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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Kandji nabs $60M Series B as Apple device management platform continues to thrive

By Ron Miller

During the pandemic, having an automated solution for onboarding and updating Apple devices remotely has been essential, and today Kandji, a startup that helps IT do just that, announced a hefty $60 million Series B investment.

Felicis Ventures led the round with participation from SVB Capital, Greycroft, Okta Ventures and The Spruce House Partnership. Today’s round comes just 7 months after a $21 million Series A, bringing the total raised across three rounds to $88.5 million, according to the company.

CEO Adam Pettit says that the company has been growing in leaps in bounds since the funding round last October.

“We’ve seen a lot more traction than even originally anticipated. I think every time we’ve put targets up onto the board of how quickly we would grow, we’ve accelerated past them,” he said. He said that one of the primary reasons for this growth has been the rapid move to work from home during the pandemic.

“We’re working with customers across 40+ industries now, and we’re even seeing international customers come in and purchase so everyone now is just looking to support remote workforces and we provide a really elegant way for them to do that,” he said.

While Pettit didn’t want to discuss exact revenue numbers, he did say that it has tripled since the Series A announcement. That is being fueled in part he says by attracting larger companies, and he says they have been seeing more and more of them become customers this year.

As they’ve grown revenue and added customers, they’ve also brought on new employees, growing from 40 to 100 since October. Pettit says that the startup is committed to building a diverse and inclusive culture at the company and a big part of that is making sure you have a diverse pool of candidates to choose from.

“It comes down to at the onset just making the decision that it’s important to you and it’s important to the company, which we’ve done. Then you take it step by step all the way through, and we start at the back into the funnel where are candidates are coming from.”

That means clearly telling their recruiting partners that they want a diverse candidate pool. One way to do that is being remote and having a broader talent pool to work with. “We realized that in order to hold true to [our commitment], it was going to be really hard to do that just sticking to the core market of San Diego or San Francisco, and so now we’ve expand expanded nationally and this has opened up a lot of [new] pools of top tech talent,” he said.

Pettit is thinking hard right now about how the startup will run its offices whenever they allowed back, especially with some employees living outside major tech hubs. Clearly it will have some remote component, but he says that the tricky part of that will be making sure that the folks who aren’t coming into the office still feel fully engaged and part of the team.

Forget the piggy bank, Till Financial’s kids’ spend management app gets Gates’ backing

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Today’s children and teens want more power and control over their spending.

And while there are a number of financial services and apps out there aimed at helping this demographic save and invest money (Greenlight being among the most popular and well-known), one startup is coming at the space from another angle: helping younger people also better manage their spend.

Till Financial describes itself as a collaborative family financial tool that aims to empower kids to become smarter spenders. The New York-based company’s banking platform is designed to encourage “open and honest” discussions between parents and their kids. And it has just raised $5 million to help it advance on that goal.

A slew of investors put money in the round, including Elysian Park Ventures, Melinda Gates’ venture fund Pivotal Ventures with Magnify Ventures, Afore Capital, Luge Capital, Alpine Meridian Ventures, The Gramercy Fund, SM Ventures (the family office of the founders/CEOs of Stadium Goods) and Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Scout Fund. Also participating were angel investors such as the founders of fintech Petal, the founders of alcohol marketplace Drizly, the president of Transactis, and the president of 1800Flowers.

Part of Till’s goal is to help kids “learn by doing” and gain confidence in spending decisions. It arms them with a bank account, digital and physical debit card and goal-based savings. For example, say a teen wants to buy an iPad, they can set up an account that they can save toward that iPad and give family members (such as grandparents, for example) the opportunity to pitch in the same amount, or more. They can also set up recurring payments for things like Netflix or Spotify subscriptions so they can get a taste of what it’s like to pay regular bills.

“Parents and the current banking options miss the point when they just focus on savings. We need to first prepare kids to be Smarter Spenders, supported by savings and investing,” said Taylor Burton, who founded the company with Tom Pincince. “On Till, kids learn to spend with intention and purpose, while parents gain confidence and trust based on transparency and accountability.”

To Pincince, the market is clearly underserved.

“The legacy banks really don’t care about this young person and the early digital players are really missing the mark,” he said. 

And despite the plethora of apps targeting the demographic, Pincince believes there’s plenty of room for the right players.

“The reality is you’re talking about a swath of kids under the age of 18 and over the age of eight that is the single largest unbanked population,” he said. “We’re not fighting to be the top of your son’s wallet. We’re fighting to be the first product into that wallet.”

Indeed, it’s a big market — the average middle-class family in the U.S. spends $284,570 per child by the time they turn 18.

The platform is free to all families and, early on, attracted the attention of Peggy Mangot, operating partner/COO of PayPal Ventures. She invested personally in Till in its pre-seed rounds. Prior to PayPal, Mangot ran development of Greenhouse, Well Fargo’s fee-free mobile banking app that aimed to help younger users build responsible spending habits.

Mangot has three kids and recalls that when they were shopping online, she’d give them her credit card. Or, if they were going to the corner store or meeting with friends, she’d give them cash.

“But that way, the money is meaningless to them. They didn’t really know how to understand what things cost and there was no sense of ownership,” she said. “It was just me handing over cash or a card.”

What attracted her the most about Till, Mangot said, was the team’s approach to treat younger people “with respect and agency.”

She also believes that by helping children and teens understand important financial lessons at a younger age, the world will ultimately be full of more responsible adults.

“By putting these tools in the hands of these young people early, they’ll have years and years of experience before they’re more independent and have to manage their paycheck and bills,” Mangot told TechCrunch. “Once you have mass adoption, it’s going to create a much more financially literate, confident and in control set of young adults than we’ve ever had.”

Besides making money on interchange fees, Till aims to earn revenue by partnering with merchants to offer rewards to users. It also plans to earn referral fees by referring the teens to other financial institutions when they get older and have different needs.

“It’s not our intention to be your son or daughter’s forever bank. It’s our intention to be the first bank,” Pincince said. “So, they hit the age of maturity, we’re actually giving them a high-five off of our platform and introducing them to maybe their first college loan or their first credit card.”

With $30M extension, BigID boosts Series D to $100M at $1.25B valuation

By Ron Miller

When we last heard from BigID at the end of 2020, the company was announcing a $70 million Series D at a $1 billion valuation. Today, it announced a $30 million extension on that deal valuing the company at $1.25 billion just 4 months later.

This chunk of money comes from private equity firm Advent International, and brings the total raised to over $200 million across 4 rounds, according to the company. The late stage startup is attracting all of this capital by building a security and privacy platform. When I spoke to CEO Dimitri Sirota in September 2019 at the time of the $50 million Series C, he described the company’s direction this way:

“We’ve separated the product into some constituent parts. While it’s still sold as a broad-based [privacy and security] solution, it’s much more of a platform now in the sense that there’s a core set of capabilities that we heard over and over that customers want.”

Sirota says he has been putting the money to work, and as the economy improves he is seeing more traction for the product set. “Since December, we’ve added employees as we’ve seen broader economic recovery and increased demand. In tandem, we have been busy building a whole host of new products and offerings that we will announce over the coming weeks that will be transformational for BigID,” he said.

He also said that as with previous rounds, he didn’t go looking for the additional money, but decided to take advantage of the new funds at a higher valuation with a firm that he believes can add value overall. What’s more, the funds should allow the company to expand in ways it might have held off on.

“It was important to us that this wouldn’t be a distraction and that we could balance any funding without the need to over-capitalize, which is becoming a bigger issue in today’s environment. In the end, we took what we thought could bring forward some additional product modules and add a sales team focused on smaller commercial accounts,” Sirota said.

