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Local news app News Break raises $115M

By Anthony Ha

The popular news app News Break is announcing that it has raised $115 million in new funding.

The press release claims this round makes News Break “one of the first new unicorns of 2021,” but the startup declined to disclose its actual valuation.

Founder and CEO Jeff Zheng said that when he started the company in 2015, the goal was to differentiate itself from other news aggregation apps by focusing on local news, and to “help or empower these local content creators.”

To be clear, you can find similar stories in News Break that you’d see in other news apps (there’s a whole section for coronavirus news, for example, and this morning you’ll see plenty of headlines about yesterday’s violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol), but you’ll also see plenty stories that are highlighted specifically based on your location.

“Technology is interweaving with every aspect of the company — in how we empower local publishers and local journalists to generate content more effectively and to reach an online audience more effectively,” Zheng said. “We have AI tools to help provide all these relevant articles … We have location profiles and what you’re most interested in, which we basically match against the content.”

News Break founder and CEO Jeff Zheng

Image Credits: News Break

The local focus may be increasingly valuable given the broader economic challenges facing the local news business — as Zheng put it, there’s “strong user demand” for local news but “weak supply.” And the strategy seems to have paid off for News Break so far, with the app reaching the top spot in the News category of the Apple’s U.S. App Store multiple times (it’s currently ranked number four), and in Google Play as well. The startup says it’s currently reaching 12 million daily active users.

Zheng said that while News Break already shares ad revenue with publishers, he’s hopeful that the value it provides those publishers will only grow over time: “We want to give as much money back to the creators as possible.”

When I suggested that publishers and journalists may be leery about relying too much on a third-party platform to reach their audience, Zheng argued that News Break’s incentives are very different from the big internet and social media platforms.

“We are local-centric,” he said.”If local publishers are struggling, if the newspapers are diminishing every year, then sooner or later we are out of business.”

And while we’ve noted in the past that News Break has Chinese roots — Zheng previously led Yahoo Labs in Beijing and was also founding CEO at Chinese news startup Yidian Zixun, plus the startup has team members in Beijing and Shanghai — Zheng emphasized that that this is a “U.S. high tech company incorporated in Delaware, headquartered in Mountain View,” with the majority of its workforce in the United State and a focus on the U.S. market. The distinction could become important if News Break continues to grow, given the U.S. government’s current attempts to ban Chinese companies.

News Break previously raised $36 million in funding. The new round was led by Francisco Partners, which is taking a seat on the News Break board. IDG Capital also participated.

In a statement, Francisco Partners Principal Alan Ni said:

News Break’s breakout multi-year successes in the local news space is what first brought them to our attention. We are inspired by their mission and extremely impressed by the work they have done to bring local-news distribution into the 21st Century through cutting-edge machine learning and media savvy. We are thrilled to be partnering with News Break’s talented leadership team as they continue to drive local news innovations while also rapidly expanding their business into adjacent local verticals beyond news.

Sources: Hinge Health has raised $310M Series D at a $3B valuation

By Steve O'Hear

Hinge Health, the San Francisco-based company that offers a digital solution to treat chronic musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions — such as back and joint pain — has closed a $310 million in Series D funding, according to sources.

The round is led by Coatue and Tiger Global, and values 2015-founded Hinge at $3 billion post-money, people familiar with the investment tell me. It comes off the back of a 300% increase in revenue in 2020, with investors told to expect revenue to nearly triple again in 2021 based on the company’s booked pipeline.

I also understand that Hinge’s founders — Daniel Perez and Gabriel Mecklenburg — retain voting control of the board. I’ve reached out to CEO Perez for comment and will update this post should I hear back.

Hinge’s existing investors include Bessemer Venture Partners, which backed the company’s $90 million Series C round in February, along with Lead Edge Capital, Insight Partners (which led the Series B), Atomico (which led the Series A), 11.2 Capital, Quadrille Capital and Heuristic Capital.

Originally based in London, Hinge Health primarily sells into U.S. employers and health plans, billing itself as a digital healthcare solution for chronic MSK conditions. The platform combines wearable sensors, an app and health coaching to remotely deliver physical therapy and behavioral health.

