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Novakid’s investors bet $35M that it can teach kids English

By Natasha Mascarenhas

If you’re trying to develop fluency in a non-native tongue, language immersion is a crucial part of the learning process. Surrounding yourself with native speakers helps with pronunciation, context building, and most of all, confidence.

But what if you’re an eight-year-old kid in Spain learning English and can’t swing a solo trip to the United States for the summer?

Novakid, founded by Maxim Azarov, wants to be your next best option. The San Francisco-based edtech startup offers virtual-only, English language immersion for kids between the ages of four through 12, by combining a mix of different services from live tutors to gamification.

After closing its $4.25 million Series A round last December, Novakid announced today that it is back with a $35 million Series B financing, led by Owl Ventures and Goodwater Capital. Existing investors also participated in the round, including PortfoLion, LearnStart, TMT Investments, Xploration Capital, LETA Capital and BonAngels.

The startup is raising capital in response to an active start to its year. The company’s active client base grew 350% year over year, currently at over 50,000 paying students. The money will be used to get more students into its universe of tools, as well as help Novakid expand into international markets with high populations of speakers who want to learn English.

The company’s suite of services are built around two principles: First, that it can immerse early-age learners into the world of English at scale, and second, that it can actually be fun to use.

When a user signs up, they are first connected to one of Novakid’s 2,000 live tutors for their first class. Tutors must be native English speakers with a B.A. degree or higher, as well as an international teaching certificate such as DELTA, CELTA, TESOL or TEFL.

“One of the things that is really important, even psychologically, is to start listening to the language, start interacting with a live person, and remove being afraid of not understanding something,” Azarov said. The company wants to recreate the conditions of how a kid likely learned their first language.

In the class, the tutors only speak English, and users are encouraged to do the same to slowly build and mistake their way into confidence. While the live, video-based classes are a key part of Novakid’s product, Azarov said it was important that his company “was not just giving you access to a teacher” as its main value proposition.

“Most of the competitors are taking teachers and making them available remotely so you don’t have to travel and you have a bigger selection,” he said. But if you look at the industry in the bigger picture, guys like Oxford, Cambridge, Pearson who provide content for the language learning industry, their product basically sucks. It’s really bad.” So, Novakid puts most of its energy into rebuilding a curriculum that works with better design, and includes games.

Gamified content lives both in and out of classes. Within the classroom, a teacher may take a student on a VR-enhanced tour through famous landmarks and museums to practice vocabulary. Self-paced content could look like a multiplayer “battle” between two students answering questions within a certain time period to get a better score. Novakid has an entire team dedicated to game design and development.

Students are clicking in. Novakid users spend two-thirds of their time on the website with tutors, and one-third with self-paced content that the company built in-house. The company wants to switch those concentrations because more students are spending time with the asynchronous content around grammar and vocabulary, and teachers are reserved for more complex information like speaking and conversation.

Part of the difficulty of scaling up a language learning business is that users need to stay motivated. Gamification helps with engagement, but Novakid’s clientele of children could also be fast to churn compared to adult learners, simply due to priorities. Azarov said that he sees how some would view selling exclusively to children as a disadvantage, but he views their focus as differentiation.

“You get better brand equity when you’re more focused,” he said. “The way kids learn language is vastly different from the way adults learn language, and I don’t think the general players who do ‘everything from everybody’ will be able to do [the former] as well as we are.” Duolingo recently launched Duolingo ABC, a free English literacy app with hundreds of short-form exercises. While the now-public company has strong branding, Novakid’s strategy differs by adding in more services around live learning and speaking.

So far, the company has proven that its strategy is sticking. Its revenue in 2020 was $9 million, and in 2021 it is expected to hit between $36 million to $45 million in revenue. It declined to disclose the specifics around diversity of the team, but plans to kick off a quite intensive recruiting spree going forward. Azarov plans to add 200 people to his 300-person company in the next six months.

Planted raises another $21M to expand its growing plant-based meat empire (and add schnitzel)

By Devin Coldewey

Swiss alternative protein company Planted has raised its second round of the year, a CHF 19 million (about $21 million at present) “pre-B” fundraise that will help it continue its growth and debut new products. A U.S. launch is in the cards eventually, but for now Planted’s exclusively European customers will be able to give its new veggie schnitzel a shot.

