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Yesterday — August 2nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Novakid’s investors bet $35M that it can teach kids English

By Natasha Mascarenhas

If you’re trying to develop fluency in a non-native tongue, language immersion is a crucial part of the learning process. Surrounding yourself with native speakers helps with pronunciation, context building, and most of all, confidence.

But what if you’re an eight-year-old kid in Spain learning English and can’t swing a solo trip to the United States for the summer?

Novakid, founded by Maxim Azarov, wants to be your next best option. The San Francisco-based edtech startup offers virtual-only, English language immersion for kids between the ages of four through 12, by combining a mix of different services from live tutors to gamification.

After closing its $4.25 million Series A round last December, Novakid announced today that it is back with a $35 million Series B financing, led by Owl Ventures and Goodwater Capital. Existing investors also participated in the round, including PortfoLion, LearnStart, TMT Investments, Xploration Capital, LETA Capital and BonAngels.

The startup is raising capital in response to an active start to its year. The company’s active client base grew 350% year over year, currently at over 50,000 paying students. The money will be used to get more students into its universe of tools, as well as help Novakid expand into international markets with high populations of speakers who want to learn English.

The company’s suite of services are built around two principles: First, that it can immerse early-age learners into the world of English at scale, and second, that it can actually be fun to use.

When a user signs up, they are first connected to one of Novakid’s 2,000 live tutors for their first class. Tutors must be native English speakers with a B.A. degree or higher, as well as an international teaching certificate such as DELTA, CELTA, TESOL or TEFL.

“One of the things that is really important, even psychologically, is to start listening to the language, start interacting with a live person, and remove being afraid of not understanding something,” Azarov said. The company wants to recreate the conditions of how a kid likely learned their first language.

In the class, the tutors only speak English, and users are encouraged to do the same to slowly build and mistake their way into confidence. While the live, video-based classes are a key part of Novakid’s product, Azarov said it was important that his company “was not just giving you access to a teacher” as its main value proposition.

“Most of the competitors are taking teachers and making them available remotely so you don’t have to travel and you have a bigger selection,” he said. But if you look at the industry in the bigger picture, guys like Oxford, Cambridge, Pearson who provide content for the language learning industry, their product basically sucks. It’s really bad.” So, Novakid puts most of its energy into rebuilding a curriculum that works with better design, and includes games.

Gamified content lives both in and out of classes. Within the classroom, a teacher may take a student on a VR-enhanced tour through famous landmarks and museums to practice vocabulary. Self-paced content could look like a multiplayer “battle” between two students answering questions within a certain time period to get a better score. Novakid has an entire team dedicated to game design and development.

Students are clicking in. Novakid users spend two-thirds of their time on the website with tutors, and one-third with self-paced content that the company built in-house. The company wants to switch those concentrations because more students are spending time with the asynchronous content around grammar and vocabulary, and teachers are reserved for more complex information like speaking and conversation.

Part of the difficulty of scaling up a language learning business is that users need to stay motivated. Gamification helps with engagement, but Novakid’s clientele of children could also be fast to churn compared to adult learners, simply due to priorities. Azarov said that he sees how some would view selling exclusively to children as a disadvantage, but he views their focus as differentiation.

“You get better brand equity when you’re more focused,” he said. “The way kids learn language is vastly different from the way adults learn language, and I don’t think the general players who do ‘everything from everybody’ will be able to do [the former] as well as we are.” Duolingo recently launched Duolingo ABC, a free English literacy app with hundreds of short-form exercises. While the now-public company has strong branding, Novakid’s strategy differs by adding in more services around live learning and speaking.

So far, the company has proven that its strategy is sticking. Its revenue in 2020 was $9 million, and in 2021 it is expected to hit between $36 million to $45 million in revenue. It declined to disclose the specifics around diversity of the team, but plans to kick off a quite intensive recruiting spree going forward. Azarov plans to add 200 people to his 300-person company in the next six months.

Planted raises another $21M to expand its growing plant-based meat empire (and add schnitzel)

By Devin Coldewey

Swiss alternative protein company Planted has raised its second round of the year, a CHF 19 million (about $21 million at present) “pre-B” fundraise that will help it continue its growth and debut new products. A U.S. launch is in the cards eventually, but for now Planted’s exclusively European customers will be able to give its new veggie schnitzel a shot.

Planted appeared in 2019 as a spinoff from Swiss research university ETH Zurich, where the founders developed the original technique of extruding plant proteins and water into fibrous structures similar to real meat’s. Since then the company has diversified its protein sources, adding oat and sunflower to the mix, and developed pulled pork and kebab alternative products as well.

Over time the process has improved as well. “We added fermentation/biotech technologies to enhance taste and texture,” wrote CEO and co-founder Christoph Jenny in an email to TechCrunch. “Meaning 1) we can create structures without form limitation and 2) can add a broader taste profile.”

The latest advance is schnitzel, which is of course a breaded and fried piece of pounded-thin meat style popular around the world, but especially in the company’s core markets of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Jenny noted that Planted’s schnitzel is produced as one piece, not pressed together from smaller bits. “The taste and texture benefit from fermentation approach, that makes the flavor profile mouth watering and the texture super juicy,” he said, though of course we will have to test it to be sure. Expect schnitzel to debut in Q3.

It’s the first of several planned “whole” or “prime” cuts, larger pieces that can be prepared like any other piece of meat — the team says their products require no special preparation or additives and can be dropped in as 1:1 replacements in most recipes. Right now the big cuts are leaving the lab and entering consumer testing for taste tuning and eventually scaling.

The funding round came from “Vorwerk Ventures, Gullspång Re:food, Movendo Capital, Good Seed Ventures, Joyance, ACE & Company (SFG strategy) and Be8 Ventures,” and was described as a follow-on to March’s CHF 17M series A. No doubt the exploding demand for alternative proteins and growing competition in the space has spurred Planted’s investors to opt for more aggressive growth and development strategies.

