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As the venture market tightens, a debt lender sees big opportunities

By Connie Loizos

David Spreng spent more than 20 years in venture capital before dipping his toe into the world of revenue-based financing and realizing there was a growing appetite for alternatives to venture capital. Indeed, since forming debt-lending company Runway Growth Capital in mid-2015, Spreng has been busy writing checks to a variety of mostly later-stage companies on behalf of his institutional investors. (One of these, Oak Tree Capital Management in LA, is a publicly-traded credit firm.)

He expects he’ll be even busier in 2020. The reason — if you haven’t noticed already — is a general slowing down in what has been a very long boom cycle. “We’re in the late innings of a very long game,” said Spreng today, calling from Davos, where he has been attending meetings this week. “I don’t think the cycle is going to end this second. But where we went from a growth-at-all-costs mentality, boards are now saying, ‘let’s find a balance between top line growth and capital efficiency — let’s figure out a path to profitability.’ ”

Why is that good for Spreng and his colleagues? Because when a cycle ends, venture capitalists get stingier with their portfolio companies, writing fewer checks to support startups that aren’t hitting it out of the park, and often taking a bigger bite under more onerous terms when they do reinvest to counter the added risk they’re taking.

Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

By Jake Bright

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.

Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

By Kirsten Korosec

The future of transportation industry is bursting at the seams with startups aiming to bring everything from flying cars and autonomous vehicles to delivery bots and even more efficient freight to roads.

One investor who is right at the center of this is Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, a seed-stage venture capital fund for entrepreneurs changing the future of transportation.

TechCrunch is excited to announce that Brennan will join us on stage for TC Sessions: Mobility.

In case you missed last year’s event, TC Sessions: Mobility is a one-day conference that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon. The event will be held May 14, 2020 in the California Theater in San Jose, Calif.

Brennan is known as much for his popular FoT newsletter as his investments, which include May Mobility, Nauto, nuTonomy, Joby Aviation, Skip and Roadster.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

Space Angels’ Chad Anderson on entering a new decade in the ‘entrepreneurial space age’

By Darrell Etherington

Space as an investment target is trending upwards in the VC community, but specialist firm Space Angels has been focused on the sector longer than most. The network of angel investors just published its most recent quarterly overview of activity in the space startup industry, revealing that investors put nearly $6 billion in capital into space companies across 2019.

I spoke to Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson about what he’s seen in terms of changes in the industry since Space Angels began publishing this quarterly update in 2017, and about what’s in store for 2020 and beyond as commercial space matures and comes into its own. Informed by data released publicly, SEC filings and investor databases — as well as anonymized and aggregated info from Space Angels’ own due diligence process and portfolio company management — Anderson is among the best-positioned people on either the investment or the operator side to weigh in on the current and future state of the space startup industry.

“2019 was a record year — record number of investments, record number of companies, a record on all these fronts,” Anderson said. “2019 in its own right was a huge year, but then you look at everything that happened over the last decade. We always refer to this last decade as ‘the entrepreneurial space age’ […] and you see everything that’s happened over the last 10 years, you see it all culminating in a record year like this one.”

What we know (and don’t) about Goldman Sachs’ Africa VC investing

By Jake Bright

Goldman Sachs is investing in African tech companies. The venerable American investment bank and financial services firm has backed startups from Kenya to Nigeria and taken a significant stake in e-commerce venture Jumia, which listed on the NYSE in 2019.

Though Goldman declined to comment on its Africa VC activities for this article, the company has spoken to TechCrunch in the past about specific investments.

Goldman Sachs is one of the most enviable investment banking shops on Wall Street, generating $36 billion in net revenues in 2019, or roughly $1 million per employee. It’s the firm that always seems to come out on top, making money during the financial crisis while its competitors were hemorrhaging. For generations, MBAs from the world’s top business schools have clamored to work there, helping make it a professional incubator of sorts that has spun off alums into leadership positions in politics, VC and industry.

All that cache is why Goldman’s name popping up related to African tech got people’s attention, including mine, several years ago.

Bolt raises €50M in venture debt from the EU to expand its ride-hailing business

By Ingrid Lunden

Bolt, the billion-dollar startup out of Estonia that’s building a ride-hailing, scooter and food delivery business across Europe and Africa, has picked up a tranche of funding in its bid to take on Uber and the rest in the world of on-demand transportation.

The company has picked up €50 million (about $56 million) from the European Investment Bank to continue developing its technology and safety features, as well as to expand newer areas of its business, such as food delivery and personal transport like e-scooters.

