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Today — February 20th 2020Your RSS feeds

These specialized Africa VC funds are welcoming co-investors

By Jake Bright

For global venture capitalists still on the fence about entering Africa, a first move could be co-investing with a proven fund that’s already working in the region.

Africa’s startup scene is performance-light — one major IPO and a handful of exits — but there could be greater returns for investors who get in early. For funds from Silicon Valley to Tokyo, building a portfolio and experience on the continent with those who already have expertise could be the best start.

VC in Africa

Africa has one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the world, as ranked by startup origination and year-over-year increases in VC spending. There’s been a mass mobilization of capital toward African startups around a basic continent-wide value proposition for tech.

Significant economic growth and reform in the continent’s major commercial hubs of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia is driving the formalization of a number of informal sectors, such as logistics, finance, retail and mobility. Demographically, Africa has one of the world’s fastest-growing youth populations, and continues to register the fastest global growth in smartphone adoption and internet penetration.

Africa is becoming a startup continent with thousands of entrepreneurs and ventures who have descended on every problem and opportunity.

Yesterday — February 19th 2020Your RSS feeds

Founders Fund confirms $3 billion in new capital across two funds

By Jonathan Shieber

Founders Fund, the investment firm led by its controversial co-founder Peter Thiel and partners Keith Rabois and Brian Singerman, has closed on $3 billion in new capital across two investment funds, TechCrunch confirmed.

News of the firm’s latest fundraising close was first reported in Axios.

The firm’s $1.2 billion Founders Fund VII closed in December and follows on the heels of a $1.3 billion Fund VI, which closed in 2016. The firm’s first growth fund, which raked in $1.5 billion, closed on Monday as well, according to a spokesperson for the investment firm. An additional $300 million in commitments is coming from the firm’s partnership to round out the $3 billion figure.

Fundraising for the new investment vehicles was first reported in The Wall Street Journal last October. And it follows the reunion earlier in 2019 of Rabois and Thiel — two of the most notorious members of the “PayPal mafia” that’s produced a number of billionaire entrepreneurs and investors.

The speed with which Founders Fund has been able to raise new capital is matched by the firm’s alacrity in deploying new dollars, according to industry watchers. Rabois in particular has made a splash at Founders Fund since joining the firm — investing large sums in competitive rounds, investors said.

But the firm’s success in fundraising is likely due to the returns it has been able to reap for its limited partners. For its 2011-vintage fund four, Founders Fund has more than quadrupled every dollar that the fund committed, to $4.60, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal (thanks to investments in Airbnb and Stripe Inc.). That figure compares favorably to the industry average of $2.11. Meanwhile, the firm’s third fund saw its returns increase to $3.80, 75 cents more than the industry average.

Founders Fund partner Cyan Banister described how the firm’s investment practices differ from other venture capital investors in a wide-ranging interview with TechCrunch last year:

As for how decisions get made, Banister explained that the voting structure is dependent on the size of the check. “So you’d meet with one or two or three or four partners, depending on your [investing] stage,” she told attendees. Because she’s looking at very early-stage startups, for example, she doesn’t have to meet with many people to make a decision. As “dollar amounts gets larger,” she continued, “you’re looking at full GP oversight,” including the involvement of senior members like Brian Singerman and Keith Rabois, and “that can a little more difficult.”

At Axios, Dan Primack reported that the growth fund would write checks of $100 million at least. The firm’s investment decisions would be structured with any two investment team members agreeing to back deals under $1.5 million. Any deal above $1.5 million requires approval from one partner and a general partner; deals above $5 million require one partner and two general partners; and deals above $10 million require approvals from two partners and the unanimous approval of Singerman, Thiel and Rabois. Any deal requiring the approval of the general partners means that the startup that is pitching has to at least talk on the phone or meet in person with the general partners.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the firm’s Fund VII was $1.2 billion and its Growth Fund was $1.5 billion. 

Level launches a mobile banking app offering 1% cash back on debit purchases, 2.10% APY

By Sarah Perez

A number of startups are taking on big banks with new apps that offer modern, mobile banking experiences, innovative features, and reduced or even zero fees. Entering this now-crowded market is Level, a challenger bank and banking app with advantages like 1% cash back on debit card purchases, 2.1% APY on deposits, early access to paychecks, and no fees.

The banking service is the latest from the same team behind the “debit-style” credit card called Zero, aimed at millennials who want the benefits of credit, without the potential for overspending. As Zero, the company last year closed on $20 million in Series A funding from New Enterprise Associates (NEA) SignalFire, Eniac Ventures, and Nyca, bringing its total raise to date $35 million.

Similar to Zero, Level also targets a younger demographic — in this case, those who no longer see the need for physical banks, when a bank account, useful app, and debit card is all they need. Today, there are several of these sorts of banking services to choose from; in the U.S., for example, there’s Simple, Ally, Chime, Varo, N26, Current, Space, Step, Stash, Empower, and others.