The company plans to enter several new markets over Q3 and Q4, but the U.S. is still a question mark due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel. Jenny said they are preparing so that they can make that move whenever it becomes possible, but for now Planted is focused on the European market.

(Update: This article originally misstated the new round as also being CHF 17M — entirely my mistake. This has been corrected.)

Yaydoo secures $20M, aims to simplify B2B collections, payments

By Christine Hall

It’s no secret that the technology for easy business-to-business payments has not yet caught up to its peer-to-peer counterparts, but Yaydoo thinks it has the answer.

The Mexico City-based B2B software and payments company provides three products, VendorPlace, P-Card and PorCobrar, for managing cash flow, optimizing access to smart liquidity, and connecting small, midsize and large businesses to an ecosystem of digital tools.

Sergio Almaguer, Guillermo Treviño and Roberto Flores founded Yaydoo — the name combines “yay” and “do” to show the happiness of doing something — in 2017. Today, the company announced the close of a $20.4 million Series A round co-led by Base10 Partners and monashees.

Joining them in the round were SoftBank’s Latin America Fund and Leap Global Partners. In total, Yaydoo has raised $21.5 million, Almaguer told TechCrunch.

Prior to starting the company, Almaguer was working at another company in Mexico doing point-of-sale. His large enterprise customers wanted automation for their payments, but he noticed that the same tools were too expensive for small businesses.

The co-founders started Yaydoo to provide procurement, accounts payable and accounts receivables, but in a simpler format so that the collection and payment of B2B transactions was affordable for small businesses.

Image Credits: Yaydoo

The idea is taking off, and vendors are adding their own customers so that they are all part of the network to better link invoices to purchase orders and then connect to accounts payable, Almaguer said. Yaydoo estimates that the automation workflows reduced 80% of time wasted paying vendors, on average.

Yaydoo is joining a sector of fintech that is heating up — the global B2B payments market is valued at $120 trillion annually. Last week, B2B payments platform Nium announced a $200 million in Series D funding on a $1 billion valuation. Others attracting funding recently include Paystand, which raised $50 million in Series C funding to make B2B payments cashless, while Dwolla raised $21 million for its API that allows companies to build and facilitate fast payments.

The new funding will enable the company to attract new hires in Mexico and when the company expands into other Latin American countries. Yaydoo is also looking at future opportunities for its working capital business, like understanding how many invoices customers are setting, the access to actual payments, and how money flows out and in so that it can provide insights on working capital funding gaps. The company will also invest in product development.

The company has grown to over 800 customers, up from 200 in the first quarter of 2020. Its headcount also grew to 100 from 30 during the same time. In the last 12 months, over 70,000 companies have transacted on the Yaydoo network, and total payment volume grew to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yaydoo is a SaaS subscription model, but the new funding will also enable the company to create a pool of potential customers with a “freemium” offering with the goal of converting those customers into the subscription model as they grow, Almaguer said.

Rexhi Dollaku, partner at Base10 Partners, said the firm saw the way B2B payments were becoming modernized and “was impressed” by the Yaydoo team and how it built a complicated infrastructure, but made it easy to use.

He believes Latin America is 10 years behind in terms of B2B payments but will catch up sooner than later because of the digital transformation going on in the region.

“We are starting to see early signs of the network being built out of the payments product, and that is a good indication,” Dollaku said. “With the funding, Yaydoo will be also able to provide more financial services options for businesses to address a working fund gap.”

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

By Christine Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chilean fintech Xepelin secures $230M in debt and equity from Kaszek, high-profile angels

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Chilean startup Xepelin, which has created a financial services platform for SMEs in Latin America, has secured $30 million in equity and $200 million in credit facilities.

LatAm venture fund Kaszek Ventures led the equity portion of the financing, which also included participation from partners of DST Global and a slew of other firms and founders/angel investors. LatAm- and U.S.-based asset managers and hedge funds — including Chilean pension funds — provided the credit facilities. In total over its lifetime, Xepelin has raised over $36 million in equity and $250 million in asset-backed facilities.

Also participating in the round were Picus Capital; Kayak Ventures; Cathay Innovation; MSA Capital; Amarena; FJ Labs; Gilgamesh and Kavak founder and CEO Carlos Garcia; Jackie Reses, executive chairman of Square Financial Services; Justo founder and CEO Ricardo Weder; Tiger Global Management Partner John Curtius; GGV’s Hans Tung; and Gerry Giacoman, founder and CEO of Clara, among others.

Nicolás de Camino and Sebastian Kreis founded Xepelin in mid-2019 with the mission of changing the fact that “only 5% of companies in all LatAm countries have access to recurring financial services.”

“We want all SMEs in LatAm to have access to financial services and capital in a fair and efficient way,” the pair said.

Xepelin is built on a SaaS model designed to give SMEs a way to organize their financial information in real time. Embedded in its software is a way for companies to apply for short-term working capital loans “with just three clicks, and receive the capital in a matter of hours,” the company claimed.

It has developed an AI-driven underwriting engine, which the execs said gives it the ability to make real-time loan approval decisions.

“Any company in LatAm can onboard in just a few minutes and immediately access a free software that helps them organize their information in real time, including cash flow, revenue, sales, tax, bureau info — sort of a free CFO SaaS,” de Camino said. “The circle is virtuous: SMEs use Xepelin to improve their financial habits, obtain more efficient financing, pay their obligations, and collaborate effectively with clients and suppliers, generating relevant impacts in their industries.”

The fintech currently has over 4,000 clients in Chile and Mexico, which currently has a growth rate “four times faster” than when Xepelin started in Chile. Over the past 22 months, it has loaned more than $400 million to SMBs in the two countries. It currently has a portfolio of active loans for $120 million and an asset-backed facility for more than $250 million.

Overall, the company has been seeing a growth rate of 30% per month, the founders said. It has 110 employees, up from 20 a year ago.

