access to affordable financial services during a visit.

But despite studying other neobank models, Hainy and his team couldn’t replicate them in a developing market like Nigeria. Credit was still significantly underserved by Nigerian banks because of the strict methodology employed in allocating loans. Sensing an opportunity, they launched FairMoney as a neobank by leveraging a credit-first model. Like Nubank in Brazil, FairMoney started off offering loans to solve the access to credit problem. But its broader vision is not to be just a digital bank but also a commercial bank.

The company is working towards getting a microfinance bank license to operate as the former in Nigeria. However, according to the CEO, the commercial bank license will take longer maybe five to ten years. 

“In the next five to ten years, I’d like to think two out of the five largest commercial banks in Nigeria will be neobanks. We want FairMoney to be one of them,” he said.

The Lagos and Paris-based company raised $11 million Series A in 2019. Between now and the time it will get a commercial bank license, Hainy says the company would’ve raised its Series B round to position itself for that task.

After India, which emerging market will FairMoney expand to next? There’s none in sight at the moment, the CEO says. The company plans to move from a credit-led value proposition to a full financial service provider, deepen its verticals, and replicate Nigeria’s growth in India for now.

With software markets getting bigger, will more VCs bet on competing startups?

By Alex Wilhelm

This morning I covered three funding rounds. One dealt with the no-code/low-code space, another focused on the OKR software market, and the last dealt with a company in the consumer investing space. Worth a combined $420 million, the investments made for a contentedly busy morning.

But they also got me thinking about startup niches and competition. Back in the days when inside rounds were bad, SPACs were jokes and crypto a fever dream, there was lots of noise about investors who declined to place competing bets in any particular startup market.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


This rule of thumb still holds up today, but we need to update it. The general sentiment that investors shouldn’t back competing companies is still on display, as we saw Sequoia walk away from a check it put into Finix after it became clear that the smaller company was too competitive with Stripe, another portfolio company.

But as startups get more broad and stay private longer, the space into which VCs can invest may narrow — especially if they have a big winner that stays private while building both horizontally and vertically (like Stripe, for example).

Does that mean Sequoia can’t invest elsewhere in fintech? No, but it does limit their investing playing field.

Which is dumb as hell. Nothing that Sequoia could invest in today is really going to slow Stripe’s IPO, unless the company decides to not go public for a half-decade. Which would be lunacy, even for today’s live-at-home-with-the-parents startup culture that leans towards staying private over going public.

SeedFi closes on $65M to help financially struggling Americans get ahead

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and struggle to get out of a debt cycle.

One startup is developing financial products targeted toward this segment of the population, with the goal of helping them build credit, save money, access funds and plan for the future.

That startup, SeedFi, announced Wednesday it has raised $50 million in debt and $15 million in an equity funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz, also known as a16z. The VC firm also led SeedFi’s $4 million seed funding when it was founded in March of 2019.

Flourish, Core Innovation Capital and Quiet Capital also participated in the latest financing.

SeedFi was founded on the premise that it is difficult for many Americans to get ahead financially. Its founding team has worked at both startups and big banks, such as JPMorgan Chase and Capital One, and operates under the premise that many legacy financial institutions are simply not designed to help Americans who are struggling financially to get ahead. 

“We’ve seen firsthand how the system has been designed for underprivileged Americans to fail,” said Jim McGinley, co-founder and CEO of SeedFi. “Our average customer earns $50,000 a year, yet they pay $460 a year in overdraft fees and payday loan companies charge them APRs of 400% or more. They barely make enough to cover their expenses and any misstep can set them back for years.”

In previous roles, McGinley was responsible for payday loans for underserved communities.

“There I got insights to the financial difficulties they had and the need for better products to help them get a step up,” he told TechCrunch.

Co-founder Eric Burton said he can relate because he grew up in Central Texas as part of “a super poor family.”

“I experienced all the struggles of being low income and the necessity of taking on high-priced credit to get through day to day,” he recalled. “I personally was trapped in a debt cycle for a long time.”

In fact, a job offer he got from Capital One was temporarily rescinded because the company said he had “bad credit,” which turned out to be a result of unpaid medical bills he’d incurred at the age of 18.

“I didn’t know about them, but was able to get the job after using my signing bonus to pay off that debt,” he said. “So I can understand how a certain starting point makes it very hard to progress.”

SeedFi’s goal is to tackle the root of the problem. It launched in private beta in 2019, and helped its initial customers build more than $500,000 in savings — even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, it’s launching to the public with two offerings. One is a credit building product that is designed to “create important long-term savings habits.” Customers save as little as $10 from every paycheck, which is reported to the credit bureaus to build their credit history, and are then able to generate $500 in savings in six months’ time.

After six months of on-time payments, SeedFi customers with no credit history were able to establish a credit score of 600, while customers with existing credit scores and less than three credit accounts boosted their scores by 45 points, according to the company.

The concept of enabling consumers to build credit history beyond traditional methods is becoming increasingly more common. Just last week, we wrote about Tomo Credit, which provides customers with a debit card so they can build credit based on their cash flow.

SeedFi’s other offering, the Borrow & Grow Plan, is designed to be a more affordable alternative to installment or payday loans. It provides consumers with “immediate access” to funds while also helping them build savings and credit. 

Andreessen Horowitz general partner Angela Strange , who has joined SeedFi’s board with the financing, believes there’s “a massive business opportunity for new financial services entrants to reach historically underserved populations through better product experiences, underwriting and technology.”

In a blog post, she shares an example of how SeedFi works. The company evaluates risk and extends credit to a customer that might be traditionally hard to underwrite. It determines how much to lend, as well as the proportion of dollars to give as money now versus savings. 

“For instance, a typical SeedFi plan might be structured as $500 right now and $500 reserved in a savings account. The borrower pays off $1,000 over time, and at the end of the plan, he or she has $500 in a savings account. Not only has the borrower paid a lower interest rate, he or she is in a better financial position after making the decision to borrow money,” Strange writes.

Looking ahead, SeedFi plans to use its new capital to build out its product suite and grow its customer base. 

“We will be able to more efficiently fund our growing loan portfolio and serve more customers,” McGinley said.

Zolve raises $15 million for its cross-border neobank aimed at global citizens

By Manish Singh

Millions of students and professionals leave their home nation each year for work and pursue higher education. Even after spending months in the new country, they struggle to get a credit card from local banks, and have to pay a premium to access a range of other financial services.

Banks in the U.S., or in most other countries for that matter, rely on local credit score to determine the worthiness of potential applicants. Even if an individual had a great credit score in India, for instance, that wouldn’t matter to banks in other countries.

