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Yesterday — December 4th 2020Your RSS feeds

SunCulture wants to turn Africa into the world’s next bread basket, one solar water pump at a time

By Jonathan Shieber

The world’s food supply must double by the year 2050 to meet the demands from a growing population, according to a report from the United Nations. And as pressure mounts to find new crop land to support the growth, the world’s eyes are increasingly turning to the African continent as the next potential global breadbasket.

While Africa has 65% of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land, according to the African Development Bank, the countries on the continent face significant obstacles as they look to boost the productivity of their agricultural industries.

On the continent, 80% of families depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but only 4% use irrigation. Many families also lack access to reliable and affordable electricity. It’s these twin problems that Samir Ibrahim and his co-founder at SunCulture, Charlie Nichols, have spent the last eight years trying to solve.

Armed with a new financing model and purpose-built small solar power generators and water pumps, Nichols and Ibrahim, have already built a network of customers using their equipment to increase incomes by anywhere from five to ten times their previous levels by growing higher-value cash crops, cultivating more land and raising more livestock.

The company also has just closed on $14 million in funding to expand its business across Africa.

“We have to double the amount of food we have to create by 2050, and if you look at where there are enough resources to grow food and a lot of point — all signs point to Africa. You have a lot of farmers and a lot of land, and a lot of resources,” Ibrahim said.

African small farmers face two big problems as they look to increase productivity, Ibrahim said. One is access to markets, which alone is a huge source of food waste, and the other is food security because of a lack of stable growing conditions exacerbated by climate change.

As one small farmer told The Economist earlier this year, ““The rainy season is not predictable. When it is supposed to rain it doesn’t, then it all comes at once.”

Ibrahim, who graduated from New York University in 2011, had long been drawn to the African continent. His father was born in Tanzania and his mother grew up in Kenya and they eventually found their way to the U.S. But growing up, Ibrahim was told stories about East Africa.

While pursuing a business degree at NYU Ibrahim met Nichols, who had been working on large scale solar projects in the U.S., at an event for budding entrepreneurs in New York.

The two began a friendship and discussed potential business opportunities stemming from a paper Nichols had read about renewable energy applications in the agriculture industry.

After winning second place in a business plan competition sponsored by NYU, the two men decided to prove that they should have won first. They booked tickets to Kenya and tried to launch a pilot program for their business selling solar-powered water pumps and generators.

Conceptually solar water pumping systems have been around for decades. But as the costs of solar equipment and energy storage have declined the systems that leverage those components have become more accessible to a broader swath of the global population.

That timing is part of what has enabled SunCulture to succeed where other companies have stumbled. “We moved here at a time when [solar] reached grid parity in a lot of markets. It was at a time when a lot of development financiers were funding the nexus between agriculture and energy,” said Ibrahim.

Initially, the company sold its integrated energy generation and water pumping systems to the middle income farmers who hold jobs in cities like Nairobi and cultivate crops on land they own in rural areas. These “telephone farmers” were willing to spend the $5000 required to install SunCulture’s initial systems.

Now, the cost of a system is somewhere between $500 and $1000 and is more accessible for the 570 million farming households across the word — with the company’s “pay-as-you-grow” model.

It’s a spin on what’s become a popular business model for the distribution of solar systems of all types across Africa. Investors have poured nearly $1 billion into the development of off-grid solar energy and retail technology companies like M-kopa, Greenlight Planet, d.light design, ZOLA Electric, and SolarHome, according to Ibrahim. In some ways, SunCulture just extends that model to agricultural applications.

“We have had to bundle services and financing. The reason this particularly works is because our customers are increasing their incomes four or five times,” said Ibrahim. “Most of the money has been going to consuming power. This is the first time there has been productive power.”

 SunCulture’s hardware consists of 300 watt solar panels and a 440 watt-hour battery system. The batteries can support up to four lights, two phones and a plug-in submersible water pump. 

The company’s best selling product line can support irrigation for a two-and-a-half acre farm, Ibrahim said. “We see ourselves as an entry point for other types of appliances. We’re growing to be the largest solar company for Africa.”

With the $14 million in funding, from investors including Energy Access Ventures (EAV), Électricité de France (EDF), Acumen Capital Partners (ACP), and Dream Project Incubators (DPI), SunCulture will expand its footprint in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Senegal, Togo, and Cote D’Ivoire, the company said. 

Ekta Partners acted as the financial advisor for the deal, while CrossBoundary provided additional advisory support, including an analysis on the market opportunity and competitive landscape, under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Kenya Investment Mechanism Program

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Aerospace’s Steve Isakowitz to speak at TC Sessions: Space 2020

By Alexandra Ames

A mere two weeks remain until we kick off TC Sessions: Space (December 16 & 17), our first conference focused on the technology designed to push galactic boundaries and the people making it happen. Building successful space programs, whether private, public or hybrid combination, requires a well-trained workforce — today and for generations to come. That’s why we can’t wait for Building the Workforce of the Future, a breakout panel discussion featuring Steve Isakowitz.

Isakowitz is the president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, a national nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research and development center. It addresses complex problems across the space enterprise focused on agility, innovation and objective technical leadership.