The basic premise is that there is plenty of existing research to show how best to treat chronic MSK disorders, but existing healthcare systems aren’t up to the task due to funding pressures and for other systematic reasons. The result is an over tendency to use opioid-based painkillers or surgery, with poor results and often at even greater cost. Hinge wants to reverse this through the use of technology and better data, with a focus on improving treatment adherence.

Meanwhile, Hinge’s jump in valuation is significant. According to sources, the company’s February round produced a valuation of around $420 million, so the new valuation is more than a 6x increase.

Color raises $167 million funding at $1.5 billion valuation to expand ‘last mile’ of US health infrastructure

By Darrell Etherington

Healthcare startup Color has raised a sizable $167 million in Series D funding round, at a valuation of $1.5 billion post-money, the company announced today. This brings the total raised by Color to $278 million, with its latest large round intended to help it build on a record year of growth in 2020 with even more expansion to help put in place key health infrastructure systems across the U.S. — including those related to the “last mile” delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

This latest investment into Color was led by General Catalyst, and by funds invested by T. Rowe Price, along with participation from Viking Global investors as well as others. Alongside the funding, the company is also bringing on a number of key senior executives, including Claire Vo (formerly of Optimizely) as chief product officer, Emily Reuter (formerly of Uber, where she played a key role in its IPO process) as VP of Strategy and Operations, and Ashley Chandler (formerly of Stripe) as VP of Marketing.

“I think with the [COVID-19] crisis, it’s really shone the light on that lack of infrastructure. We saw it multiple times, with lab testing, with antigen testing and now with vaccines,” Color CEO and co-founder Othman Laraki told me in an interview. “The model that we’ve been developing, that’s been working really well and we feel like this is the opportunity to really scale it in a very major way. I think literally what’s happening is the building of the public health infrastructure for the country that’s starting off from a technology-first model, as opposed to, what ends up happening in a lot of industries, which is you start off taking your existing logistics and assets, and add technology to them.”

Color’s 2020 was a record year for the company, thanks in part to partnerships like the one it formed with San Francisco to establish testing for healthcare workers and residents. Laraki told me they did about five-fold their prior year’s business, and while the company is already set up to grow on its own sustainably based on the revenue it pulls in from customers, its ambitions and plans for 2021 and beyond made this the right time to help it accelerate further with the addition of more capital.

Laraki described Color’s approach as one that is both cost-efficient for the company, and also significant cost-saving for the healthcare providers it works with. He likens their approach to the shift that happened in retail with the move to online sales — and the contribution of one industry heavyweight in particular.

“At some point, you build Amazon — a technology-first stack that’s optimized around access and scale,” Laraki said. “I think that’s literally what we’re seeing now with healthcare. What’s kind of getting catalyzed right now is we’ve been realizing it applies to the COVID crisis, but also, we started actually working on that for prevention and I think actually it’s going to be applying to a huge surface area in healthcare; basically all the aspects of health that are not acute care where you don’t need to show up in hospital.”

Ultimately, Color’s approach is to rethink healthcare delivery in order to “make it accessible at the edge directly in people’s lives,” with “low transaction costs,” in a way that’s “scalable, [and] doesn’t use a lot of clinical resourcing,” Laraki says. He notes that this is actually very possible once you reasses the problem without relying on a lot of accepted knowledge about the way things are done today, which result in a “heavy stack” versus what you actually need to deliver the desired outcomes.

Laraki doesn’t think the problem is easy to solve — on the contrary, he acknowledges that 2021 is likely to be even more difficult and challenging than 2020 in many ways for the healthcare industry, and we’ve already begun to see evidence of that in the many challenges already faced by vaccine distribution and delivery in its initial rollout. But he’s optimistic about Color’s ability to help address those challenges, and to build out a “last mile” delivery system for crucial care that expands accessibility, while also making sure things are done right.

“When you take a step back, doing COVID testing or COVID vaccinations … those are not complex procedures at all — they’re extremely simple procedures,” he said. “What’s hard is doing them massive scale and with a very low transaction cost to the individual and to the system. And that’s a very different tooling.”