Level takes on these rival challenger banks, too, by offering a higher 2.10% APY on its FDIC-insured deposits, without requiring a minimum balance. The company notes that’s 35x the national average, based on U.S. bank balances with a less than $100,000 balance.

It also snags a feature popular with credit card users, by offering 1.0% unlimited cash bank on debit card spending. This cashback applies to both signature-based and online purchases, and is paid out on accounts that have at least a $1,000 monthly direct deposit. To be clear, a signature-based purchase means you select “credit” instead of “debit” when paying at point-of-sale. This determines how the merchant processes the transaction and the fees it pays. In Level’s case, it’s sharing some of those fees back with customers as the “cash back” option.

Level is likely counting on the fact that running a card as credit takes an extra step, so customers will skip this when they’re in a hurry and run the card as a debit instead — allowing Level to keep the fees for itself.

Like many challenger banks, Level offers early access to your paycheck. For customers with a direct deposit, Level will make the funds available based on when they are received, which could be up to 2 days early.

Also like most other banking startups, Level ditches the numerous fees big banks charge. There are no monthly, overdraft, foreign transaction or add-on ATM fees, says Level, and no minimum balance is required to have an account. It will even reimburse ATM fees worldwide up to 3 times per month, at up to $4 per reimbursement to take the sting out of the increasingly costly fees to access your cash.

Level additionally includes features that have now become part of the baseline experience for challenger banking apps, like being able to see transactions on a map, lock a missing debit card from the app, and receive push notifications for purchases, refunds, and transfers.

The app itself has a clean, modern almost minimalist design, making it simple to understand and navigate. However, it sadly opted for that terrible design trend of using an overly lightened gray font on a white background. This could put off older customers, as it makes the screen harder to read.

However, where it’s lacking is in the more robust bill, expense and goal planning features offered by other banking apps like Simple, Empower or N26, for example, which help users better plan for both recurring expenses as well as long-term goals.

However, like most (but not all) of the digital banks operating today in the U.S., Level itself is not a bank. Its customers’ funds are actually held in FDIC-insured accounts (up to $250K) through Evolve Bank & Trust. Level, meanwhile, provides the technology, the customer-facing experience, and banking services.

“Level was built to challenge the status quo in banking and put an end to the era of big banks holding people’s money while giving them no interest, a clunky app experience, and frustrating customer service,” said Level founder and CEO Bryce Galen, in a statement. “Level is able to give customers dramatically better rewards and interest, a design-forward app, and superior customer support. Our goal is to revolutionize the way people engage with their finances on a daily basis,” he added.

Level is available today on both iOS and Android, after first signing up on levelbank.com.

Fintech VC sets records in Q4 despite early-stage slowdown

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Fintech is what you hear about constantly, but probably aren’t as read up on as you’d like to be. Neither am I.

Luckily we have a new report concerning fintech investing to unpack and explore. Thanks to a dataset from startup and venture data provider CB Insights, we have a fresh, deep look into the world of startup fintech investment. 

Here’s what we want to know:

  • Did fintech venture activity rise in 2019?
  • How are the various venture stages of fintech investing performing
  • Are early-stage fintech startups able to attract capital at similar velocity to their much-lauded, late-stage counterparts?

Let’s find out!

2019: A (near) record

Coinbase becomes a Visa Principal Member to double down on debit card

By Romain Dillet

Cryptocurrency company has been working with Paysafe to issue the Coinbase Card, a Visa debit card that works with your Coinbase account balance. The company is now a Visa Principal Member, which should help Coinbase rely less on Paysafe and control a bigger chunk of the card payment stack.

Coinbase says it is the only cryptocurrency company that has reached that level of certification. The company will offer the Coinbase Card in more markets in the future. The new status could open up more possibilities and features as well.

While Coinbase originally launched the Coinbase Card in the U.K., it is now available in 29 European countries. It works with any Visa-compatible payment terminal and ATM. Users can decide in the app which wallet they want to use for upcoming transactions. This way, you can spend money in 10 cryptocurrencies.

There are some conversion fees just like on Coinbase. In addition to those fees, there can be some additional fees if you withdraw a lot of money or make a purchase abroad. More details here.

Still, half of users who ordered a card are actively using it. The U.K., Italy, Spain and France are the main markets so far. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies might not replace Visa and Mastercard just yet, so traditional debit cards represent a good alternative for now.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Beijing Auto Show postponed due to coronavirus

By Kirsten Korosec

China’s annual auto show in Beijing has been postponed because of novel coronavirus, as the number of cases of people infected surpass 71,000.

The Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, which was scheduled to begin April 21, is the latest high-profile event that has been either cancelled or postponed over concerns of coronavirus. A new date will be announced in the future, organizers said on the official event website.

Earlier this month, MWC canceled its event in Barcelona, which was supposed to take place from February 24 to February 27. Most of the postponed events are in China, where the virus originated and where the vast majority of infections (more than 70,000 to date) have occurred. Coronavirus has also disrupted the automotive industry in China and abroad as many global manufacturers rely on the country’s supply chain for parts.