Ashwin Krishnan, a principal on Advent’s technology team in New York says that BigID was clearly aligned with two trends his firm has been following. That includes the explosion of data being collected and the increasing focus on managing and securing that data with the goal of ultimately using it to make better decisions.

“When we met with Dimitri and the BigID team, we immediately knew we had found a company with a powerful platform that solves the most challenging problem at the center of these trends and the data question,”Krishnan said.

Past investors in the company include Boldstart Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners and Tiger Global. Strategic investors include Comcast Ventures, Salesforce Ventures and SAP.io.

Satellite Vu’s $5M seed round will fuel the launch of its thermal imaging satellites

By Devin Coldewey

Earth imaging is an increasingly crowded space, but Satellite Vu is taking a different approach by focusing on infrared and heat emissions, which are crucial for industry and climate change monitoring. Fresh from TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield, the company has raised a £3.6M ($5M) seed round and is on its way to launching its first satellite in 2022.

The nuts and bolts of Satellite Vu’s tech and master plan are described in our original profile of the company, but the gist is this: while companies like Planet have made near-real-time views of the Earth’s surface into a thriving business, other niches are relatively unexplored — like thermal imaging.

The heat coming off a building, geological feature, or even a crowd of people is an enormously interesting data point. It can tell you whether an office building or warehouse is in use or empty, and whether it’s heated or cooled, and how efficient that process is. It can find warmer or cooler areas that suggest underground water, power lines, or other heat-affecting objects. It could even make a fair guess at how many people attended a concert, or perhaps an inauguration. And of course it works at night.

An aerial image side by side with a thermal image of the same area.

You could verify, for instance, which parts of a power plant are active, when.

Pollution and other emissions are also easily spotted and tracked, making infrared observation of the planet an important part of any plan to monitor industry in the context of climate change. That’s what attracted Satellite Vu’s first big piece of cash, a grant from the U.K. government for £1.4M, part of a £500M infrastructure fund.

CEO and founder Anthony Baker said that they began construction of their first satellite with that money, “so we knew we got our sums right,” he said, then began the process of closing additional capital.

Seraphim Capital, a space-focused VC firm whose most relevant venture is probably synthetic aperture satellite startup Iceye, matched the grant funds, and with subsequent grant the total money raised is in excess of the $5M target (the extra is set aside in a convertible note).

“What attracted us to Satellite Vu is several things. We published some research about this last year: there are more than 180 companies with plans to launch smallsat constellations,” said Seraphim managing partner James Bruegger. But very few, they noted, were looking at the infrared or thermal space. “That intrigued us, because we always thought infrared had a lot of potential. And we already knew Anthony and Satellite Vu from having put them through our space accelerator in 2019.”

They’re going to need every penny. Though the satellites themselves are looking to be remarkably cheap, as satellites go — $14-15M all told — and only seven will be needed to provide global coverage, that still adds up to over $100M over the next couple years.

Simulated image of a Satellite Vu imaging satellite.

Image Credits: Satellite Vu

Seraphim isn’t daunted, however: “As a specialist space investor, we understand the value of patience,” said Bruegger. Satellite Vu, he added, is a “poster child” for their approach, which is to shuttle early stage companies through their accelerator and then support them to an exit.

It helps that Baker has lined up about as much potential income from interested customers as they’ll need to finance the whole thing, soup to nuts. “Commercial traction has improved since we last spoke,” said Baker, which was just before he presented at TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 Startup Battlefield:

The company now has 26 letters of intent and other leads that amount to, in his estimation, about a hundred million dollars worth of business — if he can provide the services they’re asking for, of course. To that end the company has been flying its future orbital cameras on ordinary planes and modifying the output to resemble what they expect from the satellite network.

Companies interested in the latter can buy into the former for now, and the transition to the “real” product should be relatively painless. It also helps create a pipeline on Satellite Vu’s side, so there’s no need for a test satellite and service.

An aerial image side by side with a thermal image of the same area.

Another example of the simulated satellite imagery – same camera as will be in orbit, but degraded to resemble shots from that far up.

“We call it pseudo-satellite data — it’s almost a minimum viable product.We work with the companies about the formats and stuff they need,” Baker said. “The next stage is, we’re planning on taking a whole city, like Glasgow, and mapping the whole city in thermal. We think there will be many parties interested in that.”

With investment, tentative income, and potential customers lining up, Satellite Vu seems poised to make a splash, though its operations and launches are small compared with those of Planet, Starlink, and very soon Amazon’s Kuiper. After the first launch, tentatively scheduled for 2022, Baker said the company would only need two more to put the remaining six satellites in orbit, three at a time on a rideshare launch vehicle.

Before that, though, we can expect further fundraising, perhaps as soon as a few months from now — after all, however thrifty the company is, tens of millions in cash will still be needed to get off the ground.

Oath Care just raised $2 million to develop a social, health-focused app that groups expectant and new parents

By Connie Loizos

Being an expectant mom can be frightening, as can mothering an infant or toddler. The answers don’t come automatically, and while there’s no shortage of books and websites (and advice from grandparents) about how to parent at every stage, finding satisfying information often proves a lot harder than imagined.

There are online social groups that deliver some of the social and emotional support that new parents need, no matter where they live. There are many dozens of mom communities on Facebook, for example. However, it’s because there’s room for improvement on this theme — big groups can feel isolating, bad information abounds —that Oath Care, a young, four-person San Francisco-based startup, just raised $2 million in seed funding from XYZ Ventures, General Catalyst, and Eros Resmini, former CMO of Discord and managing partner of the Mini Fund.

What is it building? Founder Camilla Hermann describes it as a subscription-based mobile app that’s focused on improving the lives of new mothers by combining parents who have lots in common with healthcare specialists and moderators who can guide them in group chats, as well as one-on-one video calls.

More specifically, she says, for $20 per month, Oath matches pregnant and postpartum moms in circles of up to 10 based on factors like stage of pregnancy, age of child, location, and career so they can ask questions of each other, with the help of a trained moderator (who is sometimes a mother with older children).

Oath also pushes curriculum that Oath’s team is developing in-house to members based on each group’s specific needs. Not last, every group is given collective access to medical specialists who can answer general questions as part of the members’ subscription and who are also available for consultations when individualized help is needed.

Hermann says the pricing of these 15-minute-long consultations is still being developed, but that the medical experts with whom it’s already working see the app as a form of lead generation.

It’s an interesting concept, one that could be taken in a host of directions, acknowledges Hermann who says she was inspired to cofound the company based on earlier work developing a contact tracing technology created to track outbreaks like Ebola in real time.

As she said yesterday during a Zoom call with TechCrunch and her cofounder, Michelle Stephens, a pediatric clinician and research scientist: “We’ve fundamentally misunderstand something really important about health in the West; we think that [changes] happen to one person at a time or one part of the body at a time, but it always happens in interconnected systems both inside and outside the body, which fundamentally means that it is always happening in community.”

For her part, Stephens — who was introduced to Hermann at a dinner years ago — says her motivation in cofounding Oath was born out of research into childhood stress, and that by “better equipping parents to be those positive consistent caregivers in their child’s life,” Oath aims to help enable stronger, more intimate child-parent bonds.

It might sound grand for a mobile app, but it also sounds like a smart starting point. Though the idea is to match mothers in similar situations at the outset to help bolster theirs and their children’s health, it’s easy to imagine the platform evolving in a way that brings together parents in numerous groups based on interests, from preschool applications to autism to same-sex parenting. It’s easy to see the platform helping to sell products that parents need. It’s easy to imagine the company amassing a lot of valuable information.

Indeed, says Hermann, the longer-term vision for Oath is to create rich datasets that it hopes can be used to improve health outcomes, including by identifying health issues earlier. Relatedly, it also hopes to build relationships with health systems and payers in order to increase access to its products.

