It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.
Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.
It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”
Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.
In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.
Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though they intend to donate profits from the app, Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures remain listed as investors, but Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.
Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.
Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.
Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.
“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”
But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.
According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.
Early stage investor Version One, which consists of partners Boris Wertz and Angela Tran, has raised its fourth fund, as well as a second opportunity fund specifically dedicated to making follow-on investments. Fund IV pools $70 million from LPs to invest, and Opportunities Fund II is $30 million, both up from the $45 million Fund III and roughly $20 million original Opportunity Fund.
Version One is unveiling this new pool of capital after a very successful year for the firm, which is based in Vancouver and San Francisco. 2021 saw its first true blockbuster exit, with Coinbase’s IPO. The investor also saw big valuation boosts on paper for a number of its portfolio companies, including Ada (which raises at a $1.2 billion valuation in May); Dapper Labs (valued at $7.5 billion after riding the NFT wave); and Jobber (no valuation disclosed but raised a $60 million round in January).
I spoke to both Wertz and Tran about their run of good fortune, how they think the fund has achieved the wins it recorded thus far, and what Version One has planned for this Fund IV and its investment strategy going forward.
“We have this pretty broad focus of mission-driven founders, and not necessarily just investing in SaaS, or just investing in marketplaces, or crypto,” Wertz said regarding their focus. “We obviously love staying early — pre-seed and seed — we’re really the investors that love investing in people, not necessarily in existing traction and numbers. We love being contrarian, both in terms of the verticals we go in to, and and the entrepreneurs we back; we’re happy to be backing first-time entrepreneurs that nobody else has ever backed.”
In speaking to different startups that Version One has backed over the years, I’ve always been struck by how connected the founders seem to the firm and both Wertz and Tran — even much later in the startups’ maturation. Tran said that one of their advantages is following the journey of their entrepreneurs, across both good times and bad.
“We get to learn,” she said. “It’s so cool to watch these companies scale […] we get to see how these companies grow, because we stick with them. Even the smallest things we’re just constantly thinking about— we’re constantly thinking about Laura [Behrens Wu] at Shippo, we’re constantly thinking about Mike [Murchison] and David [Hariri] at Ada, even though it’s getting harder to really help them move the needle on their business.”
Wertz also discussed the knack Version One seems to have for getting into a hot investment area early, anticipating hype cycles when many other firms are still reticent.
“We we went into crypto early in 2016, when most people didn’t really believe in crypto,” he said. “We started investing pretty aggressively in in climate last year, when nobody was really invested in climate tech. Having a conviction in in a few areas, as well as the type of entrepreneurs that nobody else really has conviction is what really makes these returns possible.”
Since climate tech is a relatively new focus for Version One, I asked Wertz about why they’re betting on it now, and why this is not just another green bubble like the one we saw around the end of the first decade of the 2000s.
“First of all, we deeply care about it,” he said. Secondly, we think there is obviously a new urgency needed for technology to jump into to what is probably one of the biggest problems of humankind. Thirdly, is that the clean tech boom has put a lot of infrastructure into the ground. It really drove down the cost of the infrastructure, and the hardware, of electric cars, of batteries in general, of solar and renewable energies in general. And so now it feels like there’s more opportunity to actually build a more sophisticated application layer on top of it.”
Tran added that Version One also made its existing climate bet at what she sees as a crucial inflection point — effectively at the height of the pandemic, when most were focused on healthcare crises instead of other imminent existential threats.
I also asked her about the new Opportunity Fund, and how that fits in with the early stage focus and their overall functional approach.
“It doesn’t require much change in the way we operate, because we’re not doing any net new investments,” Tran said. “So we recognize we’re not growth investors, or Series A/Series B investors that need to have a different lens in the way that they evaluate companies. For us, we just say we want to double down on these companies. We have such close relationships with them, we know what the opportunities are. It’s almost like we have information arbitrage.”
That works well for all involved, including LPs, because Tran said that it’s appealing to them to be able to invest more in companies doing well without having to build a new direct relationship with target companies, or doing something like creating an SPV designated for the purpose, which is costly and time-consuming.
Looking forward to what’s going to change with this fund and their investment approach, Wertz points to a broadened international focus made possible by the increasingly distributed nature of the tech industry following the pandemic.
“I think that the thing that probably will change the most is just much more international investing in this one, and I think it’s just direct result of the pandemic and Zoom investing, that suddenly the pipeline has opened up,” he said.
“We’ve certainly learned a lot about ourselves over the past year and a half,” Tran added. “I mean, we’ve always been distributed, […] and being remote was one of our advantages. So we certainly benefited and we didn’t have to adjust our working style too much, right. But now everyone’s working like this, […] so it’s going to be fun to see what advantage we come up with next.”
As part of its FaceTime update in iOS 15, Apple introduced a new set of features designed for shared experiences — like co-watching TV shows or TikTok videos, listening to music together, screen sharing and more — while on a FaceTime call. The feature, called SharePlay, enables real-time connections with family and friends while you’re hanging out on FaceTime, Apple explained, by integrating access to apps from within the call itself.
Image Credits: Apple
Apple demonstrated the new feature during its Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, showing how friends could press play in Apple Music to listen together, as the music streams to everyone on the call. Shared playback controls also let anyone on the call play, pause or jump to the next track.
The company also showed off watching video from its Apple TV+ streaming service, where the video was synced in real time between call participants. This was a popular trend during the pandemic, as people looked to virtually watch movies and TV with family and friends, prompting services like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video to add native co-watching features.
But Apple’s SharePlay goes much further than streaming music and video from just Apple’s own services.
The company announced a set of launch partners for SharePlay, including Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, NBA, Twitch, TikTok, MasterClass, ESPN+, Paramount+ and Pluto TV. It’s also making an API available to developers so they can integrate their own apps with SharePlay.
Image Credits: Apple
Users can screen share via SharePlay, too, so you can do things like browse Zillow listings together or show off a mobile gameplay, Apple suggested.
“Screen sharing is also a simple and super effective way to help someone out and answer questions right in the moment, and it works across Apple devices,” noted Apple SVP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi.
The feature will roll out with iOS 15.
In April, Medium CEO Ev Williams wrote a memo to his staff about the company’s shifting culture in the wake of a challenging year.
“A healthy culture brings out the best in people,” he wrote. “They feel psychologically safe voicing their ideas and engaging in debate to find the best answer to any question — knowing that their coworkers are assuming good intent and giving them the benefit of the doubt because they give that in return.”
A few paragraphs later, Williams wrote that while counterperspectives and unpopular opinions are “always encouraged” to help make decisions, “repeated interactions that are nonconstructive, cast doubt, assume bad intent, make unsubstantiated accusations, or otherwise do not contribute to a positive environment have a massive negative impact on the team and working environment.”
He added: “These behaviors are not tolerated.”
The internal memo, obtained and verified by TechCrunch, was published nearly one month after Medium staff’s unionization attempt failed to pass, and roughly one week after Williams announced a pivot of the company’s editorial ambitions to focus less on in-house content and more on user-generated work.
Medium’s editorial team got voluntary payouts as part of the shift, with VP of Editorial Siobhan O’Connor and the entire staff of GEN Magazine stepping away.
However, several current and former employees told TechCrunch that they believe Medium’s mass exodus is tied more to Williams’ manifesto, dubbed “the culture memo,” than a pivot in editorial focus. Since the memo was published, many non-editorial staffers — who would presumably not be impacted by a shift in content priorities — have left the company, including product managers, several designers and dozens of engineers.
Those departing allege that Williams is trying to perform yet another reset of company strategy, at the cost of its most diverse talent. One pull of internal data that includes engineers, editorial staff, the product team, and a portion of its HR and finance team, suggests that, of the 241 people who started the year at Medium, some 50% of that pool are now gone. Medium, which has hired employees to fill some vacancies, denied these metrics, stating that it currently has 179 employees.
Medium said that 52% of departures were white, and that one third of the company is non-white and non-Asian. The first engineer that TechCrunch spoke to said that minorities are overrepresented in the departures at the company. They also added that, when they joined Medium, there were three transgender engineers. All have since left.
In February, a number of Medium employees — led by the editorial staff — announced plans to organize into a union. The unionization effort was eventually defeated after falling short by one vote, a shortfall that some employees think was due to Medium executives pressuring staff to vote against the union.
The month after the unionization effort failed, Medium announced an editorial pivot. The company offered new positions or voluntary payouts for editorial staff. A number of employees left, which is not uncommon in the aftermath of a tense time period such as a failed unionization and the offer of a clear, financially safe route out.