Xepelin has more than 60 partnerships (a number that it said is growing each week) with midmarket corporate companies, allowing for their suppliers to onboard to its platform for free and gain access to accounts payable, revenue-based financing. The company also sells its portfolio of non-recourse loans to financial partners, which it says mitigates credit risk exposure and enhances its platform and data play.

“When we talk about creating the largest digital bank for SMEs in LatAm, we are not saying that our goal is to create a bank; perhaps we will never ask for the license to have one, and to be honest, everything we do, we do it differently from the banks, something like a non-bank, a concept used today to exemplify focus,” the founders said.

Both de Camino and Kreis said they share a passion for making financial services more accessible to SMEs all across Latin America and have backgrounds rooted deep in different areas of finance.

“Our goal is to scale a platform that can solve the true pains of all SMEs in LatAm, all in one place that also connects them with their entire ecosystem, and above all, democratized in such a way that everyone can access it,” Kreis said, “regardless of whether you are a company that sells billions of dollars or just a thousand dollars, getting the same service and conditions.”

For now, the company is nearly exclusively focused on the B2B space, but in the future, it believes several of its services “will be very useful for all SMEs and companies in LatAm.” 

“Xepelin has developed technology and data science engines to deliver financing to SMBs in Latin America in a seamless way,” Nicolas Szekasy, co-founder and managing partner at Kaszek Ventures, said in a statement.The team has deep experience in the sector and has proven a perfect fit of their user-friendly product with the needs of the market.”

Chile was home to another large funding earlier this week. NotCo, a food technology company making plant-based milk and meat replacements, closed on a $235 million Series D round that gives it a $1.5 billion valuation.

Platform as a service startup Porter aims to become go-to for deploying, managing cloud-based apps

By Christine Hall

By the time Porter co-founders Trevor Shim and Justin Rhee decided to build a company around DevOps, the pair were well versed in doing remote development on Kubernetes. And like other users, they were consistently getting burnt by the technology.

They realized that for all of the benefits, the technology was there, but users were having to manage the complexity of hosting solutions as well as incurring the costs associated with a big DevOps team, Rhee told TechCrunch.

They decided to build a solution externally and went through Y Combinator’s Summer 2020 batch, where they found other startup companies trying to do the same.

Today, Porter announced $1.5 million in seed funding from Venrock, Translink Capital, Soma Capital and several angel investors. Its goal is to build a platform as a service that any team can use to manage applications in its own cloud, essentially delivering the full flexibility of Kubernetes through a Heroku-like experience.

Why Heroku? It is the hosting platform that developers are used to, and not just small companies, but also later-stage companies. When they want to move to Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud or DigitalOcean, Porter will be that bridge, Shim said.

However, while Heroku is still popular, the pair said companies are thinking the platform is getting outdated because it is standing still technology-wise. Each year, companies move on from the platform due to technical limitations and cost, Rhee said.

A big part of the bet Porter is taking is not charging users for hosting, and its cost is a pure SaaS product, he said. They aren’t looking to be resellers, so companies can use their own cloud, but Porter will provide the automation and users can pay with their AWS and GCP credits, which gives them flexibility.

A common pattern is a move into Kubernetes, but “the zinger we talk about” is if Heroku was built in 2021, it would have been built on Kubernetes, Shim added.

“So we see ourselves as a successor’s successor,” he said.

To be that bridge, the company will use the new funding to increase its engineering bandwidth with the goal of “becoming the de facto standard for all startups.” Shim said.

Porter’s platform went live in February, and in six months became the sixth-fastest growing open-source platform download on GitHub, said Ethan Batraski, partner at Venrock. He met the company through YC and was “super impressed with Rhee’s and Shim’s vision.

“Heroku has 100,000 developers, but I believe it has stagnated,” Batraski added. “Porter already has 100 startups on its platform. The growth they’ve seen — four or five times — is what you want to see at this stage.”

His firm has long focused on data infrastructure and is seeing the stack get more complex, saying “at the same time, more developers are wanting to build out an app over a week, and scale it to millions of users, but that takes people resources. With Kubernetes it can turn everyone into an expert developer without them knowing it.”

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

By Christine Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Colombia’s Merqueo bags $50M to expand its online grocery delivery service across Latin America

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Merqueo, which operates a full-stack, on-demand delivery service in Latin America, has landed $50 million in a Series C round of funding.

IDC Ventures, Digital Bridge and IDB Invest co-led the round, which also included participation from MGM Innova Group, Celtic House Venture Partners, Palm Drive Capital and previous shareholders. The financing brings the Bogota, Colombia-based startup’s total raised to $85 million since its 2017 inception.

Merqueo CEO and co-founder Miguel McAllister knows a thing or two about the delivery space in Latin America, having also co-founded Domicilios.com, a Latin American food delivery company that was bought by Berlin-based Delivery Hero and later merged with Brazil’s iFood.

McAllister describes Merqueo as a “pure-play online supermarket with a fully integrated grocery delivery service” that sources directly from large brands and local suppliers, bypassing intermediaries and “delivering directly from its dark store network.” (Dark stores are traditional retail stores that have been converted to local fulfillment centers.”

Merqueo offers more than 8,000 products, including fresh foods, packaged goods, home essentials, beverages and frozen products. It currently operates in more than 25 cities in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil and has over 600,000 users.

Image Credits: Merqueo

It must be doing something right. The startup is close to $100 million in “run-rate revenue,” according to McAllister, having grown more than 2.5x in 2020. Merqueo also reached positive cash flow in Colombia, its most mature market. Over the last year, large Latin American retail chains and retailers have approached the company about potentially acquiring it, McAllister said.

Part of the company’s success might be attributed to the speed and flexibility it offers. Users can choose how and when to receive their groceries according to their needs, with the startup offering delivery in as little as 10 minutes or three to four hours. Users can also schedule delivery of their groceries in two-hour intervals for the same day or the next day.