For now, Oath is mostly just trying to keep up with demand. Hermann says the “small and scrappy” company found its first 50 users through Facebook ads, and that this base quickly tripled organically before Oath was forced to create a growing waitlist for what has been a closed beta until now. (Oath is “anticipating a full launch in late summer,” says Stephens.)

That’s not to say the company isn’t thinking at all about next steps.

While right now it is “laser focused on building out the most exceptional experience for this specific cohort of users in this specific period of time of their lives,” says Hermann, once it builds out many more communities of small trusted groups with “high engagement and high trust,” there is “a lot you can layer on top of that. It’s virtually limitless.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Soona raises $10.2M to make remote photo and video shoots easy

By Anthony Ha

Soona, a startup aiming to satisfy the growing content needs of the e-commerce ecosystem, is announcing that it has raised $10.2 million in Series A funding led by Union Square Ventures.

When I wrote about Soona in 2019, the model focused on staging shoots that can deliver videos and photos in 24 hours or less. The startup still operates studios in Austin, Denver and Minneapolis, but co-founder and CEO Liz Giorgi told me that during the pandemic, Soona shifted to a fully virtual/remote model — customers ship their products to Soona, then then watch the shoot remotely and offer immediate feedback, and only pay for the photos ($39 each) and video clips ($93 each) that they actually want.

In some cases, the studio isn’t even necessary — Giorgi said that 30% of Soona’s photographers and crew members are working from home.

Soona has now worked with more than 4,000 customers, including Lola Tampons, The Sill, and Wild Earth, with revenue growing 400% last year. Giorgi said that even as larger in-person shoots become possible again, this approach still makes sense for many clients.

“There’s nothing we sell online that does not require a visual, but not every single visual requires a massive full day shoot,” she said.

Soona

Image Credits: Soona

Giorgi also suggested that Soona’s approach has unlocked a “new level of scalability,” adding, “Internally at Soona, we really believe in the remote shoot experience. It’s not only more efficient, it’s a lot more fun not having to fly a brand manager from Miami and have them spend a full day at a warehouse in New York. That’s not only cost-prohibitive, it’s also a time-consuming and exhausting process for everyone.”

The new funding follows a $1.2 million seed round. Giorgi said the Series A will allow Soona to develop a subscription product with more collaboration tools and more data about what kinds of visual content is most effective.

“There’s an opportunity to own the visual ecosystem of e-commerce from beginning to end,” she said.

Giorgi also noted that Soona continues to employ its “candor clause” requiring investors to disclose whether they’ve ever faced complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination. In fact, the clause has been expanded to cover complaints around racism, ableism or anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

“In some ways it’s a gate that prevents bad actors from being involved […] but it really drives a deeper connection with the investor and the founder,” Giorgi said. “We can have conversation about our values and how we see the world. We get to have a conversation about equality and justice at at time when we’re talking a lot about equity and the cap table.”

Nelo raises $3M to grow ‘buy now, pay later’ in Mexico

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Buy now, pay later is a way of paying for purchases via installment loans that generally have no interest. The concept has grown in popularity in recent years, especially in markets such as the United States, Europe and Australia. Numerous players abound, all fighting for market share — from Affirm to Klarna to Afterpay, among others.

But notably, none of these bigger players have yet to penetrate another very large market — Latin America. Enter Nelo, a startup founded by former Uber international growth team leads, which is building buy now, pay later in Mexico. The company is already live with more than 45 merchants and over 150,000 users.

San Francisco-based fintech-focused VC firm Homebrew led its recent seed round of $3 million, which also included participation from Susa Ventures, Crossbeam, Rogue Capital, Unpopular Ventures and others. With the latest capital infusion, Nelo has raised a total of $5.6 million since its 2019 inception.

Nelo is not the only player in the Mexican market. A number of others, including Alchemy and Addi, have recently outlined plans for buy now, pay later offerings in the region. But where Nelo has an advantage, believes CEO Kyle Miller, is its established relationships with about 45 merchants.

“What I’m excited about is the relationship with the merchants,” Miller told TechCrunch. “If we find a large global one and increase conversion for them, that is our defensibility [against competitors]. What’s important here is signing on merchants, since they usually only have one offering in their checkout.”

He and co-founder Stephen Hebson used to work for Uber’s international growth team, growing financial services products in India, Mexico, China and Brazil.

“We got to see a cross market where countries were accelerating and where others weren’t,” Miller recalls. “For example, China was a leader in mobile payments and digital finance in India was completely transformed.”

Nelo co-founders Stephen Hebson and Kyle Miller; Image courtesy of Nelo

But in markets like Mexico, the percentage of cash payments for trips was very high. And to Miller and Hebson, this spelled opportunity.

Nelo launched its first product in Mexico in January 2020, similar to a debit card offering from a neobank. In the middle of the year, the company launched credit installment loans.

“It became immediately clear that it was going to be our most popular feature,” Miller said. “By the end of the year, it was the vast majority of our business and something that our users were telling their friends about. We were solving a real pain point.”

Indeed, cash remains the dominant method of payment in Mexico, with an estimated 86% of all payments being in the form of cash. According to eMarketer, the region was the fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world in 2020, with 37% year over year growth.

“Access to credit is something we take for granted in the U.S.,” Miller said. “By the end of the year, we realized this was the future of business, and we decided to focus just on credit.”

In March, Nelo launched its first product via an Android app and will be launching a web app soon.

Customers can use its offering like a credit card, connecting directly with merchants such as Netflix and Spotify. Many users are paying for things like utility bills and cell phone bills, turning them from prepaid to postpay.

With its current product, the company has lent about $2 million, and is seeing growth of about 20% month over month.

“We’re seeing massive demand for this new product in the way of organic signups,” Miller said, “for all the reasons Buy Now, Pay Later has been successful in markets like the U.S., Europe and Australia.”

Paying for installments is already common in Latin America, particularly in Brazil, so the concept is not foreign to residents in the region.

“We expected this is soon going to be a competitive market, so we’re hiring data scientists and engineers to continue improving our product, and grow,” Miller said.

Nelo has about 14 employees with an engineering team in New York.

Homebrew Partner Satya Patel says he’s excited about Nelo because he believes the startup “solves a serious problem related to the lack of credit for Mexican consumers.”

“Credit card penetration is less than 10% in Mexico and other forms of credit are effectively non-existent,” he wrote via email. “Nelo makes it possible for Mexicans to easily and inexpensively increase their purchasing power at the point of sale. And importantly, Nelo is delivering this solution online, supporting growing interest in e-commerce, and also offline, where consumers regularly shop today.”

Patel adds that what Nelo is building is valuable because he is not aware of any reliable, comprehensive consumer credit rating data set in Mexico.

“They are building underwriting models based on proprietary data and growing the merchant network at an incredible rate,” he said. “This buy now, pay later opportunity is untapped in Mexico but requires a very different approach than what has been successful in other markets.”

The Nelo team, according to Patel, understands the nuances of the market and “is executing at an exceptional pace.”

Level raises $27M from Khosla, Lightspeed ‘to rebuild insurance from the ground up’

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Level, a startup that aims to give companies a more flexible way to offer benefits to employees, has raised $27 million in a Series A funding round led by Khosla Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

Operator Collective and leading angels also participated in the financing, along with previous backers First Round Capital and Homebrew. The round was raised at a “nine-figure” valuation, according to founder and CEO Paul Aaron, who declined to be more specific.

Founded in 2018, New York City-based Level says it’s “rebuilding insurance from the ground up” via flexible networks and real-time claims with the goal of helping employers and employees get the most out of their benefit dollars. 

Employers can customize plans to do things like offer 100% coverage across treatments. The company also touts the ability to process claims in four hours. 