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners looks to make CA power grids more reliable with a $100 million investment

By Jonathan Shieber

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, the company which spun out of Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to fund, develop, and own the next generation of infrastructure, has unveiled its latest project — Reslia, which focuses on upgrading the efficiency and reliability of power grids.

Through a $20 million equity investment in the startup OhmConnect, and an $80 million commitment to develop a demand response program leveraging OhmConnect’s technology and services across the state of California, Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners intends to plant a flag for demand-response technologies as a key pathway to ensuring stable energy grids across the country.

‘We’re creating a virtual power plant,” said Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners co-CEO, Jonathan Winer. “With a typical power plant … it’s project finance, but for a virtual power plant… We’re basically going to subsidize the rollout of smart devices.”

The idea that people will respond to signals from the grid isn’t a new one, as Winer himself acknowledged in an interview. But the approach that Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners is taking, alongside OhmConnect, to roll out the incentives to residential customers through a combination of push notifications and payouts, is novel. “The first place people focused is on commercial and industrial buildings,” he said. 

What drew Sidewalk to the OhmConnect approach was the knowledge of the end consumer that OhmConnect’s management team brought to the table The company’s chief technology officer was the former chief technology officer of Zynga, Winer noted.

“What’s cool about the OhmConnect platform is that it empowers participation,” Winer said. “Anyone can enroll in these programs. If you’re an OhmConnect user and there’s a blackout coming, we’ll give you five bucks if you turn down your thermostat for the next two hours.”

Illustration of Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners Resilia Power Plant. Image Credit: Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners

The San Francisco-based demand-response company already has 150,000 users on its platform, and has paid out something like $1 million to its customers during the brownouts and blackouts that have roiled California’s electricity grid over the past year.

The first collaboration between OhmConnect and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners under the Resilia banner will be what the companies are calling a “Resi-Station” — a 550 megawatt capacity demand response program that will use smart devices to power targeted energy reductions.

At full scale, the companies said that the project will be the largest residential virtual power plant in the world. 

“OhmConnect has shown that by linking together the savings of many individual consumers, we can reduce stress on the grid and help prevent blackouts,” said OhmConnect CEO Cisco DeVries. “This investment by SIP will allow us to bring the rewards of energy savings to hundreds of thousands of additional Californians – and at the same time build the smart energy platform of the future.” 

California’s utilities need all the help they can get. Heat waves and rolling blackouts spread across the state as it confronted some of its hottest temperatures over the summer. California residents already pay among the highest residential power prices in the counry at 21 cents per kilowatt hour, versus a national average of 13 cents.

During times of peak stress earlier in the year, OhmConnect engaged its customers to reduce almost one gigawatt hour of total energy usage. That’s the equivalent of taking 600,000 homes off the grid for one hour.

If the Resilia project was rolled out at scale, the companies estimate they could provide 5 gigawatt hours of energy conservation — that’s the full amount of the energy shortfall from the year’s blackouts and the equivalent of not burning 3.8 million pounds of coal.

Going forward, the Resilia energy efficiency and demand response platform will scale up other infrastructure innovations as energy grids shift from centralized power to distributed, decentralized generation sources, the company said. OhmConnect looks to be an integral part of that platform.

“The energy grid used to be uni-directional.. .we believe that in the near future the grid is going to be become bi-directional and responsive,” said Winer. “With our approach, this won’t be one investment. We’ll likely make multiple investments. [Vehicle-to-grid], micro-grid platforms, and generative design are going to be important.” 

Greece’s Marathon Venture Capital completes first close for Fund II, reaching $47M

By Mike Butcher

Marathon Venture Capital in Athens, Greece has completed the first closing of its second fund, reaching the €40m / $47M mark. Backing the new fund is the European Investment Fund, HDBI, as well as corporates, family offices and HNWIs around the world (plus many Greek founders). It plans to invest in Seed-stage startups from €1m to 1.5m initial tickets for 15-20% of equity.

Team changes include Thaleia Misailidou being promoted to Principal, and Chris Gasteratos is promoted to Associate.