The Chinese government might delay the annual session of its Communist Party-dominated legislature, The New York Times reported Monday. Other postponed events include Credit Suisse Group AG’s Asia investment conference and the Chinese Grand Prix, a Formula 1 race scheduled for April 19 in Shanghai. Juss Sports Group, the promoter of the Chinese Grand Prix, requested the postponement after ongoing discussions with the Federation of Automobile and Motorcycle Sports of People’s Republic of China (CAMF) and Shanghai Administration of Sports.

Formula E, the all-electric motorsports event, has also postponed a race set for Sanya on March 21.

Tesla locks in stock surge with $2B offering at $767 per share

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has priced its secondary common stock offering at $767, a 4.6% discount from Thursday’s share price close, according to a securities filing Friday.

Tesla said in the filing it will sell 2.65 million shares at that discounted price to raise more than $2 billion. Lead underwriters Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have the option to buy an additional 397,500 shares in the offering.

Tesla shares closed at $804 on Thursday. The share price opened lower Friday, jumped as high at $812.97 and has hovered around $802.

The automaker surprised Wall Street on Thursday when it announced plans to raise more than $2 billion through a common stock offering, despite signaling just two weeks ago that it would not seek to raise more cash.

CEO Elon Musk will purchase up to $10 million in shares in the offering, while Oracle co-founder and Tesla board member Larry Ellison will buy up to $1 million worth of Tesla shares, according to the securities filing.

Tesla said it will use the funds to strengthen its balance sheet and for general corporate purposes. In a separate filing Thursday that was posted prior to the stock offering notice, Tesla said capital expenditures could reach as high as $3.5 billion this year.

The stock offering conflicts with statements Musk and CFO Zach Kirkhorn made last month during Tesla’s fourth-quarter earnings call. An institutional investor asked that given the recent run in the share price, why not raise capital now and substantially accelerate the growth in production? At the time, Musk said the company was spending money sensibly and that there is no “artificial hold back on expenditures.”

At the time of Thursday’s announcement, Tesla shares had risen more than 35% since the January 29 earnings call, perhaps proving too tempting of an opportunity to ignore.

Tradeshift cuts headcount by three figures in effort to turn towards profitability

By Mike Butcher

Last month, Tradeshift, a platform for supply chain payments which has achieved unicorn status in recent years, had some good news and some bad news. It announced a Series F funding round of $240 million in equity and debt, raised from a combination of existing and new investors. It’s now raised a total of $661 million since it started in 2008 and investors include Goldman Sachs, Principal Strategic Investments and Wipro Ventures among others.

The new funding came despite talk of a possible IPO last year. In effect, this new funding round was an admission by the company that it was delaying any IPO and setting the company “on a direct path to profitability in the near future,” which is exactly the kind of noises many larger tech firms have made in the wake of the WeWork and Peloton issues with the public markets.

During that announcement CEO and co-founder Christian Lanng also admitted that the drive toward profitability would mean a cost-cutting exercise ahead of any possible IPO.

Lanng said this would likely mean reducing headcount in its expensive San Francisco offices, but reallocating resources and talent to locations where that is more affordable.

The company has made no formal announcement about the detail on that, but yesterday we got confirmation from the European tech press that the cuts were indeed starting to bite.

The Danish version of ComputerWorld reported that the staffing cuts have now run into three figures and were conducted in mid-January.

The cuts came from headcount at the company’s offices in Copenhagen, San Francisco and other offices.

Mikkel Hippe Brun, a co-founder of Tradeshift and head of the company’s Asian business, confirmed the information to ComputerWorld, but indicated that “there are still some consultations around the world, where we are subject to different rules about notifications and opportunities to raise objections.”

However, he said that the company still has more than 1,000 employees worldwide, which is “significantly more employees” than two years ago.

At the same time, the company has also brought in new executives from SAP, Oracle and Microsoft, among others, as the company tightens its belt, according to ComputerWorld.

Tradeshift has an impressive array of investors, such as Goldman Sachs, although it’s notable that this doesn’t include any of the usual round of typical SaaS-oriented Valley VCs.

Tradeshift customers have included Air France KLM, Kuehne + Nagel International AG, DHL, Fujitsu, HSBC, Siemens, Société Générale, Unilever and Volvo.

Nvidia’s Q4 financials look to brighter skies with strong quarterly revenue growth

By Danny Crichton

Major artificial intelligence and graphics chipmaker Nvidia reported its 2020 Q4 financials today (the company’s fiscal quarter ends on January 26th, 2020). The company announced revenues of $3.11 billion for the quarter, a jump of 41% from the year-ago quarter and a small bump from the third quarter.

Even more importantly, the company’s gross margin improved remarkably year-over-year, moving from 54.7% to 64.9%. The company reported a net income of $950 million for the quarter. After-hours traders jumped into the stock, with Yahoo Finance reporting a roughly 6.32% increase in the company’s share price immediately following the earnings.

