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Tech leaders can be the secret weapon for supercharging ESG goals

By Ram Iyer
Jeff Sternberg Contributor
Jeff Sternberg is a technical director in the Office of the CTO (OCTO) at Google Cloud, a team of technologists and industry experts that help Google Cloud's customers solve challenging problems and disrupt their industries.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors should be key considerations for CTOs and technology leaders scaling next generation companies from day one. Investors are increasingly prioritizing startups that focus on ESG, with the growth of sustainable investing skyrocketing.

What’s driving this shift in mentality across every industry? It’s simple: Consumers are no longer willing to support companies that don’t prioritize sustainability. According to a survey conducted by IBM, the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated consumers’ focus on sustainability and their willingness to pay out of their own pockets for a sustainable future. In tandem, federal action on climate change is increasing, with the U.S. rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and a recent executive order on climate commitments.

Over the past few years, we have seen an uptick in organizations setting long-term sustainability goals. However, CEOs and chief sustainability officers typically forecast these goals, and they are often long term and aspirational — leaving the near and midterm implementation of ESG programs to operations and technology teams.

Until recently, choosing cloud regions meant considering factors like cost and latency to end users. But carbon is another factor worth considering.

CTOs are a crucial part of the planning process, and in fact, can be the secret weapon to help their organization supercharge their ESG targets. Below are a few immediate steps that CTOs and technology leaders can take to achieve sustainability and make an ethical impact.

Reducing environmental impact

As more businesses digitize and more consumers use devices and cloud services, the energy needed by data centers continues to rise. In fact, data centers account for an estimated 1% of worldwide electricity usage. However, a forecast from IDC shows that the continued adoption of cloud computing could prevent the emission of more than 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from 2021 through 2024.

Make compute workloads more efficient: First, it’s important to understand the links between computing, power consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Making your app and compute workloads more efficient will reduce costs and energy requirements, thus reducing the carbon footprint of those workloads. In the cloud, tools like compute instance auto scaling and sizing recommendations make sure you’re not running too many or overprovisioned cloud VMs based on demand. You can also move to serverless computing, which does much of this scaling work automatically.

Deploy compute workloads in regions with lower carbon intensity: Until recently, choosing cloud regions meant considering factors like cost and latency to end users. But carbon is another factor worth considering. While the compute capabilities of regions are similar, their carbon intensities typically vary. Some regions have access to more carbon-free energy production than others, and consequently the carbon intensity for each region is different.

So, choosing a cloud region with lower carbon intensity is often the simplest and most impactful step you can take. Alistair Scott, co-founder and CTO of cloud infrastructure startup Infracost, underscores this sentiment: “Engineers want to do the right thing and reduce waste, and I think cloud providers can help with that. The key is to provide information in workflow, so the people who are responsible for infraprovisioning can weigh the CO2 impact versus other factors such as cost and data residency before they deploy.”

Another step is to estimate your specific workload’s carbon footprint using open-source software like Cloud Carbon Footprint, a project sponsored by ThoughtWorks. Etsy has open-sourced a similar tool called Cloud Jewels that estimates energy consumption based on cloud usage information. This is helping them track progress toward their target of reducing their energy intensity by 25% by 2025.

Make social impact

Beyond reducing environmental impact, CTOs and technology leaders can have significant, direct and meaningful social impact.

Include societal benefits in the design of your products: As a CTO or technology founder, you can help ensure that societal benefits are prioritized in your product roadmaps. For example, if you’re a fintech CTO, you can add product features to expand access to credit in underserved populations. Startups like LoanWell are on a mission to increase access to capital for those typically left out of the financial system and make the loan origination process more efficient and equitable.

When thinking about product design, a product needs to be as useful and effective as it is sustainable. By thinking about sustainability and societal impact as a core element of product innovation, there is an opportunity to differentiate yourself in socially beneficial ways. For example, Lush has been a pioneer of package-free solutions, and launched Lush Lens — a virtual package app leveraging cameras on mobile phones and AI to overlay product information. The company hit 2 million scans in its efforts to tackle the beauty industry’s excessive use of (plastic) packaging.

Responsible AI practices should be ingrained in the culture to avoid social harms: Machine learning and artificial intelligence have become central to the advanced, personalized digital experiences everyone is accustomed to — from product and content recommendations to spam filtering, trend forecasting and other “smart” behaviors.

It is therefore critical to incorporate responsible AI practices, so benefits from AI and ML can be realized by your entire user base and that inadvertent harm can be avoided. Start by establishing clear principles for working with AI responsibly, and translate those principles into processes and procedures. Think about AI responsibility reviews the same way you think about code reviews, automated testing and UX design. As a technical leader or founder, you get to establish what the process is.

Impact governance

Promoting governance does not stop with the board and CEO; CTOs play an important role, too.

Create a diverse and inclusive technology team: Compared to individual decision-makers, diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time. Additionally, Gartner research found that in a diverse workforce, performance improves by 12% and intent to stay by 20%.

It is important to reinforce and demonstrate why diversity, equity and inclusion is important within a technology team. One way you can do this is by using data to inform your DEI efforts. You can establish a voluntary internal program to collect demographics, including gender, race and ethnicity, and this data will provide a baseline for identifying diversity gaps and measuring improvements. Consider going further by baking these improvements into your employee performance process, such as objectives and key results (OKRs). Make everyone accountable from the start, not just HR.

These are just a few of the ways CTOs and technology leaders can contribute to ESG progress in their companies. The first step, however, is to recognize the many ways you as a technology leader can make an impact from day one.

A Tesla Megapack caught fire at the Victorian Big Battery facility in Australia

By Darrell Etherington
Saqib Shah Contributor
Saqib Shah is a contributing writer at Engadget.

A 13-tonne Tesla Megapack caught fire on Friday morning at a battery storage facility in south-east Australia. The blaze occurred during testing at between 10 and 10.15am local time, according to Victorian Big Battery. The regional fire service said a specialist fire crew had been dispatched to the site in Geelong, Victoria. Firefighters were using a hazmat appliance designed for hazardous chemical spills and specialist drones to conduct atmospheric monitoring, according to Fire Rescue Victoria.

The site was evacuated and there were no injuries, Victorian Big Battery said in a statement. It added that the site had been disconnected from the power grid and that there will be no impact to the electric supply. French energy company Neoen, which operates the facility, and contractor Tesla are working with emergency services to manage the situation.

As a result of the fire, a warning for toxic smoke has been issued in the nearby Batesford, Bell Post Hill, Lovely Banks and Moorabool areas, reports The Sydney Morning Herald. Residents were warned to move indoors, close windows, vents and fireplace flues and bring their pets inside.

The Victorian Big Battery site, a 300 MW/450 MWh battery storage facility, is viewed as key to the Victorian government’s 50 percent renewable energy target by 2030. It follows the success of Neoen and Tesla’s 100 MW/129 MWh battery farm in Hornsdale in South Australia, which was completed ahead of schedule and has resulted in multi-million dollar savings for market players and consumers. Both sites essentially provide a regional power backup for when renewable energy is not available, effectively filling the gap when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

In February, Neoen announced that the Victorian Big Battery would utliize Tesla’s megapacks — utility-sized batteries produced at the company’s Gigafactory — and Autobidder software to sell power to the grid. Victorian Big Battery has a contract with the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO). As part of the pact, the site will provide energy stability by unlocking an additional 250 MW of peak capacity on the existing Victoria to New South Wales Interconnector over the next decade of Australian summers.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.

Acrew Capital, Jeff Bezos back Colombia-based proptech La Haus’ $100M debt, equity round

By Mary Ann Azevedo

La Haus, which has developed an online real estate marketplace operating in Mexico and Colombia, has secured $100 million in additional funding, including $50 million in equity and $50 million in debt financing.

The new capital was obtained as an extension to the company’s Series B, the first tranche of which closed in January. With the latest infusion, Medellin, Colombia-based La Haus has now secured $135 million total for the round and over $158 million in funding since its 2017 inception.

