Lunar, the Nordic challenger bank that started out life as a personal finance manager app (PFM) but acquired a full banking license in 2019, has raised €40 million in Series C funding from existing investors.
The injection of capital follows a €20 million Series B disclosed in April this year and comes on the back of Lunar rolling out Pro paid-for subscriptions — similar to a number of other challenger banks in Europe — personal consumer loans, and the launch of business bank accounts in August.
The latter appears to have been an instant success, perhaps proof there is — like in the U.K. — pent up demand for more accessible banking for sole traders. Just months since launching in Denmark, Lunar Business claims to have signed up more than 50% of all newly founded sole trader businesses in the country.
I’m also told that Lunar has seen “best-in-class” user engagement with users spending €1,100 per month versus what the bank says is a €212 EU average for card transactions. Overall, the bank has 5,000 business users and 200,000 private users across Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Meanwhile — and most noteworthy — after launching its first consumer lending products on its own balance sheet, Lunar has set its sights on the “buy now, pay later” market, therefore theoretically encroaching on $10.65 billion valued Klarna, and Affirm in the U.S. which just filed to go public. Other giants in the BNPL space also include PayPal.
Lunar founder and CEO Ken Villum Klausen says the “schizophrenic” Nordic banking market is the reason why the challenger is launching BNPL. “It’s the most profitable banking landscape in the world, but also the most defensive, with least competition from the outside,” he says. “This means that the traditional banking customer is buying all their financial products from their bank”.
It is within this context that Lunar’s BNPL products are built as “post-purchase,” where Lunar will prompt its users after they have bought something (not dissimilar to Curve’s planned credit offering). For example, if you were to buy a new television, the app will ask if you want to split the purchase into instalments. “This does not require merchant agreements etc, and will work on all transactions both retail and e-commerce,” explains Klausen.
“We do not view Klarna as a direct competitor as they are not in the Nordic clearing system,” he adds. “Hence, you cannot pay your bills, get your salary and use it for daily banking. Klarna is enormous in Sweden, but relatively small in Denmark, Norway and Finland”.
In total, Lunar has raised €104 million from investors including Seed Capital, Greyhound Capital, Socii Capital and Chr. Augustinus Fabrikker. The challenger has offices in Aarhus, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, with a headcount of more than 180 employees. It plans to launch its banking app in Finland in the first half of 2021.
Render, the winner of our Disrupt SF 2019 Startup Battlefield, today announced that it has added another $4.5 million onto its existing seed funding round, bringing total investment into the company to $6.75 million.
The round was led by General Catalyst, with participation from previous investors South Park Commons Fund and a group of angels that includes Lee Fixel, Elad Gil and GitHub CTO (and former VP of Engineering at Heroku) Jason Warner.
The company, which describes itself as a “Zero DevOps alternative to AWS, Azure and Google Cloud,” originally raised a $2.25 million seed round in April 2019, but it got a lot of inbound interest after winning the Disrupt Battlefield. In the end, though, the team decided to simply raise more money from its existing investors.
“We spoke to a bunch of people after Disrupt, including Ashton Kutcher’s firm, because he was one of the judges,” Render co-founder and CEO Anurag Goel explained. “In the end, we decided that we would just raise more money from our existing investors because we like them and it helped us get a better deal from our existing investors. And they were all super interested in continuing to invest.”
What makes Render stand out is that it fulfills many of the promises of Heroku and maybe Google Cloud’s App Engine. You simply tell it what kind of service you are going to deploy and it handles the deployment and manages the infrastructure for you.
“Our customers are all people who are writing code. And they just want to deploy this code really easily without having to worry about servers, or maintenance, or depending on DevOps teams — or, in many cases, hiring DevOps teams,” Goel said. “DevOps engineers are extremely expensive to hire and extremely hard to find, especially good ones. Our goal is to eliminate all of that work that DevOps people do at every company, because it’s very similar at every company.”
One new feature the company is launching today is preview environments. You can think of them as disposable staging or development environments that developers can spin up to test their code — and Render promises that the testing environment will look the same as your production environment (or you can specify changes, too). Developers can then test their updates collaboratively with QA or their product and sales teams in this environment.
Development teams on Render specify their infrastructure environments in a YAML file and turning on these new preview environments is as easy as setting a flag in that file.
“Once they do that, then for every pull request — because we’re integrated with GitHub and GitLab — we automatically spin up a copy of that environment. That can include anything you have in production, or things like a Redis instance, or managed Postgres database, or Elasticsearch instance, or obviously APIs and web services and static sites,” Goel said. Every time you push a change to that branch or pull request, the environment is automatically updated, too. Once the pull request is closed or merged, Render destroys the environment automatically.
The company will use the new funding to grow its team and build out its service. The plan, Goel tells me, is to raise a larger Series A round next year.
Buildings are the bedrocks of civilization — places to live, places to work (well, normally, in a non-COVID-19 world) and places to play. Yet how we conceive buildings, architect them for their uses, and ultimately construct them on a site has changed remarkably little over the past few decades. Housing and building costs continue to rise, and there remains a slow linear process from conception to construction for most projects. Why can’t the whole process be more flexible and faster?
Well, a trio of engineers and architects out of MIT and Georgia Tech are exploring that exact question.
MIT’s former treasurer Israel Ruiz along with architects Anton Garcia-Abril of MIT and Debora Mesa of Georgia Tech have joined together on a startup called WoHo (short for “World Home”) that’s trying to rethink how to construct a modern building by creating more flexible “components” that can be connected together to create a structure.
WoHo’s Israel Ruiz, Debora Mesa, and Anton Garcia-Abril. Photo by Tony Luong via WoHo.
By creating components that are usable in a wide variety of types of buildings and making them easy to construct in a factory, the goal of WoHo is to lower construction costs, maximize flexibility for architects, and deliver compelling spaces for end users, all while making projects greener in a climate unfriendly world.
The team’s ideas caught the attention of Katie Rae, CEO and managing partner of The Engine, a special fund that spun out of MIT that is notable for its lengthy time horizons for VC investments. The fund is backing WoHo with $4.5 million in seed capital.
Ruiz spent the last decade overseeing MIT’s capital construction program, including the further buildout of Kendall Square, a neighborhood next to MIT that has become a major hub for biotech innovation. Through that process, he saw the challenges of construction, particularly for the kinds of unique spaces required for innovative companies. Over the years, he also built friendships with Garcia-Abril and Mesa, the duo behind Ensamble Studio, an architecture firm.
With WoHo, “it is the integration of the process from the design and concept in architecture all the way through the assembly and construction of that project,” Ruiz explained. “Our technology is suitable for low-to-high rise, but in particularly it provides the best outcomes for mid-to-high rise.”
So what exactly are these WoHo components? Think of them as well-designed and reusable blocks that can be plugged together in order to create a structure. These blocks are consistent and are designed to be easily manufactured and transported. One key innovation is around an improved reinforced cement that allows for better building quality at lower environmental cost.
Conception of a WoHo component under construction. Photo via WoHo
We have seen modular buildings before, typically apartment buildings where each apartment is a single block that can be plugged into a constructed structure (take for example this project in Sacramento). WoHo, though, wants to go further in having components that offer more flexibility and arrangements, and also act as the structure themselves. That gives architects far more flexibility.
It’s still early days, but the group has already gotten some traction in the market, inking a partnership with Swiss concrete and building materials company LafargeHolcim to bring their ideas to market. The company is building a demonstration project in Madrid, and targeting a second project in Boston for next year.
The pre-launch company has spent the last two years building what it describes as a “cloud-native” online card processor that directly connects to card networks. The aim is to offer a modern replacement for the 20 to 40-year-old payments card processing tech that is mostly in use today.
Backing Silverflow’s €2.6 million seed round is U.K.-based VC Crane Venture Partners, with participation from Inkef Capital and unnamed angel investors and industry leaders from Pay.On, First Data, Booking.com and Adyen. It brings the fintech startup’s total funding to date to ~€3 million.
Bootstrapped while in development and launching in 2021, Silverflow’s founders are CEO Anne-Willem de Vries (who was focused on card acquiring and processing at Adyen), CBDO Robert Kraal (former Adyen COO and EVP global card acquiring & processing of Adyen) and CTO Paul Buying (founder of acquired translation startup Livewords).
“The payments tech stack needs an upgrade,” Kraal tells me. “Today’s card payment infrastructure based on 30 to 40-year-old technology is still in use across the global payment landscape. This legacy infrastructure is costing everyone time and money: consumers, merchants, payment-service-providers and banks. The legacy platforms require a lengthy on-boarding process and are expensive to maintain, [and] they also aren’t fit for purpose today because they don’t support data use”.
In addition, Kraal says that adding new functionality is a lengthy and expensive process, requiring the effort of specialised engineers which ultimately slows down innovation “for the whole card payments system”.
“Finally, every acquirer provides its customer with a different processing platform, which for a typical payment service provider (PSP) means they have to deal with multiple legacy platforms — and all the costs and specialised support each entails,” adds de Vries.