In his 30+ year career, Isakowitz has held prominent roles across the government, private, space and technology sectors, including at NASA, U.S. Department of Energy and the White House Office of Management and Budget. Prior to joining Aerospace, he was president of Virgin Galactic, where his responsibilities included the development of privately funded launch systems, advanced technologies and other new space applications.

Building the Workforce of the Future focuses on what’s required to advance the United States’ leading role in space, namely developing a workforce that’s up to the challenge. Panelists also include Dava Newman, MIT’s Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics, and Yannis C. Yortsos, Dean, USC Viterbi School of Engineering and former Zohrab Kaprielian Chair in Engineering, University of Southern California.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities to imagine new models for how and where to train the next generation of scientists and engineers. This session will explore how universities and industry can work together to integrate professional experience into the curriculum and how universities and industry can work together to build robust talent pipelines that create digitally fluent, agile workers for the future.

The panelists will weigh in on strategies to build diverse workforces — with different perspectives and experiences that drive innovation — as well as new approaches that promote continuous learning for workers throughout their careers.

The space industry requires a deep bench and a long pipeline of engineers and scientists. Tune in to Building the Workforce of the Future for the latest thinking on this vital topic. It’s one session you don’t want to miss.

Late registration tickets are still available, as are discounts for groupsstudentsactive military/government employees and for early-stage space startup founders who want to give their startup extra visibility.

Is your company interested in sponsoring TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

Virgin Galactic plans first rocket-powered test flight from New Mexico for next week

By Devin Coldewey

Virgin Galactic has revealed the flight window for the first rocket-powered flight of its VSS Unity spacecraft from the shiny new Spaceport America in New Mexico. The ship could be in the air as early as December 11.

This flight will be the third for Unity out of the future passenger spaceport, but the last two have been gliding flights, not propulsive ones. This will be the first time Unity has hit the throttle in nearly two years — back when it touched the edge of space at something like Mach 2.9.

Since then the company and its aircraft have moved home, from Mojave, California to the spaceport in New Mexico, where it hopes eventually passengers will come and lounge before taking off on a brief visit to space.

The glides, in which Unity is taken to a high altitude by a carrier craft, the VMS Eve, and let go to perform a controlled descent to Earth, show that everything is bolted on tightly and ready for the more substantial rigors of rocket thrust.

Originally this powered flight was intended to happen a bit earlier in the year, but COVID-19-related precautions led to delays. But weather permitting, next week should see Unity flying again.

This flight won’t be strictly for testing purposes, though: It will be taking up several payloads under NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which contracts with smaller launch providers to perform experiments in and near space. Other aspiring space travel companies, like Blue Origin, have also taken up payloads for brief visits to the edge of the atmosphere.

Of course COVID-19 is still a serious issue, so Virgin Galactic is limiting exposure by minimizing people on site: no media or guests, only essential personnel.

Virgin Orbit targets launch window on December 19 for second orbital test launch

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit has announced the target timing for its next orbital flight attempt, which follows a demonstration launch earlier this year that went mostly well – right up until its rocket separated from the carrier launch craft and fired up its own engines for the crucial rest of the trip to space. The company says that it’s undertaken a number of upgrades based on that first try, however, including updates to the engine systems, carrier aircraft and data systems to hopefully have a better demo flight the second time around.

The new launch window is December 19, between the hours of 10 AM to 2 PM PST. There’s also a backup window set for December 20 ranging across similar hours, the company says, and others in the following weeks, in case it needs to be rescheduled for nay reason. This demonstration will involve a full launch cycle of the entire Virgin Orbit launch system, including its Cosmic Girl launch aircraft (a modiified 747 passenger airliner) and LauncherOne, the rocket that detaches from Cosmic Girl at cruising altitude before firing up its own engines to make the rest of the trip to space with small satellite payloads on board.

Virgin Orbit’s system is unique because it takes off and lands from a traditional airport, eliminating the need for specialized launch sites and opening up the potential of relatively low-lift global launch flexibility. It also have the potential to offer cost and scheduling advantages to small satellite companies looking to launch just one or a few spacecraft, without having to wait for timing on a rideshare mission on a larger rocket like one from SpaceX, or pay a premium for something like Rocket Lab’s offering.

Last time around in May, Virgin Orbit’s flight went perfectly from takeoff through the separation of LauncherOne from the carrier aircraft. The rocket even fired up its engines on time as planned, but the engines cut off essentially right away due to a built-in safety system that also worked as planned when it detected some unusual readings.

With this second attempt, Virgin Orbit wants to show that it’s system works from that point on, as well, with a full first-stage powered flight, and operation of the upper stage. Stakes are a bit higher this time around, as on board will be actual customer satellites, even though this is technically still a demonstration mission the primary purpose of which is to collect data.

The 10 payloads on board are from NASA, and represent a number of different scientific and educational programs created entirely by U.S.-based universities and academic institutions.