San Francisco Bay Area venture firms Acrew Capital and Renegade Partners co-led the round, which also included participation from Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Expeditions, Endeavor Catalyst, Moore Strategic Ventures, Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Rappi’s Simon Borrero, Maluma, and Gabriel Gilinski. Existing backers who put money in this round include Greenspring Associates, Kaszek, NFX, Spencer Rascoff’s 75 & Sunny Ventures, Hadi Partovi and NuBank’s David Velez. 

Jerónimo Uribe (CEO), Rodrigo Sánchez-Ríos (president), Tomás Uribe (chief growth officer) and Santiago Garcia (CTO) founded the company after Jerónimo and Tomas met Sánchez-Ríos at Stanford University. Prior to La Haus they started and ran Jaguar Capital, a Colombian real estate development company with over $350 million of completed retail and residential projects. 

The company declined to reveal at what valuation the extension was raised, with Sánchez-Ríos saying only that it was “a significant increase” from January.

The Series B extension follows impressive growth for the startup, which saw the number of transactions conducted on its Mexico portal climb by nearly 10x in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the 2020 second quarter. With over 500 homes selling on its platform (via lahaus.com and lahaus.mx) the company is “the market leader in selling new housing in Spanish-speaking Latam by an order of magnitude,” its execs claim.  La Haus expects to have facilitated more than $1 billion in annualized gross sales by the end of the year. 

The startup was founded with the mission of making it easier for people to buy homes and helping “solve LatAm’s extreme housing inequality.” Its end goal is to accelerate access to new housing by both generating and curating supply and demand and then matching it with its technology, noted Sánchez-Ríos. 

“In the last six months, our chief product officer has built a product that allows this to happen 100% digitally,” he said. “Before it would take a lot of time, people involved and visits. We want to provide people looking for a home a similar experience as to people looking for their next flight at delta.com.”

It has done that by embedding its software to developers’ new projects so that it can bring that digital experience to its users. 

“They are able to view the projects on our sites, we match them and then they can see in real time which units of a particular tower are available, and then select, sign and pay for everything digitally,” Sánchez-Río said.

Image credit: La Haus

The need for new housing in the region and other emerging markets in general is acute, they believe. And the pace of building new homes is slow because small and mid-sized developers – who are responsible for building the majority of new homes in Latin America – are cash constrained. At the same time, mortgages are mostly not affordable for consumers, with banks extending only a fraction of the credit to individuals compared to the U.S., and often at far worse terms. 

What La Haus is planning to do with its new capital – particularly the debt portion – is go beyond selling homes via its marketplace to helping extend financing to both developers and potential buyers.It plans to take the proprietary data it has been able to glean from the thousands of real estate transactions conducted on it platform to extend capital to developers and consumers “more quickly, with much lower risk and at better terms.”

Already, what the startup has accomplished is notable. Being able to purchase a home 100% digitally is not that easy even in the U.S. Pulling that off in Latin America – which has historically trailed behind in digital adoption – is no easy feat. By year’s end, La Haus intends to be in every major metropolitan area in Mexico and Colombia. 

Its ultimate goal is to be able to help new, sustainable homes “to be built faster, alleviating the inequality caused by lack of access to inventory.”

To Acrew Capital’s Lauren Kolodny, La Haus is building a solution specific to the issues of Latin America’s housing market, rather than importing business models – such as iBuying – from the U.S.

“For many people in the United States home equity is their largest asset. In Latin America, however, consumers have been challenged with an impenetrable real estate market stacked against consumers,” she wrote via email. “La Haus is removing barriers to home ownership that stifles millions of people from achieving financial security. Specifically, Latin America has no centralized MLS, very costly interest rates, no transactional transparency, and few online informational tools.”

La Haus, Kolodny added, is breaking down these barriers by consolidating listings online, offering pricing transparency and educating consumers about their financing options.

Acrew first invested in the startup in its $10 million Series A and has been impressed with its growth over time.

“They have a unique focus on new housing — a massive industry worldwide, but especially in emerging markets where new housing is so necessary,” Kolodny said. “The management team…knows real estate in Latin America better than anyone we’ve met.”

For its part, the La Haus team is excited to put its new capital to work. As Sánchez-Río put it, “$50 million goes a lot further in Mexico and Colombia than in the U.S.”

“We are going to be very aggressive in Mexico and Colombia, and plan to go from four to at least 12 markets by the end of the year,” Jeronimo told TechCrunch. “We’re also excited to roll out our financing solution to developers and buyers.”

Dear Sophie: Should we sponsor international hires for H-1B transfers and green cards? 

By Ram Iyer
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie,

My startup is desperately recruiting, and we see a lot of engineering candidates on H-1Bs. They’re looking for H-1B transfers and green cards. What should we do?

— Baffled in the Bay Area

Dear Baffled,

Yes, you should absolutely sponsor international talent for green cards! Listen to my podcast in which I discuss how to hire international professionals who are already in the United States by transferring their H-1B visa and using green cards as a benefit to attract and retain them.

The severe shortage of tech talent currently in the U.S. is prompting professionals to negotiate better compensation packages, and companies are increasingly using green card sponsorship as a benefit to attract and retain international talent.

Green card sponsorship as a benefit

Companies need to offer green card sponsorship to remain competitive. In fact, Envoy’s 2021 Immigration Trends Report found that 74% of employers said they have sponsored an individual for permanent residence (a green card), which is the highest percentage in the six years Envoy has asked this question in its annual survey. Rather than waiting until the last possible moment to sponsor an H-1B visa holder for a green card, 58% of employers say they are starting the process with the employee’s first year at the company on an H-1B visa. Most employers — 96% — said that sourcing international talent is important to their company’s talent acquisition strategy.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

Sponsoring international talent for a green card is a way for companies to show they invest in and prioritize their employees and are willing to make a long-term commitment to a prospective employee. Employers can further distinguish themselves by offering to cover expenses for green card applications for a spouse and children, as well as a work permit application for a spouse.

Employers should also consider paying for an employee’s marriage-based green card as a third-party payor, particularly since marriage-based green cards take about one-third of the time and one-third of the investment compared to employment-based green cards. What’s more, most marriage-based green cards are not subject to annual quotas.

H-1B transfers are most common right now

Because most U.S. embassies and consulates abroad remain closed for routine visa processing due to COVID-19, most employers are hiring international talent who are already in the United States on an H-1B sponsored by another employer. In these situations, an employer must file for an H-1B transfer for the prospective employee. Take a look at a previous Dear Sophie column for more details on the H-1B transfer process.

The questions that employers ask me most often about the H-1B transfer process include:

Dear Sophie: Should we look to Canada to retain international talent?

By Annie Siebert
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie,

I handle people ops as a consultant at several different tech startups. Many have employees on OPT or STEM OPT who didn’t get selected in this year’s H-1B lottery.

The companies want to retain these individuals, but they’re running out of options. Some companies will try again in next year’s H-1B lottery, even though they face long odds, particularly if the H-1B lottery becomes a wage-based selection process next year.

Others are looking into O-1A visas, but find that many employees don’t yet have the experience to meet the qualifications. Should we look at Canada?

— Specialist in Silicon Valley

Dear Specialist,

That’s what we’re all about — finding creative immigration solutions to help U.S. employers attract and retain international talent and help international talent reach their dreams of living and working in the United States.

I’ve written a lot on how U.S. tech startups can keep their international team members in the United States. One strategy is to help the startup employees become qualified for O-1As. Another is to obtain unlimited H-1B visas without the lottery through nonprofit programs affiliated with universities. Sometimes candidates return to school for master’s degrees that offer a work option called CPT, or curricular practical training.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

But sometimes, companies end up deciding to move some of their international talent to Canada to work remotely. Recently, Marc Pavlopoulos and I discussed how to help U.S. employers and international talent on my podcast. Through his two companies, Syndesus and Path to Canada, Pavlopoulos helps both U.S. tech employers and international tech talent when their employees or they themselves run out of immigration options in the United States. He most often assists U.S. tech employers when their current or prospective employees are not selected in the H-1B lottery.