That was the takeaway Raghunandan G, the founder of ride-hailing firm TaxiForSure (sold to local giant Ola), returned to India with after a trip. After doing more research and assembling a team, Raghunandan believes he has a solution.

On Wednesday, he announced Zolve, a neobanking platform that is aimed global citizens. The startup works with banks in the U.S., India and other countries to provide consumers access to financial products seamlessly and without paying any premium.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Raghunandan said the startup underwrites the risks, which has enabled banks in foreign countries extend their services to Zolve customers. “Consumers can open an account with us and access all banking services as if they are banking with their national bank,” he said.

As part of the announcement, Raghunandan said Zolve has raised $15 million in a Seed financing round led by Accel and Lightspeed. Blume Ventures and several high-profile angel investors including Kunal Shah (founder of Cred), Ashish Gupta (formerly the MD of Helion), Greg Kidd (known for his investments in Twitter and Ripple), Rahul Mehta (Managing Partner at DST Global), Rahul Kishore (Senior Managing Director of Coatue Capital, also participated in the round. So did Founder Collective (which has backed Airtable and Uber), in what is its first investment in an Indian startup.

“Individuals with financial identities in multiple geographies need seamless global financial solutions and we believe the team’s strong identification with the problem will enable them to deliver compelling and innovative financial experiences,” said Bejul Somaia, Lightspeed India Partners, in a statement.

Before starting Zolve, Raghunandan founded TaxiForSure, a ride-hailing firm, that he later sold to Ola for $200 million.

The startup plans to offer a range of services including a credit card and insurance to its customers later this year. It has already amassed over 5,000 customers, said Raghunandan.

Zolve offers a range of compelling features even for those who don’t plan visit a foreign land. If you’re in India, for instance, you can use Zolve to buy shares of companies listed at U.S. exchanges. You can also buy bitcoin and other cryptocurrency from exchanges based in the U.S. or Europe, said Raghunandan.

“It is an absurd reality that global citizens have to rebuild their financial profile when they move to a new country. Zolve solves this problem by helping them get fair access to a suite of modern financial tools so they can participate in the new economy on an equal footing from day one,” said David Frankel, Managing Partner at Founder Collective.

“The global citizen community is largely underserved in terms of access to financial services and we believe that there is a huge market opportunity for Zolve. Raghu has a proven track record as a founder and we are delighted to partner with him again, on his latest venture. The team’s passion and commitment are commendable and we are positive that Zolve will create tremendous value for this community,” said Anand Daniel, partner at Accel, in a statement.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Inside Rover and MoneyLion’s SPAC-led public debuts

By Alex Wilhelm

If we are not careful, every entry of this column could consist of SPAC news.

Special purpose acquisition companies, or blank-check companies, whatever you prefer to call them, are enormous business today. But they aren’t the only thing going on, and we’ll get to other things shortly. Consider this an apology for having written about SPACs twice in two days.

Yesterday, we considered the rise of the VC-led SPAC and whether venture capital groups that offer seed-through-SPAC money will wind up with advantage in the market over firms that specialize on any particular startup stage. Sticking to the blank-check theme, this morning we’re looking into two SPAC-led deals, namely those involving Rover and MoneyLion.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


We’re doubling up to prevent more SPAC-related posts. And we’ve selected Rover because Chewy, another pet-themed entity, is an already-public company. As both were venture-backed, we may be able to contrast their trading performance post-debut. Sadly, Chewy is focused on pet e-commerce while Rover is more centered around pet services, but they may prove close enough for some loose comparisons.

And why chat about MoneyLion? Because it’s a heavily venture-backed fintech startup, one that TechCrunch has covered extensively. If its SPAC-assisted vault into the public markets goes well, it could smooth the same path forward for myriad other yet-private fintechs sitting atop a mountain of raised capital.

So this is a SPAC post, but as we’ll largely be looking at the financial health of two companies that we’ve heard about for ages and never got to see inside of, I hope you join me all the same.

We’re starting with the Rover investor presentation, before zipping over to MoneyLion’s own.

Rover

Rover is merging with Nebula Caravel Acquisition Corp., which is affiliated with True Wind Capital. The deal gives Rover an anticipated market cap of around $1.6 billion, with around $300 million in cash on its books.

So, how attractive is this new unicorn? You can find its investor deck here, if you want to read along as we peek.

First up, the company stresses rising use of digital services in the last year thanks to the pandemic and the fact that pet ownership is growing. Both of which are true. We’ve seen the accelerating digital transformation for both companies and consumers. And if you’ve tried to adopt a pet lately, you’ve seen how few are left waiting for forever homes.

With those things behind it, you might be wondering why Rover is pursuing a SPAC-led debut as well. If its market is hot and it has previously raised venture capital, why not just go public via an IPO? Because 2020 was tough on the company.

Revenue dipped from $95 million in 2019 to just $48 million last year. Bookings fell from 4.2 million to 2.4 million over the same time frame, leading to gross booking value falling from $436 million in 2019 to $233 million in 2020. Why? Because everyone was stuck at home. With their pets. A situation that limited demand for Rover-delivered pet services.

Titan nabs $12.5M for ‘next generation’ investment management

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Titan, a startup that is building a retail investment management platform aimed at millennials, has closed on $12.5 million in a Series A round led by VC heavyweight General Catalyst.

A bevy of other investors put money in the round, including Sound Ventures (actor Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s VC firm), Scribble VC, Y Combinator, South Park Commons, Instagram founder Mike Krieger, Lee Fixel and others. 

Titan is hoping to build on the momentum it saw in 2020, during which it grew revenue, customers and assets under management by 600%, “with effectively no marketing budget, according to co-founder Joe Percoco. The New York-based company says it’s approaching $500 million in assets under management and was cash flow positive last year.

Percoco met co-CEO Clay Gardner while the pair were at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“We came from two different backgrounds with respect to investing,” Percoco recalled. “He was the type that bought his first shares of stock at the ages of 11 and 12. I’m the exact opposite and couldn’t invest myself until after Goldman Sachs, where I went to work after Penn.”

Because the duo both worked in the industry, they found that friends and family were always asking them how they should manage their capital.

“We were sending them to ETFs and mutual funds in our day jobs,” Percoco said. “But we realized they did not have the same access to investing that the wealthier did.”

Frustrated with only helping the rich get richer, the pair founded Titan in 2017 with the goal of disrupting what they viewed as “an archaic industry. They’ve since built an operating system aimed at giving “everyday investors access to the types of investment products and experiences that they’ve historically been locked out of.” Or, as they describe, it a mobile version of what investment giants Fidelity and BlackRock created decades ago.

Titan’s capital management platform is designed for both accredited and unaccredited investors. The company says it provides access to services that would historically require a $1 million minimum, such as direct portfolio manager access. It charges a fee amounting to just 1% of assets, compared to the 2% – and in some cases 20% of profits – that legacy players charge.