Planted appeared in 2019 as a spinoff from Swiss research university ETH Zurich, where the founders developed the original technique of extruding plant proteins and water into fibrous structures similar to real meat’s. Since then the company has diversified its protein sources, adding oat and sunflower to the mix, and developed pulled pork and kebab alternative products as well.

Over time the process has improved as well. “We added fermentation/biotech technologies to enhance taste and texture,” wrote CEO and co-founder Christoph Jenny in an email to TechCrunch. “Meaning 1) we can create structures without form limitation and 2) can add a broader taste profile.”

The latest advance is schnitzel, which is of course a breaded and fried piece of pounded-thin meat style popular around the world, but especially in the company’s core markets of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Jenny noted that Planted’s schnitzel is produced as one piece, not pressed together from smaller bits. “The taste and texture benefit from fermentation approach, that makes the flavor profile mouth watering and the texture super juicy,” he said, though of course we will have to test it to be sure. Expect schnitzel to debut in Q3.

It’s the first of several planned “whole” or “prime” cuts, larger pieces that can be prepared like any other piece of meat — the team says their products require no special preparation or additives and can be dropped in as 1:1 replacements in most recipes. Right now the big cuts are leaving the lab and entering consumer testing for taste tuning and eventually scaling.

The funding round came from “Vorwerk Ventures, Gullspång Re:food, Movendo Capital, Good Seed Ventures, Joyance, ACE & Company (SFG strategy) and Be8 Ventures,” and was described as a follow-on to March’s CHF 17M series A. No doubt the exploding demand for alternative proteins and growing competition in the space has spurred Planted’s investors to opt for more aggressive growth and development strategies.

The company plans to enter several new markets over Q3 and Q4, but the U.S. is still a question mark due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel. Jenny said they are preparing so that they can make that move whenever it becomes possible, but for now Planted is focused on the European market.

(Update: This article originally misstated the new round as also being CHF 17M — entirely my mistake. This has been corrected.)

How Mockingbirds Compose Songs Just Like Beethoven

By Jennifer Ouellette, Ars Technica
The birds aren’t producing sounds at random. Some of their strategies are surprisingly similar to ones used by humans.

Percent raises $5M, aiming to become the ‘Stripe for donations’ to good causes

By Mike Butcher

What with the planet collapsing and democracy under constant attack from all quarters – you know, just the usual – one or two members of the global population have, idly or not, wondered if the private sector might want to step up? I mean, as well as shooting billionaires into space. At the same time, even! Luckily, many businesses want to do better. But there are one or two hurdles. Incorporating “purpose” into their digital offering, such as donating to a non-profit at the end of a moving documentary, is harder than it looks. Businesses don’t have the capacity to build in donation software; they can’t continually verify and audit good causes; and processing donations is fraught with legal complications, compliance, and regulatory risk. What is to be done?

Pennies is one organization that bills itself as the digital equivalent of the traditional charity collection box. However, perhaps what we need is… drum roll… an API?

Step forward Percent. Founded in 2017, Percent provides an API allowing firms to customers to donate to good causes, matching a donation made when making a payment, or rounding up a financial transaction, for instance.

It’s now closed a $5M venture round led by Morpheus Ventures, allowing it to expand in the US, as well as its existing presence in the UK and Australia. The UK’s Nationwide Building Society – also an early investor and customer of the product – is a co-investor in the round.

The company says its API-first platform takes care of auditing and compliance processes to prevent fraud and money-laundering whilst also parsing tax-efficient disbursements of funds into 200 countries worldwide. It says 7 million non-profit causes have been added to the platform and it’s vetted the potential recipients of donations.

Henry Ludlam, Founder, and CEO of Percent, said: “Percent was founded to become the global API-first infrastructure behind all giving. This will be the foundation for a better, fairer future of capitalism in which every financial transaction has social and environmental good built into it.”

In an interview I asked him if the pandemic had accelerated the opportunity: “Because of COVID, suddenly now we have brands that are really desperate to build purpose into their business in a way that they just weren’t doing 18 months ago. It’s really been an amazing shift. We’ve just seen a huge shift in what consumers expect from businesses. Consumers expect businesses to build purpose into what they do now.”

