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Today — August 6th 2020Your RSS feeds

Uber picks up Autocab to push into places its own app doesn’t go

By Natasha Lomas

Uber has bought UK based Autocab, which sells SaaS to the taxi and private hire vehicle industry, with the aim of expanding the utility of its own platform by linking users who open its app in places where it doesn’t offer trips to local providers who do.

No acquisition price has been disclosed and Uber declined to comment on the terms of the deal.

Autocab has a SaaS presence in 20 countries globally at this stage, according to an Uber spokeswoman. We’ve asked whether it will be closing a marketplace service which connects local taxi firms with trip bookers in any locations as a result of the Uber acquisition.

The Manchester-based veteran taxi software maker — which sells booking and despatch software as well as operating a global marketplace (iGo) which local firms can plug into to get more trips — was founded back in 1989, per Crunchbase.

Uber’s spokeswoman said it plans to support Autocab’s expansion of SaaS and iGo internationally — suggesting the tech giant hopes to be able to integrate the marketplace across its own global footprint in order to be able to offer users a less patchy service.

The move also looks intended to create more opportunities for Uber drivers to pick up jobs from outside its own platform, including delivery work.

In a press release announcing the acquisition, Uber said “thousands of people” open its app every month in places where they can’t get a trip. It lists 15 UK towns which fall into this category — headed by Oxford (with 67,099 app opens monthly) and Tunbridge Wells (46,150); or at the other end Colchester (16,540) and Ipswich (16,539).

“Through Autocab’s iGo marketplace, Uber will be able to connect these riders with local operators who choose to take their booking. In turn, operators should be able to expand their operations and offer more earnings opportunities to local drivers. Uber will also explore providing drivers with additional revenue opportunities related to its platform for other services, such as delivery,” it added.

According to Bloomberg, Uber won’t be integrating Autocab’s marketplace in markets where it already offers a service, such as London — so there does look to be an element of Uber using the purchase to shore up its own key markets by closing down the chance of a little locally flavored competition.

Uber’s rides business has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which has squeezed demand for on-demand transportation, as many professionals switching to remote work at home. Social distancing requirements have also hit the nightlife industry, further eating into demand for Uber’s service.

All of which makes life hard for Uber’s ‘self employed‘ drivers — giving the company an incentive to find ways to retain their service during a leaner time for on-demand trips when they may otherwise abandon the platform, damaging its ability to provide a reliable service.

For Autocab’s part, the acquisition offers a road to further global expansion. It will remain independent with its own board after the acquisition, per the pair’s press release — retaining its focus on serving the taxi and private hire vehicle industry globally.

Commenting in a statement, Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional GM for Northern & Eastern Europe, said: “Autocab has worked successfully with taxi and private hire operators around the world for more than thirty years and Uber has a lot to learn from their experience. We look forward to working with the Autocab team to help local operators grow and provide drivers with genuine earnings opportunities.”

Autocab CEO, Safa Alkatab, added: “Autocab has been working with local operators across the world to provide the technology to make them more efficient and open up a marketplace to provide more trips. Working with Uber we can scale up our ambitions, providing hundreds of thousands of additional trips for our customers, and help cement the place of licenced operators in their local community.”

Yesterday — August 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

Krisp snags $5M A round as demand grows for its voice-isolating algorithm

By Devin Coldewey

Krisp’s smart noise suppression tech, which silences ambient sounds and isolates your voice for calls, arrived just in time. The company got out in front of the global shift to virtual presence, turning early niche traction has into real customers and attracting a shiny new $5 million series A funding round to expand and diversify its timely offering.

We first met Krisp back in 2018 when it emerged from UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator. The company was an early one in the big surge of AI startups, but with a straightforward use case and obviously effective tech it was hard to be skeptical about.

Krisp applies a machine learning system to audio in real time that has been trained on what is and isn’t the human voice. What isn’t a voice gets carefully removed even during speech, and what remains sounds clearer. That’s pretty much it! There’s very little latency (15 milliseconds is the claim) and a modest computational overhead, meaning it can work on practically any device, especially ones with AI acceleration units like most modern smartphones.

The company began by offering its standalone software for free, with paid tier that removed time limits. It also shipped integrated into popular social chat app Discord. But the real business is, unsurprisingly, in enterprise.

“Early on our revenue was all pro, but in December we started onboarding enterprises. COVID has really accelerated that plan,” explained Davit Baghdasaryan, co-founder and CEO of Krisp. “In March, our biggest customer was a large tech company with 2,000 employees — and they bought 2,000 licenses, because everyone is remote. Gradually enterprise is taking over, because we’re signing up banks, call centers and so on. But we think Krisp will still be consumer-first, because everyone needs that, right?”

Now even more large companies have signed on, including one call center with some 40,000 employees. Baghdasaryan says the company went from 0 to 600 paying enterprises, and $0 to $4M annual recurring revenue in a single year, which probably makes the investment — by Storm Ventures, Sierra Ventures, TechNexus and Hive Ventures — look like a pretty safe one.

It’s a big win for the Krisp team, which is split between the U.S. and Armenia, where the company was founded, and a validation of a global approach to staffing — world-class talent isn’t just to be found in California, New York, Berlin and other tech centers, but in smaller countries that don’t have the benefit of local hype and investment infrastructure.

Funding is another story, of course, but having raised money the company is now working to expand its products and team. Krisp’s next move is essentially to monitor and present the metadata of conversation.

“The next iteration will tell you not just about noise, but give you real time feedback on how you are performing as a speaker,” Baghdasaryan explained. Not in the toastmasters sense, exactly, but haven’t you ever wondered about how much you actually spoke during some call, or whether you interrupted or were interrupted by others, and so on?

“Speaking is a skill that people can improve. Think Grammar.ly for voice and video,” Baghdasaryan ventured. “It’s going to be subtle about how it gives that feedback to you. When someone is speaking they may not necessarily want to see that. But over time we’ll analyze what you say, give you hints about vocabulary, how to improve your speaking abilities.”

Since architecturally Krisp is privy to all audio going in and out, it can fairly easily collect this data. But don’t worry — like the company’s other products, this will be entirely private and on-device. No cloud required.

“We’re very opinionated here: Ours is a company that never sends data to its servers,” said Baghdasaryan. “We’re never exposed to it. We take extra steps to create and optimize our tech so the audio never leaves the device.”

That should be reassuring for privacy wonks who are suspicious of sending all their conversations through a third party to  be analyzed. But after all, the type of advice Krisp is considering can be done without really “understanding” what is said, which also limits its scope. It won’t be coaching you into a modern Cicero, but it might help you speak more consistently or let you know when you’re taking up too much time.

For the immediate future, though, Krisp is still focused on improving its noise-suppression software, which you can download for free here.

The story behind Rent the Runway’s first check

By Natasha Mascarenhas

When Rent the Runway co-founders Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman got their first term sheet, it had an exploding clause in it: If they didn’t sign the offer in 24 hours, they would lose the deal.

The co-founders, then students at Harvard Business School, were ready to commit, but their lawyer advised them to pause and attend the meetings they had previously set up with other investors.