“We believe Fidelity 2.0 will be direct-to-consumer with no walls and no black boxes,” Percoco said.

(For the unacquainted, according to Investopedia, black box accounting is the deliberate use of complex bookkeeping methodologies to make interpreting financial statements challenging and time-consuming.)

Its simplicity sets it apart. As TechCrunch previously reported, Titan’s app “chooses the best stocks by scraping top hedge fund data, adds some shorts based on your personal risk profile and puts your money to work. No worrying about market fluctuations or constantly rebalancing your portfolio. You don’t have to do anything, but can get smarter about stocks thanks to its in-app explanations and research reports.”

The startup currently offers two stock-focused strategies on its platform,

One of those strategies, called Flagship, is focused on large cap growth. The other, called Opportunities, focuses on smaller, under-the-radar companies.

All clients have direct access to its investment team and investor relations via Titan’s mobile operating system. The company also offers instant deposits, personal digital vaults (or separately managed accounts), fractional share-trading, and no lock-ups.

Titan’s core customer is the young professional in the 25-35 age range. 

“They’re already investing money somewhere, even if not that much of their money,” Gardner said. “But they’re well attuned to the reasons they should be… And, most asset management products remain in the Stone Age, offering 90-page prospectuses and black-box client experiences.”

As former TC editor Josh Constine explained when the company raised a $2.5 million seed round in October 2018, Titan differs from Robinhood or E*Trade, where users essentially are left to fend for themselves. But clients also have some control, unlike passive options such as Wealthfront and Betterment.

Looking ahead, Titan plans to use its new capital to scale its engineering and investment team, as well as make “significant investments” in product, marketing and operations. It also plans to launch several investment products across a variety of asset classes.  

“Many legacy players are hungry to have an OS to serve more folks they historically could not,” Percoco said. “We’re getting inbounds from legacy players in the space seeking to manage capital for new generations and realizing it will shift to mobile operating systems like Titan’s. Eventually, we can enable them to build their own investment products on Titan.” 

Katherine Boyle, partner at General Catalyst and Titan board member, said she was struck by Percoco and Gardner’s “deep empathy” for investors who are often overlooked — such as millennials and new investors “who have cash sitting in their checking accounts and want expert management but don’t know where to go.”

“They don’t want to be stock pickers but they don’t want a set-it-and-forget-it product,” Boyle said. “There’s another level of sophistication with actively managed products where the best managers are making investment decisions on behalf of those who can afford it. But there’s no reason why retail investors should be excluded from this model.”

She thinks Titan can capitalize on what she believes is millennials’ “deep lack of trust” in legacy institutions.

“We need new institutions like Titan to combat this lack of trust,” Boyle said. “And these new institutions need to have incentives that are aligned with their clients, not with hedge funds or banks.”

After pausing the business, Fronted finally launches to offer loans to cover rent deposits

By Steve O'Hear

Fronted, the London-based fintech aiming to make life easier for renters, including lending the cash needed for a deposit, has finally launched.

In March, its founders took the decision to “hibernate” the nascent business after the first lockdown and with the pandemic taking hold. But, now with regulatory approval from the FCA and rents falling in London, the startup is officially opening.

“We had a lot of great momentum and then when lockdown came it was like getting headshot from across the map,” Fronted co-founder and CEO Jamie Campbell tells me. “It was when we heard that people weren’t able to move [that] we knew it would be impossible to find early testers for the product and that is when we decided to look at different options. We knew lockdown would delay launching and the furlough scheme gave us options and time. In the end, it was an easy decision and, looking back, it was the right one”.

Founded by Campbell, Simon Vans-Colina and Anthony Mann — former employees at Bud, Monzo and Apple, respectively — and backed by Passion Capital, Fronted is using open banking and other financial technology to offer a credit product designed to finance deposits directly. The pitch is that Fronted can lend more cheaply than existing options, such as credit cards, pay-day lenders and overdrafts, or insurance-backed membership schemes. And, crucially, at lower risk.

“Renting sucks — anyone who rents knows it,” Campbell told me last year. “There are so many problems to solve and we intend to tackle them all bit by bit. But first, we are going to pay people’s rent deposits for them so they can pay us back in bite-size manageable amounts”.

To be able to apply for a Fronted rental deposit loan, you’ll need to be U.K. citizen, have a bank account with more than six months of transaction data and minimum income of £12,000. You are then asked to securely link your bank account data to Fronted via open banking, in order to assess your affordability beyond a simple credit score.

“We believe [this] is a fairer way to determine whether or not someone qualifies for a deposit from us,” explains Campbell. “We are confident we are launching with a fair approach. We don’t, for instance, turn people away who are on benefits or furloughed”.

Fronted loans last 12 months and carry a 12.5% interest rate. However, there are no early repayment fees. Once a loan is agreed, the startup sends the money directly to the estate agent to be placed in the U.K.’s Deposit Protection Scheme, meaning that the loan never touches the renter’s hands (or wallet).

Meanwhile, the timing looks good. Fronted says that 60% of all renters have no savings and are therefore not in a great position to move. Meanwhile, rents are falling as much as 12% in London, meaning that renters could save huge amounts of money simply by moving.

“Deposits are a huge impediment to social mobility; the amount of people who don’t move because they don’t have the money on hand is staggering,” adds the Fronted CEO, noting customers don’t just include those that have already found a place, but also those who are still looking.

“People who haven’t found a place, they are coming to us to see what deposit they could get and then going to find a property… For those people, we give them a maximum which is valid for 30 days so they can shop around knowing they have Fronted in their back pocket”.

Travel startup GetYourGuide secures $97M revolving credit facility

By Ingrid Lunden

Many countries hit hard by Covid-19 are beginning to see a glimmer of optimism from the arrival of vaccinations. Now, a promising travel startup that saw its growth arrested by the arrival and persistence of the pandemic is announcing a $97 million financing facility to help it stay the course until it can finally resume normal business.

GetYourGuide, the Berlin startup that curates, organizes and lets travelers and others book tours and other experiences, has secured a revolving credit facility of €80 million ($97 million at current rates). The financing is being led by UniCredit, with CitiGroup, Silicon Valley Bank, Deutsche Bank and KfW also participating.

CFO Nils Chrestin said in an interview that the funding will let GetYourGuide come “sprinting out of the gates” when consumers are in a better position to enjoy travel experiences again.

The capital could be used potentially for normal business expenses, for acquisitions or investments, or other strategic initiatives, such as more investment into the company’s in-house Originals tour operations or new services to book last-minute experiences, he added.