He said that the product could be even built into – surprise! – streaming services: “Say you’ve seen a documentary. And at the end of the documentary, you feel particularly moved, like you watched a David Attenborough or something like that. You could then actually be able to quickly and easily build donations into the end of it. So using our API, it would pull up a list of nonprofits, so right there and then the customer could make a donation. We’re also working with a crypto platform where you can round down your transactions and donate to any nonprofit as well. There’s loads of really cool stuff we are working on which is coming out soon.”
 
Kristian Blaszczynski, Managing Partner of Morpheus Ventures, said: “With the events of the last several years, it has become more apparent that aligning brands with purpose is driving consumer behavior and spend. However, today, the process of donating to non-profits is incredibly archaic, manual, and inefficient… Percent’s API-first platform abstracts away all of these complexities and automates the processes, allowing businesses to align closer to their stakeholders and focus on their core business.”

Percent could well be pushing at an open door. Kantar Research says that only 22% of people could name a brand they thought was doing a good job addressing issues such as climate change, plastic waste, and water pollution. On the flip side, 95% of businesses think that “purpose” is at the heart of what they do. The disparity could not be more stark.

Is Percent the stripe for donations? We’re about to find out.

YouTube acquires Indian social commerce startup Simsim

By Manish Singh

YouTube has acquired social commerce startup Simsim, the Google-owned firm said on Tuesday. Neither of the firms disclosed the terms of the deal, but two people with knowledge of the matter told TechCrunch the Indian startup was valued at over $70 million. Simsim chief executive didn’t respond to a query about the acquisition Monday evening (IST).

Two-year-old Simsim had raised about $17 million prior to today’s announcement and was valued at $50.1 million in its 2020 Series B financing round.

Gurgaon-headquartered startup helps small businesses in India transition to e-commerce by using the power of video and creators. The startup’s app acts as a platform to connect local businesses, influencers and customers.

The thesis, according to Rohan Malhotra of Good Capital, an early backer of Simsim is: “micro-influencers are more effective at building a targeted audience (growth), creating entertaining experiences (retention), building trust (higher value) and personalising messaging (conversion). Consumer social platforms (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc.) cannot meaningfully monetise via advertising-financed models in India; this unlocks the opportunity for more deeply integrated transactional platforms. New internet users in India need an interactive seller-led experience to replicate the offline e-commerce experience this market is used to.”

He, like everyone else, declined to comment on the size of the deal.

“We started Simsim with the mission of helping users across India shop online with ease, enabled through small sellers and brands showcasing and selling their products using the power of content by trusted influencers. Being a part of the YouTube and Google ecosystem furthers simsim in its mission,” Simsim cofounders Amit Bagaria, Kunal Suri and Saurabh Vashishtha said in a joint statement. Bagaria and Vashishtha previously worked together at Paytm.

“We cannot think of a better ecosystem in which to build simsim, in terms of technology, reach, creator networks and culture. We can’t wait to be part of YouTube and are excited to build simsim within the most admired tech company in the world.”

For YouTube, the acquisition will enable the video streaming giant help small businesses and retailers in India reach new customers in even more powerful ways, wrote Gautam Anand, VP of YouTube APAC, in a blog post.

The video streaming service, which reaches over 450 million monthly active users in India, doesn’t plan to make any immediate changes to Simsim and the startup’s app will continue to operate independently “while we work on ways to showcase Simsim offers to YouTube viewers,” he added.

Tuesday’s announcement is Google’s latest push in India, where it has committed to invest $10 billion in the next couple of years. The internet giant has also backed Indian startups Glance and DailyHunt, both of which operate short-video apps.

“With over 2500 YouTube creators with over one million subscribers, and the success of YouTube Shorts, which we launched in India first, we’re committed to bringing the best of YouTube to India and growing the creator community by making it even easier for the new generation of mobile-first creators to get started,” he added.

Sneaker community startup SoleSavy raises $12.5 million Series A to build an end-to-end sneakersphere

By Lucas Matney

Collectibles boomed during the pandemic and while NFT outfits like NBA Top Shot exploded as consumers flirted with newer efforts, the sneaker world grew even more mature with enthusiasts digging deeper into communities dedicated to the hobby/passion/obsession/alternative asset class.