To solve this, Silverflow claims it has built the first payments processor with a “cloud-native platform” built for today’s technology stack. This includes offering simple APIs and “streamlined data flows” directly integrated into the card networks.
Continues de Vries: “Instead of managing a complex network of acquirers across markets with dozens of bank and card network connections to maintain, Silverflow provides card-acquiring processing as a service that connects to card networks directly through a simple API”.
Target customers are PSPs, acquirers and “global top-market merchants” that are seeing €500 million to 10 billion in annual transactions.
“As a managed service, Silverflow provides the maintenance for connections and new product innovation that users have typically had to support in-house or work on long-term product road maps with suppliers,” explains Kraal. “Based in the cloud, Silverflow is infinitely scalable for peak flows and also provides robust data insights that users haven’t previously been able to access”.
With regards to competitors, Kraal says there are no other companies at the moment doing something similar, “as far as we are aware”. Currently, acquirers use traditional third-party processors, such as SIA, Omnipay, Cybersource or MIGS. Some companies, like Adyen, have built their own in-house processing platform.
So, why hasn’t a cloud-native card processing platform like Silverflow been done before and why now? A lack of awareness of the problem might be one reason, says de Vries.
“Unless you have built several integrations to acquirers during your career, you are not aware that the 30 to 40-years-old infrastructure is still in use. This is not typically a problem some bright college graduates would tackle,” he posits.
“Second, to build this successfully, you need to have prior knowledge of the card payments industry to navigate all the legal, regulatory and technical requirements.
“Thirdly, any large corporate currently active in card payment processing will be aware of the problem and have the relevant industry knowledge. However, building a new processing platform would require them to allocate their most talented staff to this project for two-three years, taking away resources from their existing projects. In addition, they would also need to manage a complex migration project to move their existing customers from their current system to the new one and risk losing some of the customers along the way”.
Acapela, a new startup co-founded by Dubsmash founder Roland Grenke, is breaking cover today in a bid to re-imagine online meetings for remote teams.
Hoping to put an end to video meeting fatigue, the product is described as an “asynchronous meeting platform,” which Grenke and Acapela’s other co-founder, ex-Googler Heiki Riesenkampf (who has a deep learning computer science background), believe could be the key to unlock better and more efficient collaboration. In some ways the product can be thought of as the antithesis to Zoom and Slack’s real-time and attention-hogging downsides.
To launch, the Berlin-based and “remote friendly” company has raised €2.5 million in funding. The round is led by Visionaries Club with participation from various angel investors, including Christian Reber (founder of Pitch and Wunderlist) and Taavet Hinrikus (founder of TransferWise). I also understand Entrepreneur First is a backer and has assigned EF venture partner Benedict Evans to work on the problem. If you’ve seen the ex-Andreessen Horowitz analyst writing about a post-Zoom world lately, now you know why.
Specifically, Acapela says it will use the injection of cash to expand the core team, focusing on product, design and engineering as it continues to build out its offering.
“Our mission is to make remote teams work together more effectively by having fewer but better meetings,” Grenke tells me. “With Acapela, we aim to define a new category of team collaboration that provides more structure and personality than written messages (Slack or email) and more flexibility than video conferencing (Zoom or Google Meet)”.
Grenke believes some form of asynchronous meetings is the answer, where participants don’t have to interact in real-time but the meeting still has an agenda, goals, a deadline and — if successfully run — actionable outcomes.
“Instead of sitting through hours of video calls on a daily basis, users can connect their calendars and select meetings they would like to discuss asynchronously,” he says. “So, as an alternative to everyone being in the same call at the same time, team members contribute to conversations more flexibly over time. Like communication apps in the consumer space, Acapela allows rich media formats to be used to express your opinion with voice or video messages while integrating deeply with existing productivity tools (like GSuite, Atlassian, Asana, Trello, Notion, etc.)”.
In addition, Acapela will utilise what Grenke says is the latest machine learning techniques to help automate repetitive meeting tasks as well as to summarise the contents of a meeting and any decisions taken. If made to work, that in itself could be significant.
“Initially, we are targeting high-growth tech companies which have a high willingness to try out new tools while having an increasing need for better processes as their teams grow,” adds the Acapela founder. “In addition to that, they tend to have a technical global workforce across multiple time zones which makes synchronous communication much more costly. In the long run we see a great potential tapping into the space of SMEs and larger enterprises, since COVID has been a significant driver of the decentralization of work also in the more traditional industrial sectors. Those companies make up more than 90% of our European market and many of them have not switched to new communication tools yet”.
“I have to choose my words carefully,” says Joe Castelino of Stevens Creek Volkswagen in San Jose, Ca., when asked about the software on which most car dealerships rely for inventory information, to manage marketing, to handle customer relationships and to otherwise help sell cars.
Castelino, the dealership’s service director, laughs as he says this. But the joke has apparently been on car dealers, most of whom have largely relied on a few frustratingly antiquated vendors for their dealer management systems over the years — along with many more sophisticated point solutions.
It’s the precise opportunity that former Tesla CIO, Jay Vijayan, concluded he was well-positioned to address while still in the employ of the electric vehicle giant.
As Vijayan tells it, he knew nothing about cars until joining Tesla in 2011, following a dozen years of working in product development at Oracle, then VMWare. Yet he learned plenty over the subsequent four years. Specifically, he says he helped to build with Elon Musk a central analysis system inside Tesla, a kind of brain that could see all of the company’s internal systems, from what was happening in the supply chain to its factory systems to its retail platform.
Tesla had to build it itself, says Vijayan; after evaluating the existing software of third company providers, the team “realized that none of them had anything close to what we needed to provide a frictionless modern consumer experience.”
It was around then that a lightbulb turned on. If Tesla could transform the experience for its own customers, maybe Vijayan could transform the buying and selling experience for the much bigger, broader automotive industry. Enter Tekion, a now four-year-old, San Carlos, Ca., company that now employs 470 people and has come far enough along that just attracted $150 million in fresh funding led by the private equity investor Advent International.
With the Series C round — which also included checks from Index Ventures, Airbus Ventures, FM Capital and Exor, the holding company of Fiat-Chrysler and Ferrari — the company has now raised $185 million altogether. It’s also valued at north of $1 billion. (The automakers General Motors, BMW, and the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi Alliance are also investors.)
Eric Wei, a managing director at Advent, says that over the last decade, his team had been eager to seize on what’s approaching a $10 billion market annually. Instead, they found themselves tracking incumbents Reynolds & Reynolds, CDKGlobal and Dealertrack, which is owned by Cox Automotive, and waiting for a better player to emerge.
Then Wei was connected to Tekion through Jon McNeill, a former Tesla president and an advisory partner to Advent.
Says Wei of seeing its tech compared with its more established rivals: “It was like comparing a flip phone to an iPhone.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, McNeill, who worked at Tesla with Vijayan, also sings the company’s praises, noting that Tekion even bought a dealership in Gilroy — the “garlic capital” of California — to use as a kind of lab while it was building its technology from scratch.
Such praise is nice, but more importantly, Tekion is attracting the attention of dealers. Though citing competitive reasons, Vijayan declined to share how many have bought its cloud software — which connects dealers with both manufacturers and car buyers and is powered by machine learning algorithms — he says it’s already being used across 28 states.
One of these dealerships is the national chain Serra Automotive, whose founder, Joseph Serra, is now an investor in Tekion.
Another is that Volkswagen dealership in San Jose, where Castelino — who doesn’t have a financial interest in Tekion — speaks enthusiastically about the time and expenses his team is saving because of Tekion’s platform.
For example, he says a customers need only log-in now to flag a particular issue. After that, with the help of an RFID tag, Stevens Creek knows exactly when that customer pulls into the dealership and what kind of help they need, enabling people to greet him or her on arrival. Tekion can also make recommendations based on a car’s history. It might, for instance, suggest to a customer a brake fluid flush “without an advisor having to look through a customer’s history,” he says.
As important, he says, the dealership has been able to cut ties with a lot of other software vendors, while also making more productive use of its time. Says Castelino, “As soon as a [repair order] is live, it’s in a dispatcher’s hand and a technician can grab the car.”
It’s like that with every step, he insists. “You’re saving 15 minutes again and again, and suddenly, you have three hours where your intake can be higher.”
Yin Wu has cofounded several companies since graduating from Stanford in 2011, including a computer vision company called Double Labs that sold to Microsoft, where she stayed on for a couple of years as a software engineer. In fact, it was only after that sale she she says she “actually understood all of the nuances with a company’s cap table.”
Her newest company, Pulley, a 14-month-old, Mountain View, Ca.-based maker of cap table management software aims to solve that same problem and has so far raised $10 million toward that end led by the payments company Stripe, with participation from Caffeinated Capital, General Catalyst, 8VC, and numerous angel investors.
Wu is going up against some pretty powerful competition. Carta was reportedly raising $200 million in fresh funding at a $3 billion valuation as of the spring (a round the company never official confirmed or announced). Last year, it raised $300 million. Morgan Stanley has meanwhile been beefing up its stock plan administration business, acquiring Solium Capital early last year and more newly purchasing Barclay’s stock plan business.