Also, owning and controlling the “entire” vertical supply chain gives it the ability to obtain better margins, offer competitive pricing and achieve healthy unit economics, according to McAllister.

Merqueo plans to use its new capital in part to expand geographically. The company is currently in phase one of its expansion to Brazil, entering initially in Sao Paulo later this month. Next year, it expects to launch in other Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Fortaleza and Salvador de Bahia.

The market opportunity in Latin America is massive considering that online grocery sales only represent just 1% of the market –– far lower than in the U.S., EU or China, for example. Other players in the increasingly crowded space include GoPuff in the U.S., Getir out of Turkey and Mexico-based Jüsto, which raised $65 million in a Series A led by General Atlantic earlier this year.

“The pandemic accelerated the adoption of online grocery shopping in LatAm,” McAllister told TechCrunch. “The region went from 0.3% share of online groceries to 1%. And after the pandemic, we are seeing a 50% increase in the pace of user adoption.” Overall, the $85 billion e-commerce market in Latin America is growing rapidly, with projections of it reaching $116.2 billion in 2023.

Currently, Merqueo has over 1,300 employees in LatAm, up 60% from last year. It plans to continue hiring with the proceeds from the Series C round as well work “to become the largest and most ambitious dark stores network of Latin America.”

Alejandro Rodríguez, managing partner at IDC Ventures, is naturally bullish on Merqueo’s potential.

“From all the opportunities we looked into, Merqueo is undoubtedly the most advanced in the region. … The Merqueo team has proved they know how to scale the business and how to get to profitability,” Rodríguez told TechCrunch.

Online grocery delivery is a business with many technical and operational complexities, he said. In his view, Merqueo’s technology and operational expertise allow it to tackle those issues in a way that has led to “the best customer experience that we have seen in a scalable way.”

“They have the best combination of both great service metrics and healthy unit economics,” Rodríguez added.

Acrew Capital, Jeff Bezos back Colombia-based proptech La Haus’ $100M debt, equity round

By Mary Ann Azevedo

La Haus, which has developed an online real estate marketplace operating in Mexico and Colombia, has secured $100 million in additional funding, including $50 million in equity and $50 million in debt financing.

The new capital was obtained as an extension to the company’s Series B, the first tranche of which closed in January. With the latest infusion, Medellin, Colombia-based La Haus has now secured $135 million total for the round and over $158 million in funding since its 2017 inception.

San Francisco Bay Area venture firms Acrew Capital and Renegade Partners co-led the round, which also included participation from Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Expeditions, Endeavor Catalyst, Moore Strategic Ventures, Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Rappi’s Simon Borrero, Maluma, and Gabriel Gilinski. Existing backers who put money in this round include Greenspring Associates, Kaszek, NFX, Spencer Rascoff’s 75 & Sunny Ventures, Hadi Partovi and NuBank’s David Velez. 

Jerónimo Uribe (CEO), Rodrigo Sánchez-Ríos (president), Tomás Uribe (chief growth officer) and Santiago Garcia (CTO) founded the company after Jerónimo and Tomas met Sánchez-Ríos at Stanford University. Prior to La Haus they started and ran Jaguar Capital, a Colombian real estate development company with over $350 million of completed retail and residential projects. 

The company declined to reveal at what valuation the extension was raised, with Sánchez-Ríos saying only that it was “a significant increase” from January.

The Series B extension follows impressive growth for the startup, which saw the number of transactions conducted on its Mexico portal climb by nearly 10x in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the 2020 second quarter. With over 500 homes selling on its platform (via lahaus.com and lahaus.mx) the company is “the market leader in selling new housing in Spanish-speaking Latam by an order of magnitude,” its execs claim.  La Haus expects to have facilitated more than $1 billion in annualized gross sales by the end of the year. 

The startup was founded with the mission of making it easier for people to buy homes and helping “solve LatAm’s extreme housing inequality.” Its end goal is to accelerate access to new housing by both generating and curating supply and demand and then matching it with its technology, noted Sánchez-Ríos. 

“In the last six months, our chief product officer has built a product that allows this to happen 100% digitally,” he said. “Before it would take a lot of time, people involved and visits. We want to provide people looking for a home a similar experience as to people looking for their next flight at delta.com.”

It has done that by embedding its software to developers’ new projects so that it can bring that digital experience to its users. 

“They are able to view the projects on our sites, we match them and then they can see in real time which units of a particular tower are available, and then select, sign and pay for everything digitally,” Sánchez-Río said.

Image credit: La Haus

The need for new housing in the region and other emerging markets in general is acute, they believe. And the pace of building new homes is slow because small and mid-sized developers – who are responsible for building the majority of new homes in Latin America – are cash constrained. At the same time, mortgages are mostly not affordable for consumers, with banks extending only a fraction of the credit to individuals compared to the U.S., and often at far worse terms. 

What La Haus is planning to do with its new capital – particularly the debt portion – is go beyond selling homes via its marketplace to helping extend financing to both developers and potential buyers.It plans to take the proprietary data it has been able to glean from the thousands of real estate transactions conducted on it platform to extend capital to developers and consumers “more quickly, with much lower risk and at better terms.”

Already, what the startup has accomplished is notable. Being able to purchase a home 100% digitally is not that easy even in the U.S. Pulling that off in Latin America – which has historically trailed behind in digital adoption – is no easy feat. By year’s end, La Haus intends to be in every major metropolitan area in Mexico and Colombia. 

Its ultimate goal is to be able to help new, sustainable homes “to be built faster, alleviating the inequality caused by lack of access to inventory.”

To Acrew Capital’s Lauren Kolodny, La Haus is building a solution specific to the issues of Latin America’s housing market, rather than importing business models – such as iBuying – from the U.S.

“For many people in the United States home equity is their largest asset. In Latin America, however, consumers have been challenged with an impenetrable real estate market stacked against consumers,” she wrote via email. “La Haus is removing barriers to home ownership that stifles millions of people from achieving financial security. Specifically, Latin America has no centralized MLS, very costly interest rates, no transactional transparency, and few online informational tools.”