Vancouver’s SoleSavy, a sneaker community dedicated to giving fans a curated place to navigate the world of shoes, with all of its drops, news and rumors, has raised a $12.5 million Series A just months after wrapping a $2 million seed round, showcasing investor enthusiasm behind vertical-specific premium social experiences. The round was led by Bedrock Capital with participation from Dapper Labs’ CEO Roham Gharegozlou, Diplo, Bessemer Ventures and Turner Novak’s Banana Capital, among others.

CEO Dejan Pralica says the company has tripled its user base since its seed raise late last year, while growing its team from 10 to 37 employees in the same period.

Today, SoleSavy’s community is based largely around a network of Slack groups where users can discuss just about everything. Though the platform’s chat communities are organized in Slack now, Pralica sees a future where the company could build its own chat hub for members, something to further tie-in the startup’s app, website and online conversations. The more near-term goal is to grow this community into a hub of trusted buyers and sellers where a peer-to-peer member marketplace can thrive. SoleSavy is at the forefront of a new generation of more social internet marketplaces where vertical-specific communities can gather and grow inside an all-encompassing platform.

“I do envision on end-to-end platform that’s very integrated,” Pralica tells TechCrunch.”I want to make sneakers fun again and enjoyable for the people that are passionate about them.”

Part of that fun has been diminished by free-for-all chat groups that can quickly grow toxic or grow exploitative as moderators look to cash in on their networks, something SoleSavy hopes a more curated approach can bring back.

As my boss (and TC’s resident sneaker head) Matthew said in his write-up of SoleSavy’s seed raise earlier this year:

That positive community vibe is what Pralica says is SoleSavy’s long-term focus and differentiating factor that keeps the 4,000 members across the U.S. and Canada interacting with the group on a nearly daily basis … I’ve been in a dozen or so different groups focused on buying large quantities of each release to resell over the years and many of them are, at best, rowdy and at worst toxic. That’s an environment that SoleSavy wanted to stay away from, says Pralica. Instead, SoleSavy tries to court those who want to buy and wear the shoes, trade them and yes, maybe even resell personal pairs eventually to obtain and wear another grail.

The company’s sizable Series A raise just months after a seed showcases that plenty of investors are intrigued by the idea of verticalized marketplaces built up around social communities, Pralica sees the funding as a chance to ignore fundraising for a while and focus on “building for the future” while identifying new opportunities in the sneakersphere.

SoleSavy has been pretty focused on North American sneaker heads so far, but Pralica see that hefty Series A check taking the platform into new markets, including Australia and New Zealand, United Kingdom, Singapore, Japan and broader Europe. The company also plans to use the new funding to build out its editorial network with podcasts, editorial features, original video and member events.

Investors say Eindhoven poised to become Netherlands’ No. 2 tech hub

By Mike Butcher

Eindhoven might not immediately spring to mind as a high-tech hub, but the Netherlands city is keen to position itself as a center for deep tech in Europe.

The Technical University of Eindhoven, High Tech Campus Eindhoven, and locally based corporates like ASML and Philips have been eyeing initiatives across Europe and applying what they’ve learned to the region’s strategy. Philips launched in Eindhoven in 1891 and played no small part in the municipality’s ambitions to become a tech hub.

Eindhoven produces a high number of patents per year considering its small population and has been home to an inordinate number of hardware startups. The local High Tech Campus has a high hardware focus, for instance.

Our survey respondents consider the city strong in areas like photonics, robotics, medical devices, materials science, deep tech, automotive tech, sustainability tech, medtech, Big Data, hardware and precision engineering. They are looking for more mature startups and scaleups focused on AI and hard tech.

Eindhoven is considered weaker in fintech and consumer products, and it exists in a small region with limited global visibility.

Over the next five years, one respondent said, “Eindhoven will have evolved to the Netherlands’ second-largest tech ecosystem, behind Amsterdam. On a European scale, Eindhoven will have entered the top 10.”

To learn more about Eindhoven, we queried the following investors:


Robert AL, Systema Circularis

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?

High-tech systems, photonics, robotics, medical devices.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?

Lightyear, Bio-TRIP, EFFECT photonics, Nemo Healthcare, Sorama.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?

Fully dedicated.

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?

Steef Blok, Harm de Vries, Piet van der Wielen, Andy Lurling, Mark Cox.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years’ time?