And even if a lot of tourism has really slowed down, there are still people taking short-distance trips or buying activities in the cities where they live (and are not leaving). While some metro areas like London are essentially only open for booking well in advance (when the hope is lockdown restrictions might be eased), other cities like Rome or Amsterdam have activities available for booking today.

GetYourGuide’s latest financing news underscores how some startups — specifically those whose business models have not lended themselves well to pandemic living — are getting more creative with their approaches to staying afloat.

GetYourGuide has raised more than $600 million in equity capital since 2009, with its Series E of $484 million in 2019 (before the pandemic) valuing it at well over $1 billion.

But more recently, the startup backed by the likes of SoftBank, Temasek, Lakestar, and others has been shoring up its position with alternative forms of finance.

In October, GetYourGuide closed a convertible note of $133 million. While it has yet to raise the equity round that would covert that note — it could be up to 18 months before another equity round is closed, CEO and co-founder Johannes Reck told me at the time — this latest revolving debt facility is giving the startup another efficient route to accessing money.

Unlike equity rounds (or notes that can convert into equity), revolving debt facilities are non-dilutive, flexible lines of credit, where companies can quickly draw down funds as needed up to the full value of the facility. After repaying with interest, they can re-draw up to the same limit again.

In that regard, revolving debt facilities are not unlike credit cards for consumers, and similarly, they are a sign of how banks rate GetYourGuide, and perhaps the travel industry more generally, as strong candidates for paying back, and eventually bouncing back.

“We are very happy to help GetYourGuide continue its growth trajectory during this extraordinary situation that we find ourselves in”, says Jan Kupfer, head of corporate and investment banking, Germany, at UniCredit, in a statement. “The successful financing also shows once again our unique tech advisory approach, where we combine our deep tech expertise with the broad product range of a pan-European commercial bank.”

“Extraordinary situation” is perhaps an understatement for the rough year that travel businesses have had.

There do remain parts of the industry that have yet to make the leap to digital platforms — experiences, the focus of GetYourGuide, is very much one of them — and that makes for very interesting and potentially big businesses.

But between government-imposed travel restrictions, and people reluctant to venture far, or mix and mingle with others, startups like GetYourGuide have essentially found themselves treading water until things get moving again.

Last October, GetYourGuide said it had passed 45 million ticket sales in aggregate on its platform, but that figure was only up by 5 million in 10 months. As we pointed out at the time, that speaks both to a major slowdown in growth and to the struggles that companies like it are facing, and it is very likely far from the projections the startup had originally made for its expansion before the pandemic hit.

It’s not the only one: air travel, hotels, and other sectors that fall into the travel and tourism industries have largely been stagnating or in freefall or decline this year. Many believe that those who will be left standing after all of this will have to collectively brace themselves for potentially years of financial turmoil to come back from it.

Interestingly, Airbnb presents an alternative reality, at least for the moment. It appears to have captured investors’ attention and since going public in December has been on a steady upswing.

Analysts may say that there hasn’t been a lot of news coming out about the company to merit that rise, but one explanation has been that the optimism has more to do with its longer-term potential and for how tech-savvy routes to filling travel needs will indeed be the services that people will use before the rest.

That could be part of the pitch for GetYouGuide, too. Chrestin said that the company believes that travel in the U.S. market, a key region for the startup, is looking like it might rebound in Q2 or Q3. Yet even if it doesn’t, the company has the runway to wait longer.

Chrestin noted that GetYourGuide has “reinvented internal processes” and is operating much more efficiently now. “If it weren’t for the global hardship this crisis is causing, we would look back and say it was quite transformational,” he said.

“The company is very well capitalized and fully funded to profitability. Even if the current travel volume stayed like this for three years, we would not run out of capital,” he continued. “We have sufficient capital even for that scenario, but we don’t think that will happen.”

With Ironspring Ventures, Texas gets a $61 million new fund focused on ‘industrial’ technologies

By Jonathan Shieber

From the chemical refineries that line the Gulf Coast to oilfields of West Texas, heavy industry has always been a big part of the economy in the Lone Star State.

Now, as venture capital moves in to the state as part of an exodus from California, a new fund is combining Texas’ industrial past with its high technology future.

That fund is Ironspring Ventures, which has closed its first investment vehicle with $61 million nearly two years after it launched its fundraising efforts.

The fruit of a partnership between Adam Bridgman and Peter J. Holt, the co-founders of an earlier investment vehicle called Holt Ventures, and Ty Findley, a former investor at G.E. Ventures and the Pritzker Group, the firm’s mission is to “accelerate digital adoption across legacy heavy industries,” according to Bridgman.

Each member of the Ironspring team has a long history with industrial technologies and deep roots in the Texas economy. Findley, a managing partner, grew up “in the middle of nowhere in East Texas” but comes from a family of entrepreneurs who built businesses along the Texas and Louisiana border.

“I joined up with our other co-founder and managing partner, Peter Holt,” said Bridgman. “That was really step one for us pursuing this broader mission of investing in legacy industry at the early stage of digital innovation. We were fortunate to find a strong cultural alignment and rare experience with Ty [Findley]. After co-investing over a period of time we got to know each other very well. We joined forces and it’s been a nice journey over the last year-and-a-half of formally launching and formally closing the fund in December.”

The first deal that the three men invested in together was Augmentir, a service providing information and support for remote workers. “Everything comes back to these words ‘digital industrial’ for us,” said Findley. “There’s this massive gap where people forget that almost the majority of GDP in this country is manufacturing.”

So far, Ironspring has invested in four portfolio companies, Mercado, which is developing a service to improve the import process; Icon Build, a company developing 3-D printing tools and technologies for the building industry;  FastRadius, which brings design tools and services for prototyping and industrial design; and GoContractor, a safety and compliance management service.

The firm’s average check size is around $2.5 million and investments will range from $1 million on the low end to $4 million on the high end, according to the firm’s partners. That means looking for what the firm called “post-seed” deals.

And the firm is looking for technology that is transforming how businesses design products, build them, and provide services and operate across the wide range of industrial output.

“We’re trying to organize around those themes,” said Bridgman. 

Calling Danish VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our survey of VCs in Copenhagen and Denmark will capture how the country is faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to know how Denmark’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19 and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey. (Please note, if you have filled out the survey already, there is no need to do it again).

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Denmark, but would like to take part? That’s fine! Any European VC investor can STILL fill out the survey, as we probably will be putting a call out to your country next anyway! And we will use the data for future surveys on vertical topics.

The survey is covering almost every country on in the Union for the Mediterranean, so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com

(Please note: Filling out the survey is not a guarantee of inclusion in the final published piece.)