Onit acquires legal startup McCarthyFinch to inject AI into legal workflows

By Ron Miller

Onit, a workflow software company based in Houston, announced this week that it has acquired 2018 TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield alum McCarthyFinch. Onit intends to use the startup’s AI skills to beef up its legal workflow software offerings.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

After evaluating a number of companies in the space, Onit focused on McCarthyFinch, which gives it an artificial intelligence component the company’s legal workflow software had been lacking. “We evaluated about a dozen companies in the AI space and dug in deep on six of them. McCarthyFinch stood out from the pack. They had the strongest technology and the strongest team,” Eric M. Elfman, CEO and co-founder of Onit told TechCrunch.

The company intends to inject that AI into its existing Aptitude workflow platform. “Part of what really got me excited about McCarthyFinch was the very first conversation I had with their CEO, Nick Whitehouse. They considered themselves an AI platform, which complemented our approach and our workflow automation platform, Aptitude,” Elfman said.

McCarthyFinch CEO and co-founder Whitehouse says the startup was considering whether to raise more money or look at being acquired earlier this year when Onit made its interest known. At first, he wasn’t really interested in being acquired and was hoping to go the partner route, but over time that changed.

“I was very much on the partner track, and was probably quite dismissive to begin with because I was quite focused on that partner strategy. But as we talked, all egos aside, it just made sense [to move to acquisition talks],” Whitehouse said.

The talks heated up in May and the deal officially closed last week. With Onit headquartered in Houston and McCarthyFinch in New Zealand the negotiations and meetings all happened on Zoom. The two companies’ principals have never met in person. The plan is for McCarthyFinch to stay in place, even after the pandemic ends. Whitehouse expects to make a trip to Houston whenever it is safe to do so.

Whitehouse says his experience with Battlefield has had a huge influence on him. “Just the insights that we got through Battlefield, the coaching that we got, those things have stuck with me and they’ll stick with me for the rest of my life,” he said.

The company had 45 customers and 17 employees at the time of the acquisition. It raised US$5 million along the way. Now it becomes part of Onit as the journey continues.

Portugal’s Faber reaches $24.3M for its second fund aimed at data-driven startups from Iberia

By Mike Butcher

Portuguese VC Faber has hit the first close of its Faber Tech II fund at €20.5 million ($24.3 million). The fund will focus on early-stage data-driven startups starting from Southern Europe and the Iberian peninsula, with the aim of reaching a final close of €30 million in the coming months. The new fund targets pre-series A and early-stage startups in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Data Science.

The fund is backed by European Investment Fund (EIF) and the local Financial Development Institution (IFD), with a joint commitment of €15 million (backed by the Investment Plan for Europe – the Juncker Plan and through the Portugal Tech program), alongside other private institutional and individual investors.

Alexandre Barbosa, Faber’s Managing Partner, said “The success of the first close of our new fund allows us to foresee a growth in the demand for this type of investment, as we believe digital transformation through Intelligence Artificial, Machine Learning and data science are increasingly relevant for companies and their businesses, and we think Southern Europe will be the launchpad of a growing number.”

Faber has already ‘warehoused’ three initial investments. It co-financed a 15.6 million euros Series A for SWORD Health – portuguese startup that created the first digital physiotherapy system combining artificial intelligence and clinical teams. It led the pre-seed round of YData, a startup with a data-centric development platform that provides data science professionals tools to deal with accessing high-quality and meaningful data while protecting its privacy. It also co-financed the pre-seed round of Emotai, a neuroscience-powered analytics and performance-boosting platform for virtual sports.

Faber was a first local investor in the first wave of Portugal’s most promising startups, such as Seedrs (co-founded by Carlos Silva, one f Faber’s Partners) which recently announced its merger with CrowdCube); Unbabel; Codacy and Hole19, among others.

Faber’s main focus is deep-tech and data science startups and as such it’s assembled around 20 experts, researchers, Data Scientists, CTO’s, Founders, AI and Machine Learning professors, as part of its investment strategy.

In particular, it’s created the new role of Professor-in-residence, the first of whom is renowned professor Mário Figueiredo from Lisbon’s leading tech university Instituto Superior Técnico. His interests include signal processing, machine learning, AI and optimization, being a highly cited researcher in these fields.

Speaking to TechCrunch in an interview Barbosa added: “We’ve seen first-time, but also second and third-time entrepreneurs coming over to Lisbon, Porto, Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid and experimenting with their next startup and considering starting-up from Iberia in the first place. But also successful entrepreneurs considering extending their engineering teams to Portugal and building engineering hubs in Portugal or Spain.”

“We’ve been historically countercyclical, so we found that startups came to, and appears in Iberia back in 2012 / 2013. This time around mid-2020, we’re very bullish on what’s we can do for the entrepreneurial engine of the economy. We see a lot happening – especially around our thesis – which is basically the data stack, all things data AI-driven, machine learning, data science, and we see that as a very relevant core. A lot of the transformation and digitization is happening right now, so we see a lot of promising stuff going on and a lot of promising talent establishing and setting up companies in Portugal and Spain – so that’s why we think this story is relevant for Europe as a whole.”

Mine raises $9.5M to help people take control of their personal data

By Anthony Ha

TechCrunch readers probably know that privacy regulations like Europe’s GDPR and California’s CCPA give them additional rights around their personal data — like the ability to request that companies delete your data. But how many of you have actually exercised that right?