More mature, more focused on inclusive development, less quality coming from university spinoffs.

Nathan van den Dool, CEO, Space4Good

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?

High-tech systems and materials, the real high-tech and deep tech stuff that either leads to scientific breakthroughs or turns scientific breakthroughs into companies. Lithography makes a major contribution to that, as well as medical devices and production technologies.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?

Nearfield Instruments, Optiflux, Dynaxion, AlphaBeats, Incooling.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?

They focus mainly on high-tech machine building and software development, AI.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out or will others move in?

Largely unaffected.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years’ time?

More integrated between AI and hard tech and production.

Pepijn Herman, venture builder, Brabantse Ontwikkelings Maat schappij

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?

The pros are high-tech systems, collaboration culture and excellent startup ecosystem; The cons are that it’s a small region with limited visibility globally.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?

LionVolt, DENS, Lightyear, Morphotonics.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?

They focus mainly on high-tech machine building and software development, AI.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out or will others move in?

Others will move in! Housing is extremely expensive but the demand for a skilled workforce is extremely high. If people move to surrounding areas, within 30 km, housing prices skyrocket all over.

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?\

BOM (that’s us!), Braventure, Brainport Development, TNO.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years’ time?

Leading worldwide in several technology areas, mainly, high-precision, roll-to-roll processing atomic layer deposition, material handling, industry 4.0, silicon processing equipment.

Betsy Lindsey, CFO, Aircision

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?

The region is strong in deep tech, automotive tech, sustainability tech, medtech, Big Data, hardware and precision engineering. Most excited by sustainability tech and deep tech. The region is weak in fintech.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?

Lightyear, Incooling.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?

Conservative, non-risk-taking — there are so many subsidies they don’t need to take risks, so once the tech risk is gone, they are good, but they are not global enough; hardware.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out or will others move in?

Hardware is hands-on — people are still moving in! We have a housing “crisis!”

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?

Innovation Industries.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years’ time?

More mature startups and scaleups on the scene!

Andy Lurling, founding partner, LUMO Labs

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?

The region is strong in sustainable cities, health and well-being, and education.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?

FruitPunch AI, AlphaBeats, Vaulut, Lightyear, Serendipity.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?

Mainly hardware; LUMO Labs has an early-stage software focus.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out or will others move in?

Stay.

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?

Nard Sintenie, Frank Claassen, Hans Bloemen.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years’ time?

Competing on a global scale.

Han Dirkx, CEO and co-founder, AlphaBeats

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?

The region is strong in deep tech and health. I’m excited about opportunities for cooperation between different companies. It’s weak in seed investment.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?

Lightyear, AlphaBeats, Carbyon, FruitPunch, Serendipity.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?

Tech investors are mainly government-regulated constitutions or angels. Focus on scaleup.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out or will others move in?

They will stay; working from home has some benefits but meeting people in an inspiring environment gives the best synergy.

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?

LUMO Labs, HighTechXL, Andy Lurling, Sven Bakkes, John Bell, Guus Frericks, Bert-Jan Woertman.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years’ time?

Leading in the world.

Jonas Onland, managing partner, Serendipity

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?

The region is strong in building sustainable and resilient cities and a platform between cities/society and tech market.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?

Digital Toolbox (a Serendipity spinoff), Amber (mobility), Active Esports Arena and other portfolio companies of LUMO Labs.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?

Through LUMO Labs, there is a focus on societal investments; the rest is investment in high tech due to the big industries (VDLK, ASML, NXP, Phillips).

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out or will others move in?

Work at home or mix in the office and at home.

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?

A combination of accelerators (LUMO Labs, HighTechXL, Braventure) and Brainport (ecosystem management) supported by the Eindhoven University of Technology and big corporates.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years’ time?

Leading in the world on societal/systemic change — moving from high-tech toward impact (more software and digitization).

Daan A.J. Kersten, CEO, PhotonFirst

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?

It’s strong in high-tech equipment, hardware, photonics, additive manufacturing, lighting, electronics, semiconductor technology and health tech, and weak in consumer products and apps.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?

Lightyear, ELEO Technologies, EFFECT Photonics, SMART Photonics, PhotonFirst, Amber.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?

There is a relatively low number of investors in early stage.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out or will others move in?