Through Syndesus, a Canada-based remote employer — also known as a professional employment organization (PEO) — Pavlopoulos helps U.S. employers retain international tech workers who either no longer have visa or green card options that will enable them to remain in the United States or those who were born in India and are fed up by the decades-long wait for a U.S. green card. U.S. employers that don’t have an office in Canada can relocate these workers to Canada with the help of Syndesus, which employs these tech workers on behalf of the U.S. company, sponsoring them for a Canadian Global Talent Stream work visa.

Syndesus also helps U.S. tech startups without a presence in Canada find Canadian tech workers and employ them on the startup’s behalf. As an employer of record, Syndesus handles payroll, HR, healthcare, stock options and any issues related to Canadian employment law.

Pavlopoulos’ other company, Path to Canada, currently focuses on connecting international engineers and other tech talent working in the U.S. — including those whose OPT or STEM OPT has run out — who cannot remain in the U.S. find employment in Canada, either at a Canadian company or at the Canadian office of a U.S. company. These employees get a Global Talent Stream work visa and eventually permanent residence in Canada. Pavlopoulos intends to expand Path to Canada to help tech talent from around the world live and work in Canada.

Pivot Bio rakes in $430M round D as modified microbes prove their worth in agriculture

By Devin Coldewey

Pivot Bio makes fertilizer — but not directly. Its modified microorganisms are added to soil and they product nitrogen that would otherwise have had to be trucked in and dumped there. This biotech-powered approach can save farmers money and time and ultimately may be easier on the environment — a huge opportunity that investors have plowed $430 million into in the company’s latest funding round.

Nitrogen is among the nutrients crops need to survive and thrive, and it’s only by dumping fertilizer on the soil and mixing it in that farmers can keep growing at today’s rates. But in some ways we’re still doing what our forebears did generations ago.

“Fertilizer changed agriculture — it’s what made so much of the last century possible. But it’s not a perfect way to get nutrients to crops,” said Karsten Temme, CEO and co-founder of Pivot Bio. He pointed out the simple fact that distributing fertilizer over a thousand — let alone ten thousand or more — acres of farmland is an immense mechanical and logistical challenge, involving many people, heavy machinery, and valuable time.

Not to mention the risk that a heavy rain might carry off a lot of the fertilizer before it’s absorbed and used, and the huge contributions of greenhouse gases the fertilizing process produces. (The microbe approach seems to be considerably better for the environment.)

Yet the reason we do this in the first place is essentially to imitate the work of microbes that live in the soil and produce nitrogen naturally. Plants and these microbes have a relationship going back millions of years, but the tiny organisms simply don’t produce enough. Pivot Bio’s insight when it started more than a decade ago was that a few tweaks could supercharge this natural nitrogen cycle.

“We’ve all known microbes were the way to go,” he said. “They’re naturally part of the root system — they were already there. They have this feedback loop, where if they detect fertilizer they don’t make nitrogen, to save energy. The only thing that we’ve done is, the portion of their genome responsible for producing nitrogen is offline, and we’re waking it up.”

Other agriculture-focused biotech companies like Indigo and AgBiome are also looking at modifying and managing the plant’s “microbiome,” which is to say the life that lives in the immediate vicinity of a given plant. A modified microbiome may be resistant to pests, reduce disease, or offer other benefits.

Illustration showing stages of modifying and deploying nitrogen-producing microbes.

Image Credits: Pivot Bio

It’s not so different from yeast, which as many know from experience works as a living rising agent. That microbe has been cultivated to consume sugar and produce a gas, which leads to the air pockets in baked goods. This microbe has been modified a bit more directly to continually consume the sugars put out by plants and put out nitrogen. And they can do it at rates that massively reduce the need for adding solid fertilizer to the soil.

“We’ve taken what is traditionally tons and tons of physical materials, and shrunk that into a powder, like baker’s yeast, that you can fit in your hand,” Temme said (though, to be precise, the product is applied as a liquid). “All of a sudden managing that farm gets a little easier. You free up the time you would have spent sitting in the tractor applying fertilizer to the field; you’ll add our product at the same time you’d be planting your seeds. And you have the confidence that if a rainstorm comes through in the spring, it’s not washing it all away. Globally about half of all fertilizer is washed away… but microbes don’t mind.”

Instead, the microbes just quietly sit in the soil pumping out nitrogen at a rate of up to 40 pounds per acre — a remarkably old-fashioned way to measure it (why not grams per square centimeter?) but perhaps in keeping with agriculture’s occasional anachronistic tendencies. Depending on the crop and environment that may be enough to do without added fertilizers at all, or it might be about half or less.

Whatever the proportion provided by the microbes, it must be tempting to employ them, because Pivot Bio tripled its revenue in 2021. You might wonder why they can be so sure only halfway through the year, but as they are currently only selling to farmers in the northern hemisphere and the product is applied at planting time early in the year, they’re done with sales for the year and can be sure it’s three times what they sold in 2020.

The microbes die off once the crop is harvested, so it’s not a permanent change to the ecosystem. And next year, when farmers come back for more, the organisms may well have been modified further. It’s not quite as simple as turning the nitrogen production on or off in the genome; the enzymatic pathway from sugar to nitrogen can be improved, and the threshold for when the microbes decide to undertake the process rather than rest can be changed as well. The latest iteration, Proven 40, has the yield mentioned above, but further improvements are planned, attracting potential customers on the fence about whether it’s worth the trouble to change tactics.

The potential for recurring revenue and growth (by their current estimate they are currently able to address about a quarter of a $200 billion total market) led to the current monster D round, which was led by DCVC and Temasek. There are about a dozen other investors, for which I refer readers to the press release, which lists them in no doubt a very carefully negotiated order.

Temme says the money will go towards deepening and broadening the platform and growing the relationship with farmers, who seem to be hooked after giving it a shot. Right now the microbes are specific to corn, wheat, and rice, which of course covers a great deal of agriculture, but there are many other corners of the industry that would benefit from a streamlined, enhanced nitrogen cycle. And it’s certainly a powerful validation of the vision Temme and his co-founder Alvin Tamsir had 15 years ago in grad school, he said. Here’s hoping that’s food for thought for those in that position now, wondering if it’s all worth it.

Commercial real estate lending startup Lev brings in $30M on a $130M valuation

By Christine Hall

Commercial real estate has been slow to embrace technology; though it has an addressable financing market of more than $40 billion, putting together a deal is still mostly manual, paper-heavy and complicated.

New York-based Lev is taking on this problem by automating workflows online and gathering hundreds of millions of data points into machine learning software to ensure financing accuracy. To do this, the commercial real estate financing transaction platform raised $30 million to give it a $130 million valuation just two years into its inception.

The latest financing comes four months after the company raised $10 million in seed funding led by NFX. Greenspring led the latest round, with participation from First American Title. Existing investors NFX, Canaan Partners, JLL Spark, Animo Ventures and Ludlow Ventures also joined in to give Lev total investments of more than $34 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Lev founder and CEO Yaakov Zar previously co-founded Boston-based Dispatch, which built tools for home services businesses. It was when he and his wife went through the homebuying process — and their mortgage fell through — that Zar decided to look at real estate financing.

He channeled his frustration into becoming a licensed mortgage loan originator. After relocating to New York, Zar was helping a friend at a nonprofit organization refinance their building and got a firsthand look at what he said was a fragmented commercial real estate mortgage industry.

Companies like Blend are addressing the problem of real estate lending, Zar told TechCrunch, but very few are focusing on commercial real estate, where lending is sensitive to interest rates and total amortization. In addition, property owners have a burden of refinancing every five to 10 years.

“Legacy businesses like JLL, which is an investor, Cushman Wakefield and CBRE work on lending, but they are much more ‘relationship focused’ than tech focused,” Zar said. “We think that it is a necessary part because the deals are so large and complex that you need a relationship for them, but transactions less than $1 billion are pretty straightforward. On experience and product, no one is close to us.”