With this latest money, Bolt has raised more than €250 million in funding since opening for business in 2013, and as of its last equity round in July 2019 (when it raised $67 million), it was valued at over $1 billion, which Bolt has confirmed to me remains the valuation here.

Bolt further said that its service now has more than 30 million users in 150 cities and 35 countries and is profitable in two-thirds of its markets.

The timing of the last equity round, and the company’s ambitious growth plans, could well mean it will be raising more equity funding again soon. Bolt’s existing backers include the Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi, Creandum, G Squared and Daimler (which owns a ride-hailing competitor, Free Now — formerly called MyTaxi).

“Bolt is a good example of European excellence in tech and innovation. As you say, to stand still is to go backwards, and Bolt is never standing still,” said EIB’s vice president, Alexander Stubb, in a statement. “The Bank is very happy to support the company in improving its services, as well as allowing it to branch out into new service fields. In other words, we’re fully on board!”

The EIB is the nonprofit, long-term lending arm of the European Union, and this financing in the form of a quasi-equity facility.

Also known as venture debt, the financing is structured as a loan, where repayment terms are based on a percentage of future revenue streams, and ownership is not diluted. The funding is backed in turn by the European Fund for Strategic Investments, as part of a bigger strategy to boost investment in promising companies, and specifically riskier startups, in the tech industry. It expects to make and spur some €458.8 billion in investments across 1 million startups and SMEs as part of this plan.

Opting for a “quasi-equity” loan instead of a straight equity or debt investment is attractive to Bolt for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that the funding comes without ownership dilution. Two is the endorsement and support of the EU itself, in a market category where tech disruptors have been known to run afoul of regulators and lawmakers, in part because of the ubiquity and nature of the transportation/mobility industry.

“Mobility is one of the areas where Europe will really benefit from a local champion who shares the values of European consumers and regulators,” said Martin Villig, the co-founder of Bolt (whose brother Markus is the CEO), in a statement. “Therefore, we are thrilled to have the European Investment Bank join the ranks of Bolt’s backers as this enables us to move faster towards serving many more people in Europe.”

(Butting heads with authorities is something that Bolt is no stranger to: It tried to enter the lucrative London taxi market through a backdoor to bypass the waiting time to get a license. It really didn’t work, and the company had to wait another 21 months to come to London doing it by the book. In its first six months of operation in London, the company has picked up 1.5 million customers.)

While private VCs account for the majority of startup funding, backing from government groups is an interesting and strategic route for tech companies that are making waves in large industries that sit adjacent to technology. Before it was acquired by PayPal, IZettle also picked up a round of funding from the EIB specifically to invest in its AI R&D. Navya, the self-driving bus and shuttle startup, has also raised money from the EIB in the past, as has MariaDB.

One of the big issues with on-demand transportation companies has been their safety record, a huge area of focus given the potential scale and ubiquity of a transportation or mobility service. Indeed, this is at the center of Uber’s latest scuffle in Europe, where London’s transport regulator has rejected a license renewal for the company over concerns about Uber’s safety record. (Uber is appealing; while it does, it’s business as usual.)

So it’s no surprise that with this funding, Bolt says that it will be specifically using the money to develop technology to “improve the safety, reliability and sustainability of its services while maintaining the high efficiency of the company’s operations.”

Bolt is one of a group of companies that have been hatched out of Estonia, which has worked to position itself as a leader in Europe’s tech industry as part of its own economic regeneration in the decades after existing as part of the Soviet Union (it formally left in 1990). The EIB has invested around €830 million in Estonian projects in the last five years.

“Estonia is as the forefront of digital transformation in Europe,” said Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for the Economy, in a statement. “I am proud that Europe, through the Investment Plan, supports Estonian platform Bolt’s research and development strategy to create innovative and safe services that will enhance urban mobility.”

Felix Capital closes $300M fund to double down on DTC, break into fintech and make late-stage deals

By Ingrid Lunden

To kick off 2020, one of Europe’s newer — and more successful — investment firms has closed a fresh, oversubscribed fund, one sign that VC in the region will continue to run strong in the year ahead after startups across Europe raised between $35 billion and $36 billion in 2019.

Felix Capital, the London VC founded by Frederic Court that was one of the earlier firms to identify and invest in the trend of direct-to-consumer businesses, has raised $300 million, money that it plans to use to continue investing in creative and consumer startups and platform plays as well as begin to tap into a newer area, fintech — specifically startups that are focused on consumer finance. 

Felix up to now has focused mostly on earlier-stage investments — it now has $600 million under management and 32 companies in its portfolio in eight countries — based across both Europe and the US. Court said in an interview that a portion of this fund will now also go into later, growth rounds, both for companies that Felix has been backing for some time as well as newer faces.