That positive news didn’t overcome the full-year fiscal numbers, though, which painted a more complicated picture for the company. Revenue was down slightly for the 2020 fiscal year compared to 2019, and operating expenses, operating income, net income and diluted earnings all headed the wrong way, in some cases by more than 30%.

Nvidia’s struggles in 2019 weren’t unique to the chipmaker, as last year was bruising for the chip industry overall. The industry’s total sales declined the fastest in more than a decade because of a number of factors, including less demand in some parts of the market, oversupply in other parts of the market (driving down prices and thus sales revenue), as well as on-going trade tensions between the U.S., China, South Korea and Japan.

Nvidia itself has had a huge number of ups and down in recent years. Riding the crest of the crypto wave, the company’s stock soared as crypto miners sought the company’s GPUs, which were well-positioned to handle the hashing functions at the core of many proof-of-work crypto protocols. Yet, the crypto winter crushed the stock, which saw a precipitous decline of 50% at the tail end of 2018.

The past year though has seen Nvidia turn something of a corner. It started the year with a share price of around $150, and today closed at nearly $271, a gain of more than 80%. Part of that story — as it is with the rest of the chip industry — is the sense that a whole new set of workflows (and therefore markets) are moving to silicon, including in automotive, high-performance computing (where Nvidia acquired Mellanox for $6.9 billion early last year), Internet of Things and even in 5G.

That excitement on the big corporate side has also shown up in the venture world, as well. Startups like Cerebras, Nuvia, Graphcore and more are targeting these new workflows, putting pressure on Nvidia, Intel, and other incumbents to outperform these upstarts.

Financing for social impact and climate businesses gets a billion dollar boost with new KKR fund

By Jonathan Shieber

KKR, the multi-billion dollar, multi-strategy investment firm, has closed on over $1.3 billion for companies focused on social and environmental challenges.

KKR Global Impact says its fund will focus on identifying and investing in companies worldwide where preformance and social impact are intrinsically aligned. Specifically, the fund will invest in companies in the lower middle market that contribute toward progress along the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

“The UN SDGS were developed to mobilize citizens, policymakers, technologists and investors to address global challenges. As investors, we have a significant role to play in building businesses that contribute to SDG solutions while also generating financial returns for our fund investors by doing so,” said Robert Antablin and Ken Mehlman, KKR Partners and Co-Heads of KKR Global Impact, in a statement. 

It’s a nice chunk of change that could potentially fund companies in the re-emerging climate and sustainability space, but it’s dwarfed by the $13.9 billion that KKR raised in 2017 for its Americas fund, or the $7 billion that the firm has to invest in infrastructure from its latest investment vehicle.

Mehlman’s role in promoting environmental and sustainable development stewardship belies his role as a senior administration official during George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House. He was appointed director of the Bush Administration’s Office of Political Affairs in 2000 and served in several administrative capacities both for the Republican Party within and outside of the White House.

Environmentalists have a pretty bleak assessment of the Bush years in office.

“[President Bush] has undone decades if not a century of progress on the environment,” Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, one of America’s largest environmental groups, said to the Guardian about the Bush administration’s environmental record back in a 2008 interview.

“The Bush administration has introduced this pervasive rot into the federal government which has undermined the rule of law, undermined science, undermined basic competence and rendered government agencies unable to do their most basic function even if they wanted to.”

Twenty years later, Mehlman is working in the private sector on financing companies involved in mitigating and adapting  the world to the climate crisis that inactivity from the administration he helped shepherd into office has exacerbated.

Other investment areas the KKR fund will focus on include responsible waste management, using technology to enhance safety, mobility and sustainability, creating more sustainable products and services and upgrading declining industry and infrastructure.

KKR launched its global impact business two years ago and its 12 person team has invested in Barghest Building Performance, Ramky Environ Engineers, KnowBe4, Burning Glass, and the construction of a wastewater treatment plant.

In addition to the external commitments KKR received, the firm said it will invest $130 million of capital in the fund through its own balance sheet.

“We are thrilled to see our investors’ shared enthusiasm for the tremendous opportunity we see ahead for KKR Global Impact and will build on this to help set the new standard across investing, value creation and measuring success in the space,” said Alisa Amarosa Wood, KKR Partner and Head of KKR’s Private Market Products Group. 

KKR did not respond to a request for comment about Mehlman’s previous work in the Bush Administration.

Coinbase launches margin trading for some users

By Romain Dillet

Cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase is launching margin trading today. Margin trading lets you trade on leverage. But it works both ways — margin trading lets you multiply your gains and your losses.

Margin trading is going to be available on Coinbase Pro, the company’s exchange interface for educated investors. Both retail and institutional investors will be able to submit margin trading orders with up to 3x leverage. It’ll work with any pair of assets with USD as the base currency.

For now, the feature is limited to 23 U.S. states if you’re a retail investor. Institutional investors in 45 states and nine international countries can access margin trading, though.