Twelve years later, Rent the Runway has raised $380 million in venture capital equity funding from top investors like Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Temasek, Fidelity, Highland Capital Partners and T. Rowe Capital. Fleiss gave up an operational role in the company to a board seat in 2017, as the company reportedly was eyeing an IPO.

But the shoe didn’t always fit: Earlier this year, Rent the Runway struggled with supply chain issues that left customers disgruntled. Then, the pandemic threatened the market of luxury wear more broadly: Who needs a ball gown while Zooming from home? In early March, the business went through a restructuring and laid off nearly half of its workforce, including every retail employee at its physical locations.

In 2009, Fleiss and Hyman were successful Harvard Business School students. Hyman’s father knew a prominent lawyer who agreed to advise them on a contingency basis in exchange for connecting them with potential investors.

Still, fundraising “was extremely hard,” Hyman said. “We were in the middle of a recession and we were two young women at business school who had never really done anything before.”

Fleiss said venture capital firms often sent junior associates, receptionists and assistants to take the meeting instead of dispatching a full-time partner. “It was clear they weren’t taking us very seriously,” Fleiss said, recounting that on one occasion, a male investor called his wife and daughter on speaker to vet their thoughts.

In an attempt to test their thesis that women would pay to rent (and return) luxury clothing, Fleiss and Hyman started doing trunk pop-up shows with 100 dresses. On one occasion, they rented out a Harvard undergraduate dorm room common hall and invited sororities, student activity organizations and a handful of investors.

Only one person showed up, said Fleiss: A guy “who was 30 years older than anyone else in the room.”

Old-fashioned meets nontraditional

Go public now while software valuations make no sense

By Alex Wilhelm

Software valuations are bonkers, which means it’s a great time to go public. Asana, Monday.com, Wrike and every other gosh darn software company that is putting it off, pay attention. Heck, even service-y Palantir could excel in this market.

Let me explain.

Over the past few weeks, TechCrunch has tracked the filing, first pricing, rejiggered pricing range, and, today, the first day of trading for BigCommerce, a Texas-based e-commerce company. You can think of it as a comp with Shopify to a degree.

In the wake of the Canadian phenom’s blockbuster earnings report, BigCommerce boosted its IPO range. Yesterday the company did itself one better, pricing $1 per share above that raised range, selling 9,019,565 shares at $24 per share, of which 6,850,000 came from BigCommerce itself.

Before some additions, there are now 65,843,546 shares of BigCommerce in the world, giving the company an IPO valuation of around $1.58 billion.

Given that the company’s Q2 expected revenue range is “between $35.5 million and $35.8 million,” the company sported a run-rate multiple of 11.1x to 11x, depending on where its final revenue tally comes in. That felt somewhat reasonable, if perhaps a smidgen light.

Then the company opened at $68 per share today, currently trading for $82 per share. Hello, 1999 and other insane times. BigCommerce is now worth, using some rough math, around $5.4 billion, giving it a run-rate multiple of around 38x, using the midpoint of its Q2 revenue range.

Funding in an uncertain market: using venture debt to bridge the gap

By Walter Thompson
Will Hutchins Contributor
Will Hutchins is a managing director at Espresso Capital, a leading provider of innovative growth financing and venture debt solutions.

While a handful of tech companies like Zoom and Shopify are enjoying massive gains as a result of COVID-19, that’s obviously not the case for most. Weaker demand, slower sales cycles, and customer insistence on pricing concessions and payment deferrals have conspired to cloud the outlook for many tech companies’ growth.

Compounding these challenges, a lot of tech companies are struggling to raise capital just when they need it most. The data so far suggests that investors, particularly those focused on earlier stage financings, are taking a more cautious approach to new deals and valuations while they wait to see how individual companies perform and which way the economy will go. With the outcome of their planned equity financings uncertain, some tech companies are revisiting their funding strategies and exploring alternative sources of capital to fuel their continued growth.

Forecasting growth in a pandemic: a difficult job just got harder

For certain businesses, COVID-19’s impact on revenue was immediate. For others, the effects of slower economic activity and tighter budgets surfaced more gradually with deals in the funnel before the pandemic closing in April and May. Either way, in the second half of 2020, technology CFOs face a common challenge: How do you accurately forecast sales when there’s very little consensus around key issues such as when business activity will return to pre-COVID levels and what the long-term effects of the crisis might be?

Unfortunately, navigating this uncertainty is just as daunting a challenge for investors. These days, equity investors’ assessment of a company’s growth potential, and the value they are willing to pay for that growth, aren’t just impacted by their view of the company itself. Equally important is their assumptions about when the economy will recover and what the new normal might look like. This uncertainty can lead to situations where companies and their potential investors have materially different views on valuation.

Longer funding cycles, more investor-friendly deals

While the full impact of COVID was felt too late to have a material impact on Q1 deal volumes, recently released data from Pitchbook and the NVCA suggest that 2020 will see a significant decrease in the number of companies funded, possibly by as much 30 percent compared to 2019 among early stage companies. And, while it often takes several months to see evidence of broad trends in investment terms, anecdotal evidence indicates investors are seeking to mitigate risk by demanding additional protective provisions.

India’s Byju’s acquires WhiteHat Jr. for $300 million

By Manish Singh

Byju’s has acquired edtech startup WhiteHat Jr. for $300 million as the Indian online learning giant looks to expand its dominant reach in the country.

The all-cash deal makes 18-month-old Mumbai-headquartered WhiteHat Jr., which offers online coding classes to school-going students in India and the U.S., the fastest exit story of this size in the Indian startup ecosystem.

WhiteHat Jr., which had raised about $11 million from Omidyar Network and Nexus Venture Partners, has achieved an annual revenue run rate of $150 million. It will continue to operate as a separate entity for now, a Byju’s spokesperson told TechCrunch.

“We started WhiteHat Jr. to make kids creators instead of consumers of technology,” said Karan Bajaj, founder of WhiteHat Jr., in a statement. “Technology is at the centre of every human interaction today and we had set out to create a coding curriculum that was being delivered live and connected students and teachers like never before.”

Wow! Unprecedented exit. India 2020.
And congrats to founder and investors! https://t.co/8Acihhk4jd

— Anand Lunia (@anandlunia) August 5, 2020

Byju Raveendran, the founder and chief executive of the eponymous startup, said Byju’s will make “significant investments” in WhiteHat Jr. and hire more teachers to expand it to new markets. WhiteHat Jr. recently announced plans to expand to Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Unlike most edtech startups, WhiteHat Jr. assigns one teacher to each student. These classes are live and each session cost about $10, Bajaj told TechCrunch in an interview last month. More than 5,000 teachers currently work with WhiteHat Jr., said Bajaj.

“WhiteHat Jr is the leader in the live online coding space. Karan has proven his mettle as an exceptional founder and the credit goes to him and his team for creating coding programs that are loved by kids. Under his leadership the company has achieved phenomenal growth in India and the US in a short span of time,” said Raveendran in a statement.

Byju’s, which was backed by Mary Meeker’s Bond last month, is being currently valued at $10.5 billion.