In April, Williams posted the culture memo outlining his view on the company’s purpose and operating principles. In the memo, he writes that “there is no growth without risk-taking and no risk-taking without occasional failure” and that “feedback is a gift, and even tough feedback can and should be delivered with empathy and grace.” The CEO also noted the company’s commitment to diversity, and how adapting to “opportunities or threats is a prerequisite for winning.”
Notably, Medium has gone through a number of editorial strategy changes, dipping in and out of subscriptions, in-house content, and now, leaning on user-generated content and paid commissions.
“Team changes, strategy changes and reorganizations are inevitable. Each person’s adaptivity is a core strength of the company,” the memo reads.
The memo doesn’t explicitly address the unionization attempt, but does talk about how Medium will not tolerate “repeated interactions that are nonconstructive, cast doubt, assume bad intent, make unsubstantiated accusations, or otherwise do not contribute to a positive environment [but] have a massive negative impact on the team and working environment.”
Employees that we spoke to think that Williams’ memo, while internal rather than publicly posted, is reminiscent of statements put out by Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong and Basecamp CEO Jason Fried, which both banned political discussion at work due to its incendiary or “distracting” nature. While the Medium memo doesn’t wholly ban politics, the first engineer said that the “undertone” of the statement creates a “not safe work environment.” Frustrated employees created a side-Slack to talk about issues at Medium.
In a statement to TechCrunch, Medium said that “many employees said they appreciated the clarity and there were directors and managers involved in shaping it.”
The month of the memo, churn tripled at the company compared to the month prior and was 30 times higher than the January metric, using an internal data set obtained by TechCrunch.
The second engineer that spoke to TechCrunch left the company last month and said that the memo didn’t have anything “egregious” at first glance.
“It was more of a beloved dictator vibe, of like, your words are vague enough that they’re not enforceable on anything else, and it looks good on paper,” they said. “If you just saw that memo and nothing else, it’s not a Coinbase memo, it’s not a Basecamp memo.”
But, given the timing of the memo, the engineer said their interpretation of Williams’ message was clear.
“[Medium wants] to enforce good vibes and shut down anything that is questioning ‘the mission,’” they said.
The same engineer thinks that “very few people left because of the editorial pivot.” Instead, the engineer explained a history of problematic issues at Medium, with a wave of departures that seem to be clearly triggered by the memo.
In July 2019, for example, Medium chose to publish a series that included a profile of Trump supporter Joy Villa with the headline “I have never been as prosecuted for being Black or Latina as I have been for supporting Trump.”
When the Latinx community at Medium spoke to leadership about discomfort in the headline, they claimed that executives from editorial didn’t do anything about the headline until it was mentioned in a public Slack channel. One editor asked anyone who had gone through the immigration process or was a part of the Latinx community to get in a room and explain their side, a moment that felt diminishing to this employee. The headline only changed when employees posted in a public Slack channel about their qualms.
“They think caring is enough,” the employee said. “And that listening is merciful and really caring, and therefore they’re really shocked when that is not enough.”
The third engineer who spoke to TechCrunch joined the company in 2019 because they were looking for a mission-driven company impacting more than just tech. They realized Medium had “deeper issues” during the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.
“There were deeper issues that I just hadn’t heard about because I wasn’t part of them. That just kind of got slid under the rug,” they said, such as the Trump supporter profile. The former employee explained how they learned that HR had ignored a report of an employee saying the N-word during that time, too. Medium said this is false.
“I don’t feel like I needed the memo to really understand their true colors,” they said.
After The Verge and Platformer published a report on Medium’s messy culture and chaotic editorial strategy, the second engineer said that multiple employees who were assumed to be tied to the story were pressured to resign.
“The way I see it, they fought dirty to defeat the union,” the first engineer said. “But it wasn’t a total success because all of these people have decided to leave in the wake of the decision, and that’s the cost. The people who are left basically feel like they have to nod and smile because Medium has made it clear that they don’t want you to bring your full self to work.”
The engineer said that Medium’s culture of reckoning is different from Coinbase because of the mission-oriented promise of the former.
“Some companies, like Coinbase, have said that ‘we want people who are not going to bring politics and social issues to work,’ so if you join Coinbase, that’s what you are expecting, and that’s fine,” they said. “But Medium specifically recruited people who care about the world, and justice, and believe in the freedom of speech and transparency.”
The engineer plans to officially resign soon and already has interviews lined up.
“It’s a good job market out there for software engineers, so why would I work for a company that is treating their own people unfairly?”
Fintech and proptech are two sectors that are seeing exploding growth in Latin America, as financial services and real estate are two categories in particular dire need of innovation in a region.
Brazil’s QuintoAndar, which has developed a real estate marketplace focused on rentals and sales, has seen impressive growth in recent years. Today, the São Paulo-based proptech has announced it has closed on $300 million in a Series E round of funding that values it at an impressive $4 billion.
The round is notable for a few reasons. For one, the valuation — high by any standards but especially for a LatAm company — represents an increase of four times from when QuintoAndar raised a $250 million Series D in September 2019.
It’s also noteworthy who is backing the company. Silicon Valley-based Ribbit Capital led its Series E financing, which also included participation from SoftBank’s LatAm-focused Innovation Fund, LTS, Maverik, Alta Park, an undisclosed U.S.-based asset manager fund with over $2 trillion in AUM, Kaszek Ventures, Dragoneer and Accel partner Kevin Efrusy.
Having backed the likes of Coinbase, Robinhood and CreditKarma, Ribbit Capital has historically focused on early-stage investments in the fintech space. Its bet on QuintoAndar represents clear faith in what the company is building, as well as its confidence in the startup’s plans to branch out from its current model into a one-stop real estate shop that also offers mortgage, title, insurance and escrow services.
The latest round brings QuintoAndar’s total raised since its 2013 inception to $635 million.
Ribbit Capital Partner Nick Huber said QuintoAndar has over the years built “a unique and trusted brand in Brazil” for those looking for a place to call home.
“Whether you are looking to buy or to rent, QuintoAndar can support customers through the entire transaction process: from browsing verified inventory to signing the final contracts,” Huber told TechCrunch. “The ability to serve customers’ needs through each phase of life and to do so from start to finish is a unique capability, both in Brazil and around the world.”
QuintoAndar describes itself as an “end-to-end solution for long-term rentals” that, among other things, connects potential tenants to landlords and vice versa. Last year, it expanded also into connecting a home buyers to sellers.
Image Credits: QuintoAndar
TechCrunch spoke with co-founder and CEO Gabriel Braga and he shared details around the growth that has attracted such a bevy of high-profile investors.
Like most other businesses around the world, QuintoAndar braced itself for the worst when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year — especially considering one core piece of its business is to guarantee rents to the landlords on its platform.
“In the beginning, we were afraid of the implications of the crisis but we were able to honor our commitments,” Braga said. “In retrospect, the pandemic was a big test for our business model and it has validated the strength and defensibility of our business on the credit side and reinforced our value proposition to tenants and landlords. So after the initial scary moments, we actually felt even more confident in the business that we are building.”
QuintoAndar describes itself as “a distant market leader” with more than 100,000 rentals under management and about 10,000 new rentals per month. Its rental platform is live in 40 cities across Brazil, while its home-buying marketplace is live in four. Part of its plans with the new capital is to expand into new markets within Brazil, as well as in Latin America as a whole.
The startup claims that, in less than a year, QuintoAndar managed to aggregate the largest inventory among digital transactional platforms. It now offers more than 60,000 properties for sale across Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belho Horizonte and Porto Alegre. To give greater context around the company’s growth of that side of its platform: In its first year of operation, QuintoAndar closed more than 1,000 transactions. It has now surpassed the mark of 8,000 transactions in annualized terms, growing between 50% and 100% quarter over quarter.
As for the rentals side of its business, Braga said QuintoAndar has more than 100,000 rentals under management and is closing about 10,000 new rentals per month. The company is not profitable as it’s focused on growth, although it’s unit economics are particularly favorable in certain markets such as Sao Paulo, which is financing some of its growth in other cities, according to Braga.
Now, the 2,000-person company is looking to begin its global expansion with plans to enter the Mexican market later this year. With that, Braga said QuintoAndar is looking to hire “top-tier” talent from all over.
“We want to invest a lot in our product and tech core,” he said. “So we’re trying to bring in more senior people from abroad, on a global basis.”
CEO Braga and CTO André Penha came up with the idea for QuintoAndar after receiving their MBAs at Stanford University. As many startups do, the company was founded out of Braga’s personal “nightmare” of an experience — in this case, of trying to rent an apartment in Sao Paulo.
The search process, he recalls, was difficult as there was not enough information available online and renters were forced to provide a guarantor, or co-signer, from the same city or pay rent insurance, which Braga described as “very expensive.”