Of course, startups often manage to find a way to take down incumbents and a distraction for Carta, at least, in the form of a very public gender discrimination lawsuit by a former VP of marketing, could be the kind of opening that Pulley needs. We emailed with Yu yesterday to ask if that might be the case. She didn’t answer directly, but she did mention “values,” as long as shared some more details about what she sees as different about the two products.
TC: Why start this company? Has Carta’s press of late created an opening for a new upstart in the space?
YW: I left Microsoft in 2018 and started Pulley a year later. We skipped the seed and raised the A because of overwhelming demand from investors. Many wanted a better product for their portfolio companies. Many founders are increasingly thinking about choosing with companies, like Pulley, that better align with their values.
TC: How many people are working for Pulley and are any folks you pulled out of Carta?
YW: We’re a team of seven and have four people on the team who are former Y Combinator founders. We attract founders to the team because they’ve experienced firsthand the difficulties of managing a cap table and want to build a better tool for other founders. We have not pulled anyone out of Carta yet.
TC: Carta has raised a lot of funding and it has long tentacles. What can Pulley offer startups that Carta cannot?
YW: We offer startups a better product compared to our competitors. We make every interaction on Pulley easier and faster. 409A valuations take five days instead of weeks, and onboarding is the same day rather than months. By analogy, this is similar to the difference between Stripe and Braintree when Stripe initially launched. There were many different payment processes when Stripe launched. They were able to capture a large portion of the market by building a better product that resonated with developers.
One of the features that stands out on Pulley is our modeling feature [which helps founders model dilution in future rounds and helps employees understand the value of their equity as the company grows]. Founders switch from our competitors to Pulley to use our modeling tool [and it works] with pre-money SAFEs, post-money SAFEs, and factors in pro-ratas and discounts. To my knowledge, Pulley’s modeling tool is the most comprehensive product on the market.
TC: How does your pricing compare with Carta’s?
YW: Pulley is free for early-stage companies regardless of how much they raise. We’re price competitive with Carta on our paid plans. Part of the reason we started Pulley is because we had frustrations with other cap table management tools. When using other services, we had to regularly ping our accountants or lawyers to make edits, run reports, or get data. Each time we involved the lawyers, it was an expensive legal fee. So there is easily a $2,000 hidden fee when using tools that aren’t self-serve for setting up and updating your cap table.
TC: Is there a business-to-business opportunity here, where maybe attorneys or accountants or wealth managers private label this service? Or are these industry professionals viewed as competitors?
YW: We think there are opportunities to white label the service for accountants and law firms. However, this is currently not our focus.
TC: How adaptable is the software? Can it deal with a complicated scenario, a corner case?
YW: We started Pulley one year ago and we’re launching today because we have invested in building an architecture that can support complex cap table scenarios as companies scale. There are two things that you have to get right with cap table systems, First, never lose the data and second, always make sure the numbers are correct. We haven’t lost data for any customer and we have a comprehensive system of tests that verifies the cap table numbers on Pulley remain accurate.
TC: At what stage does it make sense for a startup to work with Pulley, and do you have the tools to hang onto them and keep them from switching over to a competitor later?
YW: We work with companies past the Series A, like Fast and Clubhouse. Companies are not looking to change their cap table provider if Pulley has the tool to grow with them. We already have the features of our competitors, including electronic share issuance, ACH transfers for options, modeling tools for multiple rounds, and more. We think we can win more startups because Pulley is also easier to use and faster to onboard.
TC: Regarding your paid plans, how much is Pulley charging and for what? How many tiers of service are there?
YW; Pulley is free for early-stage startups with less than 25 stakeholders. We charge $10 per stakeholder per month when companies scale beyond that. A stakeholder is any employee or investor on the cap table. Most companies upgrade to our premium plan after a seed round when they need a 409A valuation.
Cap table management is an area where companies don’t want a free product. Pulley takes our customers data privacy and security very seriously. We charge a flat fee for companies so they rest assured that their data will never be sold or used without their permission.
TC: What’s Pulley’s relationship to venture firms?
YW: We’re currently focused on founders rather than investors. We work with accelerators like Y Combinator to help their portfolio companies manage their cap table, but don’t have a formal relationship with any VC firms.
While certifications for security management practices like SOC 2 and ISO 27001 have been around for a while, the number of companies that now request that their software vendors go through (and pass) the audits to be in compliance with these continues to increase. For a lot of companies, that’s a harrowing process, so it’s maybe no surprise that we are also seeing an increase in startups that aim to make this process easier. Earlier this month, Strike Graph, which helps automate security audits, announced its $3.9 million round, and today, Secureframe, which also helps businesses get and maintain their SOC 2 and ISO 27001 certifications, is announcing a $4.5 million round.
Secureframe’s round was co-led by Base10 Partners and Google’s AI-focused Gradient Ventures fund. BoxGroup, Village Global, Soma Capital, Liquid2, Chapter One, Worklife Ventures and Backend Capital participated. Current customers include Stream, Hasura and Benepass.
Shrav Mehta, the company’s co-founder and CEO, spent time at a number of different companies, but he tells me the idea for Secureframe was mostly born during his time at direct-mail service Lob.
“When I was at Lob, we dealt with a lot of issues around security and compliance because we were sometimes dealing with very sensitive data, and we’d hop on calls with customers, had to complete thousand-line security questionnaires, do exhaustive security reviews, and this was a lot for a startup of our size at the time. But it’s just what our customers needed. So I started to see that pain,” Mehta said.
After stints at Pilot and Scale AI after he left Lob in 2017 — and informally helping other companies manage the certification process — he co-founded Secureframe together with the company’s CTO, Natasja Nielsen.
“Because Secureframe is basically adding a lot of automation with our software — and making the process so much simpler and easier — we’re able to bring the cost down to a point where this is something that a lot more companies can afford,” Mehta explained. “This is something that everyone can get in place from day one, and not really have to worry that, ‘hey, this is going to take all of our time, it’s going to take a year, it’s going to cost a lot of money.’ […] We’re trying to solve that problem to make it super easy for every organization to be secure from day one.”
The main idea here is to make the arcane certification process more transparent and streamline the process by automating many of the more labor-intensive tasks of getting ready for an audit (and it’s virtually always the pre-audit process that takes up most of the time). Secureframe does so by integrating with the most-often used cloud and SaaS tools (it currently connects to about 25 services) and pulling in data from them to check up on your security posture.
“It feels a lot like a QuickBooks or TurboTax-like experience, where we’ll essentially ask you to enter basic details about your business. We try to autofill as much of it as possible from third-party sources — then we ask you to connect up all the integrations your business uses,” Mehta explained.
The company plans to use much of the new funding to staff up and build out these integrations. Over time, it will also add support for other certifications like PCI, HITRUST and HIPAA.
Contrast, a developer-centric application security company with customers that include Liberty Mutual Insurance, NTT Data, AXA and Bandwidth, today announced the launch of its security observability platform. The idea here is to offer developers a single pane of glass to manage an application’s security across its lifecycle, combined with real-time analysis and reporting, as well as remediation tools.
“Every line of code that’s happening increases the risk to a business if it’s not secure,” said Contrast CEO and chairman Alan Nauman. “We’re focused on securing all that code that businesses are writing for both automation and digital transformation.”
Over the course of the last few years, the well-funded company, which raised a $65 million Series D round last year, launched numerous security tools that cover a wide range of use cases from automated penetration testing to cloud application security and now DevOps — and this new platform is meant to tie them all together.
DevOps, the company argues, is really what necessitates a platform like this, given that developers now push more code into production than ever — and the onus of ensuring that this code is secure is now also often on that.
Traditionally, Nauman argues, security services focused on the code itself and looking at traffic.
“We think at the application layer, the same principles of observability apply that have been used in the IT infrastructure space,” he said. “Specifically, we do instrumentation of the code and we weave security sensors into the code as it’s being developed and are looking for vulnerabilities and observing running code. […] Our view is: the world’s most complex systems are best when instrumented, whether it’s an airplane, a spacecraft, an IT infrastructure. We think the same is true for code. So our breakthrough is applying instrumentation to code and observing for security vulnerabilities.”
With this new platform, Contrast is aggregating information from its existing systems into a single dashboard. And while Contrast observes the code throughout its lifecycle, it also scans for vulnerabilities whenever a developers check code into the CI/CD pipeline, thanks to integrations with most of the standard tools like Jenkins. It’s worth noting that the service also scans for vulnerabilities in open-source libraries. Once deployed, Contrast’s new platform keeps an eye on the data that runs through the various APIs and systems the application connects to and scans for potential security issues there as well.
The platform currently supports all of the large cloud providers like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud, and languages and frameworks like Java, Python, .NET and Ruby.
Synthetaic is a startup working to create data — specifically images — that can be used to train artificial intelligence.