As with the focus of the investments, the make-up of the fund itself has a strong European current: the majority of the LPs are European, Court noted. Although Asia is something it would like to tackle more in the future both as a market for its current portfolio and as an investment opportunity, he added, the firm has yet to invest into the region or substantially raise money from it.

Felix made its debut in 2015, founded by Court after a strong run at Advent Capital where he was involved in a number of big exits. While Court had been a strong player in enterprise software, Felix was a step-change for him into more of a primary focus on consumer startups focused on fashion, lifestyle and creative pursuits.

That has over the years included investing in companies like the breakout high-fashion marketplace Farfetch (which he started to back when still at Advent and is now public), Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, the jewellery startup Mejuri, trend-watching HighSnobiety, and fitness startup Peloton (which has also IPO’d).

It’s not an altogether easygoing, vanilla list of cool stuff. Peloton and GOOP have had been mightily doused in snarky and sharky sentiments; and sometimes it even seems as if the brands themselves own and cultivate that image. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad press, I guess.

Although it wasn’t something especially articulated in startup land at the time of Felix’s launch, what the firm was honing in on was a rising category of direct-to-consumer startups, essentially all in the area of e-commerce and building brands and businesses that were bypassing traditional retailers and retail channels to develop primary relationships with consumers through newer digital channels such as social media, messaging and email (alongside their own DTC websites). 

This is not Felix’s sole focus, with investments into a range of platform businesses like corporate travel site TravelPerk, Amazon -backed food delivery juggernaut Deliveroo and Moonbug (a platform for children’s entertainment content); and increasingly later stage rounds (for example it was part of a $104 million round at TravelPerk; a $70 million round for marketplace-building service Mirakl; and $23 million for Mejuri.

Court’s track record prior to Felix, and the success of the current firm to date, are two likely reasons why this latest fund was oversubscribed, and why Court says it wants to further spread its wings into a wider range of areas and investment stages.

The interest in consumer finance is not such a large step away from these areas, when you consider that they are just the other side of the coin from e-commerce: saving money versus spending money.

“We see this as our prism of opportunity,” said Court. “Just as we had the intuition that there was a space for investors looking at [DTC]… we now think there is enough evidence that there is demand from consumers for new ways of dealing with money and personal finance.”

The firm has from the start operated with a board of advisors who also invest money through Felix while also holding down day jobs.

They include the likes of executives from eBay, Facebook, and more. David Marcus –who Court backed when he built payments company Zong and eventually sold it to eBay before he went on to become a major mover and shaker at Facebook and is now has the possibly Sisyphean task of building Calibra — is on the list, but that has not translated into Felix dabbling in cryptocurrency.

“We are watching cryptocurrency, but if you take a Felix stance on the area, it’s only had one amazing brand so far, bitcoin,” said Court. “The rest, for a consumer, is very difficult to understand and access. It’s still really early, but I’ve got no doubt that there will be some things emerging, particularly around the idea of ‘invisible money.'”

In the shadow of Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle startups are having a moment

By Kate Clark

Venture capital investment exploded across a number of geographies in 2019 despite the constant threat of an economic downturn.

San Francisco, of course, remains the startup epicenter of the world, shutting out all other geographies when it comes to capital invested. Still, other regions continue to grow, raking in more capital this year than ever.

In Utah, a new hotbed for startups, companies like Weave, Divvy and MX Technology raised a collective $370 million from private market investors. In the Northeast, New York City experienced record-breaking deal volume with median deal sizes climbing steadily. Boston is closing out the decade with at least 10 deals larger than $100 million announced this year alone. And in the lovely Pacific Northwest, home to tech heavyweights Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle is experiencing an uptick in VC interest in what could be a sign the town is finally reaching its full potential.

Seattle startups raised a total of $3.5 billion in VC funding across roughly 375 deals this year, according to data collected by PitchBook. That’s up from $3 billion in 2018 across 346 deals and a meager $1.7 billion in 2017 across 348 deals. Much of Seattle’s recent growth can be attributed to a few fast-growing businesses.

Convoy, the digital freight network that connects truckers with shippers, closed a $400 million round last month bringing its valuation to $2.75 billion. The deal was remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the largest venture round for a Seattle-based company in a decade, PitchBook claims. And it pushed Convoy to the top of the list of the most valuable companies in the city, surpassing OfferUp, which raised a sizable Series D in 2018 at a $1.4 billion valuation.

Convoy has managed to attract a slew of high-profile investors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and even U2’s Bono and the Edge. Since it was founded in 2015, the business has raised a total of more than $668 million.