Initially, Zar and his team wanted to build the “Rocket Mortgage of commercial real estate lending,” but found that to be difficult because real estate brokers are putting together their own pitch books for lenders. Instead, Lev is building a technology platform of more than 5,000 lenders with information on what projects they like to finance. It then analyzes a customer’s portfolio and connects them in minutes with the right lender, taking 1% of the loan amount for each transaction as payment. Lev is also working to be able to close deals online.

Zar wasn’t looking for funding when he was approached by investors, but said he was introduced to some people who liked the company’s growth and trajectory and decided to accept the funding offer.

He intends to use the new funding on product development, with the aim of giving a term sheet in seconds and closing a loan in seven days. Right now it can take a week or two to get the term sheet and 45 to 90 days to close a loan.

The company has about 40 employees currently in its New York headquarters, Miami R&D center, Los Angeles outpost and remotely. Continued investments will be made to expand the team.

Lev grew 10 times in volume in the past year, closing approximately $100 million of loans in 2020. Zar expects to close over $1 billion in 2021.

“Customers come back to us repeatedly, and there are a ton of referrals,” Zar said. “We want to be the platform on which capital market transactions are processed. You need an advantage to network and find great deals. I don’t want to mess with that, but when you find it, bring it to us, we will close it and provide the asset management with the best option to close online and manage the deal from a single platform.”

Meanwhile, Pete Flint, general partner at NFX, told TechCrunch that he got to know the Lev team over the last 18 months, checking in on the company during various stages of the global pandemic, and was impressed at how the company navigated it.

As co-founder of Trulia, he saw firsthand the problems in the real estate industry over search and discovery, but as that problem was being solved, the focus shifted to financing. NFX is also an investor in Tomo and Ribbon, which both focus on residential financing.

Wanting to see what opportunities were on the commercial real estate side, Flint heard Lev’s name come up more and more among brokers and industry insiders.

“As we got to know the Lev team, we recognized that they were the best team out there to solve this problem,” Flint said. “We are also among an amazing group of people complementing the round. The folks that are deep industry insiders will put a helpful lens on strategy and business development opportunities.”

 

Rise Gardens grows with $9M Series A to help anyone be an indoor farmer

By Christine Hall

As more consumers embrace plant-based diets and sustainable food practices, Rise Gardens is giving anyone the ability to have a green thumb from the comfort of their own home.

The Chicago-based indoor, smart hydroponic company raised $9 million in an oversubscribed Series A round, led by TELUS Ventures, with existing investors True Ventures and Amazon Alexa Fund and new investor Listen Ventures joining in. The company has a total of $13 million in venture-backed investments since Rise was founded in 2017, founder and CEO Hank Adams told TechCrunch.

Though he began in 2017, Adams, who has a background in sports technology, said he spent a few years working on prototypes before launching the first products in 2019. Rise’s IoT-connected systems are designed to grow vegetables, herbs and microgreens year-round.

Customers can choose between three system levels and get started with their first garden for about $300.

There is a “kind of joyousness” in being able to grow something, but people are looking for assistance because they don’t want to get into a hobby that will become demanding or stressful, Adams said. As a result, Rise’s accompanying mobile app monitors water levels and plant progress, then alert users when it’s time to water, fertilize or care for their plants.

“People are paying attention to food, and they care about what they eat,” he added. “Then the global pandemic played a part in this, with people leaning into growing their own food.”

In fact, customers leaned into growing food so much that Rise Gardens saw its sales eclipse seven figures in 2020, and gardens sold out three times during the year. Customers purchased close to 100,000 plants and have harvested 50,000.

The company estimates it helped keep more than 2,000 pounds of food from being wasted and saved 250,000 gallons of water since launching in 2019.

The concept of an indoor farm is not new. Incumbents include AeroGarden, AeroGrow, which was acquired by Scotts-Miracle Gro last November, and Click & Grow. Rise is among a new crop of startups that have raised funds that include Gardyn.

However, Rise Gardens is differentiating itself from those competitors by making its gardens from powder-coated metals and glass and are designed to be a focal point in the room. It is also offering ways for people to experiment with their gardens.

“We wanted something that would be flexible because once you have mastered a hobby, you will get bored,” he added. “You can start at one level and they swap out tray lids to grow more densely. We have a microgreens kit you can add, or add plant supports for tomatoes and peppers. You can also build a trellis to vine snap peas.”

Adams will focus the Series A dollars into product development, inventory, manufacturing, expansion into new markets and building up the team, especially in the areas of customer service and marketing. Rise has about 25 employees and plans to bring on another eight this year.

In addition, Rise Gardens’ products will soon be available on Amazon — its first channel outside of its website. The company is also expanding into schools in what Adams calls “version 2.0” of the school garden.

When Rich Osborn, president and managing partner of TELUS Ventures, evaluated the indoor garden space, he told TechCrunch that Adams and his team rose to the top of the list because of their background, data experience and syndication with Amazon.

Not only was consumer demand there for these kinds of products, but the sustainability and social impact created from these kinds of investments couldn’t be overemphasized, he said.

Nishan Majarian, co-founder and CEO of TELUS Agriculture, said he sees a future where there is a spectrum of food growth, and crop management will be at the plant level.

“Ever since Climate Corp. was acquired by Monsanto, there has been a massive influx into agriculture to get to the next billion-dollar exit,” Majarian added. “Agrifood is the last segmented supply chain. Every crop is different, every market is different. That makes it local, complex and fertile soil — pun intended — for startups who get capital to solve those issues and scale.”

 

Vaayu’s carbon tracking for retailers raises $1.6M, claims it could cut CO2 in half by 2030

By Mike Butcher

Carbon tracking is very much the new hot thing in tech, and we’ve previously covered more generalist startups doing this at scale for companies, such as Plan A Earth out of Berlin.

But there’s clearly an opportunity to get deep into a vertical sector and tailor solutions to it.

That’s the plan of Vaayu, a carbon tracking platform aimed specifically at retailers. It has now raised $1.57 million in pre-seed funding in a round led by CapitalT. Several Angels also took part, including Atomico’s Angel Program, Planet Positive LP, Saarbrücker 21, Expedite Ventures, and NP-Hard Ventures.

Carbon tracking for the retail fashion industry, in particular, is urgently needed. Unfortunately, the fashion industry remains responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, which ads up to more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Vaayu says it integrates with various point-of-sale systems, such as Shopify and Webflow. It then pulls in data on logistics, operations, and packaging to monitor, measure, and reduce their carbon emissions. Normally, retailers calculate emissions once a year, which is obviously far less accurate.

Vaayu was founded in 2020 by Namrata Sandhu (CEO) former head of Sustainability at fashion retailer Zalando, as well as Anita Daminov (CPO) and Luca Schmid (CTO). Vaayu currently has 25 global brand customers, including Missoma, Armed Angels, and Organic Basics.

Commenting on the fundraise, Namrata Sandhu, CEO, Vaayu, said: “We have only nine short years left to achieve the UN’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and as the third-largest contributor to global emissions, retailers need to take action — and fast. Vaayu is here to help retailers measure, monitor, and reduce their carbon footprint at scale across the entire supply chain — something that I know from my own experience can be complex and expensive.

Speaking to me over a call, Sandhu told me: “Putting the focus on retail basically allows us to automate the calculation, which means in three clicks you can get your carbon footprint right away. That then allows us to really accurate data, and with that, we can basically do reductions specific to the business but using software, rather than any kind of manual intervention or a kind of ‘intermediate’ state where you need to put together an Excel sheet. Because we focus on retail we can automate the entire process and also automate the reductions.”

“We are delighted to be backed by female-led CapitalT who understood us and our vision right from the start. We look forward to developing Vaayu further in the coming months so we can reach as many retailers as possible and help put the brakes on the impending climate crisis,” she added.