The announcement today illustrates the growing phase of education startups in India as they report skyrocketing growth at the height of a global pandemic. “Delightful to see such an exit in the Indian startup ecosystem. Happy to see WhiteHat Jr. find home at the world’s most-valued edtech startup that will enable them to reach more students globally,” said Sajith Pai, Director at Blume Ventures, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Great to see this!

Worth noting
1) WhiteHat is <20m old. True blitzscaling indeed!
2) Run rate of $150m is amazing. This on $~11m or so of investments. Terrific execution by the founder + team.

Congrats to the team + investors for scripting this story!https://t.co/PRhylfvICu

— Sajith Pai (@sajithpai) August 5, 2020

The acquisition of WhiteHat Jr., which according to a person familiar with the matter had also received interest from several investors for financing its next fundraise, comes as top online learning startups in India are aggressively engaging in M&A talks with several younger startups to further their dominance in the nation.

Facebook-backed Unacademy last month acquired PrepLadder for $50 million and led an investment round of $5 million to acquire a majority stake in Mastree. Other major players Vedantu and Toppr told TechCrunch last month that they were also open to explore similar deals.

Separately, Byju’s is also in talks to acquire Doubtnut — a two-year-old startup whose app allows students from sixth grade to high school solve and understand math and science problems in local languages — for as much as $150 million, TechCrunch reported earlier.

Byju’s, which acquired U.S.-based startup Osmo that develops interactive play apps that tie into custom hardware in a $120 million deal early last year, currently leads the edtech market in India. The startup has been looking for ways to expand both outside of India and make inroads in smaller cities and towns in the country.

A venture capitalist who did not want to be identified said the acquisition of WhiteHat Jr. will allow Byju’s to gain access to top-tier families that can afford to spend big amount on education. “Today it’s coding but I’m sure Byju’s will replicate WhiteHat Jr’s model with math and other STEM subjects soon enough,” the VC said.

PandaDoc announces second Series B extension worth $30M

By Ron Miller

PandaDoc, the startup that provides a fully digital sales document workflow from proposal to electronic signature to collecting payment, announced a $30 million Series B extension today, making it the the second such extension the company has taken since taking its original $15 million Series B in 2017. The total for the three B investments is $50 million.

Company co-founder and CEO Mikita Mikado says that he took this approach, taking the original money in 2017, then $5 million last year along with the money announced today because it made more sense financially for the company than taking a huge chunk of money all at once.

“Basically when we do little chunks of cash frequently, [we found that] you dilute yourself less,” Mikado told TechCrunch. He said that they’ve grown comfortable with this approach because the business became more predictable once it passed 10,000 customers. In fact today it has 20,000.

“With a high velocity in-bound sales model, you can predict what’s going to happen next month or [say] six months out. So you kind of have this luxury of raising as much money as you need when you need it, minimizing dilution just like public companies do,” he said.

While he wouldn’t discuss specifics in terms of valuations he did say that the B1 had 2x the valuation of the original B round and the B2 had double the valuation of the B1.

For this round, One Peak led the investment with participation from Microsoft’s Venture Fund (M12), Savano Capital Partners, Rembrandt Venture Partners and EBRD Venture Capital Investment Programme.

Part of the company’s growth strategy is using their eSignature tool to move people to the platform. They made that tool free in March just as the pandemic was hitting hard in the U.S., and it has proven to be what Mikado called “a lead magnet” to get more people familiar with the company.

Once they do that he says, they start to look at the broader set of tools and they can become paying customers. “This launch helped us validate that businesses need a broader workflow solution. Businesses used to think of the eSignature as the holy grail in getting a deal done. Now they are realizing that eSignature is just a moment in time. The full value is what happens before, during and after the eSignature in order to get deals done,” Mikado said.

The company currently has 334 employees with plans to hit 380 by year’s end and is aiming for 470 by next year. With the office in San Francisco, Belarus and Manila, it has geographic diversity built in, but Mikado says it’s something they are still working at and includes anti-bias programs and training and leadership programs to give more people a chance to be hired or promoted into management.

When it came to shutting down offices and working from home, Mikado admits it was a challenge, especially since some of the geographies they operate in might not have access to a good internet connection at home or face other challenges, but overall he says it has worked out in terms of maintaining productivity across the company. And he points out being geographically diverse, they have had to deal with online communications for some time.

What Q2 fundraising data tells us about the rest of 2020

By Walter Thompson
Russ Heddleston Contributor
Russ is the co-founder and CEO of DocSend. He was previously a product manager at Facebook, where he arrived via the acquisition of his startup Pursuit.com, and has held roles at Dropbox, Greystripe and Trulia. Follow him here: @rheddleston and @docsend

It’s safe to say that no one could have predicted how this year’s fundraising marketplace was going to shape up. The beginning of the year saw us trending toward a blockbuster start, similar to 2018, rather than the steady burn of 2019. But after March there was no clear road map for how VCs and founders were going to react.

We’ve been tracking three key data metrics from the 2020 DocSend Startup Index to show us real-time trends in the fundraising marketplace. Using aggregate and anonymous data pulled from thousands of pitch deck interactions across the DocSend platform, we’re able to track the supply and demand in the marketplace, as well as the quality of pitch deck interactions.

The main two metrics are Pitch Deck Interest and Founder Links Created. These are leading indicators for how the fundraising marketplace is shaping up as it measures the activity happening around the pitch deck. As that interest peaks, we expect the amount of funds deployed to increase in the months after. Pitch Deck Interest is measured by the average number of pitch deck interactions for each founder happening on our platform per week, and is a great proxy for demand.

Founder Links Created is how many unique links a founder is creating to their deck each week; because each person you send a document to in DocSend gets a unique link, we can use this as a proxy for supply by looking at how many investors a founder is sharing their deck with per week.

Here’s what we saw in Q2 and how that will affect the rest of the year.

VCs are shopping

VC interest has been at an all-time high over the last quarter. Interest rebounded over the course of a few weeks after the pandemic was declared and shelter-in-place orders were given. But once interest rebounded to pre-pandemic levels it did something surprising. It kept climbing. In fact, the top 10 weeks for VC interest this year were all in Q2. Overall, interest was up 21.6% QoQ and 26% YoY. This means we’re looking at VCs viewing more pitch decks than they have any time in the last two years.

This is in spite of VC interest traditionally declining from late spring into summer, before bottoming out during the last two weeks of August. After the initial peak in the spring, VC interest typically doesn’t rebound until October.

But not only can we see that VCs are interacting with a lot of decks, we also can determine the quality of those interactions. We measure how long a VC spends reading each deck. From our previous research we know that the average pitch deck interaction is less than 3.5 minutes. But the amount of time VCs spent reading each deck in Q2 steadily declined, going below two minutes toward the end of the quarter. This tells us VCs are speeding through decks. That means they either know what they’re looking for and aren’t wasting time, or they’re scrutinizing decks less, opting for a Zoom call to hear more from a founder.

For founders, this means having a tight deck is even more important than before. Don’t have more than 20 slides, don’t send your appendix in your send-ahead deck and keep your slides concise and thoughtful (read our guide on how to put together a send-ahead deck here).