“That’s lightning fast when compared to 30- to 60-day claims often processed by traditional payers,” said Aaron, who as one of the first employees at Square, led the network team at Oscar Health and is an inventor of several patents in the payments space.

Level first launched employer-sponsored dental benefits in the summer of 2019 and started serving its first beta customers that fall. It also now offers vision plans. The company has more than 10,000 members from companies such as Intercom, Udemy, KeepTruckin and Thistle that have paid for care via its platform. 

“Insurance is confusing and often feels unfair. Networks restrict where you can go, billing takes weeks and you always seem to owe more than you expect,” Aaron said. “We believe paying with insurance should be as easy as any other purchase.”

Level says it is taking a full-stack approach and building end-to-end tools, from automated underwriting to real-time benefit analytics. 

It plans to launch a new insurance product aimed at “helping smaller businesses offer bigger benefits” that typically only enterprises have the ability to offer. The company also aims to help employers get money back for any unused benefits after paying a fixed amount each month. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to offer a full suite of products that will allow companies of all sizes — from two employees to 20,000 — provide better benefits for their teams. 

Level claims that its self-insured dental and vision products let companies offer more coverage to their teams while often cutting nearly 20% from their benefits budget. 

“Employers already spend so much money on benefits, and neither they nor their teams get enough out of it,” said Jana Messerschmidt from Lightspeed Venture Partners, in a written statement. “Businesses of all sizes need to compete for talent with innovative benefits that help people get more from their paychecks. Level offers a far superior employee experience, and you’re getting bang for your buck.” 

Meanwhile, Khosla’s Samir Kaul said he believes Level can do for insurance and benefits “what Square Cash did for person-to-person payments.”

Investor First Round Capital claims to have saved 47% by switching from fully insured to Level. And, Thistle says it saw 41% in savings by switching to Level. 

1Doc3, a Colombian telemedicine startup, raises $3 million

By Marcella McCarthy

The pandemic has made telemedicine video visits in the U.S. almost commonplace, but in Latin America, where broadband isn’t widely available, 1Doc3 is using text and chat to provide access to care. Today, the Colombia-based company announced a $3 million pre-Series A led by MatterScale Ventures and Kayyak Ventures.

“I’m on a nice MacBook for this interview, but that’s not the case of most people in LatAm,” said Javier Cardona, co-founder and CEO of 1Doc3. The company’s name is a play on the phonetics of 1, 2, 3 in Spanish.

Reaching your primary care doctor when you’re not feeling well is getting harder and harder, and 1Doc3 aims to solve that problem in LatAm by offering a telemedicine platform powered by AI that does symptom assessment, triage and pre-diagnosis before connecting the patient to a doctor.

“In 97% of our consultations, you’re connected to a doctor in a matter of minutes,” Cardona said.

After seeing the doctor, the patient can also get their prescriptions delivered to their home through 1Doc3. The startup, like others in the space, is trying to close the loop so patients can get care quickly without having to leave their homes.

In addition to Colombia, the company already has operations in Mexico and plans to use part of the funding to expand further in the region as well as building out a marketing and sales team, which it hasn’t had thus far. 

1Doc3 reaches customers directly and by establishing corporate partnerships where the companies themselves pay for their employees’ medical care through the startup. One of Cardona’s goals is to bring the unit economics down so that smaller businesses can also afford 1Doc3, which for corporates, now charges between $3-4 a month/employee.

“For big companies, the money isn’t an issue, but our region is comprised of small to medium-sized businesses,” Cardona said.

The company, which was founded in 2013 and was a finalist in TechCrunch’s Latin American Battlefield in 2018, experienced massive growth in 2020, going from 2,500 to 35,000 consultations per month from February to December 2020, respectively, which led the company to be cashflow positive last year. In March of 2021, the company had $120,000 in MRR.

Like many startups, the jolt to found 1Doc3 came from a personal experience faced by the founder.  

“When I was in Tanzania I had a medical need and I was definitely not going to go to a doctor in Tanzania, and I couldn’t reach any doctor online, not even in the U.S., and I became a little obsessed with this problem,” said Cardona, who was working in the Middle East and Africa at the time. 

This round brings the total raised by 1Doc3 to $5 million. Other investors that participated in the round include Swanhill Capital, Simma Capital and existing investors The Venture City, EWA capital (previously Mountain Nazca Colombia) and Startup Health.

Autonomous aviation startup Xwing hits $400M valuation after latest funding round

By Aria Alamalhodaei

The safety pilot has his hands off the controls during an Xwing demonstration flight. Image Credits: Xwing

Xwing has scored another win two months after it completed its first gate-to-gate autonomous demonstration flight of a commercial cargo aircraft. The company said Thursday it has raised $40 million at a post-money valuation of $400 million.

The company is setting its sights on expansion — not only tripling its engineering team, but eventually running regular fully unmanned commercial cargo flights.

Xwing has been developing a technology stack to convert aircraft, including a widely used Cessna Grand Caravan 208B, to function autonomously. But it’s had to solve a few problems first: “the perception problem, the planning problem and the control problem,” Xwing founder Marc Piette explained to TechCrunch. The company has come up with a whole suite of solutions to solve for these problems, including integrating lidar, radar and cameras on the plane; retrofitting the servomotors that control the rudder, braking and other functions; and ensuring all of these are communicating properly so the plane understands where it is in space and can execute its flight.

The company has already performed close to 200 missions with its AutoFlight system. For all these flights, there’s been a safety pilot on board. In addition, a ground control operator sits in a control center and acts as a go-between from the autonomous aircraft to the human air traffic control operator.

“We don’t anticipate automating [communication with air traffic control], trying to do natural language processing and having a computer make the response to the air traffic controller,” Piette said. “For safety critical applications, we don’t view that as a useful path…but what we do, though, is we have a ground operator in our control room that just talks to air traffic control on behalf of the aircraft. So for the air traffic controller, it’s seamless. As far as they’re concerned, they are just talking to a pilot onboard the aircraft.”

Image Credits: Xwing

For its autonomous flight activities, the company has authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly under an experimental airworthiness certificate for research and development that was expanded in August of last year to include a special flight permit for optionally piloted aircraft (OPA).

The company is looking to eventually remove the safety pilot, but only once full safety redundancies are in place, Piette added. That includes redundancies across all sensors and computer systems. Fortunately for all of us that fly, commercial aviation safety levels are extremely high. It means a high airworthiness standard for aviation startups. Smaller Class III aircraft like the ones Xwing is targeting must demonstrate a risk of one catastrophic failure per hundred million flight hours.

Xwing’s activities have garnered attention from investors. This most recent funding round was led by Blackhorn Ventures, with participation from ACME Capital, Loup Ventures, R7 Partners, Eniac Ventures, Alven Capital and Array Ventures. Including this round, the company has raised $55 million in total capital.

The autonomous flights are only one part of Xwing’s business activities. It’s also been flying manned commercial cargo operations under a contract with a large logistics company signed December 1.

“We set up what’s effectively an airline,” Piette said. By modifying these aircraft with sensors to collect data, Xwing is able to feed this valuable flight time into a training algorithm, and collect other useful data, such as how often the pilots communicate with air traffic controllers and the types of directions the craft receives.

Looking ahead, the company will be significantly scaling its workforce over the next 12 months, in addition to increasing its commercial operations in parallel. On the technology side, Xwing is looking to fly autonomous commercial cargo flights, with a safety pilot onboard, under an experimental ticket and exemption from the FAA. The company will likely reach this milestone also within the next 12 months, Piette said. After that, it would look to remove the safety pilot from the aircraft. Even then, the company would still need to get its systems certified to completely remove any constraints on its movements in airspace.

Casa Blanca raises $2.6M to build the ‘Bumble for real estate’

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Casa Blanca, which aims to develop a “Bumble-like app” for finding a home, has raised $2.6 million in seed funding.