There is infinite money for stock-trading startups

By Alex Wilhelm

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday morning? Sign up here

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

Earlier this week TechCrunch broke the news that Public, a consumer stock trading service, was in the process of raising more money. Business Insider quickly filled in details surrounding the round, that it could be around $200 million at a valuation of $1.2 billion. Tiger could lead.

Public wants to be the anti-Robinhood. With a focus on social, and a recent move away from generating payment for order flow (PFOF) revenues that have driven Robinhood’s business model, and attracted criticism, Public has laid its bets. And investors, in the wake of its rival’s troubles, are ready to make it a unicorn.

Of course, the Public round comes on the heels of Robinhood’s epic $3.4 billion raise, a deal that was shocking for both its scale and speed. The trading service’s investors came in force to ensure it had the capital it needed to continue supporting consumer trades. Thanks to Robinhood’s strong Q4 2020 results, and implied growth in Q1 2021, the boosted investment made sense.

As does the Public money, provided that 1) The company is seeing lots of user growth, and 2) That it figures out its forever business model in time. We cannot comment on the second, but we can say a bit about the first point.

Thanks not to Public, really, but M1 Finance, a Midwest-based consumer fintech that has a stock-buying function amongst its other services (more on it here). It told TechCrunch that it saw a quadrupling of signups in January as compared to December. And in the last two weeks, it saw six times as many signups as the preceding two weeks.

Given that M1 doesn’t allow for trading — something that its team repeatedly stressed in notes to TechCrunch — we can’t draw a perfect line between M1 and Public and Robinhood, but we can infer that there is huge consumer interest in investing of late. Which helps explain why Public, which is hunting up a way to generate long-term incomes, can raise another round just months after it closed a different investment.

Our notes last year on how savings and investing were the new thing last year are accidentally becoming even more true than we expected.

Market Notes

As the week came to a close, Coupang filed to go public. You can read our first look here, but it’s going to be big news. Also on the IPO beat, Matterport is going out via a SPAC, I chatted with Metromile CEO Dan Preston about his insurtech public offering this week that also came via a SPAC, and so on.

Oscar Health filed, and it doesn’t look super strong. So its impending valuation is going to test public traders. That’s not a problem that Bumble had when it priced above-range this week and then skyrocketed after it started to trade. Natasha and I (she’s on Equity, as well) have some notes from Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd that we’ll get to you early next week. (Also I chatted about the IPO with the BBC a few times, which was neat, the first of which you can check out here if you’d like.)

Roblox’s impending public debut was also back in the news this week. The company was a bit bigger than it thought last year (cool), but may delay its direct listing to March (not cool).

Near to the IPO beat, Carta started to allow its own shares to trade recently, on the back of news that its revenues have scaled to around $150 million. Not bad Carta, but how about a real IPO instead of staying private? The company’s valuation more than doubled during the secondary transitions.

And then there were so very many cool venture capital rounds that I couldn’t get to this week. This Koa Health round, for example. And whatever this Slync.io news is. (If you want some earlier-stage stuff, check out recent rounds from Treinta, Level, Ramp and Monte Carlo.

And to close, a small callout to Ontic, which provides “protective intelligence software” and said that its revenue grew 177% last year. I appreciate the sharing of the numbers, so wanted to highlight the figure.

Various and Sundry

Wrapping this week, I have a final bit for you to chew on from Mark Mader, the CEO of Smartsheet, a public company — former startup, it’s worth noting — that plays in the no-code, automation and collaboration markets. That’s a rough summary. Anyhoo, I asked Mader about no-code trends in 2021, as I have my eyes on the space. Here’s what he wrote for us:

If you thought the sudden shift to remote work sped up corporate America’s shift to digital, you haven’t seen anything yet. Digital transformation is going to accelerate even more rapidly in 2021. Last year, the workforce was exposed to many different types of technology all at once. For example, a company may have deployed Zoom or DocuSign for the first time. But much of this shift involved taking analog processes like meetings or document signing and approval and bringing them online. Things like this are merely a first step. 2021 is the year the companies will begin to connect large-scale digital events to infrastructure that can make them automated and repeatable. It’s the difference between one person signing a document and hundreds of people signing hundreds of documents, with different rules for each one. And that’s just one example. Another use case could involve linking HR software to project management software for automated, real-time resource allocation that allows a company to get more out of both platforms, as well as its people. The businesses that can automate and simplify complex workflows like these will see dramatically improved efficiency and return on their technology investments, putting them on the path to true transformation and improved profitability.

We shall see!

Alex

 

China’s draft payments rules put Ant, Tencent on notice

By Rita Liao

A string of recent events in China’s payments industry suggests the duopoly comprising Ant Group and Tencent may be getting a shakeup.

Following the abrupt call-off of Ant’s public sale and a government directive to reform the firm’s business, the Chinese authorities sent another message this week signaling its plan to curb concentration in the flourishing digital payments industry.

The set of draft rules, designed to regulate non-bank payments and released by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) this week, said any non-bank payments processor with over one-third of the non-bank payments market or two companies with a combined half of the market could be subject to regulatory warnings from the anti-monopoly authority under the State Council.

Meanwhile, a single non-bank payments provider with over one half of the digital payments market or two companies with a combined two-thirds of the market could be investigated for whether they constitute a monopoly.

The difference between the two rules is nuanced here, with the second stipulation focusing on digital payments as opposed to non-bank payments in the first.

Furthermore, the rules did not specify how authorities measure an organization’s market share, say, whether the judgment is based on an entity’s total transaction value, its transaction volume, or other metrics.

Alipay processed over half of China’s third-party payments transactions in the first quarter of 2020, according to market researcher iResearch, while Tencent handled nearly 40% of the payments in the same period.

 

As China heightens scrutiny over its payments giants, it’s also opening up the financial market to international players. In December, Goldman Sachs moved to take full ownership of its Chinese joint venture. This month, PayPal became the first foreign company with 100% control of a payments business in China after it bought out the remaining stake in its local payments partner Guofubao.

Industry experts told TechCrunch that PayPal won’t likely go after the domestic payments giants but may instead explore opportunities in cross-border payments, a market with established players like XTransfer, which was founded by a team of Ant veterans.

Ant and Tencent also face competition from other Chinese internet firms. Companies ranging from food delivery platform Meituan, e-commerce platforms Pinduoduo and JD.com, to TikTok’s parent firm ByteDance have introduced their own e-wallets, though none of them have posed an imminent threat to Alipay or WeChat Pay.

The comprehensive proposal from PBOC also defines how payments processors handle customer data. Non-bank payments services are to store certain user information and transaction history and cooperate with relevant authorities on data checks. Companies are also required to obtain user consent and make clear to customers how their data are collected and used, a rule that reflects China’s broader effort to clamp down on unscrupulous data collection.