There are many potential use cases for margin trading. For instance, you can allocate a tiny portion of your portfolio to a margin trading order to hedge across multiple positions. Coinbase believes it has enough liquidity to help investors set up sophisticated margin trading orders.

If you’re a retail customer living in one of the 23 states where margin trading is available, you might not be able to use it. The company wants to restrict margin trading to the most advanced traders.

Coinbase is going to track your past activity on Coinbase Pro and look at trades, balances, deposits and withdrawals. If you’re an active trader, you’ll be able to access margin trading.

Here’s the list of 23 U.S. states with margin trading for retail investors: Florida, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas, Alaska, Oregon, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, South Carolina, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming and West Virginia.

Disclosure: I own small amounts of various cryptocurrencies.

Recommendations for fintech startups navigating the procurement process

By Walter Thompson
Marc Gilman Contributor
Marc Gilman is general counsel and VP of compliance at Theta Lake. He is also an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law.

The expanding scope of fintech has been well documented in these digital pages. Payments, investing, financial planning and lending often spring to mind as “classic” fintech startups, but other business models like regtech, compliance, human resources and marketing are on the ascent.

For passionate and talented founders, the tireless pursuit of building innovative technology is critical and fundamental. That said, to be successful in financial services, significant time and effort needs to be dedicated to other business fundamentals: corporate setup, privacy and security. The financial services customer base presents unique challenges for fintech startups as the regulatory and operational requirements for third-party vendor assessment and management are, in comparison to most other industries, brutal. Issues that might go overlooked during the early stages of product design and team-building could turn into obstacles during the sales process.

Understanding the dynamics of the financial services procurement process is essential if you want to negotiate it as quickly and seamlessly as possible. And before diving head-first into the development of your killer fintech app, consider the following questions:

  • Is my technical architecture secure?
  • Who is responsible for cybersecurity in the organization?

SoftBank-backed Fair puts the brakes on weekly car rentals for Uber drivers

By Josh Constine

When Fair laid off 40% of its staff in October, CEO Scott Painter promised it wasn’t shuttering leasing services to on-demand fleets. But just one week later, Painter was removed as CEO and replaced in the interim with Adam Hieber, a CFA from Fair investor SoftBank. Today, according to two sources, Fair announced at an all-hands meeting that it would end its Fair Go program that helped Uber drivers lease cars on short-term deals. The program will cease in April. Uber now confirms the news to TechCrunch, and now Fair has directly confirmed the news to us as well.

“Due to an unexpected increase in insurance premiums that would have significantly raised prices for Fair’s rideshare drivers, we will wind down our weekly rideshare service over the coming months,” a spokesperson said. “We are working to minimize the disruption for Fair’s rideshare drivers, including notifying these customers of the status of their subscription in the coming weeks. We are working closely with Uber and exploring options with third parties to provide alternative customer mobility options to ensure a seamless transition for them, as well as continuity in Uber’s vehicle supply. We are thankful for our loyal Fair rideshare drivers and are disappointed we can no longer operate the business in a cost-effective way for our customers.”

Uber drivers who want to lease a car for a month or longer can still do so through Fair. The current program that is being wound down allowed Uber drivers to lease for increments of a week at a time. From what we understand, the program comprised as much as half of Fair’s business with Uber at its peak.

Formerly valued at $1.2 billion after raising over $2 billion in equity and debt financing from SoftBank and Lightspeed, Fair laid off 40% of its staff in October. It had bought Uber’s XChange leasing program in early 2018. The deal lets drivers lease an Uber-eligible car with subscriptions to roadside assistance and maintenance for as low as $130 per week with a $500 start fee.

But Uber had sold the leasing program because it was unprofitable and adding to its losses at a tough time for the rideshare giant. As additional fees stacked up, Fair didn’t fare much better operating it.

A source tells us Fair Go was profitable. It was an important focus for the company as it retooled its subscription services for traditional drivers. Another source says at one point Fair Go was adding about 250 to 300 car leases per day and had thousands of active leases.

But Fair Go was facing higher insurance rates from carriers, which make sense since Uber drivers can be on the road far, far longer than traditional car owners.

Rather than trying to pass those fees along to drivers — many of whom are already cash-strapped — Fair told employees it would cease to lease to Uber drivers. That’s a respectable choice, since it could have pushed Uber drivers into debt if they didn’t fully comprehend what their total costs would be.

Attempts to reach Fair for comment were complicated by many of its in-house PR team being hit with October’s layoffs. An agency representative provided the statement above after publishing time.

An Uber spokesperson confirmed the shut down of Fair Go and their partnership, telling TechCrunch that “Unlocking options for vehicle access so drivers can earn with Uber remains a top priority. We’re thankful for Fair’s collaboration, and their contributions to our vehicle rental program. We’re continuing to invest in rental partnerships, and building more flexibility beyond hourly, weekly, and monthly options available today.” 

Uber tells me it remains committed to offering rental options to drivers through partnerships with Hertz, Avis, ZipCar and Getaround, and they may be able to work with Uber drivers formerly leasing from Fair.