An Israeli startup called Mine is working to make that process much simpler, and it announced this morning that it has raised $9.5 million in Series A funding.

The startup was founded by CEO Gal Ringel, CTO Gal Golan and CPO Kobi Nissan . Ringel and Golan are both veterans of Unit 8200, the cybersecurity unit of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Ringel explained that Mine scans users’ inboxes to help them understand who has access to their personal data.

“Every time that you do an online interaction, such as you sign up for a service or purchase a flight ticket, those companies, those services leave some clues or traces within your inbox,” he said.

Mine

Image Credits: Mine

Mine then cross-references that information with the data collection and privacy policies of the relevant companies, determining what data they’re likely to possess. It calculates a risk score for each company — and if the user decides they want a company to delete their data, Mine can send an automated email request from the user’s own account.

Ringel argued that this is a very different approach to data privacy and data ownership. Instead of building “fences” around your data, Mine makes you more comfortable sharing that data, knowing that you can take control when necessary.

“The product gives [consumers] the freedom to use the internet feeling more secure, because they know they can exercise their right to be forgotten,” he said.

Ringel noted that the average Mine user has a personal data footprint across 350 companies — and the number is more like 550 in the United States. I ran a Mine audit for myself and, within a few minutes, found that I’m pretty close to the U.S. average. (Ringel said the number doesn’t include email newsletters.)

Mine launched in Europe earlier this year and says it has already been used by more than 100,000 people to send 1.3 million data deletion requests.

The legal force behind those requests will differ depending on where you live and which company you are emailing, but Ringel said that most companies will comply even when they’re not legally required to do so, because it’s part of creating a better privacy experience that helps them “earn trust and credibility from consumers.” Plus, “Most of them understand that if you want to go, they’ve already lost you.”

The startup’s core service is available for free. Ringel said the company will make money with premium consumer offerings, like the ability to offload the entire conversation with a company when you want your data deleted. It will also work with businesses to create a standard interface around privacy and data deletion.

As for whether giving Mine access to your inbox creates new privacy risks, Ringel said that the startup collects the “bare minimum” of data — usually just your email address and your full name. Otherwise, it knows “the type of data, but not the actual data” that other companies have obtained.

“We would never share or sell your data,” he added.

The Series A was led by Google’s AI-focused venture fund Gradient Ventures, with participation from e.ventures, MassMutual Ventures, as well as existing investors Battery Ventures and Saban Ventures. Among other things, Ringel said the money will fund Mine’s launch in the United States.

Nvidia will power world’s fastest AI supercomputer, to be located in Europe

By Darrell Etherington

Nvidia is is going to be powering the world’s fastest AI supercomputer, a new system dubbed ‘Leonardo’ that’s being built by the Italian multi-university consortium CINECA, a global supercomutin leader. The Leonardo system will offer as much as 10 exaflops of FP16 AI performance capabilities, and be made up of more than 14,000 Nvidia Ampere-based GPUS once completed.

Leonardo will be one of four new supercomputers supported by a cross-European effort to advance high-performance computing capabilities in the region, that will eventually offer advanced AI capabilities for processing applications across both science and industry. Nvidia will also be supplying its Mellanox HDR InfiniBand networks to the project in order to enable performance across the clusters with low-latency broadband connections.

The other computes in the cluster include MeluXina in Luxembourg and Vega in Solvevnia, as well as a new supercooling coming online in the Czech Republic. The pan-European consortium also plans four more Supercomputers for Bulgaria, Finland, Portugal and Spain, though those will follow later and specifics around their performance and locations aren’t yet available.

Some applications that CINECA and the other supercomputers will be used for include analyzing genomes and discovering new therapeutic pathways; tackling data from multiple different sources for space exploration and extraterrestrial planetary research; and modelling weather patterns, including extreme weather events.

Virgin Galactic readies first spaceflight from Spaceport America for ‘later this this fall’

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Galactic is getting ready to fly its first mission to space from its Spaceport America facility in New Mexico. This is the site that the company will use to host all of its commercial flights, and making it to space from this launch locale is crucial to getting to that point.

Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic successfully flew a number of tests of its SpaceShipTwo launch craft from New Mexico, but these didn’t include a trip to space. That launch, which will be performed by two of the company’s test pilots (while also carrying a number of experiments for the passenger hatch) should happen before the year is out, hopefully putting Virgin Galactic on pace to begin offering its commercial services next year to paying passengers.

Those private astronauts will include one newly announced individual: Dr. Alan Stern, a noted and well-regarded planetary scientist who has held a number of positions, and is most recently the associate Vice President of South West Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division. Dr. Stern is the first researcher named to be flying on board Virgin Galactic’s commercial spacecraft on a NASA-funded science mission.

This won’t be the first of SpaceShipTwo’s commercial flights, it seems. Stern’s trip will take place on a “yet unscheduled” suborbital flight from Spaceport America in the future. Stern will be conducting two key pieces of science aboard the spacecraft, including actually wearing instrumentation that monitors his vial signs throughout, as well as using a low light camera to see how well observing space from the vantage point of inside the SpaceShipTwo cabin works.

Does early-stage health tech need more ‘patient’ capital?