Co-founder and CEO Hannah Bomze got her real estate license at the age of 18 and worked at Compass and  Douglas Elliman Real Estate before launching Casa Blanca last year.

She launched the app last October with the goal of matching home buyers and renters with homes using an in-app matchmaking algorithm combined with “expert agents.” Buyers get up to 1% of home purchases back at closing. Similar to dating apps, Casa Blanca’s app is powered by a simple swipe left or right.

Samuel Ben-Avraham, a partner and early investor of Kith and an early investor in WeWork, led the round for Casa Blanca, bringing its total raise to date to $4.1 million.

The New York-based startup recently launched in the Colorado market and has seen some impressive traction in a short amount of time. 

Since launching the app in October, Casa Blance has “made more than $100M in sales” and is projected to reach $280 million this year between New York and its Denver launch. 

Bomze said the app experience will be customized for each city with the goal of creating a personalized experience for each user. Casa Blanca claims to streamline and sort listings based on user preferences and lifestyle priorities.

Image Credits: Casa Blanca

“People love that there is one place to book, manage feedback, schedule and communicate with a branded agent for one cohesive experience,” Bomze said. “We have a breadth of users from first time buyers to people using our platform for $15 million listings.”

Unlike competitors, Casa Blanca applies to a direct-to-consumer model, she pointed out.

“While our agents are an integral part of the company, they are not responsible for bringing in business and have more organizational support, which allows them to focus on the individual more and creates a better end-to-end experience for the consumer,” Bomze said.

Casa Blanca currently has over 38 agents in NYC and Colorado, compared to about 15 at this time last year.

“We are in a growth phase and finding a unique opportunity in this climate, in particular, because there are many women exploring new, more flexible job opportunities,” Bomze noted. 

The company plans to use its new capital to continue expanding into new markets, nationally and globally; enhancingits technology and scaling.

“As we continue to grow in new markets, the app experience will be curated to each city – for example, in Colorado you can edit your preferences based on access to ski areas – to make sure we’re offering a personalized experience for each user,” Bomze said.

Saltbox raises $10.6M to help booming e-commerce stores store their goods

By Mary Ann Azevedo

E-commerce is booming, but among the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs of online businesses are finding a place to store the items they are selling and dealing with the logistics of operating.

Tyler Scriven, Maxwell Bonnie and Paul D’Arrigo co-founded Saltbox in an effort to solve that problem.

The trio came up with a unique “co-warehousing” model that provides space for small businesses and e-commerce merchants to operate as well as store and ship goods, all under one roof. Beyond the physical offering, Saltbox offers integrated logistics services as well as amenities such as the rental of equipment and packing stations and access to items such as forklifts. There are no leases and tenants have the flexibility to scale up or down based on their needs.

“We’re in that sweet spot between co-working and raw warehouse space,” said CEO Scriven, a former Palantir executive and Techstars managing director.

Saltbox opened its first facility — a 27,000-square-foot location — in its home base of Atlanta in late 2019, filling it within two months. It recently opened its second facility, a 66,000-square-foot location, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that is currently about 40% occupied. The company plans to end 2021 with eight locations, in particular eyeing the Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles markets. Saltbox has locations slated to come online as large as 110,000 square feet, according to Scriven.

The startup was founded on the premise that the need for “co-warehousing and SMB-centric logistics enablement solutions” has become a major problem for many new businesses that rely on online retail platforms to sell their goods, noted Scriven. Many of those companies are limited to self-storage and mini-warehouse facilities for storing their inventory, which can be expensive and inconvenient. 

Scriven personally met with challenges when starting his own e-commerce business, True Glory Brands, a retailer of multicultural hair and beauty products.

“We became aware of the lack of physical workspace for SMBs engaged in commerce,” Scriven told TechCrunch. “If you are in the market looking for 10,000 square feet of industrial warehouse space, you are effectively pushed to the fringes of the real estate ecosystem and then the entrepreneurial ecosystem at large. This is costing companies in significant but untold ways.”

Now, Saltbox has completed a $10.6 million Series A round of financing led by Palo Alto-based Playground Global that included participation from XYZ Venture Capital and proptech-focused Wilshire Lane Partners in addition to existing backers Village Capital and MetaProp. The company plans to use its new capital primarily to expand into new markets.

The company’s customers are typically SMB e-commerce merchants “generating anywhere from $50,000 to $10 million a year in revenue,” according to Scriven.

He emphasizes that the company’s value prop is “quite different” from a traditional flex office/co-working space.

“Our members are reliant upon us to support critical workflows,” Scriven said. 

Besides e-commerce occupants, many service-based businesses are users of Saltbox’s offering, he said, such as those providing janitorial services or that need space for physical equipment. The company offers all-inclusive pricing models that include access to loading docks and a photography studio, for example, in addition to utilities and Wi-Fi.

Image Credits: Saltbox

Image Credits: Saltbox

The company secures its properties with a mix of buying and leasing by partnering with institutional real estate investors.

“These partners are acquiring assets and in most cases, are funding the entirety of capital improvements by entering into management or revenue share agreements to operate those properties,” Scriven said. He said the model is intentionally different from that of “notable flex space operators.”

“We have obviously followed those stories very closely and done our best to learn from their experiences,” he added. 

Investor Adam Demuyakor, co-founder and managing partner of Wilshire Lane Partners, said his firm was impressed with the company’s ability to “structure excellent real estate deals” to help them continue to expand nationally.

He also believes Saltbox is “extremely well-positioned to help power and enable the next generation of great direct to consumer brands.”

Playground Global General Partner Laurie Yoler said the startup provides a “purpose-built alternative” for small businesses that have been fulfilling orders out of garages and self-storage units.

Saltbox recently hired Zubin Canteenwalla  to serve as its chief operating offer. He joined Saltbox from Industrious, an operator co-working spaces, where he was SVP of Real Estate. Prior to Industrious, he was EVP of Operations at Common, a flexible residential living brand, where he led the property management and community engagement teams.

C2i, a genomics SaaS product to detect traces of cancer, raises $100M Series B

By Marcella McCarthy

If you or a loved one has ever undergone a tumor removal as part of cancer treatment, you’re likely familiar with the period of uncertainty and fear that follows. Will the cancer return, and if so, will the doctors catch it at an early enough stage? C2i Genomics has developed software that’s 100x more sensitive in detecting residual disease, and investors are pouncing on the potential. Today, C2i announced a $100 million Series B led by Casdin Capital. 

“The biggest question in cancer treatment is, ‘Is it working?’ Some patients are getting treatment they don’t benefit from and they are suffering the side effects while other patients are not getting the treatment they need,” said Asaf Zviran, co-founder and CEO of C2i Genomics in an interview.

Historically, the main approach to cancer detection post-surgery has been through the use of MRI or X-ray, but neither of those methods gets super accurate until the cancer progresses to a certain point. As a result, a patient’s cancer may return, but it may be a while before doctors are able to catch it.

Using C2i’s technology, doctors can order a liquid biopsy, which is essentially a blood draw that looks for DNA. From there they can sequence the entire genome and upload it to the C2i platform. The software then looks at the sequence and identifies faint patterns that indicate the presence of cancer, and can inform if it’s growing or shrinking.

“C2i is basically providing the software that allows the detection and monitoring of cancer to a global scale. Every lab with a sequencing machine can process samples, upload to the C2i platform and provide detection and monitoring to the patient,” Zviran told TechCrunch.

C2i Genomics’ solution is based on research performed at the New York Genome Center (NYGC) and Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM) by Dr. Zviran, along with Dr. Dan Landau, faculty member at the NYGC and assistant professor of medicine at WCM, who serves as scientific co-founder and member of C2i’s scientific advisory board. The research and findings have been published in the medical journal, Nature Medicine.