Israel’s startup ecosystem powers ahead, amid a year of change

By Mike Butcher

Released in 2011 “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” was a book that laid claim to the idea that Israel was an unusual type of country. It had produced and was poised to produce, an enormous number of technology startups, given its relatively small size. The moniker became so ubiquitous, both at home and abroad, that “Israel Startup Nation” is now the name of the country’s professional cycling team.

But it’s been hard to argue against this position in the last ten years, as the country powered ahead, famously producing ground-breaking startups like Waze, which was eventually picked up by Google for over $1 billion in 2013. Waze’s 100 employees received about $1.2 million on average, the largest payout to employees in Israeli high tech at the time, and the exit created a pool of new entrepreneurs and angel investors ever since.

Israel’s heady mix of questioning culture, tradition of national military service, higher education, the widespread use of English, appetite for risk and team spirit makes for a fertile place for fast-moving companies to appear.

And while Israel doesn’t have a Silicon Valley, it named its high-tech cluster “Silicon Wadi” (‘wadi’ means dry desert river bed in Arabic and colloquial Hebrew).

Much of Israel’s high-tech industry has emerged from former members of the country’s elite military intelligence units such as the Unit 8200 Intelligence division. From age 13 Israel’s students are exposed to advanced computing studies, and the cultural push to go into tech is strong. Traditional professions attract low salaries compared to software professionals.

Israel’s startups industry began emerging in the late 19080s and early 1990s. A significant event came with acquisitor by AOL of the the ICQ messaging system developed by Mirabilis. The Yozma Programme (Hebrew for “initiative”) from the government, in 1993, was seminal: It offered attractive tax incentives to foreign VCs in Israel and promised to double any investment with funds from the government. This came decades ahead of most western governments.

It wasn’t long before venture capital firms started up and major tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Samsung have R&D centers and accelerators located in the country.

So how are they doing?

At the start of 2020, Israeli startups and technology companies were looking back on a good 2019. Over the last decade, startup funding for Israeli entrepreneurs had increased by 400%. In 2019 there was a 30% increase in startup funding and a 102% increase in M&A activity. The country was experiencing a 6-year upward funding trend. And in 2019 Bay Area investors put $1.4 billion into Israeli companies.

By the end of last year, the annual Israeli Tech Review 2020 showed that Israeli tech firms had raised a record $9.93 billion in 2020, up 27% year on year, in 578 transactions – but M&A deals had plunged.

Israeli startups closed out December 2020 by raising $768 million in funding. In December 2018 that figure was $230 million, in 2019 it was just under $200 million.

Late-stage companies drew in $8.33 billion, from $6.51 billion in 2019, and there were 20 deals over $100 million totaling $3.26 billion, compared to 18 totaling $2.62 billion in 2019.

Top IPOs among startups were Lemonade, an AI-based insurance firm, on the New York Stock Exchange; and life sciences firm Nanox which raised $165 million on the Nasdaq.

The winners in 2020 were cybersecurity, fintech and internet of things, with food tech cooing on strong. But while the country has become famous for its cybersecurity startups, AI now accounts for nearly half of all investments into Israeli startups. That said, every sector is experiencing growth. Investors are also now favoring companies that speak to the Covid-era, such as cybersecurity, ecommerce and remote technologies for work and healthcare.

There are currently over 30 tech companies in Israel that are valued over $1 Billion. And four startups passed the $1 billion valuation just last year: mobile game developer Moon Active; Cato Networks, a cloud-based enterprise security platform; Ride-hailing app developer Gett got $100 million ahead of its rumored IPO; and behavioral biometrics startup BioCatch.

And there was a reminder that Israel can produce truly ‘magical’ tech: Tel Aviv battery storage firm StorDot raised money from Samsung Ventures and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for its battery which can fully charge a motor scooter in five minutes.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic put a break on mergers and acquisitions in 2020, as the world economy closed down.

M&A was just $7.8 billion in 93 deals, compared to over $14.2 billion in 143 M&A deals in 2019. RestAR was acquired by American giant Unity; CloudEssence was acquired by a U.S. cyber company; and Kenshoo acquired Signals Analytics.

And in 2020, Israeli companies made 121 funding deals on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and global capital markets, raising a total of $6.55 billion, compared to $1.95 billion raised in capital markets in Israel and abroad in 2019, as IPOs became an attractive exit alternative.

However, early-round investments (Seed + A Rounds) slowed due to pandemic uncertainty, but picked-up again towards the end of the year. As in other countries in ‘Covid 2020’, VC tended to focus on existing portfolio companies.

Covid brought unexpected upsides: Israeli startups, usually facing longs flight to Europe or the US to raise larger rounds of funding, suddenly found that Zoom was bringing investors to them.

Israeli startups adapted extremely well in the Covid era and that doesn’t look like changing. Startup Snapshot found that 55% startups profiled had changed (or considered changing) their product due to Covid-19. Meanwhile, remote-working – which comes naturally to Israeli entrepreneurs – is ‘flattening’ the world, giving a great advantage to normally distant startup ecosystems like Israel’s.

Via Transportation raised $400 million in Q1. Next Insurance raised $250 million in Q3. Seven exit transactions with over the $500 million mark happened in Q1–Q3/2020, compared to 10 for all of 2019. These included Checkmarx for $1.1 billion and Moovit, also for a billion.

There are three main hubs for the Israeli tech scene, in order of size: Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s economy and therefore startup scene suffered after the second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising that began in late September 2000 and ended around 2005). But today the city is far more stable, and is therefore attracting an increasing number of startups. And let’s not forget visual recognition company Mobileye, now worth $9.11 billion (£7 billion), came from Jerusalem.

Israel’s government is very supportive of it’s high-tech economy. When it noticed seed-stage startups were flagging, the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) announced the launch of a new funding program to help seed-stage and early-stage startups, earmarking NIS 80 million ($25 million) for the project.

This will offer participating companies grants worth 40 percent of an investment round up to $1.1 million and 50 percent of a total investment round for startups in the country or whose founders come from under-represented communities – Arab-Israeli, ultra-Orthodox, and women – in the high-tech industry.

Investments in Israeli seed-stage startups decreased both absolutely and as a percentage of total investments in Israeli startups (to 6% from 11%). However, the decline may also be a function of large tech firms setting up incubation hubs to cut up and absorb talent.

Another notable aspect of Israel’s startups scene is its, sometimes halting, attempt to engage with its Arab Israeli population. Arab Israelis account for 20% of Israel’s population but are hugely underrepresented in the tech sector. The Hybrid Programme is designed to address this disparity.

It, and others like it, this are a reminder that Israel is geographically in the Middle East. Since the recent normalization pact between Israel and the UAE, relations with Arab states have begun to thaw. Indeed, Over 50,000 Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates since the agreement.