If you’re still not able to get a meeting with a VC during this intense shopping season, you may want to consider changing your fundraising strategy.

Founder timelines have changed

We can see over the last quarter that there have been clear spikes in the amount of links founders are sending out. Founders sent out 11% more deck links in Q2 than they did in Q1, but what’s interesting is that the number of links created actually dropped below 2019 levels on three separate occasions. So while founders might have been rushing to send their deck out during unstable times, there were plenty of weeks where founders were hanging back.

This conflicting story can tell us several things. First, founders have most likely condensed their fundraising efforts. According to our research earlier this year, the average pre-seed round takes longer than three months to complete. For those fundraising during a pandemic, three months can seem like a lifetime. This is not only due to the logistics of setting meetings with VCs who have packed calendars, but also the iteration process of receiving feedback from a potential investor, working on your deck, then sending it out to new targets. With global uncertainty, many founders likely decided to shorten their time away from their business by reducing their fundraising efforts to just a few weeks.

Second, due to aggressive cost cutting at the beginning of the pandemic, many founders found themselves with more runway than they expected. In fact, according to a recent survey we did, nearly 50% of founders changed their fundraising timeline by either moving it forward or delaying it. Founders that could afford to decided to avoid the volatile fundraising marketplace in an effort to preserve their valuations.

We’re looking at more than displaced interest from March

While it was easy during April and early May to think the fundraising marketplace was experiencing delayed activity due to the crash in March, the sustained interest makes it hard to believe that’s still the case, especially taking into account seasonality. The last week of the quarter saw a 37% increase in interest over 2019 and an 18% increase over 2018. With that level of activity, we’ve clearly entered a new normal for fundraising.

While valuations might be fluctuating, it’s quite clear VCs are shopping. To figure out why, you don’t have to look any further than the 2008 financial crisis. The businesses born out of crises tend to address real, systemic problems that require big, bold fixes. And the pandemic has certainly laid bare many societal issues that are worth addressing.

What Q3 and Q4 could look like based on current trends

If it’s clear that VCs are shopping, and it’s clear that this isn’t displaced interest from earlier this year, what does that mean for the future? We would normally see an increase in founder activity starting in late summer, leading to peak VC interest in the fall. Founder activity has been up and down, and VC interest has been steadily rising, which tells us there’s still pent-up demand to deploy capital. We should also see many founders who delayed their fundraising efforts enter the marketplace in the next few months. If pandemic conditions worsen, we might also see founders who had decided to push their fundraising efforts to next year moving their timelines forward.

If the current level of interest represents the new normal for VCs, we expect it to only increase as we enter the fall. And with more founders coming online in early to late fall, that pent-up demand should result in an increasingly active market. If you’re a founder, I would recommend kicking off your fundraise now in order to capitalize on the increased interest from investors and decreased competition for at least the first pitch meeting.

Q3 2020 is primed to be an intense shopping season for VCs

By Walter Thompson
Russ Heddleston Contributor
Russ is the co-founder and CEO of DocSend. He was previously a product manager at Facebook, where he arrived via the acquisition of his startup Pursuit.com, and has held roles at Dropbox, Greystripe and Trulia. Follow him here: @rheddleston and @docsend

With the high possibility of an extremely active fundraising marketplace for the rest of the year, founders need to know how to take advantage of it. As you can see from the DocSend Pitch Deck Interest Metrics, spikes in the marketplace previously have resulted in some pretty specific behaviors by VCs.

Here are some tips on how to use the increasing levels of VC interest to your advantage.

VCs are spending less time on your deck, so get to the point

We’re seeing record low time spent per pitch deck. We know from previous research that VCs spend on average 3.5 minutes per pitch deck. But over the last quarter that time has dipped below three minutes. That can actually be a good and a bad thing. It implies that VCs are streamlining their process of looking at decks, which means they most likely know what they want. The downside of this is if you break a few cardinal rules right now your deck could end up in the reject pile.

From our research, VCs expect a deck to be around 20 pages. They expect a straightforward narrative that starts with your problem, leading to the solution, and then your product and business model. Our data found that VCs respond best to 35-50 words per slide (too few words per slide is also an issue; you want to offer enough context for your deck to make sense without you presenting it). The only place you can increase your word count is on your Team page. Our data shows the average number of words on a successful Team slide is 80. This gives you room to highlight the founding team’s relevant experience and show how you’re uniquely suited to build your business.

You have to include a “why now” slide and it should mention COVID-19

We already know that investors respond well to a Why Now slide. Our research shows that 54% of successful pitch decks included a Why Now slide, where only 38% of failed decks included it. That slide now has to work twice as hard. We’re hearing from investors that they expect to see information in your pitch deck about how your business has been affected by COVID-19 and how you plan to manage that impact moving forward. Even if the pandemic has had no material effect on your business, the investor will still have the question. Get out in front of it with a well-formed response near the beginning of your deck.

Stix, offering D2C pregnancy and ovulation tests, raises $1.3 million in seed funding

By Jordan Crook

Stix, a direct-to-consumer women’s health brand, today announced the close of a $1.3 million seed round. Investors such as BDMI, Rogue Women’s Fund, Vamos Ventures, Founders Factory New York, as well as angels like Heidi Zak (ThirdLove) Laurence Franklin (Coach) and Steve Gutentag and Demetri Karagas (30 Madison) participated in the round.

There is no shortage of men’s health startups out there to ease the awkwardness and stress of getting products for hair loss or erectile disfunction. But when it comes to something as common and straightforward as purchasing a pregnancy test, women must still make a run to the drug store.

Until Stix.

Stix offers competitively priced pregnancy tests and ovulation tests that customers can purchase online. As a diagnostics product, Stix is FDA-approved and everything from the instructions to the promotional language has to go through the approval process, according to Plotch. The cofounder and CEO says that both the pregnancy tests and ovulation tests are more than 99 percent accurate.

The Stix pregnancy test costs $13, and includes two tests, free shipping and instructional materials. The ovulation test, which includes seven tests, costs $17.

The company has also taken measures to ensure that the delivery of these products is discreet for customers who don’t want their roommates, whether it’s a live-in partner or parent or just a regular roommate, to know they’re purchasing a pregnancy test.

Stix uses PayPal to stay discreet on the credit card bill, and doesn’t include ‘Stix’ on the return address of the shipped products.

“The entire experience is really based on learning and education,” said Plotch. “We believe that all women deserve access to these products and peace of mind throughout the experience. So, unlike other brands, we don’t focus on the outcome of the test. We don’t care whether or not you’re trying to get pregnant. We just want to make sure that you have accurate results and the information that you need to understand them.”

Beyond the physical products, Stix also offers the Stix Library, an educational resource online that includes content around Stix products (of course), pregnancy, ovulation, birth control, and more general health information.

“What we’ve found is that there is a huge problem around the lack of proper sex education in this country,” said Plotch, adding that it provides an opportunity for Stix to fill in the gaps.

When asked if Stix would ever get into the birth control space, Plotch said that Stix has “high goals” and that “nothing is out of the question in the near future.”