Remitly, another Seattle-headquartered business, has helped bolster Seattle’s startup ecosystem. The fintech company focused on international money transfer raised a $135 million Series E led by Generation Investment Management, and $85 million in debt from Barclays, Bridge Bank, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank earlier this year. Owl Rock Capital, Princeville Global,  Prudential Financial, Schroder & Co Bank AG and Top Tier Capital Partners, and previous investors DN Capital, Naspers’ PayU and Stripes Group also participated in the equity round, which valued Remitly at nearly $1 billion.

Up-and-coming startups, including co-working space provider The Riveter, real estate business Modus and same-day delivery service Dolly, have recently attracted investment too.

A number of other factors have contributed to Seattle’s long-awaited rise in venture activity. Top-performing companies like Stripe, Airbnb and Dropbox have established engineering offices in Seattle, as has Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Disney and many others. This, of course, has attracted copious engineers, a key ingredient to building a successful tech hub. Plus, the pipeline of engineers provided by the nearby University of Washington (shout-out to my alma mater) means there’s no shortage of brainiacs.

There’s long been plenty of smart people in Seattle, mostly working at Microsoft and Amazon, however. The issue has been a shortage of entrepreneurs, or those willing to exit a well-paying gig in favor of a risky venture. Fortunately for Seattle venture capitalists, new efforts have been made to entice corporate workers to the startup universe. Pioneer Square Labs, which I profiled earlier this year, is a prime example of this movement. On a mission to champion Seattle’s unique entrepreneurial DNA, Pioneer Square Labs cropped up in 2015 to create, launch and fund technology companies headquartered in the Pacific Northwest.

Boundless CEO Xiao Wang at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017

Operating under the startup studio model, PSL’s team of former founders and venture capitalists, including Rover and Mighty AI founder Greg Gottesman, collaborate to craft and incubate startup ideas, then recruit a founding CEO from their network of entrepreneurs to lead the business. Seattle is home to two of the most valuable businesses in the world, but it has not created as many founders as anticipated. PSL hopes that by removing some of the risk, it can encourage prospective founders, like Boundless CEO Xiao Wang, a former senior product manager at Amazon, to build.

“The studio model lends itself really well to people who are 99% there, thinking ‘damn, I want to start a company,’ ” PSL co-founder Ben Gilbert said in March. “These are people that are incredible entrepreneurs but if not for the studio as a catalyst, they may not have [left].”

Boundless is one of several successful PSL spin-outs. The business, which helps families navigate the convoluted green card process, raised a $7.8 million Series A led by Foundry Group earlier this year, with participation from existing investors Trilogy Equity Partners, PSL, Two Sigma Ventures and Founders’ Co-Op.

Years-old institutional funds like Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group have done their part to bolster the Seattle startup community too. Madrona raised a $100 million Acceleration Fund earlier this year, and although it plans to look beyond its backyard for its newest deals, the firm continues to be one of the largest supporters of Pacific Northwest upstarts. Founded in 1995, Madrona’s portfolio includes Amazon, Mighty AI, UiPath, Branch and more.

Voyager Capital, another Seattle-based VC, also raised another $100 million this year to invest in the PNW. Maveron, a venture capital fund co-founded by Starbucks mastermind Howard Schultz, closed on another $180 million to invest in early-stage consumer startups in May. And new efforts like Flying Fish Partners have been busy deploying capital to promising local companies.

There’s a lot more to say about all this. Like the growing role of deep-pocketed angel investors in Seattle have in expanding the startup ecosystem, or the non-local investors, like Silicon Valley’s best, who’ve funneled cash into Seattle’s talent. In short, Seattle deal activity is finally climbing thanks to top talent, new accelerator models and several refueled venture funds. Now we wait to see how the Seattle startup community leverages this growth period and what startups emerge on top.

Indian tech startups raised a record $14.5B in 2019

By Manish Singh

Indian tech startups have never had it so good.

Local tech startups in the nation raised $14.5 billion in 2019, beating their previous best of $10.6 billion last year, according to research firm Tracxn .

Tech startups in India this year participated in 1,185 financing rounds — 459 of those were Series A or later rounds — from 817 investors.

Early-stage startups — those participating in angel or pre-Series A financing round — raised $6.9 billion this year, easily surpassing last year’s $3.3 billion figure, according to a report by venture debt firm InnoVen Capital.

According to InnoVen’s report, early-stage startups that have typically struggled to attract investors saw a 22% year-over-year increase in the number of financing deals they took part in this year. Cumulatively, at $2.6 million, their valuation also increased by 15% from last year.