Founder and CEO Corey Jaskolski’s experience includes work with both National Geographic (where he was recently named Explorer of the Year) and a 3D media startup. In fact, he told me that his time with National Geographic made him aware of the need for more data sets in conservation.
Sound like an odd match? Well, Jaskolski said that he was working on a project that could automatically identify poachers and endangered animals from camera footage, and one of the major obstacles was the fact that there simply aren’t enough existing images of either poachers (who don’t generally appreciate being photographed) or certain endangered animals in the wild to train AI to detect them.
He added that other companies are trying to create synthetic AI training data through 3D worldbuilding (in other words, “building a replica of the world that you want to have an AI learn in”), but in many cases, this approach is prohibitively expensive.
In contrast, the Synthetaic (pronounced “synthetic”) approach combines the work of 3D artists and modelers with technology based on generative adversarial networks, making it far more affordable and scalable, according to Jaskolski.
Image Credits: Synthetaic
To illustrate the “interplay” between the two halves of Synthetaic’s model, he returned to the example of identifying poachers — the startup’s 3D team could create photorealistic models of an AK-47 (and other weapons), then use adversarial networks to generate hundreds of thousands of images or more showing that model against different backgrounds.
The startup also validates its results after an AI has been trained on Synthetaic’s synthesized images, by testing that AI on real data.
For Synthetaic’s initial projects, Jaskolski said he wanted to partner with organizations doing work that makes the world a better place, including Save the Elephants (which is using the technology to track animal populations) and the University of Michigan (which is developing an AI that can identify different types of brain tumors).
Jaskolski added that Synthetaic customers don’t need any AI expertise of their own, because the company provides an “end-to-end” solution.
The startup announced today that it has raised $3.5 million in seed funding led by Lupa Systems, with participation from Betaworks Ventures and TitletownTech (a partnership between Microsoft and the Green Bay Packers). The startup, which has now raised a total of $4.5 million, is also part of Lupa and Betaworks’ Betalab program of startups doing work that could help “fix the internet.”
Sym, a new platform that makes it easier for developers to integrate security and privacy workflows into their process, today announced that it has raised a $9 million Series A round led by Amplify Partners. Earlier this year, the company announced its $3 million seed round lead by Andy McLoughlin of Uncork Capital and Robin Vasan of Mango Capital. Angel investors include former Google CISO Gerhard Eschelbeck, Atlassian CTO Sri Viswanath and Jason Warner, the CTO of GitHub.
Sym co-founder Yasyf Mohamedali spent the last few years as CTO of health tech company Karuna Health. In that role, he became intimately familiar with working in a high-compliance industry, handling vendor reviews and security audits. To make those processes more efficient, his team built lots of small tools, but he realized that everybody else in the industry was doing the same.
“As an engineer, it’s frustrating when you see people building the same thing over and over,” Mohamedali told me. “For years, I had this kind of concept in my head of, ‘what if we just built it all once, and then people didn’t have to keep redoing the same thing over and over?’ And so when I stepped away from Karuna to start Sym, originally, what I wanted to do was exactly that — and specifically for HIPAA. It’s kind of a naïve approach where I was like, ‘you know, what, I’m just going to build all the tools, someone needs to do HIPAA and open source it as like a black box thing.”
What he realized, though, is that companies have their own security and governance workflows that tend to share the same core but also a lot of variabilities. So what Sym now does is offer these core tools and lets companies mix and match what they need from this developer-centric toolbox the company has created.
“What we’re building is a set of workflow templates and primitives that map to that shared 20% core — and then a set of integrations that you can use to pull down those workflow templates, and codify that last mile variance by connecting those templates to all your different services,” Mohamedali explained.
What’s interesting about this approach is that Sym offers a Python SDK and lets developers create these workflows and integrations with only a few lines of code. In part, that’s due to the company’s philosophy of putting engineers back into control of security — the same way DevOps allowed them to reclaim control over infrastructure and Q&A. “DevOps is a thing. So now, DevSecOps needs to be a thing. We need to reclaim security. And we want to be the tool to do that with,” he said.
Mohamedali stressed that this was very much an opportunistic round, and for the next few months this raise won’t change anything in the company’s road map. But because Sym started signing up large customers — and had made commitments to them — now was a good time to raise, especially because the right partners came along. That means hiring more engineers, but over time, the company obviously also plans to build out its sales and marketing teams. The product itself, though, will remain in private beta until about the middle of next year. At that time, Sym will also launch a self-serve version of its platform.
Index founders, Xavier Pladevall and Eduardo Portet, have been friends since they were small children in the Dominican Republic. Both came to college in the U.S., and last year the two decided to launch a startup to help non-technical users build business intelligence dashboards without coding.
Today they get to keep building on that dream with the help of a $2.6 million seed investment from David Sacks, Slack, Gradient Ventures, Y Combinator and other individual investors.
What has attracted this investment is a couple of young founders who are passionate about making it simple to build a data dashboard without help from experts like engineers or data analysts.
“Essentially what we do is we help companies build their business metrics dashboards with as little code or technical knowledge as possible. The byproduct of that is that anyone in the company can build their own metrics for their teams,” co-founder Xavier Pladevall told TechCrunch.
End users can connect to a growing list of data sources and Index deals with building the queries and displaying the data for the users without data scientists or data analysts to help. For now, that includes Salesforce and Hubspot for CRM data, Stripe payments data and certain databases from Postgres and MongoDB.
Company co-founders Xavier Pladevall and Eduardo Portet. Image Credits: Index
As the founders build out the product, they want to stay lean with just the two founders and perhaps two additional engineers. “We’re actually looking to hire two people full time, and that’s going to take us to the Series A, and we’ve been very clear with investors about that,” he said.
As Latino immigrant founders, they want to build a company that’s diverse and inclusive. He says that’s it’s not hard for him and his co-founder to find people of color because they have formed friendships with a diverse network of people they can tap into.
“Our job is to keep doing what we’re doing, which is to be friends with a bunch of different people because that is genuine and people can definitely tell you’re trying to meet some diversity quota versus when you’re generally a diversity-oriented type of company because it comes back to the founders themselves,” he said.
The two founders and their families have been friends since they were children. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, they didn’t have access to computer science classes, but they did have access to the internet and they got the startup bug from reading U.S. tech publications like this one, and learned to code from YouTube videos and StackOverflow. They both came to college in the U.S. and both interned at large companies — Pladevall at Facebook and Portet worked at Metadata in New York.
The idea came together because Pladevalll was part of a team at Facebook building a similar tool for internal use. He decided that it would be a viable commercial idea for companies without the resources of Facebook. He came together with his childhood friend and began building the company in January as the pandemic hit.
He acknowledges the hardship of this year, but says it really helped them focus because there wasn’t anything else to do. While they are amazed at having $2.6 million in the bank, he says they still have the hunger that he believes is part of the immigrant founder ethos.
“It’s just hunger to just prove yourself and if coding is what it takes, learn how to code. If it’s going through an early visa process, which is by the way, way harder than raising millions of dollars and going through YC, in my opinion, [you do that]” he said. He said it’s about doing whatever it takes.
As the two friends take their first steps as a company, they have some early customers and continue to refine the product. With today’s funding they have some lofty goals for the next year, which include building out that product, reaching $1 million in ARR and building distribution for the dashboard.
If they can meet those goals, Pladevall says, they should be able to get their Series A. I wouldn’t bet against them.
While Amazon gradually builds out its own-branded line of products, third-party sellers continue to account for a significant part of the transaction volume and growth on its marketplace — by one estimate, accounting for $200 billion of the $335 billion in gross merchandise value sold on Amazon in 2019. Today, in a twist on the economies of scale that has propelled much of Amazon’s growth, a Boston startup that has built a tech platform that it uses both to buy up and then run D2C brands sold on Amazon is announcing a major round of growth funding to expand its business.
Perch, which acquires D2C businesses and products that are already selling on Amazon, and then continues to operate and grow those operations, has raised $123.5 million in funding.
Perch plans to use the capital mainly to continue acquiring D2C businesses, as well as to build out its team and invest in its platform, “but we are profitable so we plan to use cashflows from the business to build the team and the funding toward acquiring additional winning brands and products,” said Chris Bell, Perch’s CEO and founder, in an interview over email.
The company currently counts women’s athleisure brand Satina, kitchenware from Flathead and Aulett and others, health and personal care brands among its stable of companies.
And before you think that this is just about running a lot of smaller businesses together, Bell adds that “technology is the most important part of our model.”
Some 40% of the startup’s team works on its platform, which is used to onboard and run hundreds “and eventually thousands of brands at scale in an e-commerce-native environment.” The platform is used to help run analytics on sales, determine pricing and ad strategy, and inventory positioning and other marketing decisions. Longer term it will also be used to help figure out how to sell and balance products on social and retail channels (while ultimately selling through Amazon, for now).
The funding — which brings the total raised by Perch to over $130 million — is being led by Spark Capital, with previous backer Tectonic Ventures and new investor Boston Seed also participating. The startup is not disclosing its valuation with this round.