Stix is currently a team of three women, and plans to use the funding to continue growing the team, which is currently 100 percent white. Plotch added that the company has a commitment to diversity and that the team will “definitely look different” on the heels of this round.

Direct-to-consumer cat food startup Smalls raises $9M

By Anthony Ha

While dog owners have plenty of direct-to-consumer options if they want to order pet food online, we haven’t seen a similar wave of startups for cats. But that may be starting to change.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Cat Person, a startup backed by Harry’s Labs offering a variety of cat care products, including food. And Smalls, a cat food startup that launched in 2018, is announcing today that it has raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Co-founders Matt Michaelson (CEO) and Calvin Bohn (COO) said that it’s not simply a matter of taking the D2C dog food model and applying it to cats.

“The traditional sort of MO for companies in the pet care space is to do everything for dogs first,” and then expand into cat products, Bohn said.

Michaelson argued that this means companies “often overlooked the nutritional needs of cat.” In particular, he said, “We found that we needed a much broader range of products to really succeed. Cats are picky because they’re apex predators.”

So Smalls offers a variety of food options, including what it says is fresh, human-grade chicken and beef; freeze-dried chicken, turkey and duck; plus other treats (and non-food products like litter and toys).

Smalls

Image Credits: Smalls

Michaelson and Bohn started out by cooking the food in the kitchen of their New York City apartments, then moved into what was then known as Brooklyn Foodworks. Smalls now manufactures its cat food in a facility in Chicago.

They acknowledged that the cost can be a bit higher than what cat owners are used to paying — the exact comparison will depend on the brand and quality you currently buy, but after taking a quick quiz on the Smalls website, I was offered subscription plans that cost around $3 or $4 per cat per day. Michaelson noted that “retention is not correlated to income” (so Smalls customers aren’t just wealthy cat owners), and he argued that investing healthy food for your cat could save money down the road

“We don’t have studies to say that yet, but at the same time, you would naturally assume eating better food is going to be a good investment in yourself,” he said.

Bohn added that when cat owners switch to Smalls, they quickly notice the difference: “Within weeks, their cats were sleeping better at night, their coats were more lustrous, their stool smelled better.” (Journalists who tried it out seem to agree.)

The Series A brings Smalls’ total funding to $12 million. It was led by Left Lane Capital (whose partner Jason Fiedler previously invested in The Farmer’s Dog), with participation from Founder Collective and Companion Fund.

“While we’ve seen a proliferation of highly successful healthy dog food brands, the cat food market has remained completely ignored,” Fiedler said in a statement. “Smalls has successfully developed a brand, product mix, supply chain and customer experience that is specifically optimized for cats that no one else has.”

Michaelson said Smalls currently has “several thousand” active subscribers, up 4x year-over-year. And while the pandemic has created some supply chain challenges, it also led to “a huge rise in pet adoption,” as well as convincing some owners that they should look for alternatives to their local pet store.

“Because we’re seeing this big movement towards the direct-to-consumer side of things with COVID, it’s really an opportunity to lean into that and grow faster,” he said.

Harness makes first acquisition, snagging open source CI company Drone.io

By Ron Miller

Harness has made a name for itself creating tools like continuous delivery (CD) for software engineers to give them the kind of power that has been traditionally reserved for companies with large engineering teams like Google, Facebook and Netflix. Today, the company announced it has acquired Drone.io, an open source continuous integration (CI) company, marking the company’s first steps into open source, as well as its first acquisition.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

“Drone is a continuous integration software. It helps developers to continuously build, test and deploy their code. The project was started in 2012, and it was the first cloud native, container native continuous integration solution on the market, and we open sourced it,” company co- founder Brad Rydzewski told TechCrunch.

Drone delivers pipeline configuration information as code in a Docker container. Image: Drone.io

While Harness had previously lacked a CI tool to go with its continuous delivery tooling, founder and CEO Jyoti Bansal said this was less about filling in a hole than expanding the current platform.

“I would call it an expansion of our vision and where we were going. As you and I have talked in the past, the mission of Harness is to be a next generation software delivery platform for everyone,” he said. He added that buying Drone had a lot of upside.”It’s all of those things — the size of the open source community, the simplicity of the product — and it [made sense], for Harness and Drone to come together and bring this integrated CI/CD to the market.”

While this is Harness’ first foray into open source, Bansal says it’s just the starting point and they want to embrace open source as a company moving forward. “We are committed togetting more and more involved in open source and actually making even more parts of Harness, our original products, open source over time as well,” he said.

For Drone community members who might be concerned about the acquisition, Bansal said he was “100% committed” to continuing to support the open source Drone product. In fact, Rydzewski said he wanted to team with Harness because he felt he could do so much more with them than he could have done continuing as a stand-alone company.

“Drone was a growing community, a growing project and a growing business. It really came down to I think the timing being right and wanting to partner with a company like Harness to build the future. Drone laid a lot of the groundwork, but it’s a matter of taking it to the next level,” he said.

Bansal says that Harness intends to also offer a commercial version of Drone with some enterprise features on the Harness platform, even while continuing to support the open source side of it.

Drone was founded in 2012. The only money it raised was $28,000 when it participated in the Alchemist Accelerator in 2013, according to Crunchbase data. The deal has closed and Rydzewski has joined the Harness team,

Springboard raises $31 million to expand its mentor-guided education platform to more geographies

By Manish Singh

Springboard, an online education platform that provides upskilling and reskilling training courses to people looking to learn in-demand roles, has raised $31 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand to more geographies.

The Series B financing round for the San Francisco-headquartered startup was led by Telstra Ventures . Vulcan Capital and SJF Ventures, as well as existing investors Costanoa Ventures, Pearson Ventures, Reach Capital, International Finance Corporation (IFC), 500 Startups, Blue Fog Capital, and Learn Capital also participated in the round, said the seven-year-old startup, which has raised more than $50 million to date.

Springboard offers a range of six-month and nine-month courses on data-science, design and other upskilling subjects to help students and those who are already employed somewhere land better jobs.

The startup, which expanded to India last year, also connects students with mentors — people who are working at Fortune 500 companies — to guide them better navigate professional decisions, Vivek Kumar, Managing Director at Springboard, told TechCrunch in an interview.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Jakarta-based Wahyoo gets $5 million Series A to help small eateries digitize their operations

By Catherine Shu

Wahyoo’s team, including CEO Peter Shearer (third from left)

While growing up, Peter Shearer watched his mother get up every day at 2AM or 3AM to prepare for her catering business. For many people who own small food businesses in Indonesia, “everything is handled on their own, so I really, really wanted to create a system so they can have better operations and get more quality of life,” Shearer told TechCrunch.

His startup, Wahyoo, was founded in 2017 to help small eateries, called warung makan, digitize and automate more tasks, from ordering supplies to managing finances. Today, Wahyoo announced that it has raised $5 million in Series A funding led by Intudo Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on Indonesia.

Other investors in the round included Kinesys Group, Amatil X (the corporate venture program of Coca-Cola Amatil, one of the world’ five largest Coca-Cola bottlers), Arkblu Capital, Indogen Capital, Selera Kapital, Gratyo Universal Indonesia and Isenta Hioe. The capital will be used on hiring, developing Wahyoo’s tech platform and expanding beyond the Greater Jakarta area.