Overall, there were 81 financing deals of size between $25 million and $100 million, up from 56 last year and 36 the year before, and 27 rounds above $100 million, up from 17 in 2018 and and nine in 2017, Tracxn told TechCrunch.

Also in 2019, 128 startups in India got acquired, four got publicly listed and nine became unicorns. This year, Indian tech startups also attracted a record number of international investors, according to Tracxn.

This year’s fundraise further moves the nation’s burgeoning startup space on a path of steady growth.

Since 2016, when tech startups accumulated just $4.3 billion — down from $7.9 billion the year before — flow of capital has increased significantly in the ecosystem. In 2017, Indian startups raised $10.4 billion, per Tracxn.

“The decade has seen an impressive 25x growth from a tiny $550 million in 2010 to $14.5 billion in 2019 in terms of the total funding raised by the startups,” said Tracxn.

What’s equally promising about Indian startups is the challenges they are beginning to tackle today, said Dev Khare, a partner at VC fund Lightspeed Venture Partners, in a recent interview with TechCrunch.

In 2014 and 2015, startups were largely focused on building e-commerce solutions and replicating ideas that worked in Western markets. But today, they are tackling a wide-range of categories and opportunities and building some solutions that have not been attempted in any other market, he said.

Tracxn’s analysis found that lodging startups raised about $1.7 billion this year — thanks to Oyo alone bagging $1.5 billion, followed by logistics startups such as Elastic Run, Delhivery and Ecom Express that secured $641 million.

Also, 176 horizontal marketplaces, more than 150 education learning apps, over 160 fintech startups, over 120 trucking marketplaces, 82 ride-hailing services, 42 insurance platforms, 33 used car listing providers and 13 startups that are helping businesses and individuals access working capital secured funding this year. Fintech startups alone raised $3.2 billion this year, more than startups operating in any other category, said Tracxn.

The investors

Sequoia Capital, with more than 50 investments — or co-investments — was the most active venture capital fund for Indian tech startups this year. (Rajan Anandan, former executive in charge of Google’s business in India and Southeast Asia, joined Sequoia Capital India as a managing director in April.) Accel, Tiger Global Management, Blume Ventures and Chiratae Ventures were the other top four VCs.

Steadview Capital, with nine investments in startups, including ride-hailing service Ola, education app Unacademy and fintech startup BharatPe, led the way among private equity funds. General Atlantic, which invested in NoBroker and recently turned profitable edtech startup Byju’s, invested in four startups. FMO, Sabre Partners India and CDC Group each invested in three startups.

Venture Catalysts, with more than 40 investments, including in HomeCapital and Blowhorn, was the top accelerator or incubator in India this year. Y Combinator, with over 25 investments, Sequoia Capital’s Surge, Axilor Ventures and Techstars were also very active this year.

Indian tech startups also attracted a number of direct investments from top corporates and banks this year. Goldman Sachs, which earlier this month invested in fintech startup ZestMoney, overall made eight investments this year. Among others, Facebook made its first investment in an Indian startup — social-commerce firm Meesho — and Twitter led a $100 million financing round in local social networking app ShareChat.

Slack’s share price and the future of direct listings

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the grey space in between. Today we’re starting off with a venture capital Q&A, a quick look at Slack’s share price stability and some thoughts on direct listings and their possible future frequency.

Bu before we do, I wanted to ask for help. As we look at startups and IPOs and the impact that public companies have on young tech companies, I want to make sure that I’m touching on the right topics.

So, email me with thoughts and complaints. During December I’m going to riff and then settle a bit on format and topics as 2020 starts.

With that, let’s begin.

Piva’s $250M energy fund

Petronas (Petroliam Nasional Berhad) is a Malaysian state energy company best for sponsoring Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One team, but the oil giant is drilling deeper into the startup world. The company announced a $350 million corporate venture fund in October, creatively named “Petronas Corporate Venture Capital.”

Now, Petronas is back at it, putting up the capital for a new $250 million fund announced today called Piva. The fund will operate independently from the main corporation, even as the energy giant exists as its sole limited partner (LP).

I was curious about the dollar amount and the goals of the new fund so I got in touch. Here’s a condensed and edited set of questions and answers to help better describe what all that oil money may buy:

TechCrunch: Why is Piva’s first fund $250 million, and not, say, larger? 

Piva: This is the ideal size for our first fund; not too small which would allow us to make too few deals, not too large that would force us to only focus on growth-stage deals. It provides us with the right amount of capital needed to back 15-20 companies we’re expecting to invest, given the size of the team that we have in mind. We expect to invest $5-$10 million per company initially, and $20-30 million overtime, in companies creating breakthrough technologies, services and solutions in the industrial and energy sectors.