Amazon has grown in part on the principle of economies of scale, both in terms of procurement as well as in distribution. Both in the case of physical or digital goods, small margins on sales of a huge array of products adds up to strong returns; and the same goes for working out the costs for operating a logistics and distribution network.
Perch has essentially picked up on that idea and is developing its own take on it around the D2C model.
Direct-to-consumer businesses have been one of the big stories in e-commerce in the last decade: companies are leveraging the internet and newer innovations in manufacturing to build their own products and brands that they sell direct to customers, bypassing traditional retail chains, with some like Everlane, Warby Parker and Third Love finding huge success in the process.
But while a lot of those sales have focused around D2C companies developing their own sites or via social media, a very large proportion of the smaller players are also selling through marketplaces — and specifically Amazon’s marketplace.
As a larger category, they are growing fast — up 50% year-on-year in 2020, with some 86% of third-party sellers profitable.
But on an individual basis, most of them don’t necessarily have a strategy for how they will scale or exit the business eventually, so the opportunity here is to bring a number of these more promising smaller D2C brands into a bigger operation — the idea being to bring more economies of scale both to manufacturing those products as well as to collectively distributing them over Amazon.
“We typically do not retain the entrepreneurs or founders beyond a transition period, though we are open-minded if there is the right fit, though they are often excited to take some time off or start their next adventure,” said Bell. “For staff or contractors who work with the founder on the brand, we have a discussion with the founder and those individuals throughout the process and depending on need or mutual discussion we have retained some of those relationships.”
It’s Perch’s own realization of how to expand the economies of scale for D2C that has attracted investors here.
“The Perch team has the M&A, eCommerce, and Amazon experience to understand what makes a quality and scalable consumer product and take those products to the next level post-acquisition,” said Alex Finkelstein, General Partner, Spark Capital, in a statement. “We are beyond excited to lead this round. Perch is already off to an exceptionally strong start. Given the booming eCommerce market, I expect we will continue to see record numbers and additional acquisitions this year.”
Bell added that while any company can approach it to get acquired, it has a relatively strict set of criteria for what it would seriously consider.
“We look for winning products and brands,” he said. “What that means is the products need to have a proven track record of product-market fit, as evidenced through at least 18-24 months of profitable sales, great customer reviews, low return rate, no evidence of consistent product quality issues, and a trademarked brand that is recognized and enforced by their channel partners / marketplaces.”
There have been a number of companies that are trying to muscle in on Amazon’s supremacy in online retail markplaces in the US — including the likes of Walmart and Alibaba — but for now Amazon continues to be the main game in town, Bell said. (And no surprise there: one estimate in 2018 was that it was hovering at 49% marketshare in e-commerce in the U.S.)
“Amazon has created the leading third-party seller marketplace in a really differentiated way,” he said. “Not only do they have the most consumers visiting every day, but they also have the most maturity around technical integrations, brand protections, and a best-in-class fulfillment operation.”
He added that “Walmart is making good strides in terms of developing their seller services and technical integrations, and their announcement that they will be offering fulfillment for 3rd party merchants will help considerably. I expect they will continue to gain share, but they have a really long way to go to catch up with both consumers and marketplace sellers.” In terms of others, he also noted that “Google appears to be investing in their marketplace, but we haven’t seen as much traction there. Without an integrated fulfillment option, many sellers would prefer to use their Google ad dollars to send consumers to their own page to transact rather than through Google’s marketplace. Facebook/Instagram stores have promise but still very nascent.”
Interestingly, the Perch proposition provides a very different alternative to the e-commerce landscape that others see. Some like Shogun have built their business on premise that the only way foward is to move away from a reliance on third-party marketplaces like those of Amazon, Perch has doubled down on it, seemingly confident that it’s here to stay. And indeed, the bigger that Perch grows, the more likely it is that the bulked-up company has a chance of having some negotiating power of its own.
“We have some sales through standalone brand sites, but the vast majority of our focus is on the marketplace and we expect that to continue for the immediate future,” said Bell.
On Friday, former Tiger Global Management investor Lee Fixel registered plans for the second fund of his new investment firm, Addition, just four months after closing the first. According to a report on Friday by the Financial Times, the outfit spent last week finalizing the fundraising for the $1.4 billion fund, which Addition reportedly doesn’t plan to begin investing until next year.
But a source close to the firm now says the capital has not been raised. That’s perhaps good news for investors who were shut out of Addition’s $1.3 billion debut fund and who might be hoping to write a check this time around.
The mere fact that Fixel is back in the market already has tongues wagging about the dealmaker, one whose reluctance to talk on the record with media outlets seems only to add to his mystique. Forbes published a lengthy piece about Fixel this summer, in which Fixel seems to have provided just one public statement, confirming the close of Addition’s first fund and adding little else. “We are excited to partner with visionary entrepreneurs, and with our 15-year fund duration, we have the patience to support our portfolio companies on their journey to build impactful and enduring businesses,” it read.
According to Forbes, that first fund — which Fixel is actively putting to work right now — intends to invest one-third of its capital in early-stage startups and two-thirds in growth-stage opportunities.
Whether that includes some of the special purpose acquisition vehicles, or SPACs, that are coming together right and left, isn’t yet known, though one imagines these might appeal to Fixel, who has long seemed to be at the forefront of new trends impacting growth-stage companies in particular. (A growing number of SPACs is right now looking to transform into public companies some of the many hundreds of richly valued private companies in the world.)
Clearer is that Addition is wasting little time in writing some big checks. Among its announced deals is Inshorts, a seven-year-old, New Delhi, India-based popular news aggregation app that last week unveiled $35 million new funding led by Fixel.
The deal represents Addition’s first India-based bet, even while Fixel knows both the country and the startup well. He previously invested in Inshorts on behalf of Tiger; he’s also credited for snatching up a big stake in Flipkart on behalf of Tiger, a move that reportedly produced $3.5 billion in profits when Flipkart sold to Walmart.
Addition also led a $200 million round last month in Snyk, a five-year-old, London-based startup that helps companies securely use open-source code. The round valued the company at $2.6 billion — more than twice the valuation it was assigned when it raised its previous round 10 months ago.
And in August, Addition led a $110 million Series D round for Lyra Health, a five-year-old, Burlingame, California-based provider of mental health care benefits for employers that was founded by former Facebook CFO David Ebersman.
A smaller check went to Temporal, a year-old, Seattle-based startup that is building an open-source, stateful microservices orchestration platform. Last week, the company announced $18.75 million in Series A funding led by Sequoia Capital, but Addition also joined the round, having been an earlier investor in the company.
According to PitchBook data, Addition has made at least 17 investments altogether.
Fixel — whose bets while at Tiger include Peloton and Spotify — isn’t running Addition single-handedly, though according to Forbes, he is the single “key man” around which the firm revolves, as well as the biggest investor in Addition’s first fund.
He has also brought aboard at least three investment principals from Wall Street and a head of data science who worked formerly for Uber (per Forbes). Ward Breeze, a longtime attorney who worked formerly in the emerging companies practice of Gunderson Dettmer, is also working with Fixel at Addition.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Fixel’s newest fund was already raised, per the FT.)
U.K.-based Pimloc has closed a £1.4 million (~$1.8 million) seed funding round led by Amadeus Capital Partners. Existing investor Speedinvest and other unnamed shareholders also participated in the round.
The 2016-founded computer vision startup launched a AI-powered photo classifier service called Pholio in 2017 — pitching the service as a way for smartphone users to reclaim agency over their digital memories without having to hand over their data to cloud giants like Google.
It has since pivoted to position Pholio as a “specialist search and discovery platform” for large image and video collections and live streams (such as those owned by art galleries or broadcasters) — and also launched a second tool powered by its deep learning platform. This product, Secure Redact, offers privacy-focused content moderation tools — enabling its users to find and redact personal data in visual content.
An example use case it gives is for law enforcement to anonymize bodycam footage so it can be repurposed for training videos or prepared for submitting as evidence.
“Pimloc has been working with diverse image and video content for several years supporting businesses with a host of classification, moderation and data protection challenges (image libraries, art galleries, broadcasters and CCTV providers),” CEO Simon Randall tells TechCrunch.
“Through our work on the visual privacy side we identified a critical gap in the market for services that allow businesses and governments to manage visual data protection at scale on security footage. Pimloc has worked in this area for a couple of years building capability and product; as a result, Pimloc has now focused the business solely around this mission.”
Secure Redact has two components: A first (automated) step that detects personal data (e.g. faces, heads, bodies) within video content. On top of that is what Randall calls a layer of “intelligent tools” — letting users quickly review and edit results.
“All detections and tracks are auditable and editable by users prior to accepting and redacting,” he explains, adding: “Personal data extends wider than just faces into other objects and scene content, including ID cards, tattoos, phone screens (body-worn cameras have a habit of picking up messages on the wearer’s phone screen as they are typing, or sensitive notes on their laptop or notebook).”