“Overall, I felt it was a very inefficient and fragmented process with no transparency or tech,” Braga told me at the time of the company’s last raise. “There was all this friction and high cost involved, just real tangible problems to solve.”
The concept for QuintoAndar (which can be translated literally to “Fifth Floor” in Portuguese) was born.
“Little by little, we created a platform that consolidated supply and inventory in a uniform way,” Braga said.
The company took the search phase online for the first time, according to Braga. It also eliminated the need for tenants to provide a guarantor, thereby saving them money. On the other side, QuintoAndar also works to help protect the landlord with the guarantee that they will get their rent “on time every month,” Braga said.
It’s been interesting watching the company evolve and grow over time, just as it’s been fascinating seeing the region’s startup scene mature and shine in recent years.
Augmented reality and non-fungible tokens, need I say more? Yes? Oh, well NFTs have certainly had their moment in 2021, but the question of what they do or what can be done with them has certainly been getting voiced more frequently as the speculative gold rush begins to cool off and people start to think more about how digital goods can evolve in the future.
Anima, a small creative crypto startup built by the founders of photo/video app Ultravisual, which Flipboard acquired back in 2014, is looking to use AR to shift how NFT art and collectibles can be viewed and shared. Their latest venture is an effort to help artists bring their digital creations to a bigger digital stage and help find what the future of NFTs looks like in augmented reality.
The startup has put together a small $500K pre-seed round from Coinbase Ventures, Divergence Ventures, Flamingo DAO, Lyle Owerko and Andrew Unger.
“As NFTs move away from being a more speculative market where it’s all about returns on your purchases, I think that’s healthy and it’s good for us specifically because we want to make things that are more approachable,” co-founder Alex Herrity says.
Their broader vision is finding ways for digital objects to interact with the real world, something that’s been a pretty top-of-mind concern for the AR world over the last few years, though augmented reality development has cooled more recently as creators have sunk into a wait-and-see attitude toward new releases from Apple and Facebook. Both the AR and NFT spaces are incredibly early, something Anima’s co-founders were quick to admit, but they think both spaces have matured enough that the gimmicks are out in the open.
“There’s a context shift that happens when you see AR as a vehicle to have a tactile relationship with something that you collected or that you see is a lifestyle accessory versus the common thing now where it’s a little bit more of an experiential gimmick,” co-founder Neil Voss tells TechCrunch.
The team has worked with a couple artists already as they’ve made early experiments in bringing digital art objects into AR and they’re launching a marketplace late next month based on ConsenSys’s Palm platform, where they hope to showcase more of their future partnerships.
The NFT world is all about reshaping the idea of digital ownership, but art hardware startup Infinite Objects sees a big opportunity in making physical copies of those assets as it looks to reshape digital art and collectibles.
The startup makes screens that show a single video from a single artist and don’t do anything else. You can’t download apps to the screens or upload your own photos to them or check the time or weather. If you even want another piece of art from Infinite Objects, you can’t just download it, you have to actually go to their site and buy another display with that artwork on it. Each screen boasts information about the work, edition numbers and serial numbers etched on the back of it, inextricably tying the physical display to the work that it displays.
Infinite Objects CEO Joe Saavedra tells TechCrunch they’ve raised $6 million in seed funding from a host of backers including Courtside VC, which led the deal, and NBA Top Shot creator Dapper Labs.
For the longest time, Infinite Objects was an NFT platform without the NFTs. The company has worked with artists since 2018 to make (often limited run) series of physical display frames highlighting a specific digital work of the artist that looped forever. Sure, users could watch that looping video on the Infinite Objects website whenever they wanted, but the value was in owning an official copy of that artist’s work. Sound familiar?
When the wider popularity of NFTs as a speculative asset hit earlier this year, Saavedra saw a huge opportunity as internet users began discussing the future of digital art and digital scarcity. His team had already flirted with NFTs, partnering with artist Beeple back in December — months before he would spring out of relative obscurity in art circles with a $69 million sale at the Christie’s auction house — to release “physical tokens” of NFTs he was selling on the platform Nifty Gateway.
— beeple (@beeple) December 11, 2020
Saavedra sees a bigger opportunity for companies and creators in the NFT world to make their assets more approachable and understandable to a general audience with what his company is building, but he also sees a chance to transform NFTs from blind ownership to something more focused on actually appreciating the digital art that’s been purchased.
“When it comes to ownership, it’s exciting to be buying an NFT for $500 or $5,000, but what’s not exciting is having to open Safari on your phone to show it off,” Saavedra tells TechCrunch. “This physical vessel that we’ve designed is just so understandable for people who maybe don’t even understand what the blockchain at all, but they certainly understand limited edition physical merchandise.”
Saavedra is dismissive of other digital displays that cycle through artwork and says that art owners could also just toss images of their NFTs onto the TV if they wanted to, but that they all only serve up art as “glorified screensavers.”
The team at Infinite Objects sees broader opportunities in the NFT world but they’ve been tight-lipped on exactly what these efforts will look like. You can see some potential hints in the list of backers in this round, including most interestingly NBA Top Shot creator Dapper Labs. The startup has been building out its own blockchain called Flow and Saavedra was quick to sing its praises in our conversation, noting that its more scalable and sustainable than the Ethereum network. Dapper Labs recently announced its first major third-party NFT platform, partnering with avatar startup Genies –another investor in this round — for a digital accessories storefront that’s being launched this summer.
Serena Ventures, Betaworks, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, GFR Fund, Kevin Durant & Rich Kleiman, Genies, and Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures also participated in the round.
Along with the stock market, cryptocurrency is also seeing an uptick among retail investors in Indonesia. Pintu, a platform focused on first-time cryptocurrency buyers, announced today it has raised a $6 million Series A, led by Pantera Capital, Intudo Ventures and Coinbase Ventures.
Other participants in the round included Blockchain.com Ventures, Castle Island Ventures and Alameda Ventures.
The Indonesian Commodity Futures Trading Regulatory Agency (also known as Bappepti) began regulating Bitcoin and other cryptoassets as commodities two years ago, paving the way for licensed brokers like Pintu. Founded last year by Jeth Soetoyo to make it easier for first-time investors to purchase Bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies, Pintu is registered under Bappebti and the Ministry of Communication and Informatics as a licensed cryptoassets broker.
A wave of interest in capital investing during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among millennials who want alternatives to keeping their money in low-yield savings accounts, spurred interest in investment apps like Ajaib, Bibit and Pluang, which have all recently raised funding.
Many first-time investors are also looking at cryptocurrencies. According to Pintu’s internal estimates, last year Indonesia processed $10 billion USD in cryptoassets transactions, mostly through retail investors.
Pintu chief operating officer Andrew Adjiputro told TechCrunch in an email that many Indonesian retail traders see crypto as an alternative investment asset class, and that the majority of retail investors are aged 20 to 35 years old. But the company is starting to see more older investors as crypto gains popularity.
“Based on our internal survey, in terms of public’s top of mind asset classes, we see crypto as a top three asset class in Indonesia, alongside gold and mutual funds,” he said.
Other Indonesian cryptocurrency exchanges include Indodax and Tokocrypto. When asked how Pintu differentiates, Adjiputro said it focuses on the mass market to reach mainly first-time crypto users, and its value proposition lies in its mobile-first app, easy user experience and educational materials developed by the company.
“For most Indonesians, the concept of investing and trading is new, because historically penetration in these categories have been so low,” he explained. “So what we’re seeing is also the opportunity to help Indonesians understand the concept of investing/trading and along the way leapfrog investments into other asset classes. What this means is that there is a large base of underserved first time investors that demand a simple and intuitive trading platform where they are handheld from the start to finish and also educated on the fundamentals of investing/trading on top of that of crypto.”
Pintu’s new funding will be used on marketing, hiring and product development.
As of now, one fo the UK’s biggest and most active tech VCs has a new partner. Principal Colin Hanna has spearheaded several of Balderton’s deals in the past couple of years, and has now been appointed a Partner. But there’s a twist to this plot. He will be officially based in Berlin (where he’s lived since 2019), thus giving the VC a more powerful reach, being based, as it is, solely in London.
Hanna said: “Having been with Balderton for five years, I am humbled to now call my mentors my Partners. I look forward to strengthening Balderton’s unique approach from Berlin as we engineer serendipity for European founders with planet-scale ambition.”
Bernard Liautaud, Managing Partner of Balderton commented: “We are delighted to announce Colin’s promotion to Partner. Since he joined Balderton in 2016, Colin has had a significant impact on both Balderton and our portfolio… Colin has strengthened our position in DACH by establishing our permanent presence in Berlin and bringing in Shikha Ahluwalia, whom we are delighted to have. In addition, he was instrumental in the definition of the Balderton Sustainable Future Goals. We have no doubt Colin will be highly successful in his new role.”