Painter kept a role as chairman of Fair.com when he stepped away from the CEO position at the end of October — a change we are still confirming is in place today. At the time of the layoffs in October, he maintained that the action was proactive, and not in response to SoftBank pressure.

“SoftBank is a big shareholder and supporting my focus, and that is the reality right now,” Painter said at the time. “Leaning on us is not the term,” he added in response to our questions of whether SoftBank pressured it to make these changes. “They are supporting us — there is a big difference,” he stressed.

The CEO change one week later, and today’s news about Fair Go, points to a different unfolding of events that speaks to the pressure SoftBank itself is under.

The news is the latest low point for the SoftBank portfolio in the wake of the WeWork implosion. That’s caused potential repeat LPs for SoftBank’s massive Vision Fund to tighten their purse strings and other late stage investors to focus on sustainable unit economics. Late-stage startups have been left scrambling to cut their burn rates, often through layoffs.

SoftBank’s portfolio, which may have trouble raising on good terms after what many saw as inflated valuations propped up by the megafund, has been hit the hardest. This week TechCrunch broke the news that Flexport was laying off 3% of staff, or 50 employees.

Other SoftBank-funded company layoffs include Zume Pizza (80% of staff laid off), Wag (80%), Getaround (25%), Rappi (6%), and Oyo (5%). There may be more to come: activist investor Elliott Management, which now owns more than $2.5 billion of SoftBank shares, has reportedly been in talks with the company over a range of issues including better corporate governance and more transparency and management around investments.

Updated with confirmation from Fair, and a correction that Uber will continue offering car rentals through partners but not leasing as we originally printed.

Company-builder Antler passes $75M raised after investment from Schroders and Ferd

By Mike Butcher

Antler is a “company builder” that emerged a couple of years ago, running startup generator programs and investing from an early stage, bringing a heady mix of technologists, product builders and operators together with its own technology stack.

Now, plenty of “company builders” have come and gone. It’s a bit like Apocalypse Now: everyone goes in thinking they will come up with the major formula to spit out startups at a prodigious rate and they come out screaming “The Horror! The Horror!”

But Antler appears to have been on an interesting run. It has so far made more than 120 investments across a wide range of companies, with several going on to raise later-stage funding from the likes of Sequoia, Golden Gate Ventures, East Ventures, Venturra Capital and the Hustle Fund.

Since its launch in Singapore two years ago, Antler now has a presence across New York, London, Singapore, Sydney, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Nairobi and Oslo.

Today, it’s announcing that it has attracted investment from British investment management company Schroders, investment house FinTech Collective and Ferd, the vehicle used by Johan H. Andresen, the Norwegian industrialist and investor.

This latest investment takes the capital raised by Antler over the past six months to more than $75 million.

These investors join an existing group that includes Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Canica International and Credit Saison, the third-largest credit card issuer in Japan. The idea here is that these investors get exposure to early-stage companies as they are built.

As with most company builders and accelerators, Antler only takes 1-1.5% of the applicants

Its portfolio includes Sampingan, an on-demand workforce in Indonesia; Xailient, a computer vision technology; Airalo, a global e-sims marketplace; and FusedBone, which enables medical centers to produce bespoke, non-metal implants on-site.

Magnus Grimeland, Antler co-founder and CEO said: “With our support, our founders start refining their ideas and building new and innovative businesses. What is equally important is the deep relationship our founders build with their peers, our advisors and backers. Having accomplished investors like Schroders, Ferd and FinTech Collective on board means we can provide a more valuable network for our startups as they grow their businesses.”

Peter Harrison, Group CEO of Schroders, who will also be joining Antler’s advisory board, said: “We are in a period of unprecedented change. The visibility on venture capital activity and innovation that Antler provides is therefore leading-edge.”

Antler says more than 40% of its portfolio companies have a female co-founder and 78% of these have a female CEO.

Mobile banking alternative Bnext expands to Mexico

By Romain Dillet

Spanish startup Bnext is expanding beyond its home country. The company is currently rolling out its product in Mexico. 170,000 people had previously signed up to a waiting list. Bnext is going to invite those 170,000 potential users first before opening signups to everyone.

Bnext is building an alternative to traditional bank accounts. Customers can open a Bnext account in minutes using a mobile app. A few days later, users receive a payment card. You can then upload money to your Bnext account, send and spend money all around the world.

You can receive notifications for each transaction with your card, temporarily lock and unlock your card and more. In other words, Bnext does many of the things that you expect from a neobank.

Unlike many traditional retail banks, Bnext plans to attract customers with cheaper international transactions. For instance, Spanish customers traveling abroad can withdraw money up to three times per month and spend as much as €2,000 per month without any foreign exchange fee. When you reach those limits, you pay 1.15% to 1.5% in foreign exchange fees. Mexican customers get two free withdrawals per month.

The startup has put together a local team in order to expand to Mexico. There are currently 12 employees working for Bnext in Mexico City.