In late November, Dubai-based DIFC FinTech Hive—the biggest financial innovation hub in the Middle East—signed a milestone agreement with Israel’s Fintech-Aviv. Both entities will now work together to facilitate the cross-border exchange of knowledge and business between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a sign that Israel is becoming more at ease with its place in the region? Certainly, both Israel’s tech scene and the Arab world’s is set to benefit from these more cordial relations.

Our Israel survey is here.

Financial forecasting startup Springbox AI launches its apps and raises $2M

By Mike Butcher

Springbox AI, an AI-powered financial forecasting application designed to replace financial market investment service and aimed at the average financial markets trader, has launched on iOS and Android.

It’s been built by a team of founders who previously worked at Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, UBS, and BNP Paribas. It’s so far raised $2M in funding from private investors in Europe.

The app costs $49 a month, and includes a range of tools including market forecasting; live market screening of stocks, forex, and futures markets; and trading news.

Springbox AI Co-Founder Kassem Lahham said: “Most brokers focus their marketing by selling investors the dream or the myth of easy-money, resulting in 96% of self-traders losing money and quitting. Using Springbox AI traders will have access to an app that will help them succeed, focused on the data.”

Springbox competes with trading apps like eToro, but eToro focuses on social trading and following a strong investor from the community. Springbox is designed for slightly more sophisticated traders, say the founders.

Monzo founder Tom Blomfield is departing the challenger bank and says he’s ‘struggled’ during the pandemic

By Steve O'Hear

Monzo founder Tom Blomfield is departing the U.K. challenger bank entirely at the end of the month, staff were informed earlier today.

Blomfield held the role of CEO until May last year when he assumed the newly created title of president and resigned from the Monzo board. However, having been given the time and space to consider his long-term future at the bank he helped create six years ago, and with a refreshed executive team now in place, he says it is time to “hand over the baton”.

In a brief but candid telephone interview, Blomfield also revealed that, as well as being unhappy during the last couple of years as CEO when the company scaled well beyond a “scrappy startup”, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns exacerbated pressures placed on his own mental well-being. “I’m very happy to talk about what’s gone on with me, because I don’t think people do it enough”, he says.

“I stopped enjoying my role probably about two years ago… as we grew from a scrappy startup that was iterating and building stuff people really love, into a really important U.K. bank. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, just that the things I enjoy in life is working with small groups of passionate people to start and grow stuff from scratch, and create something customers love. And I think that’s a really valuable skill but also taking on a bank that’s three, four, five million customers and turning it into a 10 or 20 million customer bank and getting to profitability and IPOing it, I think those are huge exciting challenges, just honestly not ones that I found that I was interested in or particularly good at”.

In early 2019 after realising he was “doing too much and not enjoying it,” Blomfield began talking to Monzo investor Eileen Burbidge of Passion Capital, and Monzo Chair Gary Hoffman, about changing roles and how he needed more help. Then, he says, “COVID just exasperated things,” a period when Monzo also had to cut staff, shutter its Las Vegas office and raise bridge funding in a highly publicised down round.

“I think [for] a lot of people in the world — and you and I have spoken about this — going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” says Blomfield. “I don’t think I was any different, so I was really struggling. I had a really, really supportive exec team around me and a really supportive set of investors on board and I was really grateful that when I put my hand up and said, ‘I need help,’ they were super receptive to that”.

Blomfield also comes clean about his role as president, a title that was intended as a way to provide the time and space for him to get well and figure out if he would return longer-term to Monzo or depart entirely. Contrary to rumours, Blomfield says he wasn’t pushed out by investors. Instead, the Monzo board actually put pressure on him to remain as CEO longer than he wanted or perhaps should have (a version of events corroborated by my own sources). “When I took that president role, it was not certain one way or another what would happen,” Blomfield says, apologising in case I felt I was misled when I reported the news.

(The truth is, within weeks of running that news piece, I knew it was far from certain Blomfield would ever return, with multiple sources, including people close to and worried about Blomfield, confiding in me how burned out the Monzo founder was. As weeks turned into months and following additional sourcing, I had enough information to write a follow-up story much earlier but chose to wait until a formal decision was taken.)

TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear interviewing Monzo’s Tom Blomfield. Image Credits: Startup Grind

Meanwhile, Blomfield describes his resignation as a Monzo employee as “bitter-sweet,” and is keen to praise what the Monzo team has already achieved, including since his much-reduced involvement. “I think the team has done phenomenally well over the last year or so in really difficult circumstances,” he says. In particular, he cites Monzo’s new CEO TS Anil as doing a “phenomenal” job, while describing Sujata Bhatia, who joined as COO last year, as “an absolute machine, a real operator”.

To that end, Monzo now has almost 5 million customers, up from 1.3 million in 2019. Monzo’s total weekly revenue is now 30% higher than pre-pandemic, helped no doubt by over 100,000 paid subscribers across Monzo Plus and Premium in the last five months (sources tell me the company surpassed £2 million in weekly revenue in December for the first time in its history). Albeit at a lower valuation, the challenger bank also raised £125 million from new and existing investors during the pandemic.

Blomfield also says that Anil and Bhatia and other members of the Monzo executive team have specific skills — that he simply doesn’t have — related to scaling and managing a bank approaching 5 million customers. And even if he did, he has learned the hard way that there are aspects of running a large company that not everyone enjoys.

“Going from a CEO where you’re front and centre dealing with all of the different pressures every day to a much lighter role is a huge huge weight off my shoulders and has given me the time and space to recover”, he adds. “I’m now feeling pretty great. I’m enjoying life again”.

As for what’s next for Blomfield, he says he wants to “chill out” for a bit and perhaps take a holiday. He’s also finishing his vaccination training so that he can volunteer to help deliver the U.K.’s national COVID-19 vaccination rollout. A recent tweet by Blomfield about a side project also led to speculation that he has begun a new venture. Not true, says Blomfield, telling me it was a five-day project designed to get back into coding and play with a robotic 2D printer. And while he’s very much left Monzo, he says he’ll continue cheering on the company from the outside.

PPRO nabs $180M at a $1B+ valuation to bring together the fragmented world of payments

By Ingrid Lunden

The pandemic has hastened a shift of most commerce becoming e-commerce in the last year, and that has brought a new focus on startups that are helping to enable that process.

In the latest development, PPRO, a London-based startup that has built a platform to make it easier for marketplaces, payment providers and other e-commerce players to enable localised payments — that is, make and take payments in whatever form local customers prefer to use, which extend well beyond basic payment cards — has closed a round of $180 million, funding that catapults PPRO’s valuation to over $1 billion.

PPRO (pronounced “P-pro”, as in payments professionals) plans to use the funding to continue expanding in newer markets.