La Haus, Kolodny added, is breaking down these barriers by consolidating listings online, offering pricing transparency and educating consumers about their financing options.

Acrew first invested in the startup in its $10 million Series A and has been impressed with its growth over time.

“They have a unique focus on new housing — a massive industry worldwide, but especially in emerging markets where new housing is so necessary,” Kolodny said. “The management team…knows real estate in Latin America better than anyone we’ve met.”

For its part, the La Haus team is excited to put its new capital to work. As Sánchez-Río put it, “$50 million goes a lot further in Mexico and Colombia than in the U.S.”

“We are going to be very aggressive in Mexico and Colombia, and plan to go from four to at least 12 markets by the end of the year,” Jeronimo told TechCrunch. “We’re also excited to roll out our financing solution to developers and buyers.”

Craft Aerospace’s novel take on VTOL aircraft could upend local air travel

By Devin Coldewey

Air taxis may still be pie in the sky, but there’s more than one way to move the air travel industry forward. Craft Aerospace aims to do so with a totally new vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that it believes could make city-to-city hops simpler, faster, cheaper and greener.

The aircraft — which, to be clear, is still in small-scale prototype form — uses a new VTOL technique that redirects the flow of air from its engines using flaps rather than turning them (like the well-known, infamously unstable Osprey), making for a much more robust and controllable experience.

Co-founder James Dorris believes that this fast, stable VTOL craft is the key that unlocks a new kind of local air travel, eschewing major airports for minor ones or even heliports. Anyone that’s ever had to take a flight that lasts under an hour knows that three times longer is spent in security lines, gate walks and, of course, getting to and from these necessarily distant major airports.

“We’re not talking about flying wealthy people to the mall — there are major inefficiencies in major corridors,” Dorris told TechCrunch. “The key to shortening that delay is picking people up in cities and dropping them off in cities. So for these short hops, we need to combine the advantages of fixed-wing aircraft and VTOL.”

The technique they arrived at is what’s called a “blown wing” or “deflected slipstream.” It looks a bit like something you’d see on the cover of a vintage science fiction rag, but the unusual geometry and numerous rotors serve a purpose.

The basic principle of a blown wing has been explored before now but never done on a production aircraft. You simply place a set of (obviously extremely robust) flaps directly behind the thrust, where they can be tilted down and into the exhaust stream, directing the airflow downward. This causes the craft to rise upward and forward, and as it gets enough altitude it can retract the flaps, letting the engines operate normally and driving the craft forward to produce ordinary lift.

Image Credits: Craf Aerospace. During takeoff, thrust is redirected downward by extending flaps.

The many rotors are there for redundancy and so that the thrust can be minutely adjusted on each of the four “half-wings.” The shape, called a box wing, is also something that has been tried in a limited fashion (there are drones with it, for example) but ultimately never proved a valid alternative to a traditional swept wing. But Dorris and Craft believe it has powerful advantages, in this case, allowing for a much more stable, adjustable takeoff and landing than the two-engine Osprey. (Or, indeed, many proposed or prototype tilt-rotor aircraft out there.)

Image Credits: Craf Aerospace. During flight, the flaps retract and thrust pushes the plane forward as normal.

“Our tech is a combination of both existing and novel tech,” he said. “The box wing has been built and flown; the high flap aircraft has been built and flown. They’ve never been synthesized like this in a VTOL aircraft.”

To reiterate: The company has demonstrated a limited scale model that shows the principle is sound — they’re not claiming there’s a full-scale craft ready to go. That’s years down the line, but willing partners will help them move forward.

The fifth-generation prototype (perhaps the size of a coffee table) hovers using the blown wing principle, and the sixth, due to fly in a few months, will introduce the transitioning flaps. (I was shown a video of the prototype doing tethered indoor hovering, but the company is not releasing this test footage publicly.)

The design of the final craft is still in flux — it’s not known exactly how many rotors it will have, for instance — but the basic size, shape and capabilities are already penned in.

It’ll carry nine passengers and a pilot, and fly around 35,000 feet or so at approximately 300 knots, or 345 mph. That’s slower than a normal passenger jet, but whatever time you lose in the air ought to be more than regained by skipping the airport. The range of the cleaner hybrid gas-electric engines should be around 1,000 miles, which gives a good amount of flexibility and safety margins. It also covers 45 of the top 50 busiest routes in the world, things like Los Angeles to San Francisco, Seoul to Jeju Island, and Tokyo to Osaka.

Image Credits: Craft Aerospace. It probably wouldn’t be flying at this altitude.

Notably, however, Dorris wants to make it clear that the idea is not “LAX to SFO” but “Hollywood to North Beach.” VTOL aircraft aren’t just for show: Regulations permitting, they can touch down in a much smaller location, though exactly what kind of landing pad and micro-airport is envisioned is, like the aircraft itself, still being worked out.

The team, which just worked its way through Y Combinator’s summer 2021 cohort, is experienced in building sophisticated transport: Dorris was a primary on Virgin Hyperloop’s propulsion system, and his co-founder Axel Radermacher helped build Karma Automotive’s drivetrain. It may not have escaped you that neither of those companies makes aircraft, but Dorris thinks of that as a feature, not a bug.

“You’ve seen what’s come out of traditional aerospace over the last 10, 20 years,” he said, letting the obvious implication speak for itself that the likes of Boeing and Airbus aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel. And companies that partnered with automotive giants hit walls because there’s a mismatch between the scales — a few hundred aircraft is very different from half a million Chevy sedans.

So Craft is relying on partners who have looked to shake things up in aerospace. Among its advisers are Bryan Berthy (once director of engineering at Lockheed Martin), Nikhil Goel (one of Uber Elevate’s co-founders), and Brogan BamBrogan (early SpaceX employee and Hyperloop faithful).