One specific user of redaction with the tool he mentions is the University of Bristol. There, a research group, led by Dr Dima Damen, an associate professor in computer vision, is participating in an international consortium of 12 universities which is aiming to amass the largest data set on egocentric vision — and needs to be able to anonymise the video data set before making it available for academic/open source use.
On the legal side, Randall says Pimloc offers a range of data processing models — thereby catering to differences in how/where data can be processed. “Some customers are happy for Pimloc to act as data processor and use the Secure Redact SaaS solution — they manage their account, they upload footage and can review/edit/update detections prior to redaction and usage. Some customers run the Secure Redact system on their servers where they are both data controller and processor,” he notes.
“We have over 100 users signed up for the SaaS service covering mobility, entertainment, insurance, health and security. We are also in the process of setting up a host of on-premise implementations,” he adds.
Asked which sectors Pimloc sees driving the most growth for its platform in the coming years, he lists the following: smart cities/mobility platforms (with safety/analytics demand coming from the likes of councils, retailers, AVs); the insurance industry, which he notes is “capturing and using an increasing amount of visual data for claims and risk monitoring” and thus “looking at responsible systems for data management and processing”; video/telehealth, with traditional consultations moving into video and driving demand for visual diagnosis; and law enforcement, where security goals need to be supported by “visual privacy designed in by default” (at least where forces are subject to European data protection law).
On the competitive front, he notes that startups are increasingly focusing on specialist application areas for AI — arguing they have an opportunity to build compelling end-to-end propositions which are harder for larger tech companies to focus on.
For Pimlock specifically he argues it has an edge in its particular security-focused niche — given “deep expertise” and specific domain experience.
“There are low barriers to entry to create a low-quality product but very high technical barriers to create a service that is good enough to use at scale with real ‘in the wild’ footage,” he argues, adding: “The generalist services of the larger tech players do not match up with domain specific provisions of Pimloc/Secure Redact. Video security footage is a difficult domain for AI, systems trained on lifestyle/celebrity or other general data sets perform poorly on real security footage.”
Commenting on the seed funding in a statement, Alex van Someren, MD of Amadeus Capital Partners, said: “There is a critical need for privacy by design and large-scale solutions, as video grows as a data source for mobility, insurance, commerce and smart cities, while our reliance on video for remote working increases. We are very excited about the potential of Pimloc’s products to meet this challenge.”
“Consumers around the world are rightfully concerned with how enterprises are handling the growing volume of visual data being captured 24/7. We believe Pimloc has developed an industry leading approach to visual security and privacy that will allow businesses and governments to manage the usage of visual data whilst protecting consumers. We are excited to support their vision as they expand into the wider Enterprise and SaaS markets,” added Rick Hao, principal at Speedinvest, in another supporting statement.
Pear, the eight-year-old, Palo Alto, Calif.-based seed-stage venture firm that has, from its outset, attracted the attention of VCs who think the firm has an eye for nascent talent, staged its seventh annual demo day earlier this week, and while it was virtual, one of the startups has already signed a term sheet from a top-tier venture firm.
To give the rest of you a sneak peak, here’s a bit about all of the startups that presented, in broad strokes:
What it does: Video conferencing platform for enterprise workflows
The pitch: Video has emerged as one of the prominent ways for enterprises to communicate internally and externally with their customers and partners. Current video conferencing tools like Zoom and WebEx are great for standalone video but they have their own ecosystems and don’t integrate into thousands of enterprise workflows. That means that API tools that do integrate, like Agora and Twilio, still require manual work from developer teams to customize and maintain. AccessBell is aiming to provide the scalability and reliability of Zoom, as well as the customizability and integrations of Twilio, in a low code integration and no code extensible customization platform.
It’s a big market the team is chasing, one that’s expected to grow to $8.6 billion by 2027. The cost right now for users who want to test out AccessBell is $27 per host per month.
What it does: Unlock financial opportunities for farmers to create sustainable farms and improve their livelihoods.
The pitch: Over half of American farms don’t have the tools or bandwidth they need to identify ways to improve their farms and become profitable. The startup’s API links to farmers’ bank accounts, where its algorithm assesses financials to provide a “farm read,” scoring the farms’ financial health. It then regularly monitors farm data to continuously provide clean financials and recommendations on how to improve its customers’ farms, as well as to connect farmers with capital in order to improve their score. (It might suggest that a farm invest in certain sustainability practices, for example.)
Eventually, the idea is to also use the granular insights it’s garnering and sell these to hedge funds, state governments, and other outfits that want a better handle on what’s coming — be it around food security or climate changes.
What it does: Re-engineering life’s essential products – starting with tampons.
The pitch: Founded by student athletes from Stanford, Sequel argues that seven out of 10 women don’t trust tampons, which were first designed in 1931 (by a man). New brands like Lola have catchy brands and new material, but they perform even worse than legacy products. Sequel has focused instead on fluid mechanics and specifically on slowing flow rates so a tampon wont leak before it’s full whether they’re in the “boardroom” or the “stadium.” The company says it has already filed patents and secured manufacturing partners and that it expects that the product will be available for consumers to buy directly from its website, as well as in other stores, next year.
4.) Interface Bio
What it does: Unlocking the therapeutic potential of the microbiome with a high-throughput pipeline for characterizing microbes, metabolites, and therapeutic response, based on years of research at Stanford.
The pitch: The microbiome plays a major role in a wide range of human diseases, including heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and cancer. In fact, Interface’s founders — both of whom are PhDs — say that microbiome-influenced diseases are responsible for four of the top 10 causes of death in the United States. So how do they better size on the opportunity to identify therapeutics by harnessing the microbiome? Well, they say they’ll do it via a “high-speed pipeline for characterizing metabolites and their immune phenotypes,” which they’ll create by developing the world’s largest database of microbiome-mediated chemistry, which the startup will then screen for potential metabolites that can lead to new therapies.
What it does: Gryps is tackling construction information silos to create a common information layer that gives building and facility owners quick, enriched and permanent access to document-centric information.
The pitch: The vast size and complexity of the construction industry has resulted in all kinds of software and services that address various aspects of the construction processes, resulting in data and documents being spread across many siloed tools. Gryps says it picks up where all the construction-centered tools leave off: Taking delivery of the projects at the end of a construction job and providing all the information that facility owners need to operate, renovate, or build future projects through a platform that ingests data from various construction tools, mines the embedded information, then provides operational access through owner-centered workflows.
What it does: Automation infrastructure for supply chain businesses, starting with AI-Powered Freight Forwarder solutions.
The pitch: Freight Forwarders take care of all the logistics of shipping containers including financials, approvals and paper work for all the local entities on both sides of the sender and receiver geographies, but communications with these local entities are often done through unstructured data, including forms, documents, and emails and can subsequently eat up to 60% of operational expenses. Expedock is looking to transform the freight forwarding industry by digitizing and automating the processing and inputting of unstructured data into various local partner and governmental systems, including via a “huan in the loop” AI software service.
What it does: A new way to share praise
The pitch: The process of thanking people is full of friction. Paper cards have to be purchased, signed, passed around; greetings on Facebook only mean so much. Using Illume, teams and individuals can download its app or come together on Slack and create a customized, private, and also shareable note. The nascent startup says one card typically has 10 contributors; it charging enterprises $3 per user per month, ostensibly so sales teams, among others, can use them.
What it does: Quansa improves Latin American workers’ financial lives via employer-based financial care
The pitch: Fully 40% of employees across Latin America have missed work in the past 12 months due to financial problems. Quansa wants to help them get on the right track financially with the help of employers that use its software to link their employees’ payroll data with banks, fintechs and other financial institutions.
There is strength in numbers, says the firm. By funneling more customers to lenders through their employers, for example, these employees should ultimately be able to access to cheaper car loans, among other things.
What it does: Spotlight turns sensitive customer information from a burden to an asset by using NLP techniques to identify, anonymize, and manage access to PII and other sensitive business data.
Founder: Austin Osborne (CEO)
The pitch: Data privacy legislation like GDPR and CCPA is creating an era where companies can no longer use their customer data to run their business due to the risks of fines, lawsuits, and negative media coverage. These lawsuits relating to misuse of personal data can reach billions of dollars and take years to settle. Spotlight’s software plugs into existing data storage engines via APIs and operates as a middleware within a company’s network. With advanced NLP and OCR techniques, it says it’s able to detect sensitive information in unstructured data, perform multiple types of anonymization, and provide a deep access control layer.
What it does: Bennu closes the loop on management communication
Founder: Brenda Jin (CEO)
The pitch: Today’s work communication is done through forms, email, Slack, and docs; the timelines are unnatural. Bennu is trying to solve the problem with communication loops that use integrations and smart topic suggestions to help employees prepare for substantive management conversations in seconds, not hours.
What it does: Playbook automates the people coordination in your repeatable workflows with a simple system to create, execute and track any process with your team, customers, and more.