In a press statement about the investment, Intudo Ventures founding partner Patrick Yip said, “Small-and medium enterprises represent one of the major engines of economic growth in Indonesia and are being transformed through new innovative businesses like Wahyoo, bringing greater economic prosperity to small business owners throughout the country. Through the company’s digitization efforts, Wahyoo’s highly targeted support for warung makan businesses is creating positive economic and social impact for Indonesia’s working class.”

Wahyoo launched its app almost exactly a year ago and has onboarded about 13,800 warung makan so far. The company’s co-founders are Shearer, the chief executive officer; chief operating officer Daniel Cahyadi; and chief technology officer Michael Dihardja.

With about 268 million people, Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest markets, and there are already startups, like Warung Pintar and BakuWarung, that focus on helping warung, or small corner stores, digitize more of their operations.

Shearer said he wanted to focus on Indonesian eateries in particular because “my background is in the food industry and I love anything related to food. Second, the potential is very big because no one has tapped into this type of warung before. Everyone focuses on retail, but no one taps into the culinary business.”

Wahyoo currently employs about 170 people, including on-the-ground teams who meet with warung makan owners. The eateries are “usually run by a family, from generation to generation,” with almost all tasks performed manually, including bookkeeping and going to markets early in the morning to buy ingredients, Shearer said.

A warung makan owner on Wahyoo’s platform

Wahyoo’s features include a next-day grocery delivery service from its own warehouses and integration with Go Food, a popular delivery app. The startup also runs an education program called Wahyoo Academy, with financial courses to help warung makan owners increase customer traffic and revenue, and offers advertising and brand partnerships.

For example, a restaurant on Wahyoo’s platform can earn money by placing ad banners or brochures in their stores. That is one of the way Wahyoo monetizes. It is free to use for restaurant owners, and makes revenue by taking a percentage of brand commissions.

Another revenue stream is Wahyoo’s fried chicken franchise, which gives warung makan owners the option of opening a small stall in front of their stores. It currently has about 350 stalls and keeps costs low by partnering with one of Indonesia’s largest poultry suppliers. Shearer said the company’s goal is to increase the number of stalls to 1,000 by the end of this year.

While eateries on Wahyoo saw a drop in their business in April and May because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shearer said that it began to recover in June and July, and is now back to normal, partly because of the platform’s Go Food integration.

In the future, Wahyoo may face competition from other warung-focused startups if they decided to expand their services to restaurants as well, and new startups that want to tap into the business opportunity offered by the 59.3 million small- to medium-sized businesses in Indonesia, many of which haven’t digitized their operations yet.

Shearer said Wahyoo’s value proposition is its portfolio of complementary services. “We are basically creating an ecosystem,” he added. “We are not only focusing on the supply chain, but also our own brand. We have the fried chicken brand and in the future we will tap into financial technology and the catering business as well.”

Hollywood’s Triller sets its own rhythm even as it gains from TikTok troubles

By Rita Liao

Triller, the short video app backed by a Hollywood mogul and music celebrities, is rapidly ballooning in both user size and valuation. It’s now seeking a new funding round of $250 million that will push its valuation to over $1 billion, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.

That’s a leap from its $130 million valuation reported last October. Triller’s founder and CEO Mike Lu declined to comment, although another executive confirmed the funding with Dot.la.

The app has emerged as what many see as a TikTok replacement, but it has been around since 2015, two years before TikTok’s debut, and has its own “identity and ecosystem,” the founder insisted.

According to Lu, Triller was already recording “significant growth” even before the Trump administration began mulling a ban or a forced sale of TikTok, although he also admitted the app is getting a boost from the TikTok backlash. 35 million new active users joined Triller just within the last few days. The app has so far collected 250 million downloads worldwide.

The Los Angeles-based startup still has a long way to catch up with TikTok, which crossed 2 billion downloads in April. The rivals both tout their capability to let users match videos with music, a defining feature for their success. In fact, Triller recently filed a lawsuit accusing its Chinese rival for infringing its patent for “creating music videos synchronized with an audio track.”

Triller attributed part of its achievement to majority investor Proxima Media, the Hollywood studio founded by Ryan Kavanaugh. Lu said his company has spent zero in marketing to reach its size, something that “has never happened in technology history.” But Ryan, the film producer and financier behind hits like The Fast and the Furious and The Social Network, has no doubt brought unmatched media exposure, celebrity connections, and naturally, their fans who convert to Triller users.

Made with @triller #triller do you have what it takes?Finding the worlds next #superstar. @migos @starrah the new #americanidol @boostmobile pic.twitter.com/x0DlNttoaA

— Ryan Kavanaugh (@RyanKavanaugh) May 10, 2020

Triller has also secured deals with major record labels, clearing the way for users to make music-centered videos. Its roster of angel investors include Snoop Dogg, The Weekend, Marshmellow, Lil Wayne, among other big names.

“Ryan is second to none in Hollywood, entertainment and media,” said Lu. “I give [Proxima Media] a ton of credit for helping us get to this stage, this massive growth. I don’t think we could have done it without them.”

Celebrity-quality content is one thing that sets Triller apart from TikTok, said Anis Uzzaman, general partner of Pegasus Tech Ventures, which invested in Triller in a strategic round.

“TikTok tries to grow its own celebrities. Triller already has all the big celebrities,” the investor said, refering to videos shared by Alicia Keys, Cardi B, Marshmellow, and Eminem via Triller, which is now a popular place for releasing songs. TikTok has also become a testing ground for artists to test new works.

Meanwhile, the app strives to keep its ordinary users engaged, one thing TikTok has done very well. For example, it boasts of AI-powered editing features that enable users to make professionally looking music videos. It’s also lanched a Billboard chart that ranks the biggest Triller songs, leveling the playing field between emerging creators and celebrities.

“It gives the young people a feeling that they are close to celebrities,” observed Uzzaman.

The investor also believes there’s room for multiple players in the short video space, akin to how Uber and Lyft co-exist. Indeed, China has seen TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin going head to head with Kuaishou in recent years.

For Lu, Triller’s identity is anchored in music, especially hip hop music in the early days, with a demographic of 18-25.

Triller’s App Store images.

TikTok, in comparison, can be everything from light-hearted dance videos to goofy skits. One gets a hint of their differences from the visuals they picked for their App Store pages.

TikTok’s App Store images.

The TikTok alts

The fate of TikTok could still change dramatically in the coming weeks, although so far, there’s a decent chance that Microsoft may scoop up the Chinese-owned app. Some startups are betting that their US identity will help them win over users from TikTok, but a survey done by California-based Creative Digital Agency suggests that may not be the case.

65% of the hundreds of TikTok users it asked said they won’t feel more comfortable with their data policies even if TikTok were an American company, and 84.6% believe the proposed ban is motivated by political concerns.

“The vast majority believe that all American social media platforms are doing exactly the same thing in mining personal data, which is the big privacy concern,” the agency’s managing director Kevin Almeida suggested.