The company also just announced a letter of intent from JSX, a small airline serving low-friction flights on local routes, to purchase 200 aircraft and the option for 400 more if wanted. Dorris believes that with their position and growth curve they could make a perfect early partner when the aircraft is ready, probably around 2025 with flights beginning in 2026.

It’s a risky, weird play with a huge potential payoff, and Craft thinks that their approach, as unusual as it seems today, is just plainly a better way to fly a few hundred miles. Positive noises from the industry, and from investors, seem to back that feeling up. The company has received early-stage investment (of an unspecified total) from Giant Ventures, Countdown Capital, Soma Capital and its adviser Nikhil Goel.

“We’ve demonstrated it, and we’re getting an enormous amount of traction from aerospace people who have seen hundreds of concepts,” said Dorris. “We’re a team of only seven, about to be nine, people. … Frankly, we’re extremely pleased with the level of interest we’re getting.”

Hello Divorce raises $2M so that couples can say ‘good-bye’ easier

By Christine Hall

Divorce is messy and stressful, made even messier and stressful when a couple is unable to go through the legal process because of the cost. Online divorce startup Hello Divorce is developing a platform to make this process more affordable and quicker.

To do this, the Oakland, California-based company announced Thursday a $2 million seed round led by CEAS, with additional funds coming from Lightbank, Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures, Gaingels and a group of individuals including Clio CEO Jack Newton, WRG’s Lisa Stone and Equity ESQ led by Ed Diab.

Statistics show there are an average of 750,000 divorces in the U.S. each year, and the average total cost of divorce can cost anywhere between $8,400 to $17,500 depending on what state you live in. Overall, some sources value the divorce industry at $50 billion annually.

Family law attorney Erin Levine founded the company in 2018 so that couples getting a divorce could access “affordable meaningful legal counsel” and resources beyond online forms. Levine told TechCrunch that the billable hours model for lawyers is “an antiquated process” for consumers that want an easier and clearer path to divorce.

“Right now, lawyers are the keeper of information, and clients keep paying until the divorce is done,” she said. “Divorce is more than forms. It is a challenging time, and most people need or want support. I saw a big hole there to use technology and fixed fees to put couples in the driver’s seat and take down that level of conflict.”

With this seed round, the company plans on rapidly scaling legal filing options across the U.S., improving its ground-breaking product, and giving consumers more of the content and services they need to feel informed and in control of their divorce process.

Hello Divorce provides software and accessible legal services starting at $99 for a do-it-yourself option or for up to an average of $2,000 for legal help along the way to finish the divorce process in a third of the time, and completely remote.

Levine said most people spend between two and five years contemplating divorce, and during that time are scared they will not be able to afford it, and if they have children, are afraid of losing them. Of those people, 80% won’t be able to access counsel.

Though the company is already profitable, Levine went after venture capital to be able to build an infrastructure and tap into the guidance that CEAS and other investors, like Lightbank’s Eric Ong bring to the table, saying “it is clear what I do know and what I don’t know.”

Ong said he met Levine through co-investors on the round, who told him Hello Divorce was something he would resonate with. Lightbank invests in category-stage companies, and he was drawn to what Levine and her team were doing.

“They are a combination of industry expertise and thinking outside of the box,” he said. “Eighty percent of people are still not getting meaningful representation, and we looked for technology that would provide a customer value proposition and we didn’t find one until Hello Divorce.”

The company plans to use the seed funding to scale legal filing options across the U.S., on product development and new content and services to educate people coming to Hello Divorce’s website.

The service is already available in four states — California, Colorado, Texas and Utah. Levine said the choice of initial states was strategic: She is familiar with California law, while Colorado has a complex system for divorce. Texas does not have a streamlined way for same-sex couples to get divorces, something Levine said she wanted to tackle, and Utah has a new regulatory scheme. Up next, she is expanding to New York and Florida, where she will launch in a bilingual format.

Since 2018, Hello Divorce has grown 100% year over year, with divorce success rates of 95% after starting the process on the platform. Over the past year, the company received 2,000 inquiries related to how to shelter in place with someone while contemplating divorce and co-parenting during lockdown.

“The inquiries increased about staying or going, and what divorce will look like,” Levine said. “It will be awhile before we see the total effects of what divorce looks like following the pandemic.”

 

ConverseNow is targeting restaurant drive-thrus with new $15M round

By Christine Hall

One year after voice-based AI technology company ConverseNow raised a $3.3 million seed round, the company is back with a cash infusion of $15 million in Series A funding in a round led by Craft Ventures.

The Austin-based company’s AI voice ordering assistants George and Becky work inside quick-serve restaurants to take orders via phone, chat, drive-thru and self-service kiosks, freeing up staff to concentrate on food preparation and customer service.

Joining Craft in the Series A round were LiveOak Venture Partners, Tensility Venture Partners, Knoll Ventures, Bala Investments, 2048 Ventures, Bridge Investments, Moneta Ventures and angel investors Federico Castellucci and Ashish Gupta. This new investment brings ConverseNow’s total funding to $18.3 million, Vinay Shukla, co-founder and CEO of ConverseNow, told TechCrunch.

As part of the investment, Bryan Rosenblatt, partner at Craft Ventures, is joining the company’s board of directors, and said in a written statement that “post-pandemic, quick-service restaurants are primed for digital transformation, and we see a unique opportunity for ConverseNow to become a driving force in the space.”

At the time when ConverseNow raised its seed funding in 2020, it was piloting its technology in just a handful of stores. Today, it is live in over 750 stores and grew seven times in revenue and five times in headcount.

Restaurants were some of the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic, and as they reopen, Shukla said their two main problems will be labor and supply chain, and “that is where our technology intersects.”

The AI assistants are able to step in during peak times when workers are busy to help take orders so that customers are not waiting to place their orders, or calls get dropped or abandoned, something Shukla said happens often.