The pitch: Whether you’re collecting time cards from 20 hourly workers every week, or managing 30 customer onboardings – you’re coordinating repetitive workflows across people over email and tracking it over spreadsheets. Playbook says it coordinates workflows between people at scale by taking programming concepts such as variables and conditional logic that let its customers model any workflow, and all packaged in an interface that enables anyone to build out their workflows in minutes.
12.) June Motherhood
What it does: Community-based care for life’s most important transitions.
The pitch: June is a digital health company focused on maternal health, with community at the core. Like a Livongo for diabetes management, June combines the latest research around shared appointments, peer-to-peer support and cognitive behavioral therapy to improve outcomes and lower costs, including through weekly programs and social networks that encourage peer-to-peer support.
What it does: Challenge anyone to a friendly bet.
The pitch: Wagr will allow sports fans to bet with peers in a social, fair, and simple way. Sending a bet requires just three steps, too: pick a team, set an amount, and send away. Wagr sets the right odds and handles the money.
Users can challenge friends, start groups, track leaderboards, and see what others are betting on, so they feel connected even if they aren’t together in the stadium. Customers pay a commission when they use the platform to find them a match, but bets against friends are free. The plan is to go live in Tennessee first and expand outward from there.
What it does: Intelligence for a new era of risk
The pitch: Insurance companies are struggling to manage their accumulation of risk as natural catastrophes continue to grow in volume and severity. Reinsurance is no longer a reliable backstop, with some of the largest insurers taking $600 million-plus single-quarter losses net of reinsurance.
Federato is building an underwriter workflow that uses dynamic optimization across the portfolio to steer underwriters to a better portfolio balance. The software lets actuaries and portfolio analysts drive high-level risk analysis into the hands of underwriters on the front lines to help them understand the “next best action” at a given point in time.
15.) rePurpose Global
What it does: A plastic credit platform to help consumer brands of any size go plastic neutral
The pitch: Consumers worldwide are demanding businesses to take action on eliminating plastic waste, 3.8 million pounds of which are leaked into the environment every few minutes. Yet even as brands try, alternatives are often too expensive or worse for the environment. Through this startup, a brand can commit to the removal of a certain amount of plastic, which will then be removed by the startup’s loal watse management partners and recycled on the brand’s behalf (with rePurpose verifying that the process adheres to certain standards). The startup says it can keep a healthy margin while also running this plastic credit market, and that its ultimate vision is to our vision is to become a “one-stop shop for companies to create social, economic, and environmental impact.”
What it does: A professional community platform for the next generation
The pitch: LinkedIn sucks, everyone hates it. Ladder (which may have a trademark infringement battle ahead of it) is building a platform around community instead of networks. The idea is that users will opt in to join communities with like-minded individuals in their respective industries and roles of interest. Once engaged, they can participate in AMAs with industry experts, share opportunities, and have 1:1 conversations.
The longer term ‘moat’ is the data it collects from users, from which it thinks it can generate more revenue per user than LinkedIn. (By the way, this is the startup that has already signed a term sheet with a firm whose team was watching the demo day live on Tuesday.)
How it works: Exporta is building a B2B wholesale marketplace connecting suppliers in Latin America with buyers in North America.
The pitch: The U.S. now imports more each year from Latin America than from China, but LatAm sourcing remains fragmented and manual. Exporta builds on-the-ground relationships to bring LatAm suppliers onto a tech-enabled platform that matches them to U.S. buyers looking for faster turnaround times and more transparent manufacturing relationships.
What it does: Via helps companies build their own teams in new countries as simply as if they were in their HQ.
The pitch: Setting up a team in a new country is very complex. Companies need local entities, contracts, payroll, benefits, accounting, tax, compliance…and the list goes on. Via enables companies to build their own teams in new countries quickly and compliantly by leveraging local entities to legally employ teams on their behalf, and integrate local contracts, payroll, and benefits in one platform. By plugging into the local hiring ecosystem, Via does all the heavy lifting for its customers, even promising to stand up a team in 48 hours and at less expense than traditional alternatives. (It’s charging $600 per employee per month in Canada and Mexico, where it says it has already launched.)
Lawmatics, a San Diego startup that’s building marketing and CRM software for lawyers, is announcing that it has raised $2.5 million in seed funding.
CEO Matt Spiegel used to practice law himself, and he told me that even though tech companies have a wide range of marketing tools to choose from, “lawyers have not been able to adopt them,” because they need a product that’s tailored to their specific needs.
That’s why Spiegel founded Lawmatics with CTO Roey Chasman. He said that a law firm’s relationship with its clients can be divided into three phases — intake (when a client is deciding whether to hire a firm); the active legal case; and after the case has been resolved. Apparently most legal software is designed to handle phase two, while Lawmatics focuses on phases one and three.
The platform includes a CRM system to manage the initial client intake process, as well as tools that can automate a lot of what Spiegel called the “blocking and tackling” of marketing, like sending birthday messages to former clients — which might sound like a minor task, but Spiegel said it’s crucial for law firms to “nurture” those relationships, because most of their business comes from referrals.
Lawmatics’ early adopters, Spiegel added, have consisted of the firms in areas where “if you need a lawyer, you go to Google and start searching ‘personal injury,’ ‘bankruptcy,’ ‘estate planning,’ all these consumer-driven law firms.” And the pandemic led to accelerated the startup’s growth, because “lawyers are at home now, their business is virtual and they need more tools.”
Spiegel’s had success selling technology to lawyers in the past, with his practice management software startup MyCase acquired by AppFolio in 2012 (AppFolio recently sold MyCase to a variety of funds for $193 million). He said that the strategies for growing both companies are “almost identical” — the products are different, but “it’s really the same segment, running the same playbook, only with additional go-to-market strategies.”
The funding was led by Eniac Ventures and Forefront Venture Partners, with participation from Revel Ventures and Bridge Venture Partners.
“In my 10 years investing I have witnessed few teams more passionate, determined, and capable of revolutionizing an industry,” said Eniac’s Tim Young in a statement. “They have not only created the best software product the legal market has seen, they have created a movement.”
Dee Goens and Jacob Horne have both the exact and precisely opposite background that you’d expect to see from two people building a way for creators to build a sustainable economy for their followers to participate in. Coinbase, crypto-hack projects at university, KPMG, Merrill Lynch. But where’s the art?
“Believe it or not, I used to have dreams of being a rapper,” laughs Goens. “There’s a SoundcCloud out there somewhere. With that passion you explore the inner workings of the music industry. I would excitedly ask industry friends about the advance and 360 deal models only to realize they were completely broken.”
And, while many may be well-intentioned, these deal structures often exploit artistry. In many cases taking the majority of an artist’s ownership. “I grew curious why artists were unable to resource themselves from their community in an impactful way — but instead, were forced to seek out potentially predatory relationships. To me, this was bullshit.”
Horne says that he’d always wanted to create a fashion brand.
“I always thought a fashion brand would be something I’d do after crypto,” he tells me. “I love crypto but it felt overly focused on just finance and felt like it was missing something. Then I started to play with the idea of combining these two passions and starting Saint Fame.”
While at Coinbase, Horne hacked on Saint Fame, a side project that leveraged some of the ideas on display in Zora. It was a marketplace that allowed people to sell and trade items with cryptocurrency, buying intermediate variable-value tokens redeemable for future goods.
“I realized that culture itself was shaped and built upon an old financial system that is systemically skewed against artists and communities,” says Horne. “The operating system of ownership was built in the 1600s with the Dutch East India Trading Company and early Nation States. Like what the fuck is up with that?”
We have the internet now, we can literally create and share information to billions of people all at once, and the ownership system is the same as when people had to get on a boat for six months to send a letter. It’s time for an upgrade. Any community on the internet should be able to come together, with capital, and work towards any shared vision. That starts with empowering creators and artists to create and own the culture they’re creating. In the long term this moves to internet communities taking on societal endeavors.”
The answer that they’re working on is called Zora. It’s a marketplace with two main components but one philosophy: sustainable economics for creators.
All too often creators are involved in reaping the rewards for their work only once, but the secondary economy continues to generate value out of their reach. Think of an artist, as an example, that creates a piece and sells it for market value. That’s great, but thereafter, every ounce of work that the artist puts into future work, into building a name and a brand and a community for themselves puts additional value into that piece. The artist never sees a dime from that, relying instead on the value of future releases to pay dividends on the work.
Image Credits: Zora
That’s basically the way it has always worked. I have a little background in this as I used to exhibit and was involved in running a gallery and my father is a fine artist. If he sells a painting today for $300, gets a lot better, more popular and more valued over time, the owner of that painting may re-sell it for hundreds or thousands more. He will never see a dime of that. And God forbid that an artist like him gets too locked into the gallery system, which slices off enormous chunks of the value of a piece for a square of wall space and the marketing cachet of a curator or storefront.
The same story can be told across the recording industry, fashion, sports and even social media. Lots of middle-people and lots of vigs to pay. And, unsurprisingly, the same creators of color that drive so much of The Culture are the biggest losers, hands down.
The primary Zora product is a market that allows creators or artists to launch products and then continue to participate in their second market value.