Marathon’s most prominent portfolio company is Netdata, which last year raised a $17 million Series A led by Bain Capital, and later raised another $14m from Bessemer. On the success side, Uber’s pending $1.4B+ acquisition of BMW/Daimler’s mobility group was in part driven by a Marathon-backed startup, Taxibeat, which was earlier acquired by Daimler.

Partners George Tziralis and Panos Papadopoulos tell me the fund is focused generally on enterprise/B2B, plus “Greek founders, anywhere”.

Highlights of Fund One’s investments include:

  • Netdata (leading infra monitoring OSS, backed by Bessemer & Bain)
  • Lenses (leader in DataOps, backed by 83North)
  • Hack The Box (cybersecurity adversarial training labs)
  • Learnworlds (business-in-a-box for course creators)
  • Causaly (cause-and-effect discovery in pharma)
  • Augmenta (autonomous precision agriculture)

Tziralis tells me the majority of its next ten companies have already raised a Series A round.

Tziralis and Papadopoulos have been key players in the Greek startups scene, backing many of the first startups to emerge from the country over 13 years ago. And they were enthusiastic backers of our TechCrunch Athens meetup many years ago.

Three years ago, they launched Marathon Venture Capital to take their efforts to the next level. Fund I invested in 10 companies with the first fund, and most have raised a Series A. The portfolio as a whole has raised 4x their total invested amount and maintains an estimated total enterprise value of $350 million.

They’ve also been running the “Greeks in Tech” meetups all over the world – Berlin to London to New York to San Francisco, and many more locations in between, connecting with Greek founders.

African fintech startup Chipper Cash raises $30M backed by Jeff Bezos

By Jake Bright

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by Ribbit Capital with participation of Bezos Expeditions — the personal VC fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Chipper Cash was founded in San Francisco in 2018 by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled. The company offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.

Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout — a merchant-focused, fee-based payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business. The company has scaled to 3 million users on its platform and processes an average of 80,000 transactions daily. In June 2020, Chipper Cash reached a monthly payments value of $100 million, according to CEO Ham Serunjogi .

As part of the Series B raise, the startup plans to expand its products and geographic scope. On the product side, that entails offering more business payment solutions, crypto-currency trading options, and investment services.

“We’ll always be a P2P financial transfer platform at our core. But we’ve had demand from our users to offer other value services…like purchasing cryptocurrency assets and making investments in stocks,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

Chipper Cash has added beta dropdowns on its website and app to buy and sell Bitcoin and invest in U.S. stocks from Africa — the latter through a partnership with U.S. financial services company DriveWealth.

“We’ll launch [the stock product] in Nigeria first so Nigerians have the option to buy fractional stocks — Tesla shares, Apple shares or Amazon shares and others — through our app. We’ll expand into other countries thereafter,” said Serunjogi.

On the business financial services side, the startup plans to offer more API payments solutions. “We’ve been getting a lot of requests from people on our P2P platform, who also have business enterprises, to be able to collect payments for sale of goods,” explained Serunjogi.

Chipper Cash also plans to use its Series B financing for additional country expansion, which the company will announce by the end of 2021.

Jeff Bezos’s backing of Chipper Cash follows a recent string of events that has elevated the visibility of Africa’s startup scene. Over the past decade, the continent’s tech ecosystem has been one of the fastest growing in the world by year year-over-year expansion in venture capital and startup formation, concentrated in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch/Bryce Durbin

Bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest-funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019. Even with the rapid venture funding growth over the last decade, Africa’s tech scene had been performance light, with only one known unicorn (e-commerce venture Jumia) a handful of exits, and no major public share offerings. That changed last year.

In April 2019, Jumia — backed by investors including Goldman Sachs and Mastercard — went public in an NYSE IPO. Later in the year, Nigerian fintech company Interswitch achieved unicorn status after a $200 million investment by Visa.

This year, Network International purchased East African payments startup DPO for $288 million and in August WorldRemit acquired Africa focused remittance company Sendwave for $500 million.

One of the more significant liquidity events in African tech occurred last month, when Stripe acquired Nigerian payment gateway startup Paystack for a reported $200 million.