That said, TikTok’s growth has slowed down recently, as some creators hedge the risk of losing followers in the case of a ban. The app’s installs in the US last week were down 7% compared to the four-week average, shows data from analytics firm Sensor Tower. Its total downloads in the US are close to 190 million.

Triller is hardly the only US startup thriving against the backdrop of TikTok’s uncertain future. At least three other micro-video apps have seen new downloads in the hundreds of thousands in the US over the past week, according to Sensor Tower, and two are rooted in China.

They are Byte, Dom Hofmann’s new app after Vine was shuttered by Twitter; Zynn, which is run by Kuaishou, TikTok’s Chinese homegrown rival; and Likee, operated by Bigo, a Singapore-based company acquired by China’s YY. These apps totaled downloads of 2.9 million, 6.4 million, and 16.3 million in the US, respectively.

Growth of TikTok’s old rival Dubsmash isn’t as remarkable but the app has the most US installs among the competitors, reaching 41.6 million recently.

In comparison, Triller has accumulated 23.8 million downloads in the US. The app has seen a surge in downloads in India following the country’s TikTok ban, but it has also ranked among the top photo and video apps across multiple European and African countries where TikTok remains accessible.

The company operates a global team of 350 employees, most of whom are in the US and work on content operation and engineering.

YC-backed Statiq wants to bootstrap India’s EV charging network

By Danny Crichton

Electric vehicles (EVs) are spreading throughout the world. While Tesla has drawn the most attention in the United States with its luxurious and cutting-edge cars, EVs are becoming a mainstay in markets far away from the environs of California.

Take India for instance. In the local mobility market, two- and three-wheel vehicles are starting to emerge as a popular option for a rapidly expanding middle class looking for more affordable options. EV versions are popular thanks to their reduced maintenance costs and higher reliability compared to gasoline alternatives.

Two-wheeled electric scooters are a fast-growing segment of India’s mobility market.

There’s just one problem, and it’s the same one faced by every country which has attempted to convert from gasoline to electric: how do you build out the charging station network to make these vehicles usable outside a small range from their garage?

It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem. You need EVs in order to make money on charging stations, but you can’t afford to build charging stations until EVs are popular. Some startups have attempted to build out these networks themselves first. Perhaps the most famous example was Better Place, an Israeli startup that raised $800 million in venture capital before dying from negative cash flow back in 2013. Tesla has attempted to solve the problem by being both the chicken and egg by creating a network of Superchargers.

That’s what makes Statiq so interesting. The company, based in the New Delhi suburb of Gurugram, is bootstrapping an EV charging network using a multi-revenue model that it hopes will allow it to avoid the financial challenges that other charging networks have faced. It’s in the current Y Combinator batch and will be presenting at Demo Day later this month.

Akshit Bansal and Raghav Arora, the company’s co-founders, worked together previously as consultants and built a company for buying photos online, eventually reaching 50,000 monthly actives. They decided to make a pivot — a hard pivot really — into EVs and specifically charging equipment.

Statiq founders Raghav Arora and Akshit Bansal. Photos via Statiq

“We felt the need to do something about the climate because we were living in Delhi and Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India is home to a lot of the polluted cities in the world. So we wanted to do something about it,” Bansal said. As they researched the causes of pollution, they learned that automobile exhaust represented a large part of the problem locally. They looked at alternatives, but EV charging stations remain basically non-existent across the country.

Thus, they founded Statiq in October 2019 and officially launched this past May. They have installed more than 150 charging stations in Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai and the surrounding environs.

Let’s get to the economics though, since that to me is the most fascinating part of their story. Statiq as I noted has a multi-revenue model. First, end users buy a subscription from Statiq to use the network, and then users pay a fee per charging session. That session fee is split between Statiq and the property owner, giving landlords who install the stations an incremental revenue boost.

A Statiq charging station. Photo via Statiq

When it comes to installation, Statiq has a couple of tricks up its sleeves. First, the company’s charging equipment — according to Bansal — costs roughly a third of the equivalent cost of U.S. equipment. That makes the base technology cheaper to acquire. From there, the company negotiates installations with landlords where the landlords will pay the fixed costs of installation in exchange for that continuing session charge fee.

On top of all that, the charging stations have advertising on them, offering another income stream particularly in high-visibility locations like shopping malls which are critical for a successful EV charging network.

In short, Statiq hasn’t had to outlay capital in order to put in place their charging equipment — and they were able to bootstrap before applying to YC earlier this year. Bansal said the company had dozens of charging stations and thousands of paid sessions on its platform before joining their YC batch, and “we are now growing 20% week-over-week.”

What’s next? It’s all about deliberate scaling. The EV market is turning on in India, and Statiq wants to be where those cars are. Bansal and his co-founder are hoping to ride the wave, continuing to build out critical infrastructure along the way. India’s government will likely continue to help: its approved billions of dollars in incentives for EVs and for charging stations, tipping the economics even further in the direction of a clean car future.

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Software stocks set new records despite earnings, pandemic

By Alex Wilhelm

You might have missed it, but amidst the current political-M&A-pandemic-election-disinformation news cycle we find ourselves in this week, SaaS and cloud companies reached new public market records.

Yesterday, the Bessemer-Nasdaq cloud index closed at 2,035.54, a new record finish for the basket of software companies. And, today, the index broached the 2,040 mark before ceding some ground.


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


What matters for our purposes is that with a good chunk of the Q2 earnings cycle behind us, software companies are not only holding onto their gains from earlier in the year, they are managing to add to them, albeit modestly. Of course, valuation expansion during earnings season could still lead to gently falling multiples; as companies grow, if their shares gain value at a slower pace, their price/sales ratio can lose ground.

Regardless, for our purposes it’s notable that recent public market gains are not dissipating. Tech valuation boosts have helped major American indices regain ground lost early in the year, and Q2 earnings were a possible threat to prior progress. So far earnings-related dents are thin on the ground.

So, what’s going on? Why are SaaS and cloud stocks doing so well? Leaning on notes from two VCs — Jamin Ball from Redpoint and Mary D’Onofrio from Bessemer — we can unspool recent valuation highs.

Qualified raises $12M to make websites smarter about sales and marketing

By Anthony Ha

Qualified, a startup co-founded by former Salesforce executives Kraig Swensrud and Sean Whiteley, has raised $12 million in Series A funding.

Swensrud (Qualified’s CEO) said the startup is meant to solve a problem that he faced when he was CMO at Salesforce . Apparently he’d complain about being “blind,” because he knew so little about who was visiting the Salesforce website.

“There could be 10 or 100 or 100,000 people on my website right now, and I don’t know who they are, I don’t know what they’re interested in, my sales team has no idea that they’re even there,” he said.

Apparently, this is a big problem in business-to-business sales, where waiting five minutes after a lead leaves your website can result in a 10x decrease in the odds of making contact. But the solution currently adopted by many websites is just a chatbot that treats every visitor similarly.

Qualified, meanwhile, connects real-time website visitor information with a company’s Salesforce customer database. That means it can identify visitors from high-value accounts and route them to the correct salesperson while they’re still on the website, turning into a full-on sales meeting that can also include a phone call and screensharing.