They will stay. Eindhoven is a hot spot with many cultures, international tech community and great infrastructure, while it feels like a village.

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?

Nard Sintenie, startup founders, HighTechXL.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years’ time?

Worldwide dominance in high-tech hardware scaleups.

Daniel den Boer, CEO and co-founder, Vaulut

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?

The Eindhoven ecosystem is really strong in the sectors of mobility, smart city and energy. I’m most excited about smart city. This is our focus sector and it is the embodiment of ecosystem collaboration with impact solutions.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?

Vaulut, Roseman Labs, FruitPunch AI, Amber, Sendcloud, Lightyear.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?

The investment scene is getting better. They are increasingly realizing that deep tech takes time and needs to be nurtured, but the potential impact is massive and can have a dramatic effect on the entire ecosystem. There are still relatively few early-stage impact drive investors. LUMO Labs is leading the pack on that front.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out or will others move in?

I think more people will stay as the need to move to Amsterdam as the tech hub of the Netherlands diminishes, giving Eindhoven a boost to strengthen its own ecosystem, which will in turn make even more people stay and attract people to move in the city. As a result, COVID-19 will have a positive effect on Eindhoven’s tech ecosystem, I believe.

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?

LUMO Labs, the Eindhoven University of Technology, High Tech Campus, Amber, Brainport Eindhoven.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years’ time?

In five years, I believe Eindhoven will have evolved to Netherlands’ second-largest tech ecosystem, behind Amsterdam. On a European scale, Eindhoven will have entered the top 10.

The Best Sex Toys and Tech for Every Body

By Jess Grey, Louryn Strampe
These are our favorite gender-inclusive adult devices to give you and your partner(s) a helping hand.

Somewhere Good just raised $3.75M to make your somewhere good

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Nearly every social media experience today is built on the same premise: Humans identify with individuality. Users create a profile, upload an avatar picture, write a short biography and can then scream into the ether to other users on behalf of their digitally sculpted selves.

Naj Austin, the founder behind Ethel’s Club, built Somewhere Good last year on an entirely different premise. She believes that humans crave collectivism more than individualism in a post-COVID world. So she’s in the process of reinventing how social media looks and feels, and with community and people of color at the core.

Less than a year after launching, Somewhere Good announced this morning that it has raised $3.75 million in a seed round led by True Ventures. Existing investors Dream Machine, Debut Capital and Canvas Ventures participated in the round, along with new investors, including Slauson & Co., NextView Ventures and 2PM Inc. Notable angels include Ellen Pao of Project Include and actor Gabrielle Union. The money will be used for continued product innovation and expanding its nine-person team.

“I’m thinking about scale and trying to ensure that the most people have access to a safe and authentic community on their phones, and that means it has to be venture-backed in terms of being able to accomplish that in a way that also feels delightful,” Austin said. “To build a platform that allows for us to have consultants who are thinking about accessibility, safety and privacy, we have to pay them.”

Extracting the buzz from Community

Somewhere Good is a mobile app that connects people and then fosters that connection in a solely group setting, across a diversity of interests — such as a birdwatching collective for people of color or an anti-capitalist book club.

The platform arose from Austin’s other company, subscription-based community for people of color, Ethel’s Club. Members kept asking her for different things: a cooking club, a therapist recommendation, a wellness group. She said she became a de facto Google for members, and that Ethel’s Club began to “frankenstein” into different groups and needs.

“Which is, you know, not scalable,” she said. “We thought ‘Why don’t we build a technology layer that communities like Ethel’s club need?’” Somewhere Good is now a social search platform for people to join, chat and discover new communities.

Somewhere Good

Users can visit and drop into different “worlds” or communities that fit their interests, she explained. Once a user has entered a world, they can view and post content and have real-time audio conversations with others. People are encouraged to cite content in order to promote content and nuance.

“If I add an Angela Davis article in ‘Abolition World’ I can also see that you added it to ‘Black Feminists’ world and so on,” Austin explained. “This is likely to encourage you to look into the Black Feminists world and further your discovery.”

Austin stressed that no one person or host controls the experience, instead putting focus on the community as a whole to create a world that is living and breathing. It’s her response to the rise of community in every startup right now.