Is Piva’s goal to help fund strategic partners for Petronas, or strategic acquisitions?

We have the freedom and independence to invest in any company that meets our investment criteria though we’re always looking for ways to introduce our portfolio to Petronas and its global partners. Therefore, we are not required to invest for strategic reasons and certainly can’t control who ultimately becomes the acquirer of our portfolio companies.

Having said that, we are looking to leverage our partner Petronas to help create value for our portfolio companies, and similarly looking to leverage our portfolio companies to create strategic value to Petronas. We view that as a win-win-win. And like any VC fund, the goal of the fund in to make strong financial returns for investors.

The rest of the interview, including notes on Piva’s views on battery tech, continues at the end of this post.

Slack’s new stability

Slack’s direct listening was a key moment in the startup world in 2019. By eschewing a traditional IPO, Slack helped stamp direct listings as the cooler way to go public. In the wake of its debut, Asana and Airbnb are also considering direct listings, for example.

But while Slack’s direct listing went well, its share price has since suffered. After receiving a reference price of $26 and reaching an all-time high of $42, Slack is worth a little over $21 today.

But notably, the slide that the company’s shares took through summer into fall has arrested. And, after its recent earnings report, Slack managed to stay in its $20 to $23 per share range, more or less. So, we now know what Slack is actually worth: about $11.7 billion.

That’s far more than its final private round’s post-money valuation, mind, which put a $7.1 billion price tag on the corporate chat company.

For Slack, finding its value must be a relief. Especially as its new trading band values it north of $10 billion. Call it an inverse Dropbox.

The question now becomes if Slack’s market repricing is considered a positive (the company found price stability sans traditional banker support) or negative (it’s worth less than its reference price and suffered a public fall in value) for direct listings overall.

Direct listings

Sticking on the direct listing point I wonder if they are going to see as much of a place in the 2020 IPO market as many expect. Summarizing market sentiment (based on what I’ve read, and investors and founders that I’ve spoken with), there’s optimism that the stock market will see more direct listings in the future than the past, as they are — putatively — better mechanisms for pricing companies when they go public while reducing value capture by banks.

Equity Dive: Poshmark’s origin story with co-founder & CEO Manish Chandra

By Kate Clark

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We have something a bit different for you this week. Equity co-host Kate Clark recently sat down with Manish Chandra, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Poshmark, and one of his earliest investors, NFX managing partner James Currier.

If you haven’t heard of Poshmark, it’s an online platform for buying and selling clothes. Basically, it’s the thrift shop of the 21st century. We asked Chandra how he and co-founders Tracy Sun, Gautam Golwala and Chetan Pungaliya cooked up the idea for Poshmark, what bumps they faced along the way, how they raised venture capital and, of course, what details of their upcoming initial public offering he could share with us. Meanwhile, Currier dished about the company’s early days, when the Poshmark team worked hard on the floor of Currier’s office.

Unfortunately, neither Chandra or Currier were willing to share deets about Poshmark’s IPO, reportedly expected soon. But they both shared interesting insights into building a successful venture-backed company, battling competition and putting your best foot forward.

Glad you guys came back for another episode, we’ll see you soon.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

San Diego-based Founders First Capital Partners gets $100 million for revenue-based fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Founders First Capital Partners, an accelerator and investment firm which provides revenue-based financing to businesses led by “underrepresented entrepreneurs” operating in underserved markets, has received a $100 million commitment to expand its operations.

The San Diego-based investor raised the debt financing from Community Investment Management, a large debt-focused impact investment fund.

The revenue-based financing model is a new one that several startups are beginning to explore as a way to take non-dilutive capital for early stage businesses that might not qualify for traditional bank loans.

Companies like the new media startup, The Prepared, which offers tips on disaster preparedness, used revenue financing as a way to get its own business off the ground. And other companies are turning to the financing method too, according to investors from Lighter Capital.

At Founders First Capital Partners, the new financing will expand its lending operations to companies that are already generating between $1 million and $5 million in annual revenue.

The new program is set to launch in January 2020, expanding the firm’s footprint as a financial services firm for minority and other underrepresented founders, the company said in a statement.

The firm focuses on businesses led by people of color, women, and military veterans and concentrates on entrepreneurs whose business operate in low and middle-income communities outside of the traditional funding networks of Silicon Valley and New York, the company said.

It also operates an accelerator program for entrepreneurs that meet the same criteria.

“Founders First is very pleased to have secured such significant funding that allows us to expand our efforts to businesses that are led by underrepresented founders or those that serve underrepresented communities,” said Kim Folsom, co-founder and chief executive of Founders First, in a statement.