While the product is not FDA-approved yet, it’s already being used in clinical research and drug development research at NYU Langone Health, the National Cancer Center of Singapore, Aarhus University Hospital and Lausanne University Hospital.

When and if approved, New York-based C2i has the potential to drastically change cancer treatment, including in the areas of organ preservation. For example, some people have functional organs, such as the bladder or rectum, removed to prevent cancer from returning, leaving them disabled. But what if the unnecessary surgeries could be avoided? That’s one goal that Zviran and his team have their minds set on achieving.

For Zviran, this story is personal. 

“I started my career very far from cancer and biology, and at the age of 28 I was diagnosed with cancer and I went for surgery and radiation. My father and then both of my in-laws were also diagnosed, and they didn’t survive,” he said.

Zviran, who today has a PhD in molecular biology, was previously an engineer with the Israeli Defense Force and some private companies. “As an engineer, looking into this experience, it was very alarming to me about the uncertainty on both the patients’ and physicians’ side,” he said.

This round of funding will be used to accelerate clinical development and commercialization of the company’s C2-Intelligence Platform. Other investors that participated in the round include NFX, Duquesne Family Office, Section 32 (Singapore), iGlobe Partners and Driehaus Capital.

Bigeye (formerly Toro) scores $17M Series A to automate data quality monitoring

By Ron Miller

As companies create machine learning models, the operations team needs to ensure the data used for the model is of sufficient quality, a process that can be time consuming. Bigeye (formerly Toro), an early stage startup is helping by automating data quality.

Today the company announced a $17 million Series A led Sequoia Capital with participation from existing investor Costanoa Ventures. That brings the total raised to $21 million with the $4 million seed, the startup raised last May.

When we spoke to Bigeye CEO and co-founder Kyle Kirwan last May, he said the seed round was going to be focussed on hiring a team — they are 11 now — and building more automation into the product, and he says they have achieved that goal.

“The product can now automatically tell users what data quality metrics they should collect from their data, so they can point us at a table in Snowflake or Amazon Redshift or whatever and we can analyze that table and recommend the metrics that they should collect from it to monitor the data quality — and we also automated the alerting,” Kirwan explained.

He says that the company is focusing on data operations issues when it comes to inputs to the model such as the table isn’t updating when it’s supposed to, it’s missing rows or there are duplicate entries. They can automate alerts to those kinds of issues and speed up the process of getting model data ready for training and production.

Bogomil Balkansky, the partner at Sequoia who is leading today’s investment sees the company attacking an important part of the machine learning pipeline. “Having spearheaded the data quality team at Uber, Kyle and Egor have a clear vision to provide always-on insight into the quality of data to all businesses,” Balkansky said in a statement.

As the founding team begins building the company, Kirwan says that building a diverse team is a key goal for them and something they are keenly aware of.

“It’s easy to hire a lot of other people that fit a certain mold, and we want to be really careful that we’re doing the extra work to [understand that just because] it’s easy to source people within our network, we need to push and make sure that we’re hiring a team that has different backgrounds and different viewpoints and different types of people on it because that’s how we’re going to build the strongest team,” he said.

Bigeye offers on prem and SaaS solutions, and while it’s working with paying customers like Instacart, Crux Informatics, and Lambda School, the product won’t be generally available until later in the year.

Altman brothers lead B2B payment startup Routable’s $30M Series B

By Mary Ann Azevedo

We all know the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital adoption in a number of areas, particularly in the financial services space. Within financial services, there are few spaces hotter than B2B payments.

With a $120 trillion market size, it’s no surprise that an increasing number of fintechs focused on digitizing payments have been attracting investor interest. The latest is Routable, which has nabbed $30 million in a Series B raise that included participation from a slew of high-profile angel investors.

Unlike most raises, Routable didn’t raise the capital from a bunch of VC firms. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and former president of Y Combinator, and Jack Altman, CEO of Lattice, led the round. (The pair are brothers, in case you didn’t know.)

SoftBank-backed unicorn Flexport also participated, along with a number of angel investors, including Instacart co-founder Max Mullen, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie, Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff (who also started TIME Ventures),  DoorDash’s Gokul Rajaram, early Stripe employee turned angel Lachy Groom and Behance founder Scott Belsky.

The Series B comes just over eight months after Routable came out of stealth with a $12 million Series A.

CEO Omri Mor and CTO Tom Harel founded Routable in 2017 after previously working at marketplaces and recognizing the need for better internal tools for scaling business payments. They went through a Y Combinator batch and embarked on a process of interviewing hundreds of CFOs and finance leaders.

The pair found that the majority of the business payment tools that were out there were built for large companies with a low volume of business payments. 

After running enough customer development we identified a huge scramble to solve high-volume business payments, and that’s what we double down on,” Mor told TechCrunch. 

Routable’s mission is simple: to automate bill payment and invoicing processes (also known as accounts payables and accounts receivables), so that businesses can focus on scaling their core product offerings without worrying about payments.

“A business payment is more like moving a bill through Congress, where a consumer payment is more like a tweet,” Mor said. “We automate every step from purchase order to reconciliation and by extending an API, companies don’t have to build their own inner integration. We handle it, while helping them move their money faster.”

Since its August 2020 raise, Routable has seen its revenue grow by 380%, according to Mor. And last month alone, the company tripled its amount of new customers compared to the month prior. Customers include Snackpass, Ticketmaster and Re-Max, among others.

“We’ve been beating every quarter expectation for the past 18 months,” he told TechCrunch.

The company started out focused on the startup and SMB customer, but based on demand and feedback, is expanding into the enterprise space as well.

It has established integrations with QuickBooks, NetSuite and Xero and is looking to invest moving forward in integrating with Oracle, Microsoft Dynamics Workday and SAP. 

“A lot of our investment moving forward is to be able to bring that same level of automation and ease of use that we do for SMB and mid-market customers to the enterprise world,” Mor told TechCrunch.

Lead investor Sam Altman is in favor of that approach, noting that the recent booms in the gig and creator economies are leading to a big spike in the volume of both payments and payees.

“With the addition of enterprise capabilities, we think this can lead to an enormous business,” he said. 

The round brings Routable’s total raised to $46 million. The company has headquarters in San Francisco and Seattle with primarily a remote team. 

Sam Altman also told me that he was drawn to Routable after having experienced the pain of high-volume business payments himself and working with many startup founders who had experienced the same problem.

He was also impressed with the company’s engineering-forward approach.

“They can offer the best service by being embedded in a company’s flow of funds instead of the usual approach of just being an interface for moving money,” Altman said. 

With regard to the other investors, Mor said the decision to partner with founders of a number of prominent tech companies was intentional so that Routable could benefit from their “deep enterprise and high-growth experience.”

As mentioned above, the B2B payments space is white-hot. Earlier this year, Melio, which provides a platform for SMBs to pay other companies electronically using bank transfers, debit cards or credit — along with the option of cutting paper checks for recipients if that is what the recipients request — closed on $110 million in funding at a $1.3 billion valuation.

MIT startup Pickle raises $5.75M for its package-picking robot

By Brian Heater

There’s no doubt this past year has been a major watershed moment for the robotics industry. Warehouse and logistics have been a particular target for an automation push, as companies have worked to keep the lights on amidst stay at home orders and other labor shortages.

MIT spinoff Pickle is one of the latest startups to enter the fray. The company launched with limited funding and a small team, though it’s recently changed one of these, telling TechCrunch this week that it has raised $5.57 million in funding during this hot investment streak. The seed round was led by Hyperplane and featured Third Kind Venture Capital and Version One Ventures, among others.