“Communities become a buzzword that everyone’s trying to tap into their platforms now,” she said. “Things I know about community and what I’ve learned over the last year-and-a-half is that you need intimacy, you need nuance, you need collaboration and you need this magical collision of people who have shared identities.”

How Somewhere Good actually executes this mission will rely heavily on its product, which is still in its infancy. Right now, Austin shared that they have made intentional choices to remove what she sees as the “empty noise” of other social media platforms. At this point, there are no advertisements on Somewhere Good, no user profiles, no friending, no following and no feed.

Notably, this differentiation is also one of Somewhere Good’s biggest challenges.

“When building something new, it potentially feels like we are taking it away from the users,” she said. “For example, taking profiles away may feel like it is a less than, versus that it is additive in the long run because you no longer have to have a perfect profile and worry about users.”

The startup is testing out user reaction to these sorts of fundamental structural changes over the next couple of weeks. Somewhere Good also launched SHIFT, a $50,000 year-long fellowship program, to invite people to join the team and create a feedback loop on product, team and community, as well as explore some of the ideas that Austin is experimenting with today.

“We still aren’t going to be able to make the most perfect platform for everyone on Earth to start, and we know that, but in doing so we’ve created a fellowship to help inform us, and kind of heads down and deploy that occurs when you’re building a product.”

Entering the Clubhouse

The app was meant to go into beta in January 2020 but that has now been pushed to the second half of 2021 so the team could continue to tweak the product. The beta will be invite-only to start, including 50 to 75 communities and their members that Somewhere Good has vetted beforehand and the some 5,000 people on its waitlist.

Somewhere Good’s monetization plan is also in the early innings, and the founder says it will focus on that more when the app reaches scale.

Clubhouse, an app valued at $1 billion that is similarly focused on community and spontaneity, could be seen as competition to Somewhere Good. Clubhouse has an exploration page that helps users discover different clubs, and it also built out a creator network to bring high-quality, recurring content to its platform.

“It’s a solid company,” Austin said. “But I think they’ve struggled with really big questions and I think that there are solutions and answers out there that Clubhouse has chosen not to embed to their platform, and that was simply a choice that they made.”

For now, she doesn’t seem fazed.

“I feel like most of the platforms that exist are taking what already exists and kind of putting a veneer on it,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with repainting, but then it’s just repainting.” Reinventing feels like an outsized opportunity.

“I believe if we get Somewhere Good right, it can replace many of the apps on your phone,” she said. “When you think about it, where you receive the most value, outside of the calculator app, is with your friends and the people you know and trust.”

AI-powered Jerry raises $28M to help you save money on car insurance

By Mary Ann Azevedo

When Art Agrawal was growing up in India, a car ride was a rare treat, and car ownership was a dream. When he moved to the U.S. and bought his first car, he was shocked by how much it cost and how difficult it was to maintain a car.

In 2012, he co-founded a company called YourMechanic (and won TechCrunch’s Disrupt that year) that provides on-demand automotive mobile maintenance and repair services. Over the years, the challenge of helping consumers more easily find car insurance was in the back of his mind. So in 2017, he teamed up with Lina Zhang and Musawir Shah to found Jerry, a mobile-first car ownership “super app.” The Palo Alto-based startup launched a car insurance comparison service using artificial intelligence and machine learning in January 2019. It has quietly since amassed nearly 1 million customers across the United States as a licensed insurance broker.

“Today as a consumer, you have to go to multiple different places to deal with different things,” Agrawal said. “Jerry is out to change that.”

And now today, Jerry is announcing that it has raised more than $57 million in funding, including a new $28 million Series B round led by Goodwater Capital. A group of angel investors also participated in the round include Greenlight president Johnson Cook and Greenlight CEO Timothy Sheehan; Tekion CEO Jay Vijayan; Jon McNeill, CEO of DVx Ventures and former president of Tesla and ex-COO of Lyft; Brandon Krieg, CEO of Stash and Ed Robinson, co-founder and president of Stash.

CEO Argawal says Jerry is different from other auto-related marketplaces out there in that it aims to help consumers with various aspects of car ownership (from repair to maintenance to insurance to warranties), rather than just one. Although for now it is mostly focused on insurance, it plans to use its new capital to move into other categories of car ownership.