Revenue-based financing can in some cases be a better option for service-based, social impact companies, according to Jacob Haar, a managing partner with CIM, who previously worked at Minlam Investment Managemet, a hedge fund working in the micro-finance space.

Both microfinance and revenue-based financing come with risks — particularly around the rates that these lenders can charge for their financing.

But it is a unique opportunity to open up founders to additional types of financing models.

“CIM is excited to partner with Founders First to expand revenue-based financing to support underserved and underrepresented small business founders, including people of color, women, LGBTQ, and military veterans as well as small businesses located in low to moderate income areas,” Haar said in a statement. “We have found revenue-based financing to be a compelling alternative to venture capital and fixed payment loans as a forward-looking and structurally flexible investment to support business growth.  We believe that Founders First’s unique advisory and revenue-based investment platform enables underrepresented small businesses to overcome systematic bias and achieve their potential.”

If you don’t have an investment banker, replicate one

By Walter Thompson
David Teten Contributor
David Teten is an advisor to emerging investment managers and a Venture Partner with HOF Capital. He was previously a partner for 8 years with HOF Capital and ff Venture Capital. David writes regularly at teten.com and @dteten.

The good news: even if you have a small company and can’t afford a banker, you can synthetically and cheaply replicate one. That’s part of the value proposition of an institutional VC; I have been the (unpaid) investment banker for many of my portfolio companies.  

If you don’t have relationships with potential investors, here’s how to replicate a banker:

Her job is to lead a professional outreach campaign to investors, writing highly customized emails to each based on your agreed-upon template. If you don’t have a pre-existing relationship, it is critical that you write emails which are palpably customized and of course well written, or else you’re just spamming.

The person doing outreach should have a title as senior as possible, e.g., “acting COO.” The higher the title, the higher the response rate she will generate. Any good business school will have dozens of current students who fit these criteria. She will get a lower response rate than you (with the CEO title), but likely a higher response rate than an outside banker who does not have an established relationship with the investor you are targeting. You can also have her impersonate you via email, although there’s always a risk of that ending in embarrassment if she is not highly responsible and trustworthy.  

  • You as the CEO should handle all the meetings. There’s no need to bring your colleague who’s setting up meetings, although I’m sure she will appreciate it.  

Raising capital is a time-consuming, arduous, complex task and you will be living with the consequences of your actions for decades. I recommend hiring a professional to help you, if you can afford it. I also recommend doing thorough research before hiring a banker. The wrong decision can cost you millions of dollars, in the form of a broken deal process, a suboptimal valuation, or inappropriate investors.

Decide which type of investor to target for raising capital

By Walter Thompson
David Teten Contributor
David Teten is a Venture Partner with HOF Capital. He was previously a Partner for 8 years with HOF Capital and ff Venture Capital. David writes regularly at teten.com and @dteten.

I recently wrote Should you raise venture capital from a traditional equity VC or a Revenue-Based Investing VC? Since then, I’ve talked with a number of other firms and greatly expanded my database: Who are the major Revenue-Based (RBI) Investing VCs?

That said, venture capital is just one of many options to finance your business, typically the most expensive. The broader question is, what type of capital should you raise, and from whom?  

I find many CEOs/CFOs default to approaching investors who have the most social media followers; who have spent the most money sponsoring events; or whom they met at an event. But, fame and the chance that you met someone at a conference do not logically predict that investor is the optimal investor for you. In addition, the best-known investors are also the ones who are most difficult to raise capital from, precisely because they get the most inbound.

The first step is to decide the right capital structure for your financing. Most CFOs build an Excel model and do a rough comparison of the different options. Some firms provide tools to do this online, e.g., Capital’s Cost of Equity estimator; Lighter Capital’s Cost of Capital Calculator; 645 Ventures’ cap table simulator. A similar, open-source, highly visual tool focused on VC is Venture Dealr.