Simon Black, PPRO’s CEO, said in an interview that two particular areas of focus in the coming year will be more activity in Asian countries like Singapore and Indonesia, as well as Latin America, where the company acquired a local player, allpago, back in 2019.

In both cases, the opportunity comes in the form of high growth stemming from more transactions moving online, as well as the chaos that is the fragmented payments market.

The capital is coming from a group of investors that includes Eurazeo Growth, Sprints Capital, and Wellington Management. It comes on the heels of a $50 million round the company raised last August from Sprints, along with Citi and HPE Growth; and a further $50 million it picked up in 2018 led by strategic investor PayPal.

PayPal, alongside Citi, Mastercard Payment Gateway Services, Mollie, and Worldpay are among PPRO’s 100 large global customers, which use the company’s APIs for a variety of functions, including localised gateway, processing and merchant acquirer services.

The flood of activity coming from consumers and businesses buying more online — a by-product of the pandemic leading to many businesses shutting down physical operations for the moment — has seen the company double transaction volumes between Q4 2020 and the same quarter in 2019.

PPRO is not the only company to be targeting that opportunity.

The fragmentation of financial services overall — where realistically, there is only handful of types of transactions that might be made (usually: deposits, payments, credit), but quite literally thousands of permutations and methods to make them, with specific markets and their populations typically coalescing around their own localised selections.

That has led to the rise of a number of companies providing what has come to be called “banking as a service” or “fintech as a service,” where a tech provider stitches together in the background a number of services, sometimes thousands, and makes it easier for their customers, by way of an API, to plug those services in for their own customers to use more easily, most often connected to a range of other services provided to them like money management.

Others in this wider space that includes payments and other fintech services include the likes of Rapyd, Mambu, Thought Machine, Temenos, Edera, Adyen, Stripe and newer players like Unit, with many of these raising large amounts of money in recent times in particular to double down on what is currently a rapidly expanding market.

The unique aspect of PPRO is that it was an early mover in the area of identifying the conundrum of fragmentation in payments for companies that operate in more than one country or region, and that it has continued to play only in payments, without a jump to adjacent services.

“We’re ultra focused because the local payments problem is actually growing,” said Black, who believes that “the disconnect between what a consumer wants to use, but also their appetite and the proliferation of payment options” all contribute to more complexity (with the trade-off being more choices for consumers, but equally possibly too much choice?).

As Black sees it, the company’s focus on payments has given it more momentum to build better tech specifically to address that globally.

“PPRO is building solutions for performance in industrial strength. It’s growing rapidly because there are no other players that are truly global. We are globalizing to support the needs of customers who want to nationalize, so we have an opportunity to focus on payments, to be a strategic outsource partner.”

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for product expansion: alongside payments, Black highlighted product compliance and providing better analytics as two areas where the company is already active and will be doing more for customers.

“Where we partner and provide value is in anticipating changes in consumer demand,” he noted. “We monitor how customers are using those methods and — whether you are are service provider or furniture or travel company — determine which are the best relevant payment methods.” Services like open banking, tools for banks to enable allowing payments directly from customers’ accounts, or buy-now-pay-later payments, are examples, he said, of areas that speak of further opportunities.

“We are delighted to support Simon and the team at PPRO as they continue to develop best-in-class local payment solutions,” commented Nathalie Kornhoff-Brüls, Managing Director at Eurazeo Growth, in a statement. “All signs for the future indicate that digital commerce, and even more so cross-border commerce, will continue to grow exponentially while innovation in payment methods remains strong. As a result, facilitating local payments is becoming increasingly complex. Payment service providers, however, no longer have a choice as merchants and their customers are pushing for the adoption.”

“PPRO has proven to be the go-to problem solver in this area, providing the local payments technology and expertise that the world’s biggest payment players rely on. Our investment reflects our confidence in the growth potential for PPRO and we’re excited to support PPRO and its team on their journey,” added Voria Fattahi, a partner at Sprints Capital, in a separate statement.

LeoCare raises $18.1 million for its insurance products designed to fit in a mobile app

By Romain Dillet

French startup LeoCare has raised a €15 million funding round. Felix Capital, Ventech and Daphni are participating in today’s funding round. The company is selling a portfolio of insurance products with a focus on the signup process and user experience. You can control your insurance products from a mobile app.

Chances are you already pay for multiple insurance products. But when is the last time you checked your coverage and adjusted your contract? When people sign up to a new insurance product, they tend to set it and forget it.

That’s why insurance companies don’t invest a ton of money on mobile apps, control panels and user-facing features. LeoCare believes there’s room for a player that does the opposite.

LeoCare can insure your home, your car, your motorbike and your smartphone. You can sign up from the company’s website or install a mobile app. The company has tried to optimize the onboarding process with easy-to-understand questions and an indicator that tells you if you’re going to pay a bit more or a lot more if you choose one option or another.

When you sign up, you get your insurance contract right away. This way, you can send it to a landlord a few minutes later. But LeoCare also helps you manage your contract later down the road. For instance, many LeoCare customers chose to lower their car insurance premiums during lockdown. You can also add another driver for a couple of weeks.

Behind the scenes, LeoCare acts as a managing general agent. The startup partners with several insurance companies and sells its insurance products under its own brand. The company currently charges €1 million in premiums per month and has 20,000 customers.

63% of contracts cover a car, 26% of contracts cover a home, 7% of contracts are for motorcyclists and 4% of contracts focus on smartphones. And LeoCare is growing rapidly with a current month-over-month growth rate of 38%.

Up next, the company wants to launch new features, such as a bot that lets you check the status of your case. LeoCare is also working on a feature that lets you receive a notification when you’re driving and there are usually a lot of road accidents in the area.

Finally, the startup wants to launch a marketplace of professionals. This could be helpful if you’re looking for a plumber for instance. And it could represent a new revenue stream for the startup.

LeoCare plans to grow its insurance portfolio sevenfold by the end of 2021. The team will also grow from 35 to 80 people.

Calling Bucharest VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our <a href=”https://forms.gle/k4Ji2Ch7zdrn7o2p6”>survey of VCs in Bucharest and Romania will capture how the country is faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to know how Romania’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey. (Please note, if you have filled the survey out already, there is no need to do it again).

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

The deadline is January 22, 2021.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

https://techcrunch.com/extra-crunch/investor-surveys/

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Romania, but would like to take part? That’s fine! Any European VC investor can STILL fill out the survey, as we probably will be putting a call out to your country next anyway! And we will use the data for future surveys on vertical topics.

The survey is covering almost every country on in the Union for the Mediterranean, so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com

(Please note: Filling out the survey is not a guarantee of inclusion in the final published piece).

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