Janneke Niessen, founding partner, CapitalT commented: “We are very excited to join Vaayu on their mission to reduce carbon emission for retailers worldwide. The Vaayu product is very scalable and its quick and easy implementation allows for fast adoption. We are confident that with this experienced team, Vaayu will soon be one of the fastest-growing climate tech companies in Europe and the world.”

Cutting out carbon emitters with bioengineering at XTC Global Finals on July 22

By Devin Coldewey

Bioengineering may soon provide compelling, low-carbon alternatives in industries where even the best methods produce significant emissions. Utilizing natural and engineered biological process has led to low-carbon textiles from AlgiKnit, cell-cultured premium meats from Orbillion and fuels captured from waste emissions via LanzaTech — and leaders from those companies will be joining us onstage for the Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals on July 22.

We’re co-hosting the event, with panels like this one all day and a pitch-off that will feature a number of innovative startups with a sustainability angle.

I’ll be moderating a panel on using bioengineering to create change directly in industries with large carbon footprints: textiles, meat production and manufacturing.

AlgiKnit is a startup that is sourcing raw material for fabric from kelp, which is an eco-friendly alternative to textile crop monocultures and artificial materials like acrylic. CEO Aaron Nesser will speak to the challenge of breaking into this established industry and overcoming preconceived notions of what an algae-derived fabric might be like (spoiler: it’s like any other fabric).

Orbillion Bio is one of the new crop of alternative protein companies offering cell-cultured meats (just don’t call them “lab” or “vat” grown) to offset the incredibly wasteful livestock industry. But it’s more than just growing a steak — there are regulatory and market barriers aplenty that CEO Patricia Bubner can speak to, as well as the technical challenge.

LanzaTech works with factories to capture emissions as they’re emitted, collecting the useful particles that would otherwise clutter the atmosphere and repurposing them in the form of premium fuels. This is a delicate and complex process that needs to be a partnership, not just a retrofitting operation, so CEO Jennifer Holmgren will speak to their approach convincing the industry to work with them at the ground floor.

It should be a very interesting conversation, so tune in on July 22 to hear these and other industry leaders focused on sustainability discuss how innovation at the startup level can contribute to the fight against climate change. Plus it’s free!

The case for funding fusion

By Annie Siebert
Albert Wenger Contributor
Albert Wenger is a managing partner at Union Square Ventures.

Digital technologies have disrupted the structure of markets with unprecedented breadth and scale. Today, there is yet another wave of innovation emerging, and that is the decarbonization of the global economy.

While governments still lack the conviction necessary to truly fight the climate crisis, the overall direction is clear. The carbon price in Europe rose from below $10 to over $50 per ton. Shell was handed a resounding defeat by a Dutch court. The major blackout in Texas at the beginning of the year revealed the fragility of the existing energy supply even in a highly industrialized country. We must urgently invest more into developing and deploying reliable, clean electricity generation technologies to make decarbonization a reality.

Forward-thinking investors understand this. Global investment in low-carbon technologies climbed to $500 billion in 2020, according to Bloomberg. Renewable energy accounted for around $300 billion of that, followed by electrification of transport ($140 billion) and heating ($50 billion).

However, we remain far from the finish line. According to the International Energy Agency, global emissions of CO2 this year are set to jump 1.5 billion tons over 2020 levels. And more than 80% of global energy consumption is still made up of coal, oil and gas.

Fusion, the process that powers the stars, could be the cleanest energy source for humanity.

That’s why we need to continue backing new technologies with breakthrough potential. Of particular promise is nuclear fusion. Fusion, the process that powers the stars, could be the cleanest energy source for humanity. We are already indirectly harvesting the power of fusion through solar energy. Being able to build fusion reactors would give us an “always on” version, independent of weather conditions.

But why fund fusion at all, given that we don’t yet know how to do it? First, this isn’t an either-or proposition. We can afford to build out renewable energy and investigate new forms of energy production at the same time because the latter — at least at this early stage of development — will require a comparatively trivial amount of money. The U.S. government’s latest plan is to spend $174 billion over 10 years on the electrification of car transport alone, so to invest $2 billion to create a fusion power plant seems doable.

Second, we are about to need a lot more electricity than we ever have. The global demand for carbon-free energy sources is set to triple by 2050, driven by increasing urbanization, the electrification of industrial processes, the loss of biodiversity and the increase in energy consumption in emerging markets.

Third, there’s been tremendous progress in the necessary supporting technologies. Superconducting magnets for the magnetic-confinement approach to fusion have become much cheaper, lasers for inertial confinement fusion have become much more powerful, and breakthroughs in material science have made nanostructured targets available, which enable the use of completely new approaches to fusion, such as the low-neutronic fuel pB11.

Thankfully, there is a growing number of entrepreneurial efforts from world-class teams to try and build fusion. At least 25 startups around the world are targeting fusion right now, approaching the problem with a wide range of technologies. The amount invested in private fusion companies across the world increased tenfold to almost $1 billion in 2020, according to Crunchbase.

The upside of successful fusion is nearly unlimited. The clean energy generation market represents a trillion-dollar opportunity. An estimated 26 TW of primary energy capacity needs to be built globally from 2030 to 2050 to serve the rising global energy needs, according to Materials Research Society. Just 1 TW of capacity will generate $300 billion in revenue, and a 15% market share from 2030 to 2050 would yield more than $1 trillion in annual revenue.

We need many shots on goal here, which is why Susan Danziger and I have personally invested in three different fusion startups already (Zap Energy and Avalanche in the United States and Marvel Fusion in Germany).

But it is not primarily the potential for financial upside that motivates us: There is an opportunity to make an indelible difference in the trajectory of human history. If even a small fraction of the large wealth accumulated by entrepreneurs and investors in the last couple of decades is invested here, the likelihood of successful fusion rises dramatically. That, in turn, will unlock much more investment from both venture funds and governments.

Now is the time to go all-in on decarbonization. Funding fusion with its breakthrough potential must be part of that effort.

Homebrew leads Z1’s effort to bring digital banking to Latin America’s teens

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Z1, a Sao Paulo-based digital bank aimed at Latin American GenZers, has raised $2.5 million in a round led by U.S.-based Homebrew.

A number of other investors also participated in the financing including Clocktower Ventures, Mantis – the VC firm owned by The Chainsmokers, Goodwater, Gaingels, Soma Capital and Rebel Fund. Notably, Mantis has also backed Step, a teen-focused fintech based in the U.S., and Goodwater has also invested in Greenlight, which too has a similar offering as Z1.

Z1 participated in Y Combinator’s Winter ‘21 batch earlier this year, and at the time got $125,000 in funding from the accelerator. Maya Capital led its $700,000 seed round in March of 2020.

Put simply, Z1 is a digital bank app built for teenagers and young adults. The company was founded on the notion that by using its app and linked prepaid card, Brazilian and Latin American teenagers can become more financially independent.

João Pedro Thompson and Thiago Achatz started the company in late 2019 and soon after,  Mateus Craveiro and Sophie Secaf joined as co-founders. In its early days, Z1 is focused on Brazil but the startup has plans to expand into other countries in Latin America over time.

“Z1 is what we’re building to be the go to bank of the next generation, and not just be a digital bank for teens,” Achatz told TechCrunch. “We want to grow with him and one day, be the biggest bank in Brazil and LatAm.” 

Thompson agrees. 

“We’re acquiring users really early and creating brand loyalty with the intention of being their bank for life,” he said. “We will still meet their needs as they grow into adulthood.”

Image Credits: Z1

While Z1’s offering is not completely unlike that of Greenlight here in the U.S. the founders agree that its products have been adapted more to the Brazil-specific cultural and market situation.

For example, points out Thompson, most teenagers in Brazil use cash because they don’t have access to other financial services, whether they be traditional or digital.

“We offer an account where they can deposit money, cash out money via an instant payment system in Brazil or spend through a prepaid credit card,” he said. “Most sites don’t accept debit cards so this is a big step compared to what teens already have.”

Part of the company’s use for the capital is to make its product more robust so they can do things like save money for big purchases such as an iPhone and earn interest on their accounts.