By Steve O'Hear

Crista Galli Ventures, a new early-stage health tech fund in Europe, officially launched last week. The firm offers “patient capital” — with only a single LP (the Danish family office IPQ Capital) — and promises to provide portfolio companies with deep healthcare expertise and the extra runway needed to get over regulatory and efficacy hurdles and to the next stage.

The firm has an initial $65 million to deploy and is led by consultant radiologist Dr. Fiona Pathiraja. With offices in London and Copenhagen, it operates as an “evergreen” fund, meaning it doesn’t follow traditional five-year VC fundraising cycles.

In fact, Crista Galli Ventures’ pitch is that traditional venture isn’t well-suited to early-stage health tech where it can take significantly longer to find product-market fit with healthcare practitioners and systems and then become licensed by local regulators.

To dig deeper into this and CGV’s investment remit more generally, I interviewed Pathiraja about what she looks for in health tech founders and startups. We also discussed Crista Galli LABS, which operates alongside the main fund and backs founders from underrepresented backgrounds at the pre-seed stage.

TechCrunch: You describe Crista Galli Ventures (CGV) as an early-stage health tech fund that offers patient capital and backs companies in Europe. In particular, you cite deep tech, digital health and personalised healthcare. Can you elaborate a bit more on the fund’s remit and what you look for in founders and startups at such an early stage?

Dr. Fiona Pathiraja: We like founders with bold ideas and international ambitions. We look for mission-driven founders who believe their companies can make a real and positive impact on the lives of people and patients the world over.

We will look for founders who deeply understand the problem they are trying to tackle from all angles — especially the patient’s perspective, but also that of the clinician and relevant regulators — and we want to see that they are building their solutions to solve this. This means they will make an effort to understand the complex and nuanced healthcare landscape and all the stakeholders in it.

In terms of founder characteristics, in my opinion, the best founders will be mission driven, able to tell a compelling story, and motivate others to join them. Grit and resilience are important and several of our portfolio companies were founded around 6-8 years ago and they are doggedly continuing to build.

Contestants will compete for a SpaceX trip to the International Space Station in new reality TV show

By Darrell Etherington

There’s a reality TV competition show in the works that will feature a 2023 trip to the International Space Station as the grand prize, Deadline reports. The production company behind the show, which will be called “Space Hero,” has booked a seat on a SpaceX Dragon crew spacecraft set to make the trip to the ISS in 2023, and will make it the reward for whoever comes out the winner in a competition among “everyday people from any background who share a deep love for space exploration,” according to the report.

The competition will be an ersatz astronaut training program of sorts, including physical challenges, as well as puzzles and problem-solving tasks, as well as emotionally challenging scenarios, according to Deadline. That will lead up to what producers are currently planning will be a live episode featuring a global viewer vote about who ultimately will win. The show will also include documenting the winner’s ISS trip, including their launch and 10-day space station stay, as well as their return journey and landing.

To bring all these pieces together, the production team is working with Axiom Space, a private space travel services provider and mission operator, as well as NASA, with which it’s discussing what might be done in terms of STEM education add-ons for this planned programming.

Deadline says that “Survivor” creator and reality industry giant Mark Burnett has previously tried multiple times to create a reality show with a trip to space as the main component. One such effort, an NBC-based program called “Space Race,” was created in partnership with Richard Branson and focused on Virgin Galactic, but it was ended after that company’s fatal testing accident in 2015.

There’s also a movie production in the works that’s bound for the space station as a filming location, and those efforts are being spearheaded by Tom Cruise, who will star in the yet untitled project. NASA has repeatedly said it welcomes increased commercialization of low-Earth orbit and the ISS, and it also intentionally sought out private partners like SpaceX for its U.S.-based astronaut launch vehicles, in the hopes that they would be able to book other, private clients for flights to help defray mission costs.

Can’t stop, won’t stop: Social Capital Hedosophia just filed for its fourth SPAC, says new report

By Connie Loizos

According to a new report in Bloomberg, Social Capital Hedosophia has filed plans confidentially with the SEC to raise $500 million for its newest blank-check company.

It will be the fourth special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, to be raised by the outfit, which is headed up by Chamath Palihapitiya and his longtime investment partner, Ian Osborne.

Astonishingly, dozens more may be in the works. On the “All-In Podcast,” co-hosted by Palihapitiya, he revealed recently that has reserved the symbols from “IPOA” to “IPOZ” on the New York Stock Exchange. He also said he has $100 million of his own involved in each deal to demonstrate his alignment with potential investors.

What’s the play? In the podcast, Palihapitiya pointed to the Federal Reserve’s economic and interest rate forecasts and its plans to keep interest rates at zero for years to come. “I mean, quite honestly,” Palihapitiya said, “there’s no path to any near-term inflation of any kind whatsoever.”

It’s why he thinks investors are going to “get paid to be long [on] equities, because your risk-free rate is zero and will soon be negative. And what are you supposed to do if you’re an asset manager?”

Here’s how he framed it: “Let’s say you’re the California pension system, you have hundreds of billions of dollars, and you need to generate five or 6% a year to make sure that your pension isn’t insolvent, and the government is paying you zero. When everybody is in that situation, you’re overwhelmingly long equities . . . So all of these opportunities are generally buying opportunities, and I’m more bullish now than I was before.”