The story does not end there, however. Joining him will be tech entrepreneur and founder Shikha Ahluwalia as an Associate covering the DACH region.
co-founded SBL, the D2C women’s fashion e-commerce company in India. Prior to that she was had a tech advisory boutique, and was previously with JP Morgan’s Investment Banking Division in London.
Balderton has 10 current investments across DACH including Contentful, Infarm, SOPHiA Genetics, McMakler, Demodesk, and vivenu.
Ahluwalia commented: “Over the past few years, I have seen the DACH start-up ecosystem evolve rapidly. We at Balderton believe the next European giant will be a technology company and know that the DACH ecosystem plays a significant role in helping form category-leading technology companies. As a former founder myself, I have first-hand experience with the unique challenges of running young businesses. I am excited to contribute and support founders on their own journey as part of Balderton Capital.”
Speaking to me over an interview Hanna said: “Shikha’s hiring deepens our commitment to the local Berlin ecosystem and to the DACH region more broadly. We have been actively supporting Founders in Germany for more than a decade.”
After spending his childhood in Jakarta and Hong Kong, and picking up a degree in Political Economy, Hanna has carved out a career in venture investing – at Balderton since July 4, 2016 – looking at it through the prism on the rise of urban living, grassroots-driven technologies like open source and crypto, and the political ramifications of technology.
He sits on the Board of companies like e-bikes startup VanMoof, Finoa (a crypto custodian), Rahko (quantum computing drug discovery, and helped lead on investments into Traefik and Luno and Vivenu).
One these you might pick up from all those is that they err towards the ‘purpose-driven’ side of the equation.
He told me: “I believe the next generation of Founders, particularly in Europe, care more about just their bank accounts and want to build companies that generate impact and are not afraid to take a view on how they want the world to change. Measuring this is a challenge and something we are trying to do with our SFGs at Balderton which I helped spearhead. I believe that when companies like Coinbase and others go “apolitical” they commit themselves to defending the structural status quo rather than becoming agents of deliberate change.”
“My point about purpose driven companies is that when I think when employees want to work with companies believe in their values and you try to tell them those aren’t important, that could be viewed as political. I don’t think we should be we should be muffling the employees.”
Does he think Coinbase, and also recent more recently Basecamp / 37 Signals were wrong to so-called ‘depoliticize’ their businesses?
“I think, I think every CEO is free to run their company how they see fit. But I think that that poses challenges for them on the talent side. I understand, as an American, how charged and how destructive the political climate became, and so I can really understand and empathize why certain choices were made at that time, because you get to a point where that where the conversation becomes toxic… I hope that the steps that they’ve taken, don’t strangle dialogue and conversation that’s constructive about how we want to make an impact and change the world, either as individuals or with the companies we work for,” he said.
Hanna also told me that he think VCs should be wary that the shift to remote will make it easier to invest more widely. “You have to more background checks on founders now, and things like that. But is it a ‘little bit’ more dangerous or is it ‘50% more dangerous’ the fact that people aren’t meeting up in person?”
Over the past several years I’ve covered my fair share of upstart avatar companies that were all chasing the same dream — building out a customizable platform for a digital persona that gained wide adoption across games and digital spaces. Few of those startups I’ve covered in the past are still around. But by netting a string of successful partnerships with celebrity musicians, LA-based Genies has come closer than any startup before it to realizing the full vision of a wide-reaching avatar platform.
The company announced today that they’ve closed a $65 million Series B led by Mary Meeker’s firm Bond. NEA, Breyer Capital, Tull Investment Group, NetEase, Dapper Labs and Coinbase Ventures also participated in the deal. Mary Meeker will be joining the Genies board. The company didn’t disclose the Genies’ most recent valuation.
This funding comes at an inflection point for the eight-year-old company, evidenced by the investments from NBA Top Shot-maker Dapper Labs and crypto giant Coinbase. As announced last week, the company is rolling out an NFT platform on Dapper Labs’ Flow blockchain, partnering closely with the startup, which will be building out the backend for a Genies avatar accessories storefront. Like Dapper Labs has leveraged its exclusive deals with sports leagues to ship NFTs with official backing, Genies is planning to capitalize on its partnerships with celebrities in its roster, including Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Cardi B and others to create a platform for buying and trading avatar accessories en masse.
In October, the company announced a brand partnership with Gucci, opening the startup to another big market opportunity.
Genies’ business has largely focused on leveraging high-profile partnerships to give its entertainer clients a digital presence that can spice up what they’re sharing on social media and beyond. As they’ve rolled out avatar creation to all users through beta mobile apps, Genies has been focusing on one of the more explicit dreams of the avatar companies before it; building out a broad network of avatar users and a broad network of compatible platforms through its SDK.
“An avatar is a vehicle to be able to showcase more of your authentic self,” Genies CEO Akash Nigam tells TechCrunch. “It’s not limited by real-world constraints, it’s an alter-ego personality.”
Trends in the NFT world have provided new realms of exploration for Genies, but so have broader pandemic-era trends that have pushed more users to wholly digital spaces where they socialize and connect. “The pandemic accelerated everything,” Nigam says.
Nigam emphasizes that despite the major opportunity its upcoming NFT platform will present, Genies is still an avatar company first-and-foremost, not an NFT startup, though he does say he is believes crypto-backed digital goods are going to be around for a long time. He has few doubts that the current environment around digital goods helped juice Genies’ funding round, which he says was “6-8X oversubscribed” and was an opportunistic play for the startup, which “could have gone years without having to raise.”
The company says their crypto marketplace will launch in the coming months, as early as this summer.
Remote work is no longer a new topic, as much of the world has now been doing it for a year or more because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Companies — big and small — have had to react in myriad ways. Many of the initial challenges have focused on workflow, productivity and the like. But one aspect of the whole remote work shift that is not getting as much attention is the culture angle.
A 100% remote startup that was tackling the issue way before COVID-19 was even around is now seeing a big surge in demand for its offering that aims to help companies address the “people” challenge of remote work. It started its life with the name Icebreaker to reflect the aim of “breaking the ice” with people with whom you work.
“We designed the initial version of our product as a way to connect people who’d never met, kind of virtual speed dating,” says co-founder and CEO Perry Rosenstein. “But we realized that people were using it for far more than that.”
So over time, its offering has evolved to include a bigger goal of helping people get together beyond an initial encounter –– hence its new name: Gatheround.
“For remote companies, a big challenge or problem that is now bordering on a crisis is how to build connection, trust and empathy between people that aren’t sharing a physical space,” says co-founder and COO Lisa Conn. “There’s no five-minute conversations after meetings, no shared meals, no cafeterias — this is where connection organically builds.”
Organizations should be concerned, Gatheround maintains, that as we move more remote, that work will become more transactional and people will become more isolated. They can’t ignore that humans are largely social creatures, Conn said.
The startup aims to bring people together online through real-time events such as a range of chats, videos and one-on-one and group conversations. The startup also provides templates to facilitate cultural rituals and learning & development (L&D) activities, such as all-hands meetings and workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Gatheround’s video conversations aim to be a refreshing complement to Slack conversations, which despite serving the function of communication, still don’t bring users face-to-face.
Image Credits: Gatheround
Since its inception, Gatheround has quietly built up an impressive customer base, including 28 Fortune 500s, 11 of the 15 biggest U.S. tech companies, 26 of the top 30 universities and more than 700 educational institutions. Specifically, those users include Asana, Coinbase, Fiverr, Westfield and DigitalOcean. Universities, academic centers and nonprofits, including Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are also customers. To date, Gatheround has had about 260,000 users hold 570,000 conversations on its SaaS-based, video platform.
All its growth so far has been organic, mostly referrals and word of mouth. Now, armed with $3.5 million in seed funding that builds upon a previous $500,000 raised, Gatheround is ready to aggressively go to market and build upon the momentum it’s seeing.
Venture firms Homebrew and Bloomberg Beta co-led the company’s latest raise, which included participation from angel investors such as Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson, Meetup co-founder Scott Heiferman, Li Jin and Lenny Rachitsky.
Co-founders Rosenstein, Conn and Alexander McCormmach describe themselves as “experienced community builders,” having previously worked on President Obama’s campaigns as well as at companies like Facebook, Change.org and Hustle.
The trio emphasize that Gatheround is also very different from Zoom and video conferencing apps in that its platform gives people prompts and organized ways to get to know and learn about each other as well as the flexibility to customize events.
“We’re fundamentally a connection platform, here to help organizations connect their people via real-time events that are not just really fun, but meaningful,” Conn said.