Another big difference between Brazil and the U.S., the company believes, is that many parents in general in Latin America haven’t had a true financial education that they can pass down to their kids.

“We’re not top down like Greenlight,” Achatz said. “That approach doesn’t make sense in Latin America. Here, many are independent from an early age and already work whether it’s through a microbusiness, a side job or selling things on Instagram. They’re much more self-taught and the income they earn is often outside of their parents.”

Z1 has grown 30% per week and 200% per month since launch, spending “very little” on marketing and relying mostly on word-of-mouth. For example, the company is following the lead of its U.S. counterparts and turning to TikTok to spread the word about its offering. 

“Step has around 200,000 followers on TikTok, and we have a little under half of that,” the company says. “We’re well-positioned in terms of branding.”

For lead investor Homebrew, the opportunity to educate and provide financial services to Gen Z in Latin America is even more exciting than the opportunity in the US., notes partner Satya Patel.

Over one third of LatAm Gen Z’ers have a “side hustle,” generating their own income independent from their parents, he said.

“While millennials grew up during an economic boom, Gen Z grew up during recessions – 3 in Brazil over the last decade – and wants to become financially independent as soon as possible. They’re becoming economically educated and active much earlier than previous generations,” Patel added.

He also believes the desire to transact online, for gaming and entertainment in particular, creates a groundswell of GenZ demand in Brazil for credit card and digital payments products.

Nixie’s drone-based water sampling could save cities time and money

By Devin Coldewey

Regularly testing waterways and reservoirs is a never-ending responsibility for utility companies and municipal safety authorities, and generally — as you might expect — involves either a boat or at least a pair of waders. Nixie does the job with a drone instead, making the process faster, cheaper, and a lot less wet.

The most common methods of testing water quality haven’t changed in a long time, partly because they’re effective and straightforward, and partly because really, what else are you going to do? No software or web platform out there is going to reach into the middle of the river and pull out a liter of water.

But with the advent of drones powerful and reliable enough to deploy in professional and industrial circumstances, the situation has changed. Nixie is a solution by the drone specialists at Reign Maker, involving either a custom-built sample collection arm or an in-situ sensor arm.

The sample collector is basically a long vertical arm with a locking cage for a sample container. You put the empty container in there, fly the drone out to the location, then submerge the arm. When it flies back, the filled container can be taken out while the drone hovers and a fresh one put in its place to bring to the next spot. (This switch can be done safely in winds up to 18 MPH and sampling in currents up to 5 knots, the company said.)

A drone dips a sample container in a river.

Image Credits: Reign Maker

This allows for quick sampling at multiple locations — the drone’s battery will last about 20 minutes, enough for two to four samples depending on the weather and distance. Swap the battery out and drive to the next location and do it all again.

For comparison, Reign Maker pointed to New York’s water authority, which collects 30 samples per day from boats and other methods, at an approximate cost (including labor, boat fuel, etc) of $100 per sample. Workers using Nixie were able to collect an average of 120 samples per day, for around $10 each. Sure, New York is probably among the higher cost locales for this (like everything else) but the deltas are pretty huge. (The dipper attachment itself costs $850, but doesn’t come with a drone.)

It should be mentioned that the drone is not operating autonomously; it has a pilot who will be flying with line of sight (which simplifies regulations and requirements). But even so, that means a team of two, with a handful of spare batteries, can cover the same space  that would normally take a boat crew and more than a little fuel. Currently the system works with the M600 and M300 RTK drones from DJI.

Mockup of the Nixie water testing app showing readings for various locations.

Image Credits: Reign Maker

The drone method has the added benefits of having precise GPS locations for each sample and of not disturbing the water when it dips in. No matter how carefully you step or pilot a boat, you’re going to be pushing the water all over the place, potentially affecting the contents of the sample, but that’s not the case if you’re hovering overhead.

In development is a smarter version of the sampler that includes a set of sensors that can do on-site testing for all the most common factors: temperature, pH, troubling organisms, various chemicals. Skipping the step of bringing the water back to a lab for testing streamlines the process immensely, as you might expect.

Right now Reign Maker is working with New York’s Department of Environmental Protection and in talks with other agencies. While the system would take some initial investment, training, and getting used to, it’s probably hard not to be tempted by the possibility of faster and cheaper testing.

Ultimately the company hopes to offer (in keeping with the zeitgeist) a more traditional SaaS offering involving water quality maps updating in real time with new testing. That too is still in the drawing-board phase, but once a few customers sign up it starts looking a lot more attractive.

After raising $10M, Ryte launches ‘Carbon KPI’ to measure the CO2 footprint of web sites

By Mike Butcher

As we become more and more aware of the kind of impact we are having on this planet we call our home, just about everything is having its CO2 impact measured. Who knew, until recently, that streaming Netflix might have a measurable impact on the environment, for instance. But given vast swathes of the Internet are populated by Web sites, as well as streaming services, then they too must have some sort of impact.

It transpires that a new service has identified how to gauge that, and now it’s raised Venture capital to scale.

Ryte raised €8.5 million ($10M) in a previously undisclosed round led by Bayern Kapital out of Munich and Octopus Investments out of London earlier this year for its Website User Experience Platform.

It has now launched the ‘Ryte Website Carbon KPI’, which claims to be able to help make 5% of all websites carbon neutral by 2023.

Ryte says it worked with data scientists and environmental experts to develop the ability to accurately measure the carbon impact of client’s websites. According to carbon transition thinktank, the Shift Project, the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet, and the systems supporting them accounts for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions. And this trend is rising rapidly as the world digitizes itself, especially post-pandemic.

Ryte has now engaged its Data Scientist, Katharina Meraner, who has a PhD in climate science and global warming, and input from Climate Partner, to launch this new service.

Andy Bruckschloegl, CEO of Ryte said: “There are currently 189 million active websites. Our goal is to make 5% of all active websites, or 9.5 million websites, climate neutral by the end of 2023 with the help of our platform, strong partners, social media activities, and much more. Time is ticking and making websites carbon neutral is really easy compared to other industries and processes.”

Ryte says it is also collaborating with a reforestation project in San Jose, Nicaragua, to allow its customers to offset their remaining emissions through the purchase of climate certificates.

Using a proprietary algorithm, Ryte says it measures the code of the entire website, average page size, as well as monthly traffic by channel then produces a calculation of the amount of CO2 it uses up.

Admittedly there are similar services but these are ad-hoc and not connected to a platform. A simple Google search will bring us sites like Websitecarbon, Ecosistant, and academic papers. But as far as I can tell, a startup like this hasn’t put this kind of service into their platform yet.

“Teaming up with Ryte will help raise awareness on how information technology contributes to climate change – while at the same time providing tools to make a difference. Ryte’s industry-leading carbon calculator enables thousands of website owners to understand their carbon footprint, to offset unavoidable carbon emissions and thus lay a basis for a comprehensive climate action strategy,” commented Tristan A. Foerster, Co-CEO ClimatePartner.

This QR code startup just raised $5 million co-led by Coatue and Seven Seven Six

By Connie Loizos

Amazon revolutionized one-click shopping, and it has a nearly $2 trillion market cap to show for the effort.

Now, a 10-person startup founded by JD Maresco, who previously cofounded the public safety app Citizen, says it plans to make it a lot easier for retailers who sell directly to their customers to make re-ordering their products just as fast and simple through its QR codes. Indeed, Maresco’s new startup, Batch, is already working with numerous products and brands that use Shopify, promising their customers “one-tap checkout” when it’s time to reorder an item as long as the retailer has slapped one of Batch’s codes on their items or incorporated the codes directly into their packaging.

For the moment, New York-based Batch is wholly reliant on Apple’s App Clip technology, which produces a lightweight version of an app to save people from having to download and install it before using it. (Users can instead load just a small part of an app on demand, and when they’re done, the App Clip disappears.)