But Bnext doesn’t want to stop at providing a current account with a card. In Spain, the company is building a financial hub to help you manage your money across multiple financial services. You can lend money to small and medium businesses and earn interest through October, you can save money using Raisin, you can get a loan, a mortgage, an insurance product, etc.

Bnext expects to launch its marketplace in Mexico at some point during the second half of 2020. The company also expects to expand to other countries in Latin America in the future.

When it comes to numbers, Bnext has attracted 300,000 active users in Spain. In the last 12 months, the startup has processed €430 million across 11.6 million transactions.

TLcom Capital closes $71M Africa fund with plans to back 12 startups

By Jake Bright

VC firm TLcom Capital has closed its Tide Africa Fund at $71 million with plans to make up to 12 startup investments over the next 18 months.

The group —  with offices in London, Lagos, and Nairobi — is looking for tech enabled, revenue driven ventures in Africa from seed-stage to Series B, according to TLcom Managing Partner Maurizio Caio.

“We’re rather sector agnostic, but right now we are looking at companies that are more infrastructure type tech rather than super commoditized things like consumer lending,” he told TechCrunch on a call.

On geographic scope, TLcom Capital will focus primarily on startups in Africa’s big-three tech hubs — Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa — but is also eyeing rising markets, such as Ethiopia.

Part of the fund’s investment approach, according to Caio, is backing viable companies with strong founders and then staying out of the way.

“We are venture capitalists that believe in looking at Africa as an investment opportunity that empowers local entrepreneurs without…coming in and explaining what to do,” said Caio.

TLcom’s team includes Caio (who’s Italian), partners Ido Sum and Andreata Muforo (from Zimbabwe) and senior partner Omobola Johnson, the former Minister of Communication Technology in Nigeria.

Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin in 2018, Johnson offered perspective on next startups in Africa that could reach billion-dollar valuations. “When I look at the African market I suspect it’s going to be a company that’s very much focused on business to business and business to very small business — a company that can that can solve their challenges,” she said.

Omobola Johonson

Omobola Johnson

TLcom’s current Africa portfolio reflects startups similar to what Johnson described. The fund has invested in Nigerian trucking logistics venture Kobo360, which is working to reduce business delivery costs in Africa.

TLcom has also backed Kenya’s Twiga Foods, a B2B food distribution company aimed a improving supply-chain operations around agricultural products and fast-moving-consumer-goods for farmers and SMEs.

Both of these companies have gone on to expand in Africa and receive subsequent investment by U.S. investment bank, Goldman Sachs .

Other investments for TLcom include talent accelerator Andela  — which trains and places African software engineers — and Ulesson, the latest venture of serial founder Sim Shagaya.

The firm’s close of the $71 million Tide Africa Fund comes on the high-end of a several-year mobilization of capital for the continent’s startup scene. Investment shops specifically focused on Africa have been on the rise. A TechCrunch and Crunchbase study in 2018 tracked 51 viable Africa specific VC funds globally, TLcom included.

This trend has moved in tandem with a quadrupling of venture funding for the continent over the past six years. Accurately measuring VC for Africa is a work in progress, but one of the earlier reliable estimates placed it at just over $400 million in 2014. Recent stats released by Partech peg Africa focused VC funding at over $2 billion for 2019.

TLcom’s listed in a number of the larger rounds that made up Partech’s tally.

The fund’s latest $71 million raise, which included support from Sango Capital and IFC, reversed the roles a bit for TLcom founder Maurizio Caio.

The VC principal — who usually gets pitches from African startups — needed to sell the value of African tech to other investors.

“It’s been tough to raise the fund, there’s no doubt about it,” Caio said. TLcom highlighted its past exit record and the viability of the African market and founders to bring investors on board.

“We had the advantage of showing some good exits…The emphasis was also on the gigantic size of these markets that are underserved, the role that technology can play, and the fact that the entrepreneurs in Africa are just as good as anywhere else,” said Caio.

He also referenced African startups being constrained by the social impact factors often placed on them from outside investors.

“The equation is not just about ensuring employment and inclusion, but also about the fact that African entrepreneurs have to be in charge of their own destiny without instructions from the West,” he said.

For those startups who wish to pitch to TLcom Capital, Caio encouraged founders to contact one of the fund’s partners and share a value proposition. “If it’s something we find vaguely interesting, we’ll make a decision,” he said.

Instamojo acquires Times Internet’s GetMeAShop to serve more small businesses in India

By Manish Singh

Instamojo, a Bangalore-based startup that helps merchants and small businesses accept digital payments, establish presence and sell on the web, has acquired Times Internet-owned Gurgaon-based startup GetMeAShop.

The deal is worth $5 million and includes Times Internet making an investment in Instamojo, Sampad Swain, co-founder and chief executive of the Bangalore-based startup, told TechCrunch in an interview.

GetMeAShop runs a platform that allows businesses to set up their website, build an online store, and make it easier for merchants or individuals to engage with — and sell to — their customers through social apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

More to follow shortly…

Three years after raising $450M, Andreessen is back with a new $750M life sciences fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Life sciences is big business in venture capital land and firms are raising big dollars to find the companies that will lead the next healthcare revolution.