The company also believes it is set apart from competitors in that it doesn’t refer a consumer to an insurance carrier’s site so that they still have to do the work of signing up with them separately, for example. Rather, Jerry uses automation to give consumers customized quotes from more than 45 insurance carriers “in 45 seconds.” The consumers can then sign on to the new carrier via Jerry, which would even cancel former policies on their behalf.

Image Credits: Jerry

“With Jerry, you can complete the whole transaction in our app,” Argawal said. “We don’t send you to another site. You don’t have to fill out a bunch of forms. You just give us some information, and we’ll instantly provide you with quotes.”

Its customers save on average about $800 a year on car insurance, the company claims. Jerry also offers a similar offering for home insurance but its focus is on car ownership.

The company must be doing something right. In 2020, Jerry saw its revenue surge by “10x.”

For some context, Jerry sold a few million dollars of insurance in 2019, according to Agrawal. This year, he said, the company is on track to do “three to four times” more than last year’s numbers.

“There’s no other automated way to compare and buy car insurance, because all the APIs are not easily accessible,” he said. “What we have done is we have automated the end to end journey for the consumer using our infrastructure, which will only scale over time.”

Jerry makes recurring revenue from earning a percentage of the premium when a consumer purchases a policy on its site from carriers such as Progressive.

“A lot of the marketplaces are lead-gen. A very small percent of their revenue is reoccurring,” Agrawal said. “For us, it’s 100% of our revenues.”

Goodwater Capital’s Chi-Hua Chien notes that the insurance space has historically been a very challenging category from a customer experience perspective.

“They took something that has historically been painful, intimidating and difficult for the customer and made it effortless,” he told TechCrunch. “That experience will more broadly over time apply to comparison shopping and maintenance, too.”

Chien said he was also drawn to the category itself.

“This is a competitive category because 100% of drivers need to have auto insurance 100% of the time,” he said. “That’s a large market that’s not going to go away. And since Jerry is powered by AI, it will only serve customers better over time, and just grow faster.”

Fresh out of YC, Houm raises $8M to improve the home rental and sales market in LatAm

By Marcella McCarthy

As a longtime real estate developer based in Chile, Benjamin Labra was able to spot gaps in the buying and renting markets in Latin America. To meet demands, he started Houm, an all-in-one platform that helps homeowners rent and sell their properties in the region.

Fresh out of Y Combinator’s W21 cohort, today Houm announced an $8 million seed round. 

If you think the concept sounds like Brazil’s unicorn, QuintoAndar, it’s because Houm is very similar. While QuintoAndar dominates the Brazilian market, Houm operates in Chile, Mexico and Colombia, and aims to capture the rest of Spanish-speaking LatAm.

Think of Houm as a homeowner-run Zillow meets TaskRabbit. The company offers a marketplace run by the property owners themselves and cuts out the realtor by employing 200 freelancers who prepare the property for sale or to manage it.

Houmers, as they are called, go to the owner’s home, take photos and then help possible buyers or renters view the property. For their work, Houmers are compensated each time a home they worked on sells or gets rented.

However, Houm’s selling proposition isn’t just the ease of use it provides; instead, it also serves as a guarantor in my ways, making the buying process more accessible.

“In Colombia and Mexico, for someone to be your guarantor, they have to have a property that’s free of mortgage so it can be used as collateral,” Labra told TechCrunch.

On the flip side, the company also guarantees that renters will get paid every month, and if a tenant falters, Houm covers the cost. “You really have nothing to lose if you use Houm,” Labra said.

You can imagine that a company like Houm now has all sorts of data on the real estate market, especially around sales and rental prices. As a result, Houm uses this data in an algorithm that helps the homeowner determine a fair price for their property, but the listed price remains up to the owner.

The company, which was founded in 2018 and is based in Chile, now has about 200 full-time employees, in addition to their freelance team. While Labra declined to say how many active users it has, he said Houm is now showing a property every eight minutes.

The current funding round had no lead investor but includes Y Combinator, Goodwater Ventures, OneVC, Vast VC, Liquid2 and Myelin. The company plans to use the money to expand within the region, perfect its algorithm and generally speed up growth.

 

How to Survive a Killer Asteroid

By Cody Cassidy
The impact that wiped out the dinosaurs would probably have killed you too—unless you were in the exact right place and had made the exact right plans.
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