Indeed, when it comes to private or public market investing, said Palihapitiya, “I think it really is just public companies [that are worth getting behind]. . . I mean like, no offense, but if you’re a very good stock picker in the public markets, you’re generating better returns [than] Sequoia, Benchmark — name your best venture fund. I see all these people spouting off on Twitter about how good they are in the early-stage markets, but it’s all kind of small dollars and not that meaningful.”

Certainly, he has reason to feel emboldened. The first SPAC of Social Capital Hedosophia, raised in 2017, ultimately merged last year with the space tourism company Virgin Galactic, and it’s now valued at slightly more than $4 billion by public market shareholders.

The outfit’s second fund, which was raised in April, announced yesterday that it will merge with Opendoor, a company that buys and sells residential real estate and that might have had trouble going public through a traditional IPO process, given its still-uncertain economics.

Social Capital Hedosophia’s third SPAC, also raised in April, has not yet named its target but the company has said it will use its IPO proceeds to buy a tech company that’s primarily outside of the United States.

Certainly, SPACs — which haven’t had a stellar reputation historically — have a growing number of other investors intrigued. According to SPACInsider, nearly 100 SPACs have been raised in 2020, already up from just seven a decade ago.

Though Sequoia Capital is having a stellar year — given its stake in Zoom, ByteDance and Snowflake, among many other headline-leading companies — its U.S. head, Roelof Botha, suggested in an interview yesterday that Sequoia hasn’t ruled out the possibility of forming SPACs, even while he implied that it was unlikely. “I love the fact that there’s more innovation” around the IPO process, he said. “It gives more choice to the companies.”

Crista Galli Ventures outs ‘evergreen’ fund to back European health tech startups at seed and Series A

By Steve O'Hear

Crista Galli Ventures, an early-stage healthtech fund in Europe, is officially launching today. The firm offers “patient capital” — with only a single LP (the Danish family office IPQ Capital) — and promises to provide portfolio companies with deep healthcare expertise and the extra runway needed to get over regulatory and efficacy hurdles and to the next stage.

Companies already backed by Crista Galli Ventures (CGV) include Skin Analytics, which is using AI to improve diagnosis of skin cancer; Quibim, which is applying AI to the field of radiomics; and Ampersand Health, which is developing digital therapies for patients with inflammatory conditions such as Crohns disease, to name just three out of fifteen.

Led by consultant radiologist Dr. Fiona Pathiraja, and with offices in London and Copenhagen, CGV operates as an “evergreen” fund, meaning it doesn’t follow traditional five-year VC fundraising cycles. Initially, the VC firm has $65 million in deployable — so called — patient capital.

“We like to invest across the broad areas of deep tech, digital health and personalised healthcare,” Pathiraja tells TechCrunch. “We prefer technology solutions that make the lives of patients easier and better and, in some cases, that help support people’s health before they become patients. Part of our remit is also for tech solutions within the healthcare industry that improve efficiency and productivity of providers”.

Alongside the main fund, CGV is also unveiling Crista Galli LABS, which, in part, aims to greater diversity in healthtech by backing founders from underrepresented backgrounds at the pre-seed stage. In addition to pre-seed investment, startups accepted into the program have access to mentoring and coaching from the CGV team.

“When I was in hospital, there were people from all backgrounds there and this was the norm… [but] this really wasn’t my experience when I started investing,” explains Pathiraja. “I am struck by how homogenous both founder teams and investment teams can be. Whilst our core investment focus is seed and Series A, Crista Galli LABS invests smaller ticket sizes in outstanding pre-seed founders and ensures that at least 50% of these are from under-represented backgrounds. This means those who are female, BAME, LGBT to start with”.

SoloSuit launches a web app to to help US users respond to debt lawsuits

By Sarah Perez

Online service SoloSuit wants to help Americans who are being sued for a debt fight back using automated tools. The company, which is launching its service nationwide today at TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield, guides users through preparing a response to their lawsuit, optionally having a consumer protection attorney look over the entire document on their behalf, then handing the printing and court filing.

The idea for SoloSuit came from founder, George Simons, who had bought a car during his first year of law school and struggled to find an attorney who would help him out. That prompted the realization that there are likely millions of people across the U.S. who also can’t find attorneys to take cases for a variety of reasons. For example, they may struggle if there isn’t enough money in the case to make it worth an attorney’s while, or if the attorney they want is too busy to get on the phone, he suggests.

The area of focus SoloSuit landed on, however, was debt lawsuits. Every year, 10 million Americans get sued for debt and 9 million automatically lose because they aren’t able to figure out how to respond to those lawsuits, Simons claims. These debts could include medical debt, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, or any other unsecured debts. After a debt collector is unable to collect from the consumer, they may choose to sue for that debt instead.

With the SoloSuit web app, users can respond to these lawsuits in about 15 minutes, the startup says.