Qualified screenshot

Image Credits: Qualified

Of course, the amount of data Qualified has access to will differ from visitor to visitor. Some visitors may be purely incognito, while in other cases, the platform might simply know your city or where you work. In still others (say if you click on a link from marketing email), it can identify you individually.

That’s something I experienced myself, when I decided to take a look at the Qualified website this morning and was quickly greeted with a message that read, “👋 Welcome TechCrunch! We’re excited about our funding announcement…” It was a little creepy, but also much more effective than my visits to other marketing technology websites, where someone usually sends me a generic sales message.

Swensrud acknowledged that using Qualified represents “a change to people’s selling processes,” as it requires sales to respond in real time to website visitors (as a last resort, Qualified can also use chatbots and schedule future calls), but he argued that it’s a necessary change.

“If you email them later, some percentage of those people, they ghost you, they get bored, they moved on to the competition,” he said. “This real-time approach, it forces organizations to think differently in terms of their process.”

And it’s an approach that seems to be working. Among Qualified’s customers, the company says ThoughtSpot increased conversations with its target accounts by 10x, Bitly grew its enterprise sales pipeline by 6x and Gamma drove over $2.5 million in new business pipeline.

The Series A brings Qualified’s total funding to $17 million. It was led by Norwest Venture Partners, with participation from existing investors including Redpoint Ventures and Salesforce Ventures. Norwest’s Scott Beechuk is joining Qualified’s board of directors.

“The conversational model is simply a better way to connect with new customers,” Beechuk said in a statement. “Buyers love the real-time engagement, sellers love the instant connections, and marketers have the confidence that every dollar spent on demand generation is maximized. The multi-billion-dollar market for Salesforce automation software is going to adopt this new model, and Qualified is perfectly positioned to capture that demand.”

Microsoft, Amazon back a SoCal company making microchips specifically for voice-based apps

By Jonathan Shieber

Microsoft’s venture capital fund, M12 Ventures, has led a slew of strategic corporate investors backing a new chip developer out of Southern California called Syntiant, which makes semiconductors for voice recognition and speech-based applications.

“We started out to build a new type of processor for machine learning, and voice is our first application,” says Syntiant chief executive Kurt Busch. “We decided to build a chip for always-on battery-powered devices.”

Those chips need a different kind of processor than traditional chipsets, says Busch. Traditional compute is about logic, and deep learning is about memory access; traditional microchip designs also don’t perform as well when it comes to parallel processing of information.

Syntiant claims that its chips are two orders of magnitude more efficient, thanks to its data flow architecture that was built for deep learning, according to Busch.

It’s that efficiency that attracted investors, including M12, Microsoft Corp.’s venture fund; the Amazon Alexa Fund; Applied Ventures, the investment arm of Applied Materials; Intel Capital; Motorola Solutions Venture Capital; and Robert Bosch Venture Capital.

These investment firms represent some of the technology industry’s top chip makers and software developers, and they’re pooling their resources to support Syntiant’s Irvine, California-based operations.

smart speakers

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

“Syntiant aligns perfectly with our mission to support companies that fuel voice technology innovation,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon. “Its technology has enormous potential to drive continued adoption of voice services like Alexa, especially in mobile scenarios that require devices to balance low power with continuous, high-accuracy voice recognition. We look forward to working with Syntiant to extend its speech technology to new devices and environments.” 

Syntiant’s first device measures 1.4 by 1.8 millimeters and draws 140 microwatts of power. In some applications, Syntiant’s chips can run for a year on a single coin cell.

“Syntiant’s neural network technology and its memory-centric architecture fits well with Applied Materials’ core expertise in materials engineering as we enable radical leaps in device performance and novel materials-enabled memory technologies,” said Michael Stewart, principal at Applied Ventures, the venture capital arm of Applied Materials, Inc. “Syntiant’s ultra-low-power neural decision processors have the potential to create growth in the chip marketplace and provide an effective solution for today’s demanding voice and video applications.” 

So far, 80 customers are working with Syntiant to integrate the company’s chips into their products. There are a few dozen companies in the design stage and the company has already notched design wins for products ranging from cell phones and smart speakers to remote controls, hearing aids, laptops and monitors. Already the company has shipped its first million units.  

“We expect to scale that by 10x by the end of this year,” says Busch. 

Syntiant’s chipsets are designed specifically to handle wakes and commands, which means that users can add voice recognition features and commands unique to their particular voice, Busch says.

Initially backed by venture firms including Atlantic Bridge, Miramar and Alpha Edison, Syntiant raised its first round of funding in October 2017. The company has raised a total of $65 million to date, according to Busch.

“Syntiant’s architecture is well-suited for the computational patterns and inherent parallelism of deep neural networks,” said Samir Kumar, an investor with M12 and new director on the Syntiant board. “We see great potential in its ability to enable breakthroughs in power performance for AI processing in IoT [Internet of things].” 

 

Rigetti raises $79M Series C for its quantum computing platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Rigetti Computing, the quantum computing startup that is challenging industry heavyweights like IBM, Microsoft and D-Wave, today announced that it has closed a $79 million Series C funding round. The round was led by Bessemer Venture Partners, with participation from Franklin Templeton, Alumni Ventures Group, DCVC, EDBI, Morpheus Ventures and Northgate Capital.

Bessemer’s Tomer Diari and Veritas Software’s former CEO Mark Leslie will join the company’s board of directors.

Earlier this year, TechCrunch reported that Rigetti was looking to raise about $71 million in what — at least at the time — looked to be a down round. A Rigetti spokesperson declined to share any details about the company’s valuation in this round.

“This round of financing brings us one step closer to delivering quantum advantage to the market,” said Rigetti founder and CEO Chad Rigetti. “The company is dually focused on building scalable, error-corrected quantum computers and supporting high-performance access to current systems over the cloud. Rigetti offers a distinctive hybrid computing access model designed for practical applications.”

Rigetti currently offers its own cloud-based service for access to its machines, as well as through AWS’ Braket service, which is currently in preview. The company also recently won an $8.6 million DARPA award to build a quantum computer that outperforms classical computers.

“It’s hard to find an area where quantum computing won’t be tremendously valuable once quantum advantage is achieved,” said Jonathan Curtis, vice president and portfolio manager at Franklin Equity Group. “We believe that Rigetti is one of a select few leaders in this important emerging market with a strong combination of leading technology, an accomplished and focused team, and important commercial, government and go-to-market relationships.”

While quantum computing has long held a lot of promise, it’s actually starting to make real strides in the last few years, with various companies building working systems that aren’t quite powerful enough for most real-world use cases yet, but that show a lot of promise. Rigetti, maybe more so than others, has focused on these real-world use cases.

“Quantum computing will drive a paradigm shift in high-performance computers as we continue pushing the boundaries of science deeper into the realms of science fiction,” said Diari. “Quantum technology has the potential to unlock significant advancements in biology, chemistry, logistics and material science, and we believe that Rigetti provides the most immediate and clear path to a production-grade system in the market.”

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