But Maresco — whose company just raised $5 million in seed funding co-led by Coatue and Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six, with participation from Weekend Fund, Shrug Capital, and the Chainsmokers, among others — says Batch will eventually work on both iOS and Android phones. We talked with him yesterday to learn more about its ambitions to make the physical world “instantly shoppable.” Our chat has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: Citizen and Batch are very different companies. Is there a unifying thread?

JM: I’ve spent a good portion of my career, trying to change the way people think about and interact with their physical environment. With Citizen, we were questioning why everyone doesn’t have immediate access to information about what the police are doing in our neighborhoods. With Batch, we’re asking a simpler question but something that matters to me as a consumer: Why isn’t it easier for me to get more of a product I love and use?

With subscriptions in general, I’ve found myself constantly frustrated because every few weeks I’m emailing to either pause a subscription,  or restart it. I wanted an easier way to use my phone to reorder in 10 seconds on the spot. Our phones are capable of much more than we put them to use for and, so we set out to tackle that problem.

TC: Right now, Batch integrates with Shopify alone, correct?

JM: We have a Shopify plugin that brands can connect into the Batch platform, and then we integrate the experience, all the way from the physical world wherever this QR code lives, through the purchase experience on the mobile side of things into their fulfillment on the back end. But we’re also expanding to other e-commerce platforms.

TC: And Batch takes a per-transaction fee from every item that’s purchased using your codes?

JM: We’re developing our pricing model over time, but currently we’re taking a service percentage-based fee.

TC: How are you getting brands to partner with you?

JM: Brands are starting to wake up to this idea that they can actually create a new retail channel off their physical packaging, where a customer can effectively shop throughout their home or their place of work or anywhere where they interact with these products the moment they run out of an item. So we’ve been able to spend time with dozens of brands now, and work with them to actually reengineer their packaging and say, ‘Let’s put QR codes front and center and figure out how to make this a really important customer touchpoint.’

TC: How many brands are using the codes currently?

JM: We’re launching dozens of brands this summer. We’ve had overwhelming demand, to be honest, and we haven’t really even fully launched yet.

TC: These are physical codes that you’re sending off to your retail partners — stickers, magnets. Are you also creating digital QR codes?

JM: We have customers that are integrating QR codes into out-of-home advertisements, into direct mail, into T shirts, into promotional vans, so we’re not just limited to packaging. There’s a wide range of places that you can integrate QR codes for your customers.

TC: It’s interesting that Coatue led your round. We’ve seen the firm delve more into early-stage deals but a seed round seems anomalous. How did you connect with the firm?

JM: We met during the seed process. They reached out to me and I developed a relationship with Andy Chen and Matt Mazzeo and it was a great opportunity to to work with their platform — the way they support the go-to-market motion around B2B companies; they have a great data platform. Alexis [Ohanian’s] experience in the consumer space was really appealing, too.

TC: Your company makes sense, but I wonder what’s special about these codes. What’s to prevent countless other startups from doing what you’re doing?

JM: QR codes are all over the place. The product we’re building makes it really easy for brands to create high converting shopping experiences and a native mobile interface. It’s a combination of our Shopify integration and our native product design experience and the relationships we have with these brands and how we help them with their packaging that’s not something you can spin up overnight.

TC: I have to ask about Citizen, which was in the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. Is there anything you want to say about the company or the app or some of that recent coverage?

JM:  I’m not going to comment on the recent press, but I continue to be proud of what the company is continuing to do to help communities stay safe and understand what police and first responders are doing in their neighborhoods.

Dear Sophie: What options would allow me to start something on my own?

By Annie Siebert
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie,

I’ve been working on an H-1B in the U.S. for nearly two years. While I’m grateful to have made it through the H-1B lottery and to be working, I’m feeling unhappy and frustrated with my job.

I really want to start something of my own and work on my own terms in the United States. Are there any immigration options that would allow me to do that?

— Seeking Satisfaction

Dear Seeking,

Job dissatisfaction and frustration while on H-1B is normal, according to Edward Gorbis. He is the founder of Career Meets World and a performance coach who specifically works with immigrants and first-generation professionals to help them find fulfillment and thrive in their careers and life. I recently spoke with him for my podcast, “Immigration Law For Tech Startups.”

He says that “once immigrants reach stability, they start to think, ‘Who am I, what do I value, what’s my core identity?’” He partners with people to help them to gain a better understanding of why they think the way they do, teach them how our brain really works, and then reshape and retrain the brain for success.

Gorbis says that imagining overcoming the hurdles that stand in the way of doing the work that will fulfill you is the first step. So, here are some options that can help you imagine how to move toward building the life of your dreams.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

Raise $250,000 and be the CEO

A great new option for aspiring entrepreneurs is International Entrepreneur Parole, a new immigration program in the United States that allows CEOs, CTOs, and others to obtain a 2.5-year immigration status. You can live in the U.S. and run your company. Your spouse can work and you could be eligible for a 2.5-year extension.

How to qualify? You’ll need to own at least 10% of a U.S. company, such as a Delaware C corporation registered in California. Ideally, you’ll want to show that your company bank account has at least $250,000 raised from qualifying U.S. investors prior to applying, but you can demonstrate other evidence to show that your company has the potential to grow rapidly and create jobs in the U.S.

See yourself at another company

There is technically no limit on how many H-1B employers you can have or how many hours you work — or how few hours you work — in an H-1B position. So, think about other companies.

Vercel raises $102M Series C for its front-end development platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Vercel, the company behind the popular open-source Next.js React framework, today announced that it has raised a $102 million Series C funding round led by Bedrock Capital. Existing investors Accel, CRV,
Geodesic Capital, Greenoaks Capital and GV also participated in this round, together with new investors 8VC, Flex Capital, GGV, Latacora, Salesforce Ventures and Tiger Global. In total, the company has now raised $163 million and its current valuation is $1.1 billion.

As Vercel notes, the company saw strong growth in recent months, with traffic to all sites and apps on its network doubling since October 2020. About half of the world’s largest 10,000 websites now use Next.js . Given the open-source nature of the Next.js framework, not all of these users are obviously Vercel customers, but its current paying customers include the likes of Carhartt, Github, IBM, McDonald’s and Uber.

Image Credits: Vercel

“For us, it all starts with a front-end developer,” Vercel CEO Guillermo Rauch told me. “Our goal is to create and empower those developers — and their teams — to create delightful, immersive web experiences for their customers.”

With Vercel, Rauch and his team took the Next.js framework and then built a serverless platform that specifically caters to this framework and allows developers to focus on building their front ends without having to worry about scaling and performance.

Older solutions, Rauch argues, were built in isolation from the cloud platforms and serverless technologies, leaving it up to the developers to deploy and scale their solutions. And while some potential users may also be content with using a headless content management system, Rauch argues that increasingly, developers need to be able to build solutions that can go deeper than the off-the-shelf solutions that many businesses use today.

Rauch also noted that developers really like Vercel’s ability to generate a preview URL for a site’s front end every time a developer edits the code. “So instead of just spending all your time in code review, we’re shifting the equation to spending your time reviewing or experiencing your front end. That makes the experience a lot more collaborative,” he said. “So now, designers, marketers, IT, CEOs […] can now come together in this collaboration of building a front end and say, ‘that shade of blue is not the right shade of blue.'”

“Vercel is leading a market transition through which we are seeing the majority of value-add in web and cloud application development being delivered at the front end, closest to the user, where true experiences are made and enjoyed,” said Geoff Lewis, founder and managing partner at Bedrock. “We are extremely enthusiastic to work closely with Guillermo and the peerless team he has assembled to drive this revolution forward and are very pleased to have been able to co-lead this round.”

Holy Grail raises $2.7M seed fund to create modular carbon capture devices

By Aria Alamalhodaei

The founders of Holy Grail, a two-year old startup based in Mountain View, California, are taking a micro approach to solving the outsized problem of capturing carbon.

The startup is prototyping a direct air carbon capture device that it is modular and small — a departure from the dozens of projects in the U.S. and abroad that aim to capture CO2 from large, centralized emitters, like power plants or industrial facilities. Holy Grail co-founder Nuno Pereira told TechCrunch that this approach will reduce costs and eliminate the need for permits or project financing.