The way the process works is that when someone receives a complaint and summons in the mail, they’ll usually only have 14-30 days to respond, depending on the state, before they automatically lose their case. Often, customers will Google for information about what to do next, which is where they’ll find SoloSuit’s free online guides. These will also refer the potential customers to the web service. Here, the web app, which was demoed at Disrupt, will guide the customer through creating the response to the lawsuit and optionally pay to have an attorney review it.

Customers can either pay $15 to have the response printed and filed on their behalf, or $115 to have an attorney review it before filing.

The startup spun out of the Brigham Young University LawX legal design lab, where it was originally founded by a team of students. Simons ended up taking the reins and the other students have moved on. Currently, he is the sole founder but is expecting to hire a technical co-founder soon.

Since SoloSuit’s founding a couple of years ago, it has seen 3,000 Utah-based customers who have been sued for a combined total of $11 million in debt lawsuits. The startup believes they’ve helped around 50% of those cases get dismissed.

Today, the service will launch across all 50 U.S. states and will add the attorney review feature.

Interswitch CEO Mitchell Elegbe to discuss African fintech at TechCrunch Disrupt

By Jake Bright

The CEO of Pan-African fintech unicorn, Mitchell Elegbe, is set to speak at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 on September 16. He founded the company in Lagos in 2002 to connect Nigeria’s — then — largely disconnected banking system.

Over the next decade plus, Interswitch accelerated the adoption of digital payments across Africa and now stands as one of the continent’s rare fintech unicorns. The company is poised to list on a global exchange, which would also create Africa’s next big tech IPO.

At Disrupt 2020, TechCrunch will seek Elegbe’s perspective on the continent’s fintech scene, Interswitch’s venture plans, and the economic impact of Covid-19 on African startups. This year’s event is 100% virtual, making it possible for anyone with an internet connection to sign in and learn more about Elegbe’s company and digital innovation in Africa.

If you’re a VC or founder in London, Bangalore or San Francisco, you’ll likely interact with some part of Africa’s tech landscape for the first time — or more — in the near future. When measured by monetary values, the continent’s tech ecosystem is small by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.

But when you look at year-over-year expansion in venture capital, startup formation and tech hubs, it’s one of the fastest-growing tech markets in the world.

Bringing the continent’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.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Interswitch became a pioneer of building the infrastructure to digitize finance on the continent. The company pre-dates the rise of mobile money in Kenya through Safaricom’s M-Pesa product, which is one of Africa’s most recognized fintech use-cases. 

Interswitch’s path from startup to unicorn traces back to the vision of CEO Mitchell Elegbe, who was a Nigerian electrical engineering graduate before founding the firm in 2002. The company has since produced a run of product innovation and expansion, starting in Nigeria. Interswitch created the first electronic switch whereby Nigerian financial institutions could communicate and operate ATMs and point of sales operations. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system.

Interswitch has since moved into high-volume personal and business finance, with its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app. The fintech firm (now well beyond startup phase) has also shaped a Pan-African and global reach — selling its products in 23 African countries with a physical presence in Uganda, Gambia and Kenya . In August 2019, Interswitch launched a partnership that allows its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.

Interswitch Quickteller

Image Credits: Interswitch

Interswitch also launched a venture arm in 2015 called its global ePayment Growth Fund. Another milestone came in November 2019 when Interswitch achieved a $1 billion unicorn valuation after Visa took a reported $200 million minority stake in the company. Other Interswitch backers include IFC and Helios Investment Partners.

The company’s Nigerian origins and operations have become more significant as Nigeria is now Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. The West African country has become the continent’s unofficial tech hub and fintech capital. Nigerian startups now raise the majority of Africa’s annual VC haul, according to a study by Partech.

Heading into 2020, the momentum was there and the pieces were falling in place for Interswitch to mark that next big achievement — an IPO. Where that listing stands for the firm, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, is one of many topics TechCrunch is excited to discuss with CEO Mitchell Elegbe at Disrupt 2020.

The event runs from September 14 through September 18 and (as mentioned) is 100% virtual this year, making it possible for anyone from London to Lagos to sign in. Get your front row seat to see Mitchell Elegbe live with a Disrupt Digital Pro Pass or a Digital Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. We’re excited to see you there.

TikTok joins Europe’s code on tackling hate speech

By Natasha Lomas

TikTok, the popular short video sharing app, has joined the European Union’s Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech.

In a statement on joining the code, TikTok’s head of trust and safety for EMEA, Cormac Keenan, said: “We have never allowed hate on TikTok, and we believe it’s important that internet platforms are held to account on an issue as crucial as this.”

The non-legally binding code kicked off four years ago with a handful of tech giants agreeing to measures aimed at accelerating takedowns of illegal content while supporting their users to report hate speech and committing to increase joint working to share best practice to tackle the problem.

Since 2016 the code has grown from single to double figure signatories — and now covers Dailymotion, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Jeuxvideo.com, Microsoft, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.

TikTok’s statement goes on to highlight the platform’s “zero-tolerance” stance on hate speech and hate groups — in what reads like a tacit dig at Facebook, given the latter’s record of refusing to take down hate speech on ‘freedom of expression‘ grounds (including founder Mark Zuckerberg’s personal defence of letting holocaust denial thrive on his platform).