It can also drive more business. ConverseNow said it is shown to increase average orders by 23% and revenue by 20%, while adding up to 12 hours of extra deployable labor time per store per week.

Company co-founder Rahul Aggarwal said more people prefer to order remotely, which has led to an increase in volume. However, the more workers have to multitask, the less focus they have on any one job.

“If you step into restaurants with ConverseNow, you see them reimagined,” Aggarwal said. “You find workers focusing on the job they like to do, which is preparing food. It is also driving better work balance, while on the customer side, you don’t have to wait in the queue. Operators have more time to churn orders, and service time comes down.”

ConverseNow is one of the startups within the global restaurant management software market that is forecasted to reach $6.94 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Research. Over the past year, startups in the space attracted both investors and acquirers. For example, point-of-sale software company Lightspeed acquired Upserve in December for $430 million. Earlier this year, Sunday raised $24 million for its checkout technology.

The new funding will enable ConverseNow to continue developing its line-busting technology and invest in marketing, sales and product innovation. It will also be working on building a database from every conversation and onboarding new customers quicker, which involves inputting the initial menu.

By leveraging artificial intelligence, the company will be able to course-correct any inconsistencies, like background noise on a call, and better predict what a customer might be saying. It will also correct missing words and translate the order better. In the future, Shukla and Aggarwal also want the platform to be able to tell what is going on around the restaurant — what traffic is like, the weather and any menu promotions to drive upsell.

 

GGV Capital gave this real estate startup founder a term sheet 48 hours after meeting

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Realm, which aims to help homeowners maximize the value of their property with its data platform, has raised $12 million in Series A funding led by GGV Capital.

Existing backers Primary Venture Partners, Lerer Hippeau and Liberty Mutual Strategic Ventures also participated in the round, bringing the New York-based startup’s total raised to $15 million.

Liz Young founded Realm, launching the platform earlier this year with the goal of providing “a one-stop-shop for accessible, actionable home advice.”

So far, Realm says it has helped over 20,000 homeowners “uncover” an average of $175,000 in property value. Its user base is growing 20% month over month.

What makes the company different from other valuation offerings out there, according to Young, is that rather than telling owners what their homes are worth today, Realm can tell them what their home could be worth after renovations in months and years to come.

“There are a ton of tools and services that make it easier to buy or sell your home, but once you move, it’s a total black box,” she said. “You’re left trying to cobble together advice from fragmented, often biased resources to navigate big, expensive decisions. There’s nowhere else consumers spend so much money, with such little actionable information.”

For example, using data extracted from a variety of sources such as tax assessors and its own users, Realm can do things like tell a homeowner in real time how their property value will change if they do things like make over a bathroom or add a new deck. Its algorithms can assess a property and offer advice on what projects are most likely to add value.

“The public data that we acquire, the data we ingest from users, and the data that we build ourselves has allowed us to build the most robust and unique actionable real estate data set in the U.S.,” Young told TechCrunch.

Realm’s database is free and according to Young, offers insights on over 70 million single family detached homes across the U.S.

Part of that is determined by zoning data, which tells people where they can and cannot build on a property.

“It’s really important because square feet is one of the biggest drivers of home value,” Young said. “So if you’re trying to understand how much a home’s worth or could be worth, you really have to understand the local zoning rules.”

Image Credits: Realm

Realm’s marketplace offering, where an adviser connects owners to contractors, architects and lenders that can carry out the company’s recommendations, is currently only live in California, but will be expanding to new markets over the next 12 months.

“People can digitally consume our free insights but a lot want help interpreting them,” Young said.

The company plans to use its new capital to “improve the quality and sophistication of the platform’s data insights” and toward hiring across its data science, engineering, marketing and operations teams. It will also continue to develop its proprietary data sets and models, which offer homeowners across the country personalized analysis of over 70 million homes.
A lot of Realm’s business is driven by its relationships with agents and word of mouth via its existing user base.

Jeff Richards, GGV managing partner and new Realm board member, said that when his firm backs at the Series A level, its bet is “100% on the founder.”

“I met Liz when she was raising her seed round in July 2020 and was blown away,” he told TechCrunch. “She’s smart, ambitious and has a deep background in the space she’s going after. Although it was early, I could tell she was thinking big.”

Founder and CEO Liz Young. Image Credits: Realm

He points out that GGV Capital, with $2.5 billion in assets under management, is a long-time investor in other proptechs including Opendoor, Divvy Homes, Belong and Airbnb.

“Zillow made it easy for people to find a home to buy. Opendoor made it easy to buy and sell a home,” Richards told TechCrunch. “Airbnb made it easy to rent a home for a short-term vacation. Belong is making it easy to rent a home for the long term.”

Realm, according to Richards, was right in GGV’s “sweet spot.”

“No one has zeroed in on helping the individual homeowner manage their home, and that’s the opportunity area Liz is going after,” he said. “We kept in touch after the seed round, she pinged me to talk about her A, we met up and I gave her a term sheet 48 hours later.”

In general, Richards believes that residential real estate is one of the biggest spend categories in the U.S. and yet is still virtually untouched by technology.

Home sales are over $1.6 trillion annually, home improvement is one of the biggest categories in the U.S. at over $500 billion annually, and the average home renovation project in the U.S. is around $15,000, with many spending over $50,000.

“I’ve owned a home for 17 years and almost everything I do with respect to the home is the same as it was over a decade ago. The only thing that has really changed is I can manage my thermostat and cameras with my phone,” Richards said. “Literally everything else is the same — the way I do renovations, the way I find contractors to do repairs, the way I pay my mortgage, etc. — exactly the same. That’s ridiculous! Liz sees a huge opportunity here, and so do we. The market is enormous. So there will be many, many winners.”

Exo secures $200M toward commercializing ultrasound device

By Christine Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Paystand banks $50M to make B2B payments cashless and with no fees

By Christine Hall

It’s pretty easy for individuals to send money back and forth, and there are lots of cash apps from which to choose. On the commercial side, however, one business trying to send $100,000 the same way is not as easy.