While Holy Grail has a long development and testing phase ahead, the idea has captured the attention and capital from well-known investors and Silicon Valley founders. Holy Grail recently raised raised $2.7 million in seed funding from LowerCarbon Capital, Goat Capital, Stripe founder Patrick Collison, Charlie Songhurst, Cruise co-founder Kyle Vogt, Songkick co-founder Ian Hogarth, Starlight Ventures and 35 Ventures. Existing investors Deep Science Ventures, Y Combinator and Oliver Cameron, who co-founded Voyage, the autonomous vehicle acquired by Cruise, also participated.

The carbon capture device is still in the prototype stage, Pereira said, with many specifics – such as the anticipated size of the end product and how long it will likely function – still to be worked out. Cost-effectively separating CO2 from the air is an extremely difficult problem to solve. The company is in the process of filing patents for the technology, so he declined to be too specific about many characteristics of the device, including what it will be made out of. But he did stress that the company is taking a fundamentally different technical approach to carbon capture.

“The current technologies, they are very complex. They are basically either [using] temperature or pressure [to capture carbon],” he said. “There is a lot of things that go into it, compressors, calciners and all these things,” referring to additional parts like mechanical pumps, cryogenic air separators, and large quantities of water and energy. Pereira said the company will instead use electricity to control a chemical reaction that bind to the CO2. He added that Holy Grail’s devices are not dependent on scale to achieve cost reductions, either. And they will be modular, so they can be stacked or configured depending on a customer’s requirements.

The scrubbers, as Pereira calls them, will focus on raw capture of CO2 rather than conversion (converting the CO2 into fuels, for example). Pereira instead explained – with a heavy caveat that much about the end product still needs to be figured out – that once a Holy Grail unit is full, it could be collected by the company, though where the carbon will end up is still an open question.

The company will start by selling carbon credits, using its devices as the carbon reducing project. The end goal is selling the scrubbers to commercial customers and eventually even individual consumers. That’s right: Holy Grail wants you to have your own carbon capture device, possibly even right in your backyard. But the company still likely has a long road ahead of it.

“We’re essentially shifting the scaling factor from building a very large mega-ton plant and having the project management and all that stuff to building scrubbers in an assembly line, like a consumer product to be manufactured.”

Pereira said many approaches will be needed to tackle the mammoth problem of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. “The problem is just too big,” he said.

The story has been updated to reflect that Holy Grail is based in Mountain View, not Cupertino.

Announcing the agenda for Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals presented by TechCrunch

By Richard Smith

Here at TechCrunch, we’re big fans of startup competitions. From our Extra Crunch Live Pitch-offs all the way up to the world-famous Disrupt Startup Battlefield, we can’t get enough of ’em. So we’re hooking up with Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) to present the Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals, a startup competition focused on powering a more sustainable, equitable, inclusive, and healthy world.

Extreme Tech Challenge is the world’s largest transformative tech startup competition and forum for the leaders of tomorrow to be able to unleash their full potential. Last year, the competition attracted startups from 87 countries, and the 52 finalists raised more than $167M in venture investment since being selected. 

This year, over 3700 startups applied from 92 countries across XTC’s competition tracks: Agtech, Food & Water, Cleantech & Energy, Edtech, Enabling Tech, Fintech, Healthtech, and Mobility & Smart Cities. Check out the 80 Global Finalists that emerged from this competitive pool. The Category winners and the Special Awards winners will make it to the Global Finals stage. 

Join the Extreme Tech Challenge on 7/22 to meet the world’s best purpose-driven startups making the world better through transformative tech. Network with corporations, VCs, & founders. Get your free tickets here!

Today, we’re excited to share the agenda of the event with you.

Powering the Future Through Transformative Tech with Young Sohn (XTC), Bill Tai (XTC) and Beth Bechdol (Deputy Director-General, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) 

What are the breakthrough tech innovations transforming industries to build a radically better world? How can business, government, philanthropy, and the startup community come together to create a better tomorrow? Hear from these industry veterans and thought leaders about how technology can not only shape the future, but also where the biggest opportunities lie, including some exciting news about XTC and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. 

Going Green with Shilpi Kumar (Urban Us), Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures), and Albert Wenger (Union Square Ventures)

Sustainability is the key to our planet’s future and our survival, but it’s also going to be incredibly lucrative and a major piece of our world economy. Hear from these seasoned investors and founders how VCs and startups alike are thinking about greentech and how that will evolve in the coming years.

The Extreme Tech Challenge 2021 Global Finals: Startup Pitches Part 1

The reason we’re all here – the XTC Category and Special Awards Winners get their chance to pitch their transformative tech ideas to a panel of expert judges and hear their feedback. XTC is a global platform that connects exceptional, purpose-driven startups with a network of investors, corporations, and mentors to help them raise capital, launch corporate collaborations, and scale their world-changing startups.

Waste Matters with Leon Farrant (Green Li-ion), Matanya Horowitz (AMP Robotics), and Elizabeth Gilligan (Material Evolution) 

According to the EPA, the U.S. alone produces 292.4 million tons of waste a year. Can technology help this massive – and growing – issue? Leon Farrant (Green Li-ion), Matanya Horowitz (AMP Robotics), and Elizabeth Gilligan (Material Evolution) will discuss their companies’ unique approaches to dealing with the problem.

The Extreme Tech Challenge 2021 Global Finals: Startup Pitches Part 2

The reason we’re all here – the XTC Category and Special Awards Winners get their chance to pitch their transformative tech ideas to a panel of expert judges and hear their feedback, in this second and final round. 

Cutting Out Carbon Emitters with Bioengineering with Aaron Nesser (AlgiKnit), Jennifer Holmgren (LanzaTech) and Patricia Bubner (Orbillion Bio)

Bioengineering may soon provide compelling, low-carbon alternatives in industries where even the best methods produce significant emissions. By utilizing natural and engineered biological processes, we may soon have low-carbon textiles from Algiknit, lab-grown premium meats from Orbillion Bio, and fuels captured from waste emissions via LanzaTech. Leaders from these companies will join our panel to talk about how bioengineering can do its part in the fight against climate change.

Announcement of the Extreme Tech Challenge 2021 Winners

The judging panel will crown the global winner of Extreme Tech Challenge 2021 and also announce the winner of the Female Founder Award.

Networking

Join thousands of investors, corporate executives, startups, and policymakers to network via video chat.

Join the Extreme Tech Challenge on July 22 to meet the world’s best purpose-driven startups making the world better through transformative tech. Network with corporations, VCs, & founders. Get your free tickets here!

Music licensing marketplace Songtradr raises $50M

By Brian Heater

Music licensing marketplace Songtradr this morning announced a $50 million Series D. The oversubscribed round — which features Regal, Aware Super, Perennial, Argo and Greencape — follows a $30 million raise last August, bringing the Los Angeles company’s total funding to north of $100 million.

The platform licenses music to high-profile names for advertising, films, TV, gaming and the like, including Disney, Netflix, Apple, Coca-Cola, Amazon and Google. It hosts songs from some 600,000 musicians/songwriters/rights holders.

The service hasn’t had any issue spending its funding to date. Earlier this month, it announced the acquisition of creative agency MassiveMusic. Other acquisitions made in the past year include Cuesongs, Song Zu, Pretzel and Tunefind.

The company says the new funding will go toward even more M&As, new products and an increase in global headcount. The company is headquartered in LA, but also has offices in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.

Image Credits: Songtradr

“Songtradr is rapidly accelerating as we continue to develop our tech-enabled B2B music ecosystem and integrate our new acquisitions,” CEO Paul Wiltshire said in a press release. “Attracting such a blue-chip investor base into this round further endorses our vision of the future music industry in this rapidly evolving digital world, providing a strong foundation for the future.”

Wiltshire adds that the company saw a 100% y-o-y revenue growth for 2020.

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