The company’s making some pretty big claims around the efficacy of its first robot named, get this, “Dill” (the company clearly can’t avoid a clever name). It says the robot is capable of 1,600 picks per hour from the back of a trailer, a figure it claims is “double the speed of any competitors.”

CEO Andrew Meyer says collaboration is a key to the company’s play. “We designed people into the system from the get-go and focused on a specific problem: package handling in the loading dock. We got out of the lab and put robots to work in real warehouses. We resisted the fool’s errand of trying to create a system that could work entirely unsupervised or solve every robotics problem out there.”

Orders for the first product targeted at trailer unloading will open in June, with an expected ship date of early 2022.

Zeta in talks with SoftBank to raise at over $1 billion valuation

By Manish Singh

Banking tech startup Zeta is inching closer to the much sought-after unicorn status as it talks to investors to finalize a new round, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 is in talks to lead a ~$250 million Series D round in the five-year-old startup, the sources said. The new round would value the Indian startup, co-founded by high-profile entrepreneur Bhavin Turakhia, at over $1 billion, up from $300 million in its maiden external funding (Series C) in 2019. The round has yet to close, a third person said.

A SoftBank spokesperson declined to comment.

Five-year-old Zeta helps banks launch modern retail and fintech products. The thesis is that banks — largely operating on antiquated technologies — today don’t have the time and expertise to offer the best experience to hundreds of millions of customers and fintech firms they serve.

Zeta is attempting to help banks either use the startup’s cloud-native, API-first banking stack as its core framework or build services atop it to offer better a experience to all customers — think of improved mobile app and debit and credit features. It also offers API, SDKs and payment gateways to banks to work more efficiently with fintech firms.

The startup has amassed clients in several Asian and Latin American markets.

Turakhia, with his brother Divyank, started his first venture in 1998. Along the way, they sold four web companies to Endurance for $160 million. Zeta is the third startup Bhavin has co-founded since then — the other being business messaging platform Flock and Radix.

If finalized, Zeta could become the seventh Indian startup to turn a unicorn this month. Last week, social commerce Meesho — also backed by SoftBank Vision Fund 2 — fintech firm CRED, e-pharmacy firm PharmEasy, millennials-focused Groww, business messaging platform Gupshup and social network ShareChat attained the unicorn status.

The story was updated to note that the round hasn’t closed.

How Pilot charted a course of not raising too much money

By Mary Ann Azevedo

A few weeks ago, we wrote about fintech Pilot raising a $100 million Series C that doubled the company’s valuation to $1.2 billion.

Bezos Expeditions — Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ personal investment fund — and Whale Rock Capital joined the round, adding $40 million to a $60 million raise led by Sequoia about one month prior.

That raise came after a $40 million Series B in April 2019 co-led by Stripe and Index Ventures that valued the company at $355 million.

Both raises were notable and warranted coverage. But sometimes it’s fun to take a peek at the stories behind the raises and dig deeper into the numbers.

So here we go.

First off, San Francisco-based Pilot — which has a mission of affordably providing back-office services such as bookkeeping to startups and SMBs — apparently had term sheets that offered “2x the $40M” raised in its Series B. But it chose not to raise so much capital. 

I also heard that the same investor that ended up leading a now defunct competitor’s $60 million raise first asked to invest $60 million in Pilot as a follow-on to that Series B prior to making the other investment. While I don’t know for sure, I can only presume that what is being referred to is ScaleFactor’s $60 million Series C raise in August 2019 that was led by Coatue Management. (ScaleFactor crashed and burned last year.)

According to CFO Paul Jun: “There were many periods when Pilot turned away new customers and growth capital instead of absolutely maximizing short-term growth…Pilot prioritized building the foundational investments needed for scalability, reliability and high velocity. When it was presented with the opportunity for additional funding towards further growth in 2019, it declined to do so.”

Co-founder and CEO Waseem Daher elaborates, pointing out that the first company that Pilot’s founding team ran, Ksplice, was bootstrapped before getting acquired by Oracle in 2011. (It’s also worth noting that the founding team are all MIT computer scientists.)

“Ultimately, the reason to raise money is you believe that you can deploy the capital, to grow the company or to basically cause the company to grow at the rate you’d like to grow. And it doesn’t make sense to raise money if you don’t need it, or don’t have a good plan for what to do with it,” Daher told TechCrunch. “Too much capital can be bad because it sort of leads you to bad habits…When you have the money, you spend the money.”

So despite what he describes as “a great deal of institutional interest” in 2019, Pilot opted to raise just $40 million, instead of $80 million to $100 million, because it was the amount of capital the company had confidence that it could deploy successfully.

Also, Jun shared some numbers beyond the recent raise amount and valuation.

  • The company has tripled revenue every year since inception, except for 2020 when it doubled revenue.
  • Pilot claims to have had a cash burn of $800,000 per month in 2020 against a starting balance of $40 million.
  • The startup touts a 60% GAAP gross margin. Daher notes: “We feel really good about having long-term unit economics that will work for this business without resorting to offshoring or outsourcing in a way that could compromise quality and compromise relationships.”

Bottom line is companies don’t have to accept all the capital that’s offered to them. And maybe in some cases, they shouldn’t.

Amira Learning raises $11M to put its AI-powered literacy tutor in post-COVID classrooms

By Devin Coldewey

School closures due to the pandemic have interrupted the learning processes of millions of kids, and without individual attention from teachers, reading skills in particular are taking a hit. Amira Learning aims to address this with an app that reads along with students, intelligently correcting errors in real time. Promising pilots and research mean the company is poised to go big as education changes, and it has raised $11M to scale up with a new app and growing customer base.

In classrooms, a common exercise is to have students read aloud from a storybook or worksheet. The teacher listens carefully, stopping and correcting students on difficult words. This “guided reading” process is fundamental for both instruction and assessment: it not only helps the kids learn, but the teacher can break the class up into groups with similar reading levels so she can offer tailored lessons.

“Guided reading is needs-based, differentiated instruction and in COVID we couldn’t do it,” said Andrea Burkiett, Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction at the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. Breakout sessions are technically possible, “but when you’re talking about a kindergarten student who doesn’t even know how to use a mouse or touchpad, COVID basically made small groups nonexistent.”

Amira replicates the guided reading process by analyzing the child’s speech as they read through a story and identifying things like mispronunciations, skipped words, and other common stumbles. It’s based on research going back 20 years that has tested whether learners using such an automated system actually see any gains (and they did, though generally in a lab setting).

In fact I was speaking to Burkiett out of skepticism — “AI” products are thick on the ground and while it does little harm if one recommends you a recipe you don’t like, it’s a serious matter if a kid’s education is impacted. I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a random app hawking old research to lend itself credibility, and after talking with Burkiett and CEO Mark Angel I feel it’s quite the opposite, and could actually be a valuable tool for educators. But it needed to convince educators first.

Not a replacement but a force multiplier

“You have to start by truly identifying the reason for wanting to employ a tech tool,” said Burkiett. “There are a lot of tech tools out there that are exciting, fun for kids, etc, but we could use all of them and not impact growth or learning at all because we didn’t stop and say, this tool helps me with this need.”

Amira was decided on as one that addresses the particular need in the K-5 range of steadily improving reading level through constant practice and feedback.

“When COVID hit, every tech tool came out of the woodwork and was made free and available,” Burkiett recalled. “With Amira you’re looking at a 1:1 tutor at their specific level. She’s not a replacement for a teacher — though it has been that way in COVID — but beyond COVID she could become a force multiplier,” said Burkiett.

You can see the old version of Amira in action below, though it’s been updated since:

Testing Amira with her own district’s students, Burkiett replicated the results that have been obtained in more controlled settings: as much as twice or three times as much progress in reading level based on standard assessment tools, some of which are built into the teacher-side Amira app.