Chief among them is Andreessen Horowitz, which announced its third life sciences fund with a $750 million final close earlier today.

Andreessen went back to market less than than three years after closing its $450 million fund in 2017. The firm’s first, $200 million life sciences fund closed in 2015.

So far, the firm, which is one of the most successful new venture firms to come on the scene since its launch nearly 11 years ago, has only had one exit from its life science portfolio: the $65 million acquisition of Jungla by the genetics testing firm Invitae back in 2019.

Increasingly, there’s a view among investors that the life sciences and healthcare revolution borne on the back of computational biology and programmable genetics will usher in a wave innovation which will change more than just the healthcare industry.

As the firm wrote in its announcement of the new fund:

Bio is not the “next new thing”—it’s becoming everything. Software is now affecting not just how we do not just one thing—cloning DNA, or engineering genes—but how we do it all across the board, blurring lines, breaking down traditional silos, changing our processes and business models. In other words, technology today is enhancing all our existing tools and data, affecting every decision we make, from research to development to deployment—and how we access, pay for, and experience healthcare.

And it’s not just software. What is technology really? It’s principles and process. It’s a shift to an engineering mindset for relentless iteration and constant improvement; modular components that can be remixed and reused, and improvements that accrue and compound over time. Tech gives us tools beyond just software—continuous data streams to describe our health, circuits to program cells, scalpels to edit DNA, and the ability to create programmable, living medicines. Our focus is not just on the groundbreaking outputs of this shift, from novel gene and cell therapies to digital therapeutics and virtual care models, but on the underlying approach and drivers that created those breakthroughs. This is why it doesn’t work to simply tack on AI, or just insert tech into an established company. In order to re-program entire systems and re-imagine new approaches to massive challenges, whether those are biological, or man-made, you need to rethink the process from the ground up.

Here’s why so many fintech startups are loaning to small businesses

By Alex Wilhelm

Everyone wants to lend to small businesses, as the fintech boom continues to bring constituent players closer together in feature-terms. Thinking broadly, the rising focus on small-business lending amongst B2B fintech and finservices companies feels directionally similar to the rise of consumer-oriented fintech startups adding banking-like features last year.

This week, several stories underscored the growing appetite for lending to small companies, including news that Goldman Sachs is “close to a deal with Amazon to offer loans to the e-commerce giant’s merchants,” according to CNBC. Amazon has a host of data concerning its merchant-partners and Goldman has a pile of money; by combining their powers, they can probably make some money loaning out capital.

The Goldman news is merely an amuse-bouche, however. What we care about are the startups working to loan out money to other concerns. This week, Divvy announced a neat program that brings it into the space, while Kabbage, a Vision Fund-backed venture, made its small business loans even more flexible.

So many loans

After closing its $2.2 billion latest tech fund, KKR adds top Cisco exec to its leadership team

By Jonathan Shieber

KKR, the multibillion-dollar multistrategy investment firm, is beefing up its technology practice with the appointment of Rob Salvagno as a co-head of its technology growth equity business in the U.S. 

It’s a sign that KKR is taking the tech industry seriously as it looks for new acquisition and investment opportunities.

Salvagno, the former vice president of corporate development and head of Cisco Investments, was responsible for all mergers and acquisitions and venture capital investments at the company.

Over a twenty-year career Salvagno helped form and launch Decibel, the networking giant’s early stage, several hundred million dollar investment fund.

“Our business has evolved significantly since we first launched our technology growth equity strategy over five years ago with a small team of five. Since that time, the growth of our business and the number of compelling investments we’re seeing around the globe have allowed us to not only expand our team, but also our technology experience, network and geographic reach,” said Dave Welsh, KKR Partner and Head of Technology Growth Equity, in a statement. “With the addition of a tech industry veteran like Rob to our team, we’re excited to continue to build for the future and position ourselves well to capture the many investment opportunities we see ahead.” 

To date, KKR has invested $2.7 billion in tech companies since 2014 and established itself as a player in late stage tech investment with a team of nineteen investment professionals. Earlier this month, the firm closed its $2.2 billion fund dedicated to growth technology investment in North America, Europe and Israel.

“Rob has an extensive background in security, [infrastructure] software and app dev and dev ops, a background which we believe will complement the existing teams’ skillset very well,” said Welsh in an email. “[And] our focus areas for our second firm will be similar to the prior fund, namely a heavy focus on software with some additional focus on consumer internet, fintech/insurtech and tech enabled services.”

Application development software and security technologies will also remain a core focus for the firm, according to Welsh.

“Additionally, we will be ramping up our time spent on infrastructure software (i.e. software used to run modern data center / cloud environments), application dev and development operations (i.e. app dev and dev ops solutions) as well as software solutions focused on certain vertical industries (such as real estate, legal, construction, hospitality),” the KKR co-head wrote in an email.

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