“We have a zero-tolerance stance on organised hate groups and those associated with them, like accounts that spread or are linked to white supremacy or nationalism, male supremacy, anti-Semitism, and other hate-based ideologies. We also remove race-based harassment and the denial of violent tragedies, such as the Holocaust and slavery,” Keenan writes.

“Our ultimate goal is to eliminate hate on TikTok. We recognise that this may seem an insurmountable challenge as the world is increasingly polarised, but we believe that this shouldn’t stop us from trying. Every bit of progress we make gets us that much closer to a more welcoming community experience for people on TikTok and out in the world.”

It’s interesting that EU hate speech rules are being viewed as a PR opportunity for TikTok to differentiate itself vs rival social platforms — even as most of them (Facebook included) are signed up to the very same code.

TikTok signing up comes a few months after it added its name to a similar EU initiative aimed at tackling the spread of online disinformation via a series of non-legally binding commitments.

The voluntary codes have proved popular with tech giants, given they lack legal compulsion and provide the opportunity for platforms to project the idea they’re doing something about tricky content issues — without the calibre and efficacy of their action being quantifiable.

The codes have also bought time by staving off actual regulation. But that is now looming. EU lawmakers are, for example, eyeing binding transparency rules for platforms to back up voluntary reports of illegal hate speech removals and make sure users are being properly informed of platform actions.

Commissioners are also consulting on and drafting a broader package of measures with the aim of updating long-standing rules wrapping digital services — including looking specifically at the rules around online liability and defining platform responsibilities vis-a-vis content.

A proposal for the Digital Services Act is slated before the end of the year.

The exact shape of the next-gen EU platform regulation remains to be seen but tighter rules for platform giants is one very real possibility, as lawmakers consult on ex ante regulation of so-called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms.

“Europe’s online marketplaces should be vibrant ecosystems, where start-ups have a real chance to blossom – they shouldn’t be closed shops controlled by a handful of gatekeeper platforms,” said EVP and competition chief, Margarthe Vestager, giving a speech in Berlin yesterday. “A list of ‘dos and don’ts’ could prevent conduct that is proven to be harmful to happen in the first place.

“The goal is that all companies, big and small, can compete on their merits on and offline.”

In just one example of the ongoing content moderation challenges faced by platforms, clips of a suicide were reported to be circulating on TikTok this week. Yesterday the company said it was trying to remove the content which it said had been livestreamed on Facebook.

ThoughtRiver nabs $10M to speed up deal-making with AI contract review

By Natasha Lomas

ThoughtRiver, a London-based legaltech startup that’s applying AI to speed up contract pre-screening, has announced a $10 million Series A round of funding led by Octopus Ventures. Existing seed investors Crane, Local Globe, Entrée Capital, Syndicate Room, and angel investor Duncan Painter also participated in the round.

The UK startup is one of a number applying AI to automate work that would otherwise be done by legal professions with the aim of boosting operational efficiency. Other startups playing in the space include the likes of Kira Systems, LawGeex and Luminance to name a few.

ThoughtRiver argues it has a different focus vs the majority of contract view companies because it’s focusing on pre-signature contracts — with the aim of making securing a deal faster. “Almost all others are just employed to pull data from existing contracts. ThoughtRiver is as much in demand by Sales teams as it is by Legal,” a spokesman told us.

The Series A investment comes after twelve month’s of what it’s billed as significant growth for the 2015-founded startup, which says its automated contract review software is now being used by the likes of G4S, Singtel and DB Schenker. It launched a service at the end of 2017 and now has more than 25 customers around the world, per the spokesman.

It also trumpets inking a strategic partnership with professional services firm PwC — which will see the latter developing a service for its clients powered by ThoughtRiver’s software, according to a press release.

ThoughtRiver touts up to 95% in time and 80% in cost savings vs an initial contract review that’s carried out by in-house lawyers. And ‘faster contract reviews sum to increased deal flow velocity’ is its overarching claim.

On the tech side, ThoughtRiver has created an ontology of contract legal logic, couched as a series of detailed questions which, combined with its natural language processing (NLP) engine, enables its software to pre-screen contracts by generating a risk assessment. It will also suggest tweaks to the legalese to remediate problems, including via a plug-in for Microsoft Word, where customers’ in-house lawyers may prefer to work.

Other benefits the startup touts are data extraction to power contract analytics at scale — such as for due diligence or to assess the impact of regulatory change. Its sale pitch also suggests that easy access to an overview of contractual positions helps customers by enabling better-informed business relationships.

Image credit: ThoughtRiver

ThoughtRiver has already established offices in New York, Singapore, London, Cambridge and Auckland. It says the new funding will be put towards further growth in the US market, where it will be dialling up sales and marketing efforts. Expanding integrations with major tech partners is also on the cards.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Akriti Dokania, early stage investor at Octopus Ventures, said: “While the legal sector has been slow to adopt AI compared to other industries, ThoughtRiver has a proven business model based on solving a fundamental issue for lawyers. By using an advanced Natural Language Processing engine to drive faster contract reviews and acceleration of deal flow and business growth, legal professionals can work more efficiently than ever. We are thrilled to support the ThoughtRiver team with its plans for global expansion as the firm disrupts an established market and set of processes.”

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