Paystand wants to change that. The Scotts Valley, California-based company is using cloud technology and the Ethereum blockchain as the engine for its Paystand Bank Network that enables business-to-business payments with zero fees.

The company raised $50 million Series C funding led by NewView Capital, with participation from SoftBank’s SB Opportunity Fund and King River Capital. This brings the company’s total funding to $85 million, Paystand co-founder and CEO Jeremy Almond told TechCrunch.

During the 2008 economic downturn, Almond’s family lost their home. He decided to go back to graduate school and did his thesis on how commercial banking could be better and how digital transformation would be the answer. Gleaning his company vision from the enterprise side, Almond said what Venmo does for consumers, Paystand does for commercial transactions between mid-market and enterprise customers.

“Revenue is the lifeblood of a business, and money has become software, yet everything is in the cloud except for revenue,” he added.

He estimates that almost half of enterprise payments still involve a paper check, while fintech bets heavily on cards that come with 2% to 3% transaction fees, which Almond said is untenable when a business is routinely sending $100,000 invoices. Paystand is charging a flat monthly rate rather than a fee per transaction.

Paystand’s platform. Image Credits: Paystand

On the consumer side, companies like Square and Stripe were among the first wave of companies predominantly focused on accounts payable and then building business process software on top of an existing infrastructure.

Paystand’s view of the world is that the accounts receivables side is harder and why there aren’t many competitors. This is why Paystand is surfing the next wave of fintech, driven by blockchain and decentralized finance, to transform the $125 trillion B2B payment industry by offering an autonomous, cashless and feeless payment network that will be an alternative to cards, Almond said.

Customers using Paystand over a three-year period are able to yield average benefits like 50% savings on the cost of receivables and $850,000 savings on transaction fees. The company is seeing a 200% increase in monthly network payment value and customers grew two-fold in the past year.

The company said it will use the new funding to continue to grow the business by investing in open infrastructure. Specifically, Almond would like to reboot digital finance, starting with B2B payments, and reimagine the entire CFO stack.

“I’ve wanted something like this to exist for 20 years,” Almond said. “Sometimes it is the unsexy areas that can have the biggest impacts.”

As part of the investment, Jazmin Medina, principal at NewView Capital, will join Paystand’s board. She told TechCrunch that while the venture firm is a generalist, it is rooted in fintech and fintech infrastructure.

She also agrees with Almond that the B2B payments space is lagging in terms of innovation and has “strong conviction” in what Almond is doing to help mid-market companies proactively manage their cash needs.

“There is a wide blue ocean of the payment industry, and all of these companies have to be entirely digital to stay competitive,” Medina added. “There is a glaring hole if your revenue is holding you back because you are not digital. That is why the time is now.”

 

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

By Christine Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

VOCHI raises additional $2.4 million for its computer vision-powered video editing app

By Sarah Perez

VOCHI, a Belarus-based startup behind a clever computer vision-based video editing app used by online creators, has raised an additional $2.4 million in a “late-seed” round that follows the company’s initial $1.5 million round led by Ukraine-based Genesis Investments last year. The new funds follow a period of significant growth for the mobile tool, which is now used by over 500,000 people per month and has achieved a $4 million-plus annual run rate in a year’s time.

Investors in the most recent round include TA Ventures, Angelsdeck, A.Partners, Startup Wise Guys, Kolos VC, and angels from other Belarus-based companies like Verv and Bolt. Along with the fundraise, VOCHI is elevating the company’s first employee, Anna Bulgakova, who began as head of marketing, to the position of co-founder and Chief Product Officer.

According to VOCHI co-founder and CEO lya Lesun, the company’s idea was to provide an easy way for people to create professional edits that could help them produce unique and trendy content for social media that could help them stand out and become more popular. To do so, VOCHI leverages a proprietary computer-vision-based video segmentation algorithm that applies various effects to specific moving objects in a video or to images in static photos.

“To get this result, there are two trained [convolutional neural networks] to perform semi-supervised Video Object Segmentation and Instance Segmentation,” explains Lesun, of VOCHI’s technology. “Our team also developed a custom rendering engine for video effects that enables instant application in 4K on mobile devices. And it works perfectly without quality loss,” he adds. It works pretty fast, too — effects are applied in just seconds.

The company used the initial seed funding to invest in marketing and product development, growing its catalog to over 80 unique effects and more than 30 filters.

Image Credits: VOCHI

Today, the app offers a number of tools that let you give a video a particular aesthetic (like a dreamy vibe, artistic feel, or 8-bit look, for example). It can also highlight the moving content with glowing lines, add blurs or motion, apply different filters, insert 3D objects into the video, add glitter or sparkles, and much more.

In addition to editing their content directly, users can swipe through a vertical home feed in the app where they can view the video edits others have applied to their own content for inspiration. When they see something they like, they can then tap a button to use the same effect on their own video. The finished results can then be shared out to other platforms, like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

Though based in Belarus, most of VOCHI’s users are young adults from the U.S. Others hail from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and parts of Europe, Lesun says.

Unlike some of its video editor rivals, VOCHI offers a robust free experience where around 60% of the effects and filters are available without having to pay, along with other basic editing tools and content. More advanced features, like effect settings, unique presents and various special effects require a subscription. This subscription, however, isn’t cheap — it’s either $7.99 per week or $39.99 for 12 weeks. This seemingly aims the subscription more at professional content creators rather than a casual user just looking to have fun with their videos from time to time. (A one-time purchase of $150 is also available, if you prefer.)

To date, around 20,000 of VOCHI’s 500,000 monthly active users have committed to a paid subscription, and that number is growing at a rate of 20% month-over-month, the company says.

Image Credits: VOCHI

The numbers VOCHI has delivered, however, aren’t as important as what the startup has been through to get there.

The company has been growing its business at a time when a dictatorial regime has been cracking down on opposition, leading to arