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Yesterday — August 2nd 2021Your RSS feeds

BoxGroup closes on $255M across two funds to back startups at their earliest stages

By Mary Ann Azevedo

BoxGroup has quietly, yet diligently, been funding companies at the early stage for over a decade. The 11-year-old firm in fact was the first investor in Plaid, a fintech company that nearly got sold to Visa last year for billions of dollars.

It has seen a number of impressive exits over the years, proving an eye that can detect winners before the winners themselves may even realize it. In fact, it’s that early faith in companies that partner David Tisch believes has been key to BoxGroup’s success.

“If you’re starting a company and you’re going to raise money, that first yes is the hardest. And it’s that’s the one that gives you the confidence, the excitement – to know that there’s somebody out there that’s going to believe in this and give you money for it,” Partner David Tisch told TechCrunch. “We really do try to pride ourselves on being that first yes on a regular basis. So the earlier we meet companies, the better.”

Today, BoxGroup is announcing it has beefed up its war chest so that it can be that “first yes” to more companies with the closure of two new funds totaling $255 million of capital. BoxGroup Five is the firm’s fifth early stage fund, and is aimed at investing in emerging tech companies at the pre-seed and seed stages. BoxGroup Strive is its second opportunity fund that will back companies in their subsequent follow-on rounds. Each fund amounts to $127.5 million. 

Over the years, BoxGroup has made over 300 investments including having invested in the earliest rounds of Ro, Plaid, Airtable, Workrise, Scopely, Bowery Farms, Ramp, Titan, Warby Parker, Classpass, Guideline and Glossier. It has had a number of impressive exits in Flatiron Health, PillPack, Matterport, Oscar, Mirror, Bark, Bread and Trello. 

Besides being the first firm to write Plaid a check, BoxGroup was also the first investor in PillPack, which ended up selling to Amazon for just under $1 billion in 2018.

BoxGroup Five – the firm’s early-stage fund – will invest in about 40 to 50 new companies a year with investments ranging from $250,000 to $1 million.

“We want to be the second or third biggest check in a round,” Tisch said.

Image Credits: BoxGroup; Adam Rothenberg (left), Nimi Katragadda (bottom), Greg Rosen (top), David Tisch (right)

The opportunity fund occasionally makes later-stage investments in new companies, but mostly just continues to support companies it invested in at an earlier stage. For example, BoxGroup first invested in id.me in 2010.

“The company is sort of an 11-year overnight success that we’ve been backing for over a decade now,” Tisch said. “It’s an example of us just continuing to support companies through their life cycle.”

BoxGroup also pre-seeded digital healthcare startup Ro, but also funded every round it’s raised since, including its most recent $500 million funding at a $5 billion valuation

Tisch describes the BoxGroup six-person team as “generalists” in terms of the spaces it invests in, with a portfolio consisting of startups in the consumer, enterprise, fintech, healthcare, marketplace, synthetic biology and climate sectors.

Interestingly, BoxGroup’s last fund closures – which totaled $165 million – marked the first time the firm had accepted outside capital in nine years. Prior to that point, it had been funded with only personal capital. Its LPs are a mixed group of endowments, foundations and family offices.

For BoxGroup, building authentic relationships with founders is at the root of what the firm does, says Partner Nimi Katragadda. That includes taking bets on founders, sometimes more than once, even if one of their companies didn’t work out. It means backing just ideas in some cases, and people.

“This cannot be transactional, it has to be personal,” she said. “We want to go on a journey with someone for a decade as they build their business…. We’re comfortable with what early means, including a lot of assumptions, more vision than traction, and raw product.”

Partner Adam Rothenberg agrees, saying: “Our goal is to be the friend in the room. We believe in honesty, tough love, and transparency in building relationships with founders. We focus on the “how” more than the “what” — how a founder thinks, how they will build product, and how they think about attracting talent.”

With offices in San Francisco and New York, the firm will likely be growing in the near future as BoxGroup is looking to add on some “first-line investors,” Tisch said.

Recently, Greg Rosen was named a partner at the firm. Rosen originally joined BoxGroup in 2015, where he spent three years before leaving to join Benchmark. He re-joined BoxGroup in early 2020 and joins the firm’s three other partners: Tisch, Rothenberg and Katragadda. 

While the world of venture is crazy hot right now, Tisch said the firm keeps itself grounded with a wisdom that can only be gained with experience and in time.

“There is seemingly infinite capital waiting to be deployed,” he said. “Without calling the cycle, we know that over time markets go up and down…No matter where we are in a given cycle, smart and determined minds will come together to build important technology companies. Our job is to make sure we are meeting those founders and choosing wisely about which ones to partner with for 10+ year journeys.”

Mixlab raises $20M to provide purrfect pharmacy experience for pet parents

By Christine Hall

Pet pharmacy Mixlab has developed a digital platform enabling veterinarians to prescribe medications and have them delivered — sometimes on the same day — to pet parents.

The New York-based company raised a $20 million Series A in a round of funding led by Sonoma Brands and including Global Founders Capital, Monogram Capital, Lakehouse Ventures and Brand Foundry. The new investment gives Mixlab total funding of $30 million, said Fred Dijols, co-founder and CEO of Mixlab.

Dijols and Stella Kim, chief experience officer, co-founded Mixlab in 2017 to provide a better pharmacy experience, with the veterinarian at the center.

Dijols’ background is in medical devices as well as healthcare investment banking, where he became interested in the pharmacy industry, following TruePill and PillPack, which he told TechCrunch were “creating a modern pharmacy model.”

As more pharmacy experiences revolved around at-home delivery, he found the veterinary side of pharmacy was not keeping up. He met Kim, a user experience expert, whose family owns a pharmacy, and wanted to bring technology into the industry.

“The pharmacy industry is changing a lot, and technology allows us to personalize the care and experience for the veterinarian, pet parent and the pet,” Kim said. “Customer service is important in healthcare as is dignity and empathy. We kept that in mind when starting Mixlab. Many companies use technology to remove the human element, but we use it to elevate it.”

Mixlab’s technology includes a digital service for veterinarians to streamline their daily medication workflow and gives them back time to spend with patient care. The platform manages the home delivery of medications across branded, generic and over-the-counter medications, as well as reduces a clinic’s on-site pharmacy inventories. Veterinarians can write prescriptions in seconds and track medication progress and therapy compliance.

The company also operates its own compound pharmacy where it specializes in making medications on-demand that are flavored and dosed.

On the pet parent side, they no longer have to wait up to a week for medications nor have to drive over to the clinic to pick them up. Medications come in a personalized care package that includes a note from the pharmacist, clear and easy-to-read instructions and a new toy.

Over the past year, adoptions of pets spiked as more people were at home, also leading to an increase in vet visits. This also caused the global pet care industry to boom, and it is now projected to reach $343 billion by 2030, when it had been valued at $208 billion in 2020.

Pet parents are also spending more on their pets, and a Morgan Stanley report showed that they see pets as part of their family, and as a result, 37% of people said they would take on debt to pay for a pet’s medical expenses, while 29% would put a pet’s needs before their own.

To meet the increased demand in veterinary care, the company will use the new funding to improve its technology and expand into more locations where it can provide same-day delivery. Currently it is shipping to 47 states and Dijols expects to be completely national by the end of the year. He also expects to hire more people on both the sales team and in executive leadership positions.

The company is already operating in New York and Los Angeles and growing 3x year over year, though Dijols admits operating during the pandemic was a bit challenging due to “a massive surge of orders” that came in as veterinarians had to shut down their offices.

As part of the investment, Keith Levy, operating partner at Sonoma Brands and former president of pet food manufacturer Royal Canin USA, will join Mixlab’s board of directors. Sonoma Brands is focused on growth sectors of the consumer economy, and pets was one of the areas that investors were interested in.

Over time, Sonoma found that within the veterinary community, there was space for a lot of players. However, veterinarians want to home in on one company they trust, and Mixlab fit that description for many because they were getting medication out faster, Levy said.

“What Mixlab is doing isn’t completely unique, but they are doing it better,” he added. “When we looked at their customer service metrics, we saw they had a good reputation and were relentlessly focused on providing a better experience.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Catch takes hold of $12M to provide benefits that aren’t tied to employers

By Christine Hall

Catch is working to make sure that every gig worker has the health and retirement benefits they need.

The company, which is in the midst of moving its headquarters to New York, sells health insurance, retirement savings plans and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors or anyone uncovered.

It is now armed with a fresh round of $12 million in Series A funding, led by Crosslink, with participation from earlier investors Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners, Kindred Ventures and Urban Innovation Fund, to support more distribution partnerships and its relocation from Boston.

Co-founders Kristen Anderson and Andrew Ambrosino started Catch in 2019 and raised $6.1 million previously, giving it a total of $18.1 million in funding.

It took the Catch team of 15 nearly two years to get approvals to sell its platform in 38 states on the federal marketplace. Anderson boasts that only eight companies have been able to do this, and three of them — Catch included — are approved to sell benefits to consumers. The other side of the business is payroll, and the company has gathered thousands of sources based on biller.

“More companies are not offering healthcare, while more people are joining the creator and gig economies, which means more people are not following an employer-led model,” Anderson told TechCrunch.

The age of an average Catch customer is 32 years old, and in addition to current offerings, were asking the company to help them set up income sources, like setting aside money for taxes, retirement, as well as medical leave without having to actively save.

When the global pandemic hit, many of Catch’s customers saw their income collapse, 40% overall across industries, as workers like hairstylists and cooks had income go down to zero in some cases.

It was then that Anderson and Ambrosino began looking at partnership distribution and developed a network of platforms, business facilitation tools, gig marketplaces and payroll companies that were interested in offering Catch. The company intends to use some of the funding to increase its headcount to service those partnerships and go after more, Anderson said.

Catch is one startup providing insurance products, and many of the competitors either do a single offering and do it well, like Starship does with health savings accounts, Anderson said. Catch is taking a different approach by offering a platform experience, but going deep on the process, she added. She likens it to Gusto, which provides cloud-based payroll, benefits and human resource management for businesses, in that Catch is an end-to-end experience, but with a focus on an individual person.

Over the past year, the company’s user base tripled, driven by people taking on second jobs and through a partnership with DoorDash. Platform users are also holding onto 5 times their usual balances, a result of setting more goals and needing to save more, Anderson said. Retirement investments and health insurance have grown similarly.

Going forward, Anderson is already thinking about a Series B, but that won’t come for another couple of years, she said. The company is looking into its own HSA product as well as disability insurance and other products to further differentiate itself from other startups, for example, Spot, Super.mx and Even that all raised venture capital this month to provide benefits.

Catch would also like to serve a broader audience than just those on the federal marketplace. The co-founders are working on how to do this — Anderson mentioned there are some “nefarious companies out there” offering medical benefits at rates that can seem too good to be true, but when the customer reads the fine print, finds out that certain medical conditions are not covered.

“We are looking at how to put the right thing in there because it does get confusing,” Anderson added. “Young people have cheaper options, which means they need to make sure they know what they are getting.”

 

Biofourmis receives FDA breakthrough device designation for heart failure “digital therapy”

By Emma Betuel

Kuldeep Singh Rajput, the founder of Boston-based Biofourmis, is imagining a future where heart failure patients go home with a prescription, a wearable sensor and an app. Today, a new FDA designation gets the company one step closer to that goal. 

Founded in 2015, Biofourmis is a digital therapeutics company that develops software to “augment” patient care. So far, the company has raised about $145 million in funding, and has around 350 employees, Rajput estimates. 

On Thursday, Biofourmis BiovitalsHF, a platform designed for heart failure medication monitoring received an FDA breakthrough device designation. Breakthrough device designation doesn’t signal FDA clearance, but it does allow for an expedited review process, and gives the company access to expertise from the federal agency during development. 

Biofourmis has two major focus areas, says Rajput. The first is on developing digital therapies in conjunction with drug companies (apps for dosage delivery, for instance, or sensors that can monitor health). The second is on providing followup care for patients with acute conditions at home. 

BiovialsHF is an example of the company’s forays into that first area of focus. So far, the company has developed digital therapies for a “pipeline” of conditions, like coronary artery disease or atrial fibrillation, and has digital therapies in the works for patients managing chemotherapy, or people dealing with chronic pain. The BiovitalsHF system, though, is the first to receive FDA breakthrough designation, and Rajput calls it the company’s “lead digital therapy.”

The BiovitalsHF product is a software platform designed manage medication for patients with heart failure. The idea is patients may initially get a certain prescription, but once they go home, they might need to adjust the levels of certain medication they’re taking. 

Doctors do often treat heart failure with multiple medications, and doses may need to be changed over time. Particularly in the case of two types of medication, ACE inhibitors or beta-blockers, medication may need to be titrated – a process where a patient begins treatment on a low dose, and slowly up the dosage over time to achieve the optimal “target” dose.

However, titration is hard to achieve in real life – one 2020 study suggests that less than 25 percent of heart failure patients are on their optimal dosages (other studies suggest it’s less than one percent). Another 2017 commentary in Cardiac Failure Review estimates that just 29 percent of patients were on target doses of ACEs and 18 percent on their target beta blocker dose. 

By contrast, in clinical trials, many to 50-60 percent of patients manage to obtain their optimal dosages, suggesting that there is a gap between how people take medicine in studies and how they do so in the real world. 

BiovitalsHF is supposed to streamline the titration process once patients leave hospitals by collecting and analyzing data from a wearable device. That data, in theory, could be used to titrate the medication depending on a patient’s health status. 

The software tweaks medication dosage using information from the patient, a wearable, and outside lab results. The wearable device would collect data like heart rate, respiration rate, stroke volume or cardiac output. Meanwhile, a patient might report their own symptoms into an app, and a physician might input lab results. 

“Based on the data collected from the patients using sensors, and the mobile platform, we are able to automatically up titrate or down titrate and switch medication, so that patients are on the right, optimal dose,” says Rajput. 

Patients would then receive a notification to let them know medications were going to be tweaked. 

The BiovitalsHF program has only been tested in one proof-of-concept study (more on that later), but the Biovitals patient monitoring platform has been tested on other diseases as well. 

For example, the Biovitals system was adapted to monitor 34 mild COVID-19 patients from the Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong who wore a biosensor 23 hours per day. A paper published in Scientific Reports suggested that the platform was able to predict whether a patient would deteriorate with 93 percent accuracy, and predict length of hospital stay with 78 percent accuracy. 

The BiovitalsHF system is slightly different. While the system does aim to monitor patients, Rajput aspires to have the technology itself be administered as a treatment program. 

In essence, a doctor might “prescribe” you three months of BiovitalsHF program in which the software itself might monitor patient outcomes and help determine dosage on its own. 

The aim is to be able to market Biovials HF not just as a decision support software, but as a treatment regimen. The distinction is subtle, but it means that the company is trying to be more than a delivery device, and more like a drug in itself. 

 “The label of the product for digital therapy will have actual treatment claims as compared to just a monitoring tool for clinical decision support,” says Rajput. 

Naturally, you need robust results to make these claims. The company has already done some early testing of the concept in a proof-of-concept clinical trial that concluded in March 2021, but will need to perform more rounds of testing in the future to prove efficacy. 

The study monitored 282 patients for 90 days, and compared people using BiovitalsHF to those using regular standard of care. The goal of the trial was to determine whether the platform could optimize medication dosage – which, in this case, means getting them within 50 percent of optimal dose. 

Results have yet to be posted publicly from that study. However, Rajput notes that the study did meet that endpoint, and seemed to be linked with other improvements in patients’ life quality and heart health. 

“Patients had, within three months, significant increases in quality of life, cardiac function, as well as reduction in a blood biomarker NT-proBNP [a marker of heart failure]. Based on this, we submitted the data to the FDA and received the breakthrough designation,” he says. 

The company has submitted the data for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. 

With the breakthrough designation in hand, we might expect progress on BiovitalsHF to proceed quickly – though it’s still a long way from true FDA approval, or even a premarket approval at the moment.

“We will be kicking off our pivotal trial, you know, anytime now. And we expect to make a formal submission to the FDA sometime in June [or] July next year,” Rajput says. 

Talkiatry lands $20M Series A to go all in on in-network psychiatric care

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Talkiatry announced today that it has raised a $20 million Series A to scale a strategy simple in theory yet potentially challenging in execution: bring psychiatry services in-network with insurance providers. The round, led by Left Lane Capital with participation from the founder and former CEO of CityMD, Dr. Richard Park, is an extension of Talkiatry’s previously secured $5 million financing. That check was led by Sikwoo Capital Partners with participation from Relevance Ventures and Park.

Co-founded by Robert Krayn and Dr. Georgia Gaveras, Talkiatry is a digital health startup that helps consumers access in-network appointments with psychiatrists for therapy and medicine management. The company employs an ongoing care model in which it takes a consumer in through a virtual survey, matches them with a psychiatrist based on their needs, and then follows the consumer through the care process from diagnosing symptoms to the actual prescription of medicine.

The startup’s true innovation lies in its plan to make psychiatric services covered by insurance providers for consumers. Many plans today don’t cover mental health services beyond a certain point — and at the same time, many high-quality psychiatrists don’t participate in private insurance plans because of minimal reimbursement and paperwork nightmares. As a result, the psychiatrists that are in-network may be consumed with patients, and the ones at private practices could have a price of up to $300 per session.

“There’s many people who have identified the problem that [psychiatrists are not accessible],” said Krayn. “What the issue comes to next is are they really, really solving the problem, or are they working around it?”

Krayn explained how startups have turned to hiring therapists and nurse practitioners as replacements for psychiatrists, which he thinks decreases the clinical quality of care (the difference between a therapist and psychiatrist is that the latter can prescribe medication). He said his competitors have also focused more on lessening the out-of-pocket costs instead of avoiding them altogether.

“While that does increase access to mental health, we think that that necessarily doesn’t give the most amount of access to solve a real problem, which is that psychiatrists are not accessible,” he said.

Talkiatry has partnered with a number of insurance providers including United Healthcare, Aetna, BlueCross BlueShield and more. While companies like Cerebral, Headway and Uplit have similarly gone in-network, the co-founder argues that it has the least restrictive relationship with providers, meaning that consumers won’t have to pay out of pocket for anything outside of the typical copay.

“Sure, some platforms are offered as an added benefit in addition to a health insurance plan, but may have additional restrictions, i.e., a patient may get access to the platform but still pay a monthly fee to get service. Others may only be allowed a certain number of visits and some may only be available if your employer decides to offer it in addition,” he said. “Talkiatry has none of these restrictions and can be used like any other in-network doctor you typically go to.”

Stability among its supply of psychiatrists is key here. Talkiatry has hired psychiatrists as W-2 employees instead of contractors. By not using a contractor model, Talkiatry will have more stability in its services but could struggle with scale. The startup will rapidly and consistently hire psychiatrists with varying backgrounds to serve consumers. Plus, in order to expand into new markets, Talkiatry has to go through the arduous legal process of local licensing requirements, instead of just going to a white-label solution that helps staff similar companies while offloading individual practitioner certification.

While Ginger, a well-capitalized growth stage company, and Lyra Health, a digital health unicorn last valued at $4.6 billion, have recently made waves in the behavioral health space, Talkiatry is confident that it can break into the sector, which continues to attract record amounts of venture capital from investors.

Its competition is paying attention. For example, Ginger has made more efforts to bring in-network mental health solutions to users, recently partnering with AmeriHealth Caritas District of Columbia and Cigna.

“Providing psychiatry in-network is one avenue to ensure people receive care, but it still does not solve the supply-demand imbalance in the mental healthcare space,” said Russell Glass, Ginger CEO and co-founder. He explained how Ginger’s product being on-demand and virtual helps it address the growing shortage of mental health providers, which will be a hurdle that Talkiatry will need to address, too.

Currently, Talkiatry has 44 clinicians on its platform, with 33 as psychiatrists and the remaining as nurse practitioners. It has done 30,000 visits since its launch.

Exo secures $200M toward commercializing ultrasound device

By Christine Hall

Exo, pronounced “echo,” raised a fresh cash infusion of $220 million in Series C financing aimed at commercializing its handheld ultrasound device and point-of-care workflow platform, Exo Works.

The round was led by RA Capital Management, while BlackRock, Sands Capital, Avidity Partners, Pura Vida Investments and prior investors joined in.

The new funding gives the Redwood City, California-based company over $320 million in total investments since the company was founded in 2015, Exo CEO Sandeep Akkaraju told TechCrunch. This includes a $40 million investment raised in 2020.

Ultrasound machines can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $250,000 for low-end technology and into the millions for high-end machines. Meanwhile, Exo’s device will be around the cost of a laptop.

“It is clear to us that ultrasound is the future — it is nonradiating and has no harmful side effects,” Akkaraju said. “We want to take the technology and put it in the palms of physicians. We also want to bring it down to the patient level. The beauty of having this window into the body is you can immediately see things.”

Using a combination of artificial intelligence, medical imaging and silicon technology, the device enables users to use it in a number of real-world medical environments like evaluating cardiology patients or scanning lungs of a COVID-19 patient. It can also be used by patients at home to provide real-time insight following a surgical procedure or to monitor a certain condition.

Exo then adds in its Exo Works, the workflow platform, that streamlines exam review, documentation and billing in under one minute.

Akkaraju said the immediate focus of the company is commercializing the device, which is where most of the new funding will go. He intends to also build out its informatics platform that is being piloted across the country and to ramp up both production and its sales force.

The global point-of-care ultrasound market is expected to reach $3.1 billion by 2025 and will grow 5% annually over that period. In addition to physicians, Akkaraju is hearing from other hospital workers that they, too, want to use the ultrasound device for some of their daily tasks like finding the right vein for an IV.

Once the company’s device is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Exo will move forward with its plan to bring the handheld ultrasound device to market.

Zach Scheiner, principal with RA Capital Management, said he met the Exo team in 2020 and RA made its first investment in the Series B extension later that year.

He was “immediately compelled” by the technology and the opportunity to scale. Scheiner also got to know Akkaraju over the months as well as saw how Exo’s technology was improving.

“We are seeing an expanding opportunity in healthcare technology as it improves and costs go down,” he added. “The vision Sandeep has of democratizing the ultrasound is not a vision that was possible 15 or 20 years ago. We are seeing the market in its early stage, but we also recognize the potential. Every doctor should want one to see what they were not able to see before. As technology and biology improves, we are going to see this sector grow.”

 

Facebook will require employees to be vaccinated before returning to campus

By Brian Heater

Earlier today, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that the company will require employees to be vaccinated before returning to work on-site. It was part of a larger letter sent to Google/Alphabet staff that also noted the company will be extending its work-from-home policy through October 18, as the Covid-19 Delta variant continues to sweep through the global population.

In a message to TechCrunch, Facebook’s VP of People, Lori Goler, confirmed a similar policy for the social media giant.

“As our offices reopen, we will be requiring anyone coming to work at any of our US campuses to be vaccinated,” Goler writes. “How we implement this policy will depend on local conditions and regulations. We will have a process for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons and will be evaluating our approach in other regions as the situation evolves. We continue to work with experts to ensure our return to office plans prioritize everyone’s health and safety.”

The statement is worded similarly to the long letter penned by Pichai, which carved out an exception for “medical or other protected reasons.” The comment doesn’t offer an adjusted timeline for the return, which had initially planned to go half-capacity in September and full by October.

Last week, a spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, “Expert guidelines state that vaccines are highly effective at preventing variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant. Our timelines to reopen our offices haven’t changed.”

Both statements offer some wiggle room for the company, based on things like local and state regulations, medical or personal concerns and, presumably, access to the vaccine, which can vary greatly based on region.

Amazon also responded to TechCrunch’s inquiry on the matter, noting, “We strongly encourage Amazon employees and contractors to be vaccinated as soon as COVID-19 vaccines are available to them.”

The company’s current guidelines don’t appear to require vaccination in order to return to its offices, though unvaccinated employees are required to wear masks. Face coverings are optional for those who have verification of being fully vaccinated.

Want to work at a Google campus? You’ll need to be vaccinated

By Brian Heater

Even for tech companies who create the tools for remote work, returning to the office is proving a major challenge. After early work-from-home recommendations last March, companies like Google eventually closed up shop, requiring employees to take their work home with them. The intervening year and change have been a fraught balancing act for the company (along with most of the world), which began outlining return-to-work plans for some employees as early as May 2020.

As Delta and other COVID-19 variants threaten anticipated returns to normalcy, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai offered a clearer look at the company’s new normal. In a letter to employees reprinted on the Google Keyword blog, Pichai noted that all employees working out of one of Google’s campuses will need to be vaccinated.

“We’re rolling this policy out in the U.S. in the coming weeks and will expand to other regions in the coming months,” Pichai wrote. “The implementation will vary according to local conditions and regulations, and will not apply until vaccines are widely available in your area.”

Further complicating matters is the second bullet point. While the rise of the Delta variant is extending the company’s work-from-home policy through October 18, it’s not entirely clear what happens after that date (assuming the virus doesn’t force another shift in the goal posts) to unvaccinated employees, who may not be able to work out of a Google office or remotely.

The post does, however, note some exceptions for those unvaccinated for “medical or other protected reasons.” Google hasn’t clarified how it will enforce such exceptions.

“For those of you with special circumstances, we will soon be sharing expanded temporary work options that will allow you to apply to work from home through the end of 2021,” Pichai wrote. “We’re also extending Expanded Carer’s Leave through the end of the year for parents and caregivers.”

Other tech giants like Apple have also pushed back return-to-office plans and implemented mask mandates in retail stores as restrictions have gone into effect amid increasing COVID-19 rates. Others, including Facebook, are sticking with original fall reopening plans.

“Expert guidelines state that vaccines are highly effective at preventing variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant,” a spokesperson for the social media giant recently told The Wall Street Journal. “Our timelines to reopen our offices haven’t changed.”

The Pandemic Olympics, Vaccine Misinformation, and More News

By Eve Sneider
Catch up on the most important updates from this week.

The Olympics Could Be a Covid-19 ‘Super-Evolutionary Event’

By Adam Rogers
In a warped version of international cooperation, the Games could provide a place for variants of the virus to spread and then return home with athletes.

Khosla Ventures leads Even’s $5M seed to give India the kind of healthcare their insurance doesn’t

By Christine Hall

The global pandemic highlighted inefficiencies and inconsistencies in healthcare systems around the world. Even co-founders Mayank Banerjee, Matilde Giglio and Alessandro Ialongo say nowhere is this more evident than in India, especially after the COVID death toll reached 4 million this week.

The Bangalore-based company received a fresh cash infusion of $5 million in seed funding in a round led by Khosla Ventures, with participation from Founders Fund, Lachy Groom and a group of individuals including Palo Alto Networks CEO Nikesh Arora, CRED CEO Kunal Shah, Zerodha founder Nithin Kamath and DST Global partner Tom Stafford.

Even, a healthcare membership company, aims to cover what most insurance companies in the country don’t, including making going to a primary care doctor as easy and accessible as it is in other countries.

Banerjee grew up in India and said the country is similar to the United States in that it has government-run and private hospitals. Where the two differ is that private health insurance is a relatively new concept for India, he told TechCrunch. He estimates that less than 5% of people have it, and even though people are paying for the insurance, it mainly covers accidents and emergencies.

This means that routine primary care consultations, testings and scans outside of that are not covered. And, the policies are so confusing that many people don’t realize they are not covered until it is too late. That has led to people asking doctors to admit them into the hospital so their bills will be covered, Ialongo added.

Banerjee and Giglio were running another startup together when they began to see how complicated health insurance policies were. About 50 million Indians fall below the poverty line each year, and many become unable to pay their healthcare bills, Banerjee said.

They began researching the insurance industry and talking with hospital executives about claims. They found that one of the biggest issues was incentive misalignment — hospitals overcharged and overtreated patients. Instead, Even is taking a similar approach to Kaiser Permanente in that the company will act as a service provider, and therefore, can drive down the cost of care.

Even became operational in February and launched in June. It is gearing up to launch in the fourth quarter of this year with more than 5,000 people on the waitlist so far. Its health membership product will cost around $200 per year for a person aged 18 to 35 and covers everything: unlimited consultations with primary care doctors, diagnostics and scans. The membership will also follow as the person ages, Ialongo said.

The founders intend to use the new funding to build out their operational team, product and integration with hospitals. They are already working with 100 hospitals and secured a partnership with Narayana Hospital to deliver more than 2,000 COVID vaccinations so far, and more in a second round.

“It is going to take a while to scale,” Banerjee said. “For us, in theory, as we get better pricing, we will end up being cheaper than others. We have goals to cover the people the government cannot and find ways to reduce the statistics.”

 

UK’s Mindtech raises $3.25M from In-Q-Tel, among others, to train CCTV cameras on synthetic humans

By Mike Butcher

Imagine a world where no one’s privacy is breached, no faces are scanned into a gargantuan database, and no privacy laws are broken. This is a world that is fast approaching. Could companies simply dump the need for real-world CCTV footage, and switch to synthetic humans, acting out potential scenarios a million times over? That’s the tantalizing prospect of a new UK startup that has attracted funding from an influential set of investors.

UK-based Mindtech Global has developed what it describes as an end-to-end synthetic data creation platform. In plain English, its system can imagine visual scenarios such as someone’s behavior inside a store, or crossing the street. This data is then used to train AI-based computer vision systems for customers such as big retailers, warehouse operators, healthcare, transportation systems and robotics. It literally trains a ‘synthetic’ CCTV camera inside a synthetic world.

It’s now closed a $3.25 million early-stage funding round led by UK regional backer NPIF – Mercia Equity Finance, with Deeptech Labs and In-Q-Tel.

That last investor is significant. In-Q-Tel invests in startups that support US intelligence capabilities and is based in Arlington, Virginia…

Mindtech’s Chameleon platform is designed to help computers understand and predict human interactions. As we all know, current approaches to training AI vision systems require companies to source data such as CCTV footage. The process is fraught with privacy issues, costly, and time-consuming. Mindtech says Chameleon solves that problem, as its customers quickly “build unlimited scenes and scenarios using photo-realistic smart 3D models”.

An added bonus is that these synthetic humans can be used to train AI vision systems to weed out human failings around diversity and bias.

Mindtech CEO Steve Harris

Mindtech CEO Steve Harris

Steve Harris, CEO, Mindtech said: “Machine learning teams can spend up to 80% of their time sourcing, cleaning, and organizing training data. Our Chameleon platform solves the AI training challenge, freeing the industry to focus on higher-value tasks like AI network innovation. This round will enable us to accelerate our growth, enabling a new generation of AI solutions that better understand the way humans interact with each other and the world around them.”

So what can you do with it? Consider the following: A kid slips from its parent’s hand at the mall. The synthetic CCTV running inside Mindtech’s scenario is trained thousands of times over how to spot it in real-time and alert staff. Another: a delivery robot meets kids playing in a street and works out how to how to avoid them. Finally: a passenger on the platform is behaving erratically too close to the rails – the CCTV is trained to automatically spot them and send help.

Nat Puffer, Managing Director (London), In-Q-Tel commented: “Mindtech impressed us with the maturity of their Chameleon platform and their commercial traction with global customers. We’re excited by the many applications this platform has across diverse markets and its ability to remove a significant roadblock in the development of smarter, more intuitive AI systems.”

Miles Kirby, CEO, Deeptech Labs said: “As a catalyst for deeptech success, our investment, and accelerator program supports ambitious teams with novel solutions and the appetite to build world-changing companies. Mindtech’s highly-experienced team are on a mission to disrupt the way AI systems are trained, and we’re delighted to support their journey.”

There is of course potential for darker applications, such a spotting petty theft inside supermarkets, or perhaps ‘optimising’ hard-pressed warehouse workers in some dystopian fashion. However, in theory, Mindtech’s customers can use this platform to rid themselves of the biases of middle-managers, and better serve customers.

Fi’s smart collar adds sleep tracking for dogs

By Brian Heater

Conventional wisdom holds that one ought let sleeping does lie. But no one says you’re barred from tracking them while they do. New York-based smart collar maker Fi announced today that it’s adding sleep to the list of the device’s tracking.

The added feature uses the collar’s on-board motion sensing to monitor your best friend’s sleep during the day and night (and almost certainly leave you jealous about how much shut-eye they’re getting).

The information is presented on a timeline that should look familiar to anyone who has used the human equivalent. It also offers a live check-in to see what the dog is up to during the day while you’re at work (assuming you ever go back to the office).

Image Credits: Fi

The goal here is to offer up some sharable metrics about your pet that might point to underlying health problems, be it too much sleep, not enough or frequent trips to the water bowl in the middle of the night. Sudden changes also present potential red flags for the dog’s health.

“We are excited to move into holistic health tracking that empowers dog parents to take the best possible care of their pets,” founder and CEO Jonathan Bensamoun said in a release. “If your dog is tired, it can’t tell you, so Fi will. Fi can answer critical questions like, ‘Is my pet sleeping the right way?’ or ‘Did its activity levels decrease lately?’ long before more serious issues have time to develop.”

Fi raised $30 million back in February and is working to grow its reach in the U.S., including a recent distribution deal with mega-online pet supply seller, Chewy.

Obé Fitness raises $15M for its personality-driven exercise platform

By Brian Heater

Obé Fitness’ co-founders/co-CEOs Mark Mullett and Ashley Mills toss around the word “entertrainment” a lot. For the record, it’s not a reference to the Butler County, Ohio-based amusement park that serves as the home of the “world’s largest train display,” but rather one of those industry portmanteaus like infotainment or webinar.

Here it’s meant to be a reference to what the New York-based company sees as its principle differentiator from an increasingly crowded market. Mills describes it as “where entertainment and fitness meet. Talent is key to that. Not also being able to cast talent that can deliver a great workout, but they also have that X Factor. They have the ability to reach across the screen and make you feel something at home.”

The company has been building up an audience of influencers as well, including Kelly Ripa, Kate Hudson and Tiffany Haddish, the latter of whom participated in the $15 million Series A the company is announcing today.

“The capital is really about team growth and awareness in a couple of key business development initiatives,” says Mullett. “In the current climate, where everyone is talking about their various home workouts, you definitely need resources to grow. So this round is about getting Obé in front of as many people as possible.”

The round was led by CAVU Venture Partners and features Athleta, Samsung Next, Wheelhouse Entertainment and WW International, Inc., along with previous investors Cassius Ventures, Ludlow Ventures, Harris Blitzer Sports Entertainment and BDMI.

Image Credits: Obé

It’s a pretty diverse list of parties with a diverse list of interests in the platform — take Samsung, which currently offers the Obé platform on its smart TVs. Users can also access it on iOS and Android devices and cast it accordingly to their TV sets.

Obé (pronounced “Obey”) bills itself as a “premium” service. At $27, it’s certainly at the higher end, verses offerings like the $10/month Apple Fitness+ or Peleton’s $13 monthly fee. Unlike Peloton, which has proprietary equipment attached, Obé actually skipped the equipment altogether at launch, though it has slowly expanded its offerings to include things like free weights and trampolines for its bounce classes — equipment that’s a bit more forgiving in smaller spaces.

Founded in 2018, the company saw a large increase in users during the pandemic. While Obé doesn’t disclose subscriber counts, its founders told me the platform’s userbase increased 4x last year.

“We started this company three and a half years ago,” says Mullett. “When COVID hit in March of 2020, our team, our talent, our interface — everyone was ready to receive the rush of new users who needed to be sated by movement and by someone who could keep them inspired, sane and confident during a difficult time.”

The Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals 2021 starts tomorrow

By Alexandra Ames

Get ready for a startup throwdown of global proportions (literally). We’re the proud hosts of the Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) Global Finals, and the pitch competition action starts tomorrow, July 22 at 9:00 am (PT).

Pro housekeeping tip: Attending this virtual pitch fest is 100% free, but you need to register here first.

Not familiar with XTC? It’s the world’s largest pitch competition focused on solving humanity’s most vexing challenges. You gotta love a competition that serves the greater good — and a startup ecosystem for purpose-driven companies determined to build a more sustainable, equitable, healthy, inclusive and prosperous world.

The road to the XTC finals was crowded, to say the least. More than 3,700 startups from 92 countries applied to compete in one of these categories: Agtech, Food & Water, Cleantech & Energy, Edtech, Enabling Tech, Fintech, Healthtech and Mobility & Smart Cities.

Talk about a daunting endeavor. Team XTC, which consisted of deeply experienced investors, entrepreneurs and executives, winnowed down that field to these seven competing finalists: Wasteless, Mining and Process Solutions, Testmaster, Dot Inc., Hillridge Technology, Genetika+ and Fotokite.

Tomorrow’s competition takes place in two rounds, and each startup team will have to bring its best if they hope to impress this panel of judges — all leaders in sustainability and social impact.

Young Sohn, co-founder, XTC and chairman at Harmann International; Bill Tai, co-founder, XTC and partner emeritus, Charles River Ventures; Regina Dugan, president and CEO of Wellcome Leap; Jerry Yang, founder/partner of AME Cloud Ventures and co-founder of Yahoo!; Lars Reger, CTO and EVP at NXP Semiconductors; and Michael Zeisser, managing partner at FMZ Ventures.

In a classic, “but wait, there’s more” moment, the day also features several presentations from some of the leading voices in sustainability. Take a look at the two examples below, and check out the complete XTC finals agenda and the roster of speakers:

  • The Keynote Address: Tune in as Beth Bechdol, the deputy director-general at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, provides an update on the latest from her agency.
  • Waste Matters: 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 Global Finals starts tomorrow, July 22. Join us and thousands of people around the world for this free, virtual pitch competition. Register here for your free ticket.

Ethos picks up $100M at a $2.7B+ valuation for a big data platform to improve life insurance accessibility

By Ingrid Lunden

More than half of the U.S. population has stayed away from considering life insurance because they believe it’s probably too expensive, and the most common way to buy it today is in person. A startup that’s built a platform that aims to break down those conventions and democratize the process by making life insurance (and the benefits of it) more accessible is today announcing significant funding to fuel its rapidly growing business.

Ethos, which uses more than 300,000 data points online to determine a person’s eligibility for life insurance policies, which are offered as either term or whole life packages starting at $8/month, has picked up $100 million from a single investor, SoftBank Vision Fund 2. Peter Colis, Ethos’s CEO and co-founder, said that the funding brings the startup’s valuation to over $2.7 billion.

This is a quick jump for the the company: it was only two months ago that Ethos picked up a $200 million equity round at a valuation of just over $2 billion.

It’s now raised $400 million to date and has amassed a very illustrious group of backers. In addition to SoftBank they include General Catalyst, Sequoia Capital; Accel; GV; Jay-Z’s Roc Nation; Glade Brook Capital Partners; Will Smith and Robert Downey Jr.

This latest injection of funding — which will be used to hire more people and continue to expand its product set into adjacent areas of insurance life critical illness coverage — was unsolicited, Colis said, but comes on the heels of very rapid growth.

Ethos — which is sold currently only in the U.S. across 49 states — has seen both revenues and user numbers grow by over 500% compared to a year ago, and it’s on track to issue some $20 billion in life insurance coverage this year. And it is approaching $100 million in annualized growth profit. Ethos itself is not yet profitable, Colis said.

There are a couple of trends going on that speak to a wide opportunity for Ethos at the moment.

The first of these is the current market climate: globally we are still battling the Covid-19 global health pandemic, and one impact of that — in particular given how Covid-19 has not spared any age group or demographic — has been more awareness of our mortality. That inevitably leads at least some part of the population to considering something like life insurance coverage that might not have thought about it previously.

However, Colis is a little skeptical on the lasting impact of that particular trend. “We saw an initial surge of demand in the Covid period, but then it regressed back to normal,” he said in an interview. Those who were more inclined to think about life insurance around Covid-19 might have come around to considering it regardless: it was being driven, he said, by those with pre-existing health conditions going into the pandemic.

That, interestingly, brings up the second trend, which goes beyond our present circumstances and Colis believes will have the more lasting impact.

While there have been a number of startups, and even incumbent providers, looking to rethink other areas of insurance such as car, health and property coverage, life insurance has been relatively untouched, especially in some markets like the U.S. Traditionally, someone taking out life insurance goes through a long vetting process, which is not all carried out online and can involve medical examinations and more, and yes, it can be expensive: the stereotype you might best know is that only wealthier people take out life insurance policies.

Much like companies in fintech who have rethought how loan applications (and payback terms) can be rethought and evaluated afresh using big data — pulling in a new range of information to form a picture of the applicant and the likelihood of default or not — Ethos is among the companies that is applying that same concept to a different problem. The end result is a much faster turnaround for applications, a considerably cheaper and more flexible offer (term life insurance lasts for only as long as a person pays for it to), and generally a lot more accessibility for everyone potentially interested. That pool of data is growing all the time.

“Every month, we get more intelligent,” said Colis.

There is also the matter of what Ethos is actually selling. The company itself is not an insurance provider but an “insuretech” — similar to how neobanks use APIs to integrate banking services that have been built by others, which they then wrap with their own customer service, personalization and more — Ethos integrates with third-party insurance underwriters, providing customer service, more efficient onboarding (no in-person medical exams for example) and personalization (both in packages and pricing) around them. Given how staid and hard it is to get more traditional policies, it’s essentially meant completely open water for Ethos in terms of finding and securing new customers.

Ethos’s rise comes at a time when we are seeing other startups approaching and rethinking life insurance also in the U.S. and further afield. Last week, YuLife in the UK raised a big round to further build out its own take on life insurance, which is to sell policies that are linked to an individual’s own health and wellness practices — the idea being that this will make you happier and give more reason to pay for a policy that otherwise feels like some dormant investment; but also that it could help you live longer (Sproutt is another also looking at how to emphasize the “life” aspect of life insurance). Others like  DeadHappy and BIMA are, like Ethos, rethinking accessibility of life insurance for a wider set of demographics.

There are some signs that Ethos is catching on with its mission to expand that pool, not just grow business among the kind of users who might have already been considering and would have taken out life insurance policies. The startup said that more than 40% of its new policy holders in the first half of 2021 had incomes of $60,000 or less, and nearly 40% of new policy holders were under the age of 40. The professions of those customers also speak to that democratization: the top five occupations, it said were homemaker, insurance agent, business owner, teacher, and registered nurse.

That traction is likely one reason why SoftBank came knocking.

“Ethos is leveraging data and its vertically integrated tech stack to fundamentally transform life insurance in the U.S.,” said Munish Varma, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “Through a fast and user-friendly online application process, the company can accurately underwrite and insure a broad segment of customers quickly. We are excited to partner with Peter Colis and the exceptional team at Ethos.”

Employee mental health platform Oliva raises $2.2M pre-seed round led by Moonfire Ventures

By Mike Butcher

Just as many other employee services have gone digital, so too is mental health. In the consumer space there are growing startups like Equoo, but the race is now on for the employee.

And since telemedicine has gone digital and video-based, so too is mental health provision. A number of companies are already playing in this space, including Spill Chat, On Mind, Lyra Health, Modern Health, Ginger and TalkSpace For Business.

Oliva’s take on this is not to create a marketplace or pre-recorded videos, but to put trained professionals in front of employees to talk directly to them. And there is even science to back it up. Indeed, some research suggests Psychotherapy via the internet is as good if not better than face-to-face consultations.

Oliva’s on-demand, professional-led mental healthcare for employees and managers has now attracted investment to the tune of a $2.2m pre-seed investment round, led by Moonfire Ventures, the new seed-stage VC firm from Atomico co-founder Mattias Ljungman.

The UK and Spain-based startup has also attracted angel investment from tech executives from Amazon, Booking.com, DogBuddy, Typeform, Hotjar, TravelPerk, and more.

Oliva is founded by Javier Suarez, who previously co-founded TravelPerk, and Sançar Sahin, who previously led marketing teams at Hotjar and Typeform, so both are well blooded in startups.

Suarez says he was inspired to create a mental health startup after the rigors of TravelPerk: “Employees are a company’s greatest asset – the better they feel, the better your company performs. But organizations are not set up to support their employees’ mental health in and outside of the workplace, which creates a massive problem for teammates, managers, and the organization as a whole. We’ve launched Oliva to give employees access to comprehensive online mental healthcare and to help organizations overcome the related challenges—from attracting & retaining talent and training managers to supporting remote workers.”

Privacy is addressed via the use of a secure and encrypted personal portal, where employees can chat with a care provider who matches them with a professional. They get 1-to-1 video therapy sessions from a range of mental health professionals, and can also track their progress. 

The team has also attracted Dr. Sarah Bateup, who has spent over two decades teaching and training mental healthcare professionals, who is now Chief Clinical Officer.

She said: “Oliva improves the way mental healthcare is accessed, supported, and paid for, while also adding more ongoing oversight and accountability to the process. Our ambition is for Oliva to be viewed as a badge of quality and set a new standard for workplace mental healthcare.”

Mattias Ljungman, Founder at Moonfire Ventures, added: “Mental health has been an overlooked area of care and wellbeing, especially in the workplace. Oliva’s founders are the only team we’ve seen taking a holistic, impact-driven approach to supporting mental health. While employer-funded mental health is becoming a well-established model in the US, Oliva is the first to bring a truly comprehensive approach to UK and European businesses.”

Oliva platform is integrated with Slack, providing employees with mental health drop-in sessions, therapy courses, and dedicated training and support for managers.

RxAll grabs $3.15M to scale its drug checking and counterfeiting tech across Africa

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Research says that counterfeit medication is the cause of 1 million deaths per year. One-tenth of this number comes from Africa. Counterfeiting is hard to detect, investigate, quantify or stop. It is a global problem, with annual earnings from substandard drugs standing at over $100 billion.

Some technologies have helped deal with this menace; for instance, radio frequency identification, which works by assigning serial numbers to containers of each product. More modern approaches are being adopted these days, which is the case of RxAll, a startup using deep technology to provide quality medication to patients. Today, the U.S. and Nigerian-based company is announcing a financing round of $3.15 million to scale across existing markets and improve its technology.

RxAll was founded in 2016 by Adebayo Alonge, Amy Kao and Wei Lui. As students at Yale University, the trio came together to collectively solve a problem they faced firsthand, either personally or relating to a loved one.

In 2006, Alonge was a victim of fake pharmaceuticals and almost died after taking medicine that contained lethal levels of diazepam. He went into a coma for three weeks.

“I survived a 21-day coma in Nigeria 15 years ago. My co-founder, Amy, was hospitalized in Thailand after taking counterfeit medicine. And Wei lost a family member due to contaminated drugs,” Alonge told TechCrunch over a call.

Based on an R&D project at the college’s chemistry department, Alonge, Kao, and Lui began to analyze how to use machine learning and molecular spectroscopy for drug quality and material and quality assurance. The big idea was to address the problem of poor access to high-quality medicine across Africa first, then the rest of the world by building a marketplace for authenticating the sale of safe and reputable pharmaceuticals.

“After going through that, information out there further confirmed that what we experienced wasn’t a one-off situation. It’s an ongoing problem; 100,000 Africans die from this problem every year. One million people die across the world from this problem,” CEO Alonge continued. 

RxAll

Image Credits: RxAll

Its proprietary technology, RxScanner, is a handheld authenticator designed for patients to verify their drugs. According to the company, the RxScanner can identify the quality of prescription drugs in 20 seconds and display results in real-time via mobile apps.

RxAll curates high-quality sellers to its marketplace and provides them with the RxScanner. The machine learning model reads the sample spectra and send test results indicating the identity and the quality versus the reference. Sellers can be found by using the filter, and once the batch testing is done, the seller can push out the product into the marketplace and make it available for on-demand ordering, pick-up and deliveries as well.

The company makes money through commissions via transactions made on the marketplace. It also employs a subscription model with the RxScanner for individual and business customers.

Despite the company’s innovation, funding has been few and far between, as with many deep tech platforms with a significant focus on Africa. This is mainly due to the long cycle from research to commercialization of such ventures, so most VCs would instead get involved in the company’s later stages. So far, RxAll has stayed alive by winning grants and prize monies at competitions, with some equity financing from the likes of Africa-focused accelerator Founders Factory Africa.

Alonge sees RxAll as a pioneer in the world of deep tech mixed with health tech. He reckons there’s no direct competition with how the RxScanner operates, at least for the time being.

In terms of pharmaceutical e-commerce, yes that’s a different ballgame. In terms of drug testing, the only other solutions out there are laboratory equipment, and they can be expensive. But in the space we play in, the application area, the price point, the way we’re going about it using deep learning and mobile phones, there’s no comparison,” the CEO said.

However, technological edge alone does not sell a product or run a business. With RxAll, the key to scaling its tech, according to Alonge is making its products affordable for the market despite the costs incurred. That’s a challenge the company is taking strides to tackle in addition to making its technology easier for investors to understand.

RxAll

A part of the RxAll team

RxAll describes itself as a company playing in a global market. But as highlighted previously, a bulk of its customers and revenues come from Africa, especially Nigeria. It is currently serving ten cities and is actively validating the authenticity of drugs for 1 million patients while servicing over 2,000 hospitals and pharmacies in the West African nation. The company has plans to add an extra 14 cities before this year runs out, with a pan-African play set in motion for next year.

This financing round is a cumulation of a recently closed $2 million seed round (oversubscribed with $2.25 million) and a $900,000 pre-seed raised at the tail end of last year. Launch Africa led the round with participation from SOSV’s HAX and Keisuke Honda via his KSK fund.  

Speaking on the round, managing partner at Launch Africa Ventures Zachariah George said, “Launch Africa Ventures is excited to be co-leading this round of financing into a strong, experienced team at RxAll. We believe that RxAll is bridging a major gap in access to quality healthcare in Africa by pioneering a drug delivery platform to enable pharmacies and patients to buy authenticated medicines online. The ability to achieve favourable unit economics and multiple revenue streams by leveraging anti-counterfeiting mobile spectrometer technology, owning the entire drug delivery supply chain and their own payment wallet, provides a massive growth and scaling opportunity across Africa and beyond.”

Duncan Turner, general partner at SOSV and managing director of HAX added, “We’ve been incredibly impressed by RxAll’s ability to scale and meet customer demand. In just the last year, the team has brought together world-class hard tech and operational excellence to solve pressing issues for over a million Nigerians, and we couldn’t be more excited by their vision for the broader pharmaceutical market.”

So what’s next for RxAll? Alonge said the company’s next focus is on partnerships. According to him, they will be integral in RxAll’s push to scale its marketplace and scanner across Nigeria, Africa and the rest of the world.

“Asides from the hospitals, pharmacies and patients, we also sell to governments and country FDAs on the scanner side of things. So we’re looking to secure key partnerships globally, not just in Nigeria, but across Africa, Southeast Asia, North America and South America. Those are the key markets we’re looking to scale into.”

CityRow raises $12M for connected rowing machines and studios

By Brian Heater

Founded in 2014 as an in-person rowing studio, CityRow was relatively early to adopt the at-home connected model. The New York-based company launched a digital platform in 2018, two years before the pandemic completely transformed the way many of us work out. Of course, things have been trending that way a while, but 2020 accelerated home fitness in ways few thought possible.

CityRow says it experienced a 375% revenue growth last year, largely on the strength of rowing machine sales and platform subscriptions. Today, it’s announcing that it has raised a $12 million Series A, led by JW Asset Management, with help from Sol Global and K2. The company says it has a number of plans for the money, but first and foremost is the addition of livestreaming classes to its current on-demand content selection.

“All of this capital is really about us hyper growing the company in the ways we know our consumers want us to grow,” founder and CEO Helaine Knapp tells TechCrunch. “First up is launching live classes, and we just signed a lease. We’re moving into a space in Midtown (Manhattan), to be able to launch these live classes, as soon as this fall. That’s a massive undertaking that we’ve been excited about launching for some time.”

Image Credits: CityRow

The studio is an upgrade for CityRow, which has thus far recorded its content at one of its corporate locations. Knapp says the company doubled its headcount in the past year (currently at 14 full-time corporate employees) and is on track to double that in the next year.

CityRow offers a pair of connected Rowers, the Go Classic and the recently launched Go Max, which retail for $1,295 and $2195, respectively. They work with the company’s mobile app, which also offers off-rower exercise courses. It currently operates 11 locations — two corporate-owned and nine franchises. The company says it has sold 64 franchises in all, with plans to launch 12 in the next year.

Obviously some of those plans were paused during the pandemic.

Image Credits: CityRow

“It’s still early days, in terms of comeback,” says Knapp. “But I’m very proud of how our franchisees weathered the storm, with a lot of them being very new studios. And I think that’s a testament to the power of the brand and the community with the franchises.”

Knapp points out that everyone who belongs to one of the locations also gets free access to CityRow’s app, which may have incentivized customers to maintain their membership during closures.

“Digital fitness was already growing like crazy before the pandemic,” explains Knapp. “And it just accelerated us, if I had to guess, a couple of years faster. Digital fitness is still only a fraction of the market, but in-person is still the majority by a landslide”

Fitness app HealthifyMe to expand worldwide after raising $75M Series C from LeapFrog and Khosla Ventures

By Catherine Shu

People shopping around for a fitness app already have a plethora of choices from which to pick: MyFitnessPal, Noom and Lifesum, to name a few. Founded in India, HealthifyMe is betting that users around the world will prefer its range of customizable health programs. The Bangalore-based company announced today it has closed a $75 million Series C from LeapFrog and Khosla Ventures, with plans to grow its user base in India, Southeast Asia and North America.

HealthifyMe is the first Indian health tech startup LeapFrog has invested in, and Khosla Ventures’ largest investment in India to date. The company did not disclose its post-money valuation, but co-founder and chief executive officer Tushar Vashisht told TechCrunch it is now at “soonicorn” status.

Unilever Ventures, Elm and Healthquad also participated in the round, along with returning investors Chiratae Ventures, Inventus Capital and Sistema Asia Capital. HealthifyMe has now raised more than $100 million in total.

Vashisht said HealthifyMe is India’s top health and fitness app, but its long-term goal is to become the global leader. In North America, it is popular among Indian expat and Indian American communities, and now it will target other customer segments, too.

HealthifyMe’s products include HealthifySmart, which uses AI-based tech to customize diet plans for users, and HealtifyCoach, which includes live conversations with coaches. During the pandemic, it launched two products: HealthifyPlus, for people who are managing chronic conditions like diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, high cholesterol or hypertension and HealthifyStudio, with live workout classes.

The app also has an AI-based nutritionist called Ria that is trained for cuisines in different markets through a combination of user-tracked data, guidance from local nutritionists and databases from sources like the United States Department of Agriculture.

HealthifyMe will work with LeapFrog’s research and development hub, ImpactLabs, to develop more programs for people with chronic health conditions.

A screenshot of HealthifyMe's Smart plan

HealthifyMe’s Smart plan. Image Credits: HealthifyMe

HealthifySmart and HealthifyStudio, its newest products, already contribute 25% to the company’s line. HealthifyMe also says it doubled its user base and revenue over the last year, recently surpassing 25 million downloads, and is currently on target to reach $50 million in annualized recurring revenue within the next six months. It has about 1,500 trainers and coaches on the platform, with plans to add 1,000 more to support its expansion.

Since HealthifyMe began operating first in cost-sensitive markets, it started using AI early on to scale efficiently, Vashisht said. As a result, it is able to offer products at lower prices than its competition.

“Today in the U.S., you have free DIY calorie counting solutions like MyFitnessPal and expensive human-assisted coaching and diet solutions like Noom and WeightWatchers,” said Vashisht. “But nothing in the middle exists that allows one to track nutrition and calories while getting advice at an affordable price point.”

About 25% of HealthifyMe’s revenue comes from outside of India, including Singapore and Malaysia. When it enters a new market, the company localizes its services using a playbook.

“We begin by building a food database with local foods. We also tailor our search algorithms and app language to ensure accurate food searches take place in the app,” Vashisht said. “Next, we hire 50 diet and fitness coaches locally to cater to the region’s population via the platform and launch HealthifyCoach locally. Once we have sufficient data, we were able to retrain and refactor our AI to suit local preferences.” That is how the company launched HealthifySmart in Singapore and Malaysia, and it plans to do the same thing in North America.

The company measures the efficacy of its program through user-reported statistics and working with researchers like Sridhar Narayan, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, to verify and analyze its data. Vashisht said average paying subscribers lose about eight pounds in 180 days, while the top 10% lose more than 20 pounds.

For its HealthifyPlus customers, the company has seen a statistically significant impact on their Hemoglobin A1C (Hb1AC), LDL cholesterol and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels. Vashisht added that HealthifyMe plans to publish its results in the coming months, and also hopes to integrate with diagnostics providers in the future to track clinical indicators.

Part of the new funding will be used to double HealthifyMe’s current engineering and design teams, including through acqui-hires, with the company looking for digital health and wellness companies to buy. It will also fill senior leadership roles in operations, marketing, human relations and technology.

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