Naturally it isn’t possible to simply attribute all this improvement to Amira — there are other variables in play. But it appears to help and doesn’t hinder, and the effect correlates with frequency of use. The exact mechanism isn’t as important as the fact that kids learn faster when they use the app versus when they don’t, and furthermore this allows teachers to better allocate resources and time. A kid who can’t use it as often because their family shares a single computer is at a disadvantage that has nothing to do with their aptitude — but this problem can be detected and accounted for by the teacher, unlike a simple “read at home” assignment.

“Outside COVID we would always have students struggling with reading, and we would have parents with the money and knowledge to support their student,” Burkiett explained. “But now we can take this tool and offer it to students regardless of mom and dad’s time, mom and dad’s ability to pay. We can now give that tutor session to every single student.”

“Radically sub-optimal conditions”

This is familiar territory for CEO Mark Angel, though the AI aspect, he admits, is new.

“A lot of the Amira team came from Renaissance Learning. bringing fairly conventional edtech software into elementary school classrooms at scale. The actual tech we used was very simple compared to Amira — the big challenge was trying to figure out how to make applications work with the teacher workflow, or make them friendly and resilient when 6 year olds are your users,” he told me.

“Not to make it trite, but what we’ve learned is really just listen to teachers — they’re the super-users,” Angel continued. “And to design for radically sub-optimal conditions, like background noise, kids playing with the microphone, the myriad things that happen in real life circumstances.”

Once they were confident in the ability of the app to reliably decode words, the system was given three fundamental tasks that fall under the broader umbrella of machine learning.

The first is telling the difference between a sentence being read correctly and incorrectly. This can be difficult due to the many normal differences between speakers. Singling out errors that matter, versus simply deviation from an imaginary norm (in speech recognition that is often American English as spoken by white people) lets readers go at their own pace and in their own voice, with only actual issues like saying a silent k noted by the app.

(On that note, considering the prevalence of English language learners with accents, I asked about the company’s performance and approach there. Angel said they and their research partners went to great lengths to make sure they had a representative dataset, and that the model only flags pronunciations that indicate a word was not read or understood correctly.)

The second is knowing what action to take to correct an error. In the case of a silent k, it matters whether this is a first grader who is still learning spelling or a fourth grader who is proficient. And is this the first time they’ve made that mistake, or the tenth? Do they need an explanation of why the word is this way, or several examples of similar words? “It’s about helping a student at a moment in time,” Angel said, both in the moment of reading that word, and in the context of their current state as a learner.

Screenshot of a reading assessment in the app Amira.

Third is a data-based triage system that warns students and parents if a kid may potentially have a language learning disorder like dyslexia. The patterns are there in how they read — and while a system like Amira can’t actually diagnose, it can flag kids who may be high risk to receive a more thorough screening. (A note on privacy: Angel assured me that all information is totally private and by default is considered to belong to the district. “You’d have to be insane to take advantage of it. We’d be out of business in a nanosecond.”)

The $10M in funding comes at what could be a hockey-stick moment for Amira’s adoption. (The round was led by Authentic Ventures II, LP, with participation from Vertical Ventures, Owl Ventures, and Rethink Education.)

“COVID was a gigantic spotlight on the problem that Amira was created to solve,” Angel said. “We’ve always struggled in this country to help our children become fluent readers. The data is quite scary — more than two thirds of our 4th graders aren’t proficient readers, and those two thirds aren’t equally distributed by income or race. It’s a decades long struggle.”

Having basically given the product away for a year, the company is now looking at how to convert those users into customers. It seems like, just like the rest of society, “going back to normal” doesn’t necessarily mean going back to 2019 entirely. The lessons of the pandemic era are sticking.

“They don’t have the intention to just go back to the old ways,” Angel explained. “They’re searching for a new synthesis — how to incorporate tech, but do it in a classroom with kids elbow to elbow and interacting with teachers. So we’re focused on making Amira the norm in a post-COVID classroom.”

Part of that is making sure the app works with language learners at more levels and grades, so the team is working to expand its capabilities upwards to include middle school students as well as elementary. Another is building out the management side so that success at the classroom and district levels can be more easily understood.

Cartoon illustration of an adventurous looking woman in front of a jungle and zeppelin.

Amira’s appearance got an update in the new app as well.

The company is also launching a new app aimed at parents rather than teachers. “A year ago 100 percent of our usage was in the classroom, then 3 weeks later 100 percent of our usage was at home. We had to learn a lot about how to adapt. Out of that learning we’re shipping Amira and the Story Craft that helps parents work with their children.”

Hundreds of districts are on board provisionally, but decisions are still being kicked down the road as they deal with outbreaks, frustrated parents, and every other chaotic aspect of getting back to “normal.”

Perhaps a bit of celebrity juice may help tip the balance in their favor. A new partnership with Houston Texans linebacker Brennan Scarlett has the NFL player advising the board and covering the cost of 100 students at a Portland, OR school through his education charity, the Big Yard Foundation — and more to come. It may be a drop in the bucket in the scheme of things, with a year of schooling disrupted, but teachers know that every drop counts.

PlexTrac raises $10M Series A round for its collaboration-centric security platform

By Frederic Lardinois

PlexTrac, a Boise, ID-based security service that aims to provide a unified workflow automation platform for red and blue teams, today announced that it has raised a $10 million Series A funding round led by Noro-Moseley Partners and Madrona Venture Group. StageDot0 ventures also participated in this round, which the company plans to use to build out its team and grow its platform.

With this new round, the company, which was founded in 2018, has now raised a total of $11 million, with StageDot0 leading its 2019 seed round.

PlexTrac CEO and President Dan DeCloss

PlexTrac CEO and President Dan DeCloss

“I have been on both sides of the fence, the specialist who comes in and does the assessment, produces that 300-page report and then comes back a year later to find that some of the critical issues had not been addressed at all.  And not because the organization didn’t want to but because it was lost in that report,” PlexTrac CEO and President Dan DeCloss said. “These are some of the most critical findings for an entity from a risk perspective. By making it collaborative, both red and blue teams are united on the same goal we all share, to protect the network and assets.”

With an extensive career in security that included time as a penetration tester for Veracode and the Mayo Clinic, as well as senior information security advisor for Anthem, among other roles, DeCloss has quite a bit of first-hand experience that led him to found PlexTrac. Specifically, he believes that it’s important to break down the wall between offense-focused red teams and defense-centric blue teams.

Image Credits: PlexTrac

 

 

“Historically there has been more of the cloak and dagger relationship but those walls are breaking down– and rightfully so, there isn’t that much of that mentality today– people recognize they are on the same mission whether they are internal security team or an external team,” he said. “With the PlexTrac platform the red and blue teams have a better view into the other teams’ tactics and techniques – and it makes the whole process into an educational exercise for everyone.”

At its core, PlexTrac makes it easier for security teams to produce their reports — and hence free them up to actually focus on ‘real’ security work. To do so, the service integrates with most of the popular scanners like Qualys, and Veracode, but also tools like ServiceNow and Jira in order to help teams coordinate their workflows. All the data flows into real-time reports that then help teams monitor their security posture. The service also features a dedicated tool, WriteupsDB, for managing reusable write-ups to help teams deliver consistent reports for a variety of audiences.

“Current tools for planning, executing, and reporting on security testing workflows are either nonexistent (manual reporting, spreadsheets, documents, etc…) or exist as largely incomplete features of legacy platforms,” Madrona’s S. Somasegar and Chris Picardo write in today’s announcement. “The pain point for security teams is real and PlexTrac is able to streamline their workflows, save time, and greatly improve output quality. These teams are on the leading edge of attempting to find and exploit vulnerabilities (red teams) and defend and/or eliminate threats (blue teams).”

 

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