Homebrew Partner Hunter Walk says his firm was attracted to the company’s founder-market fit.
“They’re a really interesting combination of founders with all this experience community building on the political activism side, combined with really great product, design and operational skills,” he told TechCrunch. “It was kind of unique that they didn’t come out of an enterprise product background or pure social background.”
He was also drawn to the personalized nature of Gatheround’s platform, considering that it has become clear over the past year that the software powering the future of work “needs emotional intelligence.”
“Many companies in 2020 have focused on making remote work more productive. But what people desire more than ever is a way to deeply and meaningfully connect with their colleagues,” Walk said. “Gatheround does that better than any platform out there. I’ve never seen people come together virtually like they do on Gatheround, asking questions, sharing stories and learning as a group.”
James Cham, partner at Bloomberg Beta, agrees with Walk that the founding team’s knowledge of behavioral psychology, group dynamics and community building gives them an edge.
“More than anything, though, they care about helping the world unite and feel connected, and have spent their entire careers building organizations to make that happen,” he said in a written statement. “So it was a no-brainer to back Gatheround, and I can’t wait to see the impact they have on society.”
The 14-person team will likely expand with the new capital, which will also go toward helping adding more functionality and details to the Gatheround product.
“Even before the pandemic, remote work was accelerating faster than other forms of work,” Conn said. “Now that’s intensified even more.”
Gatheround is not the only company attempting to tackle this space. Ireland-based Workvivo last year raised $16 million and earlier this year, Microsoft launched Viva, its new “employee experience platform.”
Following a controversial ban on political discussions earlier this week, Basecamp employees are heading for the exits. The company employs around 60 people, and roughly a third of the company appears to have accepted buyouts to leave, many citing new company policies.
On Monday, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried anounced in a blog post that employees would no longer be allowed to openly share their “societal and political discussions” at work.
“Every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant,” Fried wrote. “You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target.”
Basecamp’s departures are significant. According to Twitter posts, Basecamp’s head of design, head of marketing and head of customer support will all depart. The company’s iOS team also appears to have quit en masse.
The no-politics rule at Basecamp follows a similar stance that Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong staked out late last year. Armstrong also denounced debates around “causes or political candidates” arguing that such discussions distracted from the company’s core work. About 60 members of Coinbase’s 1,200 person staff took buyouts in light of the internal policy change — a ratio that makes the exodus at Basecamp look even more dramatic.
Like Coinbase, Basecamp was immediately criticized for muzzling its employees over important issues, many of which disproportionately impact marginalized employees.
Drawing the line on “political” topics becomes murky very quickly for any non-white or LGBTQ employees, for whom many issues that might be seen as political in nature in some circles — the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance — are inextricably and deeply personal. It’s not a coincidence these grand stands against divisive “politics” at work issue down from white male tech executives.
“If you’re in doubt as to whether your choice of forum or topic for a discussion is appropriate, please ask before posting,” Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson wrote in his own blog post, echoing Fried.
According to Platformer, Fried’s missive didn’t tell the whole story. Basecamp employees instead said the tension arose from internal conversations about the company itself and its commitment to DEI work, not free-floating arguments about political candidates. Fried’s blog post does mention one particular source of tension in a roundabout way, referencing an employee-led DEI initiative that would be disbanded.
“We make project management, team communication, and email software,” Fried wrote. “We are not a social impact company.”
If there has ever been a golden age for fintech, it surely must be now. As of Q1 2021, the number of fintech startups in the U.S. crossed 10,000 for the first time ever — well more than double that if you include EMEA and APAC. There are now three fintech companies worth more than $100 billion (Paypal, Square and Shopify) with another three in the $50 billion-$100 billion club (Stripe, Adyen and Coinbase).
Yet, as fintech companies have begun to go public, there has been a fair amount of uncertainty as to how these companies will be valued on the public markets. This is a result of fintechs being relatively new to the IPO scene compared to their consumer internet or enterprise software counterparts. In addition, fintechs employ a wide variety of business models: Some are transactional, others are recurring or have hybrid business models.
In addition, fintechs now have a multitude of options in terms of how they choose to go public. They can take the traditional IPO route, pursue a direct listing or merge with a SPAC. Given the multitude of variables at play, valuing these companies and then predicting public market performance is anything but straightforward.
It is important to note that fintech is a complex category with many different types of players, and not all fintech is created equal.
For much of the past two decades, fintech as a category has been very quiet on the public markets. But that began to change considerably by the mid-2010s. Fintech had clearly arrived by 2015, with both Square and Shopify going public that year. Last year was a record one with eight fintech IPOs, and there has been no slowdown in 2021 — the first four months have already produced seven IPOs. By our estimates, there are more than 15 additional fintech companies that could IPO this year. The current record will almost certainly be shattered well before the end of the year.
Image Credits: Oak HC/FT
Restoring and preserving the world’s forests has long been considered one of the easiest, lowest cost, and simplest ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
It’s by far the most popular method for corporations looking to take an easy first step on the long road to decarbonizing or offsetting their industrial operations. But in recent months the efficacy, validity, and reliability of a number of forest offsets have been called into question thanks to some blockbuster reporting from Bloomberg.
It’s against this uncertain backdrop that investors are coming in to shore up financing for Pachama, a company building a marketplace for forest carbon credits that it says is more transparent and verifiable thanks to its use of satellite imagery and machine learning technologies.
That pitch has brought in $15 million in new financing for the company, which co-founder and chief executive Diego Saez Gil said would be used for product development and the continued expansion of the company’s marketplace.
Launched only one year ago, Pachama has managed to land some impressive customers and backers. No less an authority on things environmental than Jeff Bezos (given how much of a negative impact Amazon operations have on the planet), gave the company a shoutout in his last letter to shareholders as Amazon’s outgoing chief executive. And the largest ecommerce company in Latin America, Mercado Libre, tapped the company to manage an $8 million offset project that’s part of a broader commitment to sustainability by the retailing giant.
Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund is an investor in the latest round, which was led by Bill Gates’ investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Other investors included Lowercarbon Capital (the climate-focused fund from über-successful angel investor, Chris Sacca), former Über executive Ryan Graves’ Saltwater, the MCJ Collective, and new backers like Tim O’Reilly’s OATV, Ram Fhiram, Joe gebbia, Marcos Galperin, NBA All-star Manu Ginobilli, James Beshara, Fabrice Grinda, Sahil Lavignia, and Tomi Pierucci.
That’s not even the full list of the company’s backers. What’s made Pachama so successful, and given the company the ability to attract top talent from companies like Google, Facebook, SapceX, Tesla, OpenAI, Microsoft, Impossible Foods and Orbital Insights, is the combination of its climate mission applied to the well-understood forest offset market, said Saez Gil.
“Restoring nature is one of the most important solutions to climate change. Forests, oceans and other ecosystems not only sequester enormous amounts of CO2from the atmosphere, but they also provide critical habitat for biodiversity and are sources of livelihood for communities worldwide. We are building the technology stack required to be able to drive funding to the restoration and conservation of these ecosystems with integrity, transparency and efficiency” said Diego Saez Gil, Co-founder and CEO at Pachama. “We feel honored and excited to have the support of such an incredible group of investors who believe in our mission and are demonstrating their willingness to support our growth for the long term”.
Customers outside of Latin America are also clamoring for access to Pachama’s offset marketplace. Microsoft, Shopify, and Softbank are also among the company’s paying buyers.
It’s another reason that investors like Y Combinator, Social Capital, Tobi Lutke, Serena Williams, Aglaé Ventures (LVMH’s tech investment arm), Paul Graham, AirAngels, Global Founders, ThirdKind Ventures, Sweet Capital, Xplorer Capital, Scott Belsky, Tim Schumacher, Gustaf Alstromer, Facundo Garreton, and Terrence Rohan, were able to commit to backing the company’s nearly $24 million haul since its 2020 launch.
“Pachama is working on unlocking the full potential of nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Carmichael Roberts from BEV, in a statement. “Their technology-based approach will have an enormous multiplier effect by using machine learning models for forest analysis to validate, monitor and measure impactful carbon neutrality initiatives. We are impressed by the progress that the team has made in a short period of time and look forward to working with them to scale their unique solution globally.”
Institutions need to keep their crypto assets somewhere. And they aren’t going to keep it on some random, or consumer-grade crypto operation. This requires more sophisticated technology. Furthermore, being in the EU is going to be a key barrier to entry for many US or Asia-based operations.
Thus it is that Berlin-based digital asset custody and financial services platform
Finoa, has closed a $22 million Series A funding round, to do just that.
The round was led by Balderton Capital, alongside existing investors Coparion, Venture Stars and Signature Ventures, as well as an undisclosed investor.
Crucially, the Berlin-based startup works with Dapper Lab’s FLOW protocol, NEAR, and Mina, which are fast becoming standards for crypto assets. They are going up against large players such as Anchorage, Coinbase Custody, Bitgo, exchanges like Binance and Kraken, and self-custody solutions like Ledger.
Finoa says it now has over 250 customers, including T-Systems, DeFi-natives like CoinList and financial institutions like Bankhaus Scheich.
The company says its plan is to become a regulated platform for institutional investors and corporations to manage their digital assets and it has received a preliminary crypto custody license and is supervised by the German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin).
The company was founded in 2018 by Christopher May and Henrik Ebbing, but both had previously worked together at McKinsey and started working in blockchain in 2017.
May commented: “We are proud to have established Finoa as Europe’s leading gateway for institutional participation and incredibly excited to accelerate our growth even further. We look forward to supporting new exciting protocols and projects, empowering innovative corporate use cases, and adding additional (decentralized) financial products and services to our platform.”
Colin Hanna, Principal at Balderton Capital, who leads most of Balderton’s Crypto investments, said: “Chris, Henrik, and the entire Finoa team have built a deeply impressive business which bridges the highest levels of professionalism with radical innovation. As custodians of digital asset private keys, Finoa needs to be trusted both with the secure management of those keys and with the products and services that allow their clients to fully leverage the power of native digital assets. The team they have assembled is uniquely positioned to do just that.”
May added: “We identified a lack of sophisticated custody and asset servicing solutions for safeguarding and managing blockchain-based digital assets that successfully cover the needs of institutional investors. Finoa is bridging this gap by providing seamless, safe, and regulated access to the world of digital assets.”
“Being in the European Union requires a fundamentally different organizational setup, and poses a very high entry to new incumbents and other players overseas. There are few that have managed to do what Finoa has done in a European context and hence why we now see ourselves in a leading position.”
The two founders of Crusoe Energy think they may have a solution to two of the largest problems facing the planet today — the increasing energy footprint of the tech industry and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the natural gas industry.
Crusoe, which uses excess natural gas from energy operations to power data centers and cryptocurrency mining operations, has just raised $128 million in new financing from some of the top names in the venture capital industry to build out its operations — and the timing couldn’t be better.
Methane emissions are emerging as a new area of focus for researchers and policymakers focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and keeping global warming within the 1.5 degree targets set under the Paris Agreement. And those emissions are just what Crusoe Energy is capturing to power its data centers and bitcoin mining operations.
The reason why addressing methane emissions is so critical in the short term is because these greenhouse gases trap more heat than their carbon dioxide counterparts and also dissipate more quickly. So dramatic reductions in methane emissions can do more in the short term to alleviate the global warming pressures that human industry is putting on the environment.
And the biggest source of methane emissions is the oil and gas industry. In the U.S. alone roughly 1.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas is flared daily, said Chase Lochmiller, a co-founder of Crusoe Energy. About two thirds of that is flared in Texas with another 500 million cubic feet flared in North Dakota, where Crusoe has focused its operations to date.
For Lochmiller, a former quant trader at some of the top American financial services institutions, and Cully Cavmess, a third generation oil and gas scion, the ability to capture natural gas and harness it for computing operations is a natural combination of the two men’s interests in financial engineering and environmental preservation.
NEW TOWN, ND – AUGUST 13: View of three oil wells and flaring of natural gas on The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near New Town, ND on August 13, 2014. About 100 million dollars worth of natural gas burns off per month because a pipeline system isn’t in place yet to capture and safely transport it . The Three Affiliated Tribes on Fort Berthold represent Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations. It’s also at the epicenter of the fracking and oil boom that has brought oil royalties to a large number of native americans living there. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The two Denver natives met in prep-school and remained friends. When Lochmiller left for MIT and Cavness headed off to Middlebury they didn’t know that they’d eventually be launching a business together. But through Lochmiller’s exposure to large scale computing and the financial services industry, and Cavness assumption of the family business they came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way to address the massive waste associated with natural gas.
Conversation around Crusoe Energy began in 2018 when Lochmiller and Cavness went climbing in the Rockies to talk about Lochmiller’s trip to Mt. Everest.
When the two men started building their business, the initial focus was on finding an environmentally friendly way to deal with the energy footprint of bitcoin mining operations. It was this pitch that brought the company to the attention of investors at Polychain, the investment firm started by Olaf Carlson-Wee (and Lochmiller’s former employer), and investors like Bain Capital Ventures and new investor Valor Equity Partners.
(This was also the pitch that Lochmiller made to me to cover the company’s seed round. At the time I was skeptical of the company’s premise and was worried that the business would just be another way to prolong the use of hydrocarbons while propping up a cryptocurrency that had limited actual utility beyond a speculative hedge against governmental collapse. I was wrong on at least one of those assessments.)
“Regarding questions about sustainability, Crusoe has a clear standard of only pursuing projects that are net reducers of emissions. Generally the wells that Crusoe works with are already flaring and would continue to do so in the absence of Crusoe’s solution. The company has turned down numerous projects where they would be a buyer of low cost gas from a traditional pipeline because they explicitly do not want to be net adders of demand and emissions,” wrote a spokesman for Valor Equity in an email. “In addition, mining is increasingly moving to renewables and Crusoe’s approach to stranded energy can enable better economics for stranded or marginalized renewables, ultimately bringing more renewables into the mix. Mining can provide an interruptible base load demand that can be cut back when grid demand increases, so overall the effect to incentivize the addition of more renewable energy sources to the grid.”
Other investors have since piled on including: Lowercarbon Capital, DRW Ventures, Founders Fund, Coinbase Ventures, KCK Group, Upper90, Winklevoss Capital, Zigg Capital and Tesla co-founder JB Straubel.
The company now operate 40 modular data centers powered by otherwise wasted and flared natural gas throughout North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Next year that number should expand to 100 units as Crusoe enters new markets such as Texas and New Mexico. Since launching in 2018, Crusoe has emerged as a scalable solution to reduce flaring through energy intensive computing such as bitcoin mining, graphical rendering, artificial intelligence model training and even protein folding simulations for COVID-19 therapeutic research.
Crusoe boasts 99.9% combustion efficiency for its methane, and is also bringing additional benefits in the form of new networking buildout at its data center and mining sites. Eventually, this networking capacity could lead to increased connectivity for rural communities surrounding the Crusoe sites.
Currently, 80% of the company’s operations are being used for bitcoin mining, but there’s increasing demand for use in data center operations and some universities, including Lochmiller’s alma mater of MIT are looking at the company’s offerings for their own computing needs.
“That’s very much in an incubated phase right now,” said Lochmiller. “A private alpha where we have a few test customers… we’ll make that available for public use later this year.”
Crusoe Energy Systems should have the lowest data center operating costs in the world, according to Lochmiller and while the company will spend money to support the infrastructure buildout necessary to get the data to customers, those costs are negligible when compared to energy consumption, Lochmiller said.
The same holds true for bitcoin mining, where the company can offer an alternative to coal powered mining operations in China and the construction of new renewable capacity that wouldn’t be used to service the grid. As cryptocurrencies look for a way to blunt criticism about the energy usage involved in their creation and distribution, Crusoe becomes an elegant solution.
Institutional and regulatory tailwinds are also propelling the company forward. Recently New Mexico passed new laws limiting flaring and venting to no more than 2 percent of an operator’s production by April of next year and North Dakota is pushing for incentives to support on-site flare capture systems while Wyoming signed a law creating incentives for flare gas reduction applied to bitcoin mining. The world’s largest financial services firms are also taking a stand against flare gas with BlackRock calling for an end to routine flaring by 2025.
“Where we view our power consumption, we draw a very clear line in our project evaluation stage where we’re reducing emissions for an oil and gas projects,” Lochmiller said.
Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading.
A week ago TechCrunch covered Pico’s $6.5 million funding round and described it as “a New York startup that helps online creators and media companies make money and manage their customer data.” The Exchange has also covered Pico before, most recently during a mid-2020 dive into the world of indie pubs and subscription media.
While our own Anthony Ha did an inimitable job covering the Pico round, I got on a Zoom call with the company, as well, as their new capital came with a relaunch of sorts that I wanted to better understand.
The Pico team walked me through what’s changed at their business by describing the historical progress of creative digital tooling. They said earlier eras in the space focused on content hosting and distribution. In the startup’s view, a new generation of creative-focused tooling will bring the market to an era in which content management systems, or CMSs — say, Substack or WordPress — will not own the center of tooling. Instead, monetization will.
That’s Pico’s bet, and so it’s building what it considers to be an operating system for the creator market. My gut read is that a creative digital world that centers around monetization sounds like one that is more lucrative than what preceding eras brought us.
Pico’s view is that regardless of where someone first builds their audience, they eventually go multi-SKU — or multi-platform, perhaps — so keeping a single, centralized register of customer data may prove critical.
The startup’s revamped service is a bit of a monetization tool, as before, along with a creator-focused CRM that sits atop your CMS or other digital output on any particular platform. So far customer growth at the company looks good, growing by about 5x in the last year. Let’s see how far Pico can ride its vision, and if it can help build out a middle class in the creator economy.
Somewhat lost in our circles amid the hype regarding Instacart’s epic COVID period is the fact that most folks still go to stores to buy their fruit and veg, as our friends in the UK might say.
Grocers did not forget the fact. But their historically thin margins and rising competition for customer ownership in the Instacart era hasn’t left them too secure. How can they pursue a more digitally enabled strategy without outsourcing their customer relationship to a third party?
Swiftly might be part of the answer. The startup is building technology that may help grocery chains of all sizes go digital, take advantage of modern mobile technology, and generate more incomes via ads, while offering consumers more shopping options. Neat, yeah?
The startup has raised a little over $15 million to date, per Crunchbase data, but came back into our minds thanks to the launch of a deal with the Dollar Tree company, a consumer retailer that has around one zillion stores in America.
I’ve been aware of Swiftly for ages, having met its co-founder Henry Kim back when he was building Sneakpeeq, which later became Symphony Commerce. The latter company was eventually bought by Quantum Retail. But during my chats with Kim over the years in and around San Francisco, he consistently brought up the grocery market, a space he’d had experience in before building Symphony Commerce.
After hearing Kim hype up the possibilities for grocery and digital for a half decade or so, to see the company that came out of his hopes and planning land a major partner is fun.
Swiftly provides two main products, a retail system and a media service. The retail side of its business provides checkout services, loyalty programs, personalized offers and the like for mobile shoppers. And the media side allows IRL grocers to snag a bit of the consumer packaged goods (CPG) ad spend that they often miss out on, while looping in analytics to provide better attribution to the impact of ads sold.
I expect that Swiftly will raise more capital in the next few quarters now that it has a big, public deal out. More when we have it.
Over the past two weeks The Exchange has written quite a lot about the UiPath IPO. Probably too much. But to catch you up just in case, the company’s first IPO pricing range looked like a warning for late-stage investors as the resulting valuations were a bit lower than anticipated. Next the company raised that range, ameliorating if not eliminating our earlier concern. Then the company priced above its raised range, though still at a discount to its final private round. Then it gained ground after starting to trade, and its CFO was like, we did good.
To dig even more into the company’s private-public valuation saga, The Exchange asked B2B investor Dharmesh Thakker, a general partner at Battery Ventures, about his take on the company’s final private round in the context of it landing a bit higher than where the company eventually priced its IPO. Here’s what he had to say:
[T]here was smart money involved in that round. These are people who understand that material value creation happens 3-5 years post IPO, as we have seen with Twilio, Atlassian, MongoDB, Okta, and Crowdstrike who have increased value 5-10x post IPO.
Right now, UIPath has only 1% penetration at $608M revenue in a $60B automation market, and the urgency around intelligent process automation for repetitive tasks is only increasing post-COVID. Companies need help managing their costs with automation. So, as the company penetrates its target market and grows over time, UIPath will drive ongoing value, which pre-IPO and IPO stage investors realize. They will be patient.”
He’s bullish, in other words. A more acerbic take on the UiPath IPO came in from PitchBook analyst Brendan Burke. Here’s what he had to say about the company and its market:
RPA has scaled rapidly due to the demand for automation yet remains a limited solution that may lack durable value. Due to its reliance on custom scripts, we view RPA as a bridge technology to cloud-native AI automation that faces competitive risk from AI-native challengers. The future of enterprise automation is for front-line users to deploy cloud-native machine learning models that can adapt to dynamic data streams and make accurate decisions. UiPath’s implementations are not cloud-native and require third party integrations with around 75 AI model vendors for intelligent decision-making. Additionally, the company lists the ability to recruit AI engineers as a risk factor for the business. UiPath’s ability to expand across the AI value chain will be critical for its long-term prospects.
I include that remark as it can be, at times, hard to get actual negative commentary out of the broader analyst world, as people are so terrified of being rude.
Scooting along, there’s a new SPAC deal out this week that I wanted to flag for you: SmartRent is merging with Fifth Wall Acquisition Corp. I. SmartRent raised more than $100 million while private, according to Crunchbase data, from RET Ventures, Spark Capital and Bain Capital Ventures, among others.
So this particular SPAC deal, which puts a $2.2 billion equity valuation on SmartRent, is a material venture-backed exit. You can check its investor deck here. We care about the company as it appears to work in a similar space to Latch, which is also going out via a SPAC. Dueling OS companies for rental units? This should be fun. (More on Latch’s SPAC deal here.)
Finally for our main work today, HYPR raised $35 million this week. Among all the venture capital rounds that I wish I could have written about this week but didn’t get to, HYPR is up there because it promises a password-free future. And having just raised a Series C, it may have a shot at pulling it off. Please god, let it happen.
Oh, and Afterpay’s recent earnings show that the buy-now-pay-later market is still growing like all hell,
Bobby Goodlatte has only been an investor for about a decade, but he appears to have already made tens of millions of dollars, contrary to the expectations of some traditional VCs who have privately, and publicly, griped that too many novice investors have flooded into the industry.
“I remember a very prominent investor saying at the time, ‘All these new angel investors, they’re all going to lose all their money; they’re fools for doing this’,” recalls Goodlatte, who was recruited out of college to become a product designer at Facebook and left four years later, when the company went public. “I’m glad that I didn’t get shaken off of it.”
As it happens, Goodlatte’s second check — from his own pocket — went to Coinbase. It was an auspicious start for Goodlatte, who more recently formed his first institutional fund, Form Capital, with entrepreneur Josh Williams, an outfit that offers up to 40 hours of design help with logos or packaging or whatever else a team might need, with each check that it writes.
We talked with Goodlatte this week about the venture firm and its $12 million debut fund, which is largely funded by Goodlatte (it also counts the fund of funds Cendana Capital as a limited partner). He shared why he thinks the biggest returns in the coming years will flow to very small funds that feature a big financial commitment from the general partners. He talked about investing in other small funds to ensure strong deal flow. He also shared why three months ago he moved to Miami, where he believes a “movement” is afoot. Excerpts from that chat follow, edited lightly for length and clarity.
TC: You were an early designer on Facebook’s user growth team, working with Chamath Palihapitiya, among others. It’s interesting that you stayed for just four years, leaving in 2012 when the company went public.
BG: I had given some thought to staying longer, and obviously many of my friends are still there and have risen in the ranks and done extremely well. I was just very eager to get started as an investor . . . and at the time, Facebook was saying, ‘Well, you can’t stay here and do angel investing.’ Little did I know that some people skirted the rules a bit and ended up angel investing [without leaving]. But I was very excited to dig in and quite glad that I got started when I did [because] my second-ever angel investment was in Coinbase and had I stayed longer, maybe I would have missed that one.
TC: You’ve mentioned in the past that you’d been a Bitcoin nerd and followed some of the discussion threads that others might have missed. What sparked that early interest?
BG: There’s that famous William Gibson quote: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” I think about that in quite literal terms in the sense that there are sort of pockets of the future, these bubble hiding all around. In 2012, think the Bitcoin subreddit was this bubble where, within it, people were talking very excitedly about Bitcoin and if you weren’t in it, you would kind of scratch your head about it. . . . I felt a similar feeling about Facebook back in the day. I was a college student when Facebook launched, and everyone who was in college at the time was kind of privy to this future that was quite obvious amongst college students. But if you weren’t in college, people would kind of scratch their heads and say, ‘I don’t really understand what’s going on.’
TC: Can you comment on your return from Coinbase? You were an investor in the A, C and E rounds. Is there anything you can say about the cash on cash return?
BG: A lot of this is fairly public knowledge at this point, but the Series A cost basis was 20 cents, so folks can kind of do math based on that.
I think so much of startup investing is [that] you can kind of have a prepared mind about things, but there’s also an element of luck about it. I don’t think I had complete foresight when I made the investment that Coinbase was going to be an $80 billion-plus company. I thought it was going to be successful. But it has clearly eclipsed even my greatest expectations, and I feel very lucky and fortunate to have to realized that.
TC: There are various on-ramps to VC these days, including AngelList syndicates and rolling funds. Did you ever take advantage of these or did you keep writing checks from your own pocket before founding Form Capital?
BG: I don’t know if I should should be embarrassed to say this or not, but when I first got my start as an angel, I got advice from financial advisors and who said, ‘When it comes to angel investing, only invest a tiny percentage of your overall net worth into this.’ And to be honest, I maybe foolishly ignored that advice. Obviously, it has netted out in the long term, [but] it was large risk I took. I did 40 deals out of my own pocket. I was sort of getting closer to the end of running out of tape.
[At that point] I wound up investing through a small scout-like fund for a few deals and hit some incredible deals through that [and] I was able to play around, investing at a larger check size. It also helped me sort of step-stone up to doing [Form Capital]. But yeah, I kind of ignored a lot of the advice and put a lot of my own personal net worth into seed-stage investing and thankfully, it all worked out. Otherwise, I could have been in trouble. I think the advice is well-considered.
TC: How might you advise someone just spinning out of, say, Coinbase and thinking about jumping into angel investing? Go it alone? Use one of these other products?
BG: I think it depends on their risk profile and their own appetite and whether they truly enjoy this type of work, because it can become a lot of work. If you want to develop a real portfolio, you have to take a lot of meetings, you have to make yourself available and put yourself out there in a way that I think a lot of folks who wind up getting a very meaningful personal exit may not want. For those folks who are trying to break into venture who haven’t had this sort of exit, I say go for it. I say welcome. Let’s go invest together. Honestly, there’s a lot of space for small check investors. I think the folks writing small collaborative checks have an incredible opportunity to post some insane multiples.
TC: You stress collaboration. Are people more or less collaborative when you started in 2012? Seed-size checks are getting bigger, which suggests things have grown more competitive.
BG: There was a period where it was extremely competitive, and for some folks who are deploying out of a certain fund size, it might feel extremely competitive right now. To me, it feels at its most collaborative, including because I am personally an LP in a number of tiny funds [headed by] tremendously talented managers who are just getting their start . . .
I do think there are a number of funds that raised more than they should have; I think there’s a danger zone somewhere around $80 million where you’re forced to be a lead investor and you can’t be a collaborative investor and so it becomes this slug-it-out, duke-it-out [situation] with other other funds as to who’s going to be the lead writer on a given deal . . .
If you’re aiming to write a large check, let’s say $1.5 million, and the founder comes back to you and says, ‘We can’t do that, but we can give you a $150,000 allocation,’ that’s just absolutely fatal to somebody trying to deploy a very large seed fund, versus if my target check size is something like $250,000. If I get squeezed down to $150,000, I can actually make that work economically within the fund math.
TC: So you’ll write a check as small as $150,000. What’s the upper boundary, and how much ownership are you targeting when you fund a startup?
BG: It’s upwards of $500,000, give or take, and our target is 3%. But, again, part of the joy of being a small fund manager is more flexibility in terms of constructing a portfolio. In the cases where we may get squeezed down a little bit, or we want to invest at a slightly higher valuation than is typical, we can paint outside the lines a tiny bit more.
TC: Meaning bigger checks? Do you typically raise special purpose vehicles, or SPVS, in order to take a bigger bite of certain companies?
BG: One pattern for that was my personal investment in Coinbase. By being close to the company, by helping on a few very minor things over the years in terms of design, in terms of making connections to design firms and helping recruit some designers, they gave me follow-on allocations. And then in the Series E, I was able to raise an SPV into the deal based on the idea of building a deep relationship with the company.
That’s essentially the model going forward. We may or may not continue to pursue SPVs. We may pick a different vehicle in the future for how to deploy that follow-on capital. But the idea is: wedge in early with a small check, put a lot of skin in the game on that check [with a bigger general partner commitment in the fund than is typical], and build a relationship and try to be disproportionately helpful relative to our check size.
TC: You tweeted that for that SPV, you pitched 50 different parties, and only three said yes.
I invested a total of 3 times into Coinbase, including an SPV I raised into the last round.
I pitched the SPV to almost 50 different parties. Only three said yes.
Tempted to email the Fortune article to the other 47
— Bobby Goodlatte (@rsg) December 17, 2020
BG: Yeah, it was amazing in late 2018 how in the dumps the crypto market was, and people thought that the overall stock market was going to be heading that way, so this was a very, very difficult SPV to raise. I wasn’t the only person who had one, and so there was some amount of market competition. Then just the nature of SPVs is such that you get your allocation, and bang goes the starting gun, and you need to very quickly talk to a lot of people.
[Still] it is remarkable how quickly the perception of that company has changed over just two short years, give or take. I give a lot of credit to the investors who backed us on that SPV because they they took the risk with us. I’ve had a number of people [since] say, ‘Oh, you should have called me, I would have invested.’ And maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t have.
TC: You talked at the outset about communities and bubbles and I can’t help but wonder if you think you are hearing about more interesting deals, having moved recently to Miami three months ago, than you would in the Bay Area.
BG: It does really feel like that’s the case, and I started seeing this maybe in late November, and then very quickly said, ‘Okay, why not? This feels fun, this feels exciting.’ And I’m glad I made the jump, because while I love San Francisco — I think San Francisco is a tremendous place [that] will always be one of the great tech epicenters of the world — I think a lot of folks moved here because they were looking to change things up. And the energy that comes from that, where everyone’s trying to make this work, is really quite exciting.
A lot of people said, ‘Oh, you’re going to miss out on things by moving to Miami, you’re going to take a step back in your career.’ And really, it’s been the opposite of that. It’s been a total accelerant of my career and investing.
We’re an interesting fit for Miami because Miami is known as being a design capital, and we’re a really design-driven fund, and there’s a lot of parallels there. [But I also realized that] I can be one of many thousands of new funds based in the Bay Area, or I can be one of a tiny handful based here in Miami and get all these tailwinds and have the mayor hype us up, and that sounds like a good deal to me.
Pictured above, left to right: Goodlatte with Coinbase co-founder Fred Ehrsam, who more recently co-founded the cryptocurrency investment firm Paradigm.
Cryptocurrency prices continued to tumble Friday with Bitcoin leading the charge, with prices for the internet currency dipping below $50,000 for the first time since early March.
Bitcoin is down roughly 20% week-over-week, around 30% from its all-time-high of nearly $65,000 early last week. The market cap of the coin has dipped below $1 trillion. The tumble has been less severe for Ethereum which hit an all-time-high just yesterday but has since dropped 13% as the broader market has crawled back.
Plenty of altcoins have also taken a beating. Dogecoin erased the breakneck gains of the week and then some, nearly halving its price after a meteoric climb last weekend. XRP is down 35% week-over-week, Stellar is down 30% and Polkadot is down 25% since last week.
Overall, Coinmarketcap estimates the global crypto market has shrunk around 10% in the past 24 hours.
Crypto prices have been on a tear for the past several months, but the past week has been the clearest sign of a correction to climbing prices, though many see news of President Biden’s adjustment to the hikes on the capital gains tax as the most apparent reason for the market’s slide as investors cash out hoping their gains won’t be reached by a retroactive application of the rules.
Coinbase, which went public last week via direct listing, shaved about 10% off its share price this week, but was largely unaffected Friday in intraday trading.
To close out the week, a short meditation on value, or, more precisely, how assets are valued in today’s markets.
Do you recall the pre-direct-listing hype Coinbase enjoyed? After reporting its estimated first-quarter financial performance, interest in the domestic cryptocurrency trading giant ran red-hot.
When Coinbase set a $250 per-share direct listing reference price, it was broadly viewed as modest, if not downright low. Of course, a reference price is just that — a reference — so it wasn’t too big a deal. But it also wasn’t surprising that Coinbase shares traded as high as $429.54 on their first day, according to Yahoo Finance data.
Coinbase equity hasn’t topped $400 in any following day and is now under the $300 mark, with more declines set to arrive as trading commences. Its reference price looms, and suddenly a price that felt intensely conservative before Coinbase began to trade is starting to look nearly reasonable.
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There have been other notable declines in value among some recently public, more technologically differentiated companies. The Exchange has watched with something akin to polite confusion as the value of Root, a neo-insurance company, fell to a third of its public-market highs after going public, even though it beat growth expectations in its most recent quarterly report.
We could toss UiPath into our trend of wildly meandering value. The company’s initial IPO price range targeted a price as low as $43 per share. Today it’s worth $76.75 per share in pre-market trading.
No one knows what anything is worth, again. This is the feeling I get while watching the markets work to determine how to value assets as diverse as startups crossing the private-public divide to the value of Bitcoin, which was supposed to keep going up. Until it suddenly reversed gear.
Frankly, we’re still dealing with new-enough models — or big-enough guesses about the future baked into business models — that it’s hard to really value the most uncertain (and therefore most exciting) companies, let alone cryptocurrencies. Let’s discuss.