In an email to TechCrunch, a spokesperson for Bezos Expeditions confirmed the fund’s investment in Chipper Cash, but declined to comment on further plans to back African startups. Per Crunchbase data, the investment would be the first in Africa for the fund. It’s worth noting Bezos Expeditions is not connected to Jeff Bezo’s hallmark business venture, Amazon.

For Chipper Cash, the $30 million Series B raise caps an event-filled two years for the San Francisco-based payments company and founders Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled. The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.

Chipper Cash founders Ham Serunjogi (R) and Maijid Moujaled; Image Credits: Chipper Cash

The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds. The startup expanded into Nigeria and Southern Africa in 2019, entered a payments partnership with Visa in April and raised a $13.8 million Series A in June.

Chipper Cash founder Ham Serunjogi believes the backing of his company by a notable tech figure, such as Jeff Bezos (the world’s richest person), has benefits beyond his venture.

“It’s a big deal when a world class investor like Bezos or Ribbit goes out of their sweet spot to a new area where they previously haven’t done investments,” he said. “Ultimately, the winner of those things happening is the African tech ecosystem overall, as it will bring more investment from firms of that caliber to African startups.”

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London and SF have become Impact Tech hubs, with 280% increase in VC in 5 years

By Mike Butcher

New research has found that San Francisco and London have become two of the world’s leading hubs for VC investment into tech solutions that address one or more of the 17 UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), more commonly referred to as “Impact Tech”. They are followed by Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Shanghai and Beijing.

Tech solutions for such pressing issues as the climate crisis and social inequality have seen a 280% increase in global VC investment from 2015 to 2020, while investment in this space more than doubled in both cities over the past five years. The report was put together by London & Partners and Dealroom as part of this week’s Silicon Valley Comes to the UK virtual event. More than 5,000 startups were surveyed to create the data.

According to the research, VC investment into London-based impact tech startups has grown by almost 800% (7.8 times) since 2015, compared to 3.1 times in Europe as a whole. 2020 is set to be a record year for London’s impact tech companies, which have received $1.2 billion in VC investment from January to October, already matching 2019 levels. London’s impact firms have also secured 429 deals between 2015 and 2020, more than any other city globally.

San Francisco’s impact-based tech companies have also shown strong growth over the past five years, with the data revealing that VC investment into its impact tech companies has almost tripled (2.8 times) from 2015 to 2020. So far this year, SF-based impact tech companies attracted $1.7 billion of VC investment in 2020 — more than any other city globally. At a national level, the United States received more VC funding for impact tech companies than any other country in the past five years, with investors pumping $35.8 billion into U.S. firms since 2015, double the amount invested into China ($16.8 billion) and the United Kingdom ($6.1 billion).

The research also found that the U.K. capital has produced 241 impact startups since 2006, with 95 companies founded in San Francisco. In London, “impact unicorns” include Octopus Energy (green energy), Arrival (zero-emission, public transportation vehicles), Gousto (food) and Babylon Health (AI health tech).

Climate change and clean energy solutions have attracted the most interest from investors in both cities, making up over 50% of overall VC investment over the last five years. Funding rounds including at least one North American investor made up $234 million of VC investment so far this year in London, up from $85 million in 2018, and equating to a fifth of all VC investment into London’s impact startups.

Funding rounds for London impact companies involving North American investors in 2020 include a $118 million growth equity round into Arrival by BlackRock, an $80 million Series B round for COMPASS Pathways and a $25 million Series C funding for Tractable.

Meanwhile, impact startups are crossing the pond in both directions. Arrival is now operating in Los Angeles, while Octopus Energy launched in the U.S. market in September after closing a $360 million funding round in April and acquiring Silicon Valley-based startup Evolve Energy. And San Francisco-based Allbirds, the sustainable shoe retailer, opened its first European flagship store in London in July 2018.

Commenting, Janet Coyle, managing director for business, London & Partners said: “San Francisco and London are two of the world’s top hubs for innovation and technology. But today’s figures also show that they are leading the way in creating purpose-driven companies striving to tackle some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges.”

 

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