Here’s how the Zora team explains it:
On Zora, creators have the ability to set two prices: start price and max price. As community members buy and sell a token, it moves the price up or down. This makes the price dynamic as it opens price discovery on the items by the market. When people buy the token it moves the price closer to its maximum. When they sell, it moves closer to its minimum.
For an excited community like Jeff [Staple’s], this new dynamic price can cause a quick increase in the value of his sneakers. As a creator, they capture the value from selling on a price curve as well as getting a take on trading fees from the market which they now own. What used to trade on StockX is now about to trade on a creator owned market.
There have been some early successes. Designer and marketer Jeff Staple launched a run of 30 Coca-Cola x Staple SB Dunk customs by Reverseland and their value is trending up around 234% since release. A Benji Taylor x Kevin Doan vinyl figure is up 210%.
I have seen some other stabs at this. When he was still at StockX, founder Josh Luber launched their Initial Product Offerings, a Blind Dutch Auction system that allowed the market to set a price for an item, with some of the cut of pricing above market going back to the manufacturer or brand making the offering. The focus there was brands versus individual creators (though they did launch with a Ben Baller slide). Allowing brands to tap into second market value for limited goods is a lot less of a revolution play, but the thesis is similar. I thought that was a good idea then, and I like it even better when it’s being used to democratize rather than maximize returns.
Side note: I love that this team is messing around with interesting ideas like dogfooding their own marketplace with the value of being in their own TestFlight group. I’m sort of like, is that allowed, but at the same time it’s dope and I’ve never seen anything like it.
Zora was founded in May of 2020 (right in the middle of this current panny-palooza). The team is Goens (Creators and Community), Horne (Product), Slava Kim (Design), Dai Hovey (Engineering), Ethan Daya (Engineering) and Tyson Battistella (Engineering).
Zora has raised a $2 million seed round led by Kindred Ventures, with participation from Trevor McFedries of Brud, Alice Lloyd George, Jeff Staple, Coinbase Ventures and others.
But this idea that physical goods or even digitally packaged works have to exist as finite containers of value is not a given either. Goens and Horne are pushing to challenge that too with the first big new product for Zora: community tokens. Built on Ethereum, the $RAC token is the first of its kind from Zora. André Allen Anjos, stage name RAC, is a Portuguese-American musician and producer who makes remixes that stream on the web, original music and has had commercial work featured in major brand ads.
Though he is popular and has a following in the tens of thousands, RAC is not a social media superpower. The token distribution and subsequent activity in trades and sales is purely driven by the buy-in that his fans feel. This is a key learning for a lot of players in this new economy: raw numbers are the social media equivalent of a billboard that people drive by. It may get you eyeballs, but it doesn’t guarantee action. The modern creator is living in a house with their fans, offering them access and interacting via Discord and Snap and comments.
Image Credits: Zora
But those houses are all other people’s houses, which leads into the reason that Zora is launching a token.
The token drop serves multiple purposes:
The future of Zora most immediately involves spinning up a self-service version of the marketplace, allowing creators and entrepreneurs to launch their products without a direct partnership and onboarding. There are many, many uncertainties here and the team has a lot of challenges ahead on the traction and messaging front. But as mentioned, some early releases have shown promise, and the philosophy is sound and much needed. As the creator universe/passion economy/whatever you call it depends on how old you are/fandom merchant wave rises, there is definitely an opportunity to rethink how the value of their contributions are assigned and whether there is a way to turn the long-term labor of building a community into long-term value.
The last traded price of RAC’s tape, BOY, by the way? $3,713, up 18,465%.
Temporal, a Seattle-based startup that is building an open-source, stateful microservices orchestration platform, today announced that it has raised an $18.75 million Series A round led by Sequoia Capital. Existing investors Addition Ventures and Amplify Partners also joined, together with new investor Madrona Venture Group. With this, the company has now raised a total of $25.5 million.
Founded by Maxim Fateev (CEO) and Samar Abbas (CTO), who created the open-source Cadence orchestration engine during their time at Uber, Temporal aims to make it easier for developers and operators to run microservices in production. Current users include the likes of Box and Snap.
“Before microservices, coding applications was much simpler,” Temporal’s Fateev told me. “Resources were always located in the same place — the monolith server with a single DB — which meant developers didn’t have to codify a bunch of guessing about where things were. Microservices, on the other hand, are highly distributed, which means developers need to coordinate changes across a number of servers in different physical locations.”
Those servers could go down at any time, so engineers often spend a lot of time building custom reliability code to make calls to these services. As Fateev argues, that’s table stakes and doesn’t help these developers create something that builds real business value. Temporal gives these developers access to a set of what the team calls ‘reliability primitives’ that handle these use cases. “This means developers spend far more time writing differentiated code for their business and end up with a more reliable application than they could have built themselves,” said Fateev.
Temporal’s target use is virtually any developer who works with microservices — and wants them to be reliable. Because of this, the company’s tool — despite offering a read-only web-based user interface for administering and monitoring the system — isn’t the main focus here. The company also doesn’t have any plans to create a no-code/low-code workflow builder, Fateev tells me. However, since it is open-source, quite a few Temporal users build their own solutions on top of it.
The company itself plans to offer a cloud-based Temporal-as-a-Service offering soon. Interestingly, Fateev tells me that the team isn’t looking at offering enterprise support or licensing in the near future, though. “After spending a lot of time thinking it over, we decided a hosted offering was best for the open-source community and long term growth of the business,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, the company plans to use the new funding to improve its existing tool and build out this cloud service, with plans to launch it into general availability next year. At the same time, the team plans to say true to its open-source roots and host events and provide more resources to its community.
“Temporal enables Snapchat to focus on building the business logic of a robust asynchronous API system without requiring a complex state management infrastructure,” said Steven Sun, Snap Tech Lead, Staff Software Engineer. “This has improved the efficiency of launching our services for the Snapchat community.”
A few years ago, Whisper president and co-founder Andrew Song was talking to his grandfather about his hearing aids. Even though he spent thousands of dollars on a medical device designed to improve his hearing, and in the process his quality of life, he wasn’t wearing them. Song’s co-founders had had similar experiences with grandparents, and as engineers and entrepreneurs, they decided to do something about it, to try and build a better, more modern hearing aid.
Today, the company emerged from stealth with a new hearing aid built from the ground up. It uses artificial intelligence to learn and adjust in an automated way to different hearing situations like a noisy restaurant or watching TV. And you don’t pay thousands of dollars up front, you pay a monthly fee on a three year subscription, and you get free software updates along the way.
While it was at it, the company also announced a $35 million Series B investment led by Quiet Ventures with participation from previous investors Sequoia Capital and First Round Capital. The startup has raised a total of $53 million to build the hearing aid system that it is announcing today.
Those discussions with his grandfather prior to starting the company led Song to wonder why he wasn’t wearing those hearing aids, what were the challenges he was having and why that wasn’t working for him — and that led to eventually forming launching a startup.
“That really inspired us to build, I think, a new kind of product, one that could get better over time and better support the needs of people who use hearing aids, and be a hearing aid that gets better, but also one that could use artificial intelligence to actually improve the sound that somebody gets,” Song explained.
While the founding team had a background in technology and engineering, they did not have expertise in hearing science, so they brought on Dr. Robert Sweetow from the UCSF audiology department to help them.
The technology they’ve built consists of three main components. For starters you have the hearing aids themselves that fit on the ear along with a pocket-sized external box that they call the Whisper Brain, which the company says, “works wirelessly with the earpieces to enable a proprietary AI-based Sound Separation Engine,” and finally there is a smart phone app to update the software on the system.
It is this AI that Song says separates them from other hearing aids. “In the day-to-day rough and tumble when you encounter a more challenging experience, what we call our sound separation engine, which is the kind of AI model that we’ve built to help with that, and that’s what’s going to be there to help do that signal processing — and we think that’s really unique,” he said.
What’s more, just like a self-driving car learns over time and benefits from the data being fed back to the company from all drivers, Song says that the same dynamic is at work with the hearing aid, which learns how to process signals better over time, based on an individual’s experience, but also all of the other Whisper hearing aid users.
The company is offering these hearing aids through a network of hearing aid professionals, rather than over the counter, because Song said that the company recognized that these are complex instruments and it is important to keep audiologists in the loop to help fit and support the hearing aids and work with Whisper customers over the life of the product.
Whisper offers these hearing aids on a subscription basis for $179 per month on a three-year contract, which includes all of the hardware, the software updates, on-going support from the hearing care pro, a 3-year loss and damage insurance and an industry-standard equipment warranty. They are offering an introductory price of $139 per month for a limited time.
At $179 per month, it comes to a total of $6444 over the three year period to essentially rent the aids. At the end of the subscription, customers can renew and get updated hardware or give the hardware back. They do not own the hearing aids.
It’s worth noting that other hearing aid companies also use AI in their hearing aids including Widex and Starkey, neither of which require an external hub. Many hearing aid companies also offer a variety of payment and subscription plans, but Whisper is an attempt to offer a different approach to hearing aids.