For each of the major categories of investors, you can find online databases of the major providers. Major options include:

  • Traditional equity venture capital and private equity. For early-stage startups in particular, I suggest Foundersuite*, Samir Kaji’s Master List of US Micro-VC’s and Shai Goldman’s database of VC funds at/below $200M in size. You can find other databases of investors at AngelList, CB Insights, Crunchbase, Dow Jones VentureSource, Pitchbook, Preqin, and Refinitiv Eikon
  • Revenue-based investing VC. See Who are the major Revenue-Based Investing VCs?
  • Venture debt. See FindVentureDebt and this comparison guide of debt options for SAAS companies. Watch out for double dipping, or interest on interest.
  • Merchant cash advances/factoring. See Debanked’s list.
  • Small Business Association Loans. Ravi Bhagavan, Managing Director, BRG Capital Advisors, said, “a low-cost and often convenient form of capital for small businesses is SBA loans, which are guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. SBA loans are $5k – $5M in size and are typically at a lower cost of capital compared to alternate forms of debt, since up to 85% of the loan is guaranteed by the SBA. Additionally, SBA loans have longer payment periods (5-25 years) than traditional forms of financing and come with less onerous ongoing disclosure requirements. However, SBA loans typically require a personal guarantee (PG) from the founder(s), who are scrutinized for income and credit history at the time of application. PGs can be quite daunting to founders because it puts their personal assets, including homes and investment accounts, on the line. SBA loans are available through SBA-approved banks and SBIC funds. SBICs make equity and debt investments of size $100k – $10M in qualifying small businesses. A good resource for looking up SBICs is here.” 
  • Crowdfunding, e.g., Republic*, Indiegogo*.  This option provides you capital and also market validation for desire for your product.  

Once you decide on the right category of investor, here are some tools I suggest using to find the optimal capital provider:

  • Most important, reference checking. I have a whitelist of investors I recommend to my portfolio — and a blacklist which I guide them to avoid.
  • Comparison websites: BitX, Fundera, GUD Capital, Lencred.com, Lendio, and NerdWallet Small Business Loans are all resources which can help you evaluate different options for small business financing, typically within a defined category of financing. Braavo specializes in financing app companies.
  • Financing supermarkets: Most investment firms start out with one asset class, and then over time they often add others. There are countless examples, e.g., most of the large B2B banks, Kapitus, Kalamata Capital, United Capital Source, etc. These firms can give you an apples-to-apples comparison of what different capital forms, albeit all from one provider, will cost you.

Nigeria’s Interswitch confirms $1B valuation after Visa investment

By Jake Bright

Nigerian digital payments firm Interswitch confirmed today it has reached unicorn status after Visa acquired a minority equity stake in the firm.

“The investment makes Interswitch one of the most valuable African fintech businesses with a valuation of $1 billion,” Interswitch said in a release to TechCrunch.

The Visa investment could create the first of two market distinctions for Interswitch — as it shouldn’t change the Lagos based company’s plans to go public.

“An IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch on background.

Interswitch did not reveal the amount of Visa’s investment and would not confirm Sky News reporting Monday that pegged it at $200 million for 20%.

Whatever the exact number, Interswitch’s confirmation of a $1 billion valuation marks another milestone in African tech.

Only one VC backed startup, turned later-stage company on the continent — e-commerce venture Jumia — has generated enough revenue and capital to achieve a ten-figure valuation.

For the near to medium-term, Interswitch could stand as Africa’s sole tech-unicorn, since Jumia’s volatile share-price and declining market-cap since an April IPO have dropped the company’s worth below $1 billion (for now).

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch pioneered the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly paper-ledger and cash-based economy.

The company now provides much of rails for Nigeria’s online banking system that serves Africa’s largest economy and population. Interswitch offers a number of personal and business finance products, including its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app.

Interswitch Quickteller

From its home-base of Nigeria Interswitch has expanded its physical presence to Uganda, Gambia and Kenya .

Interswitch also sells its products in 23 African countries and launched a partnership in August for its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.

Visa and Interswitch are touting the equity investment as a strategic collaboration between the two companies, without a lot of detail on what that will mean.

“The partnership will create an instant acceptance network across Africa to benefit consumers and merchants,” was the characterization offered in a press release.

Verve Times Square Interswitch

Interswitch’s imminent IPO has been delayed for several years. CEO and founder Mitchell Elegbe told TechCrunch, “a dual-listing on the London and Lagos stock exchange is an option on the table,” in a January 2016 call.

In subsequent years, Elegbe and other Interswitch executives named Nigeria’s recession as a reason for the delay.

A number stories have surfaced, including Bloomberg News reporting in July, that the company was poised to go public on the LSE.

TechCrunch’s source close to the matter offered the latest indication that Interswitch will list on a major exchange by mid-2020.

With possible exits for backers Helios Investment Partners, TA Investments and IFC, Interswitch’s unicorn status and pending IPO could create more momentum for startup investment in Africa. VC to the continent has grown significantly over the last 5 years, but stands at just over $1 billion annually, per Partech numbers.

Interswitch could also be in a stronger position to offer more capital directly to the continent’s fintech startups by reviving its ePayment Growth Fund. The venture arm made two investments in 2015, but then went largely quiet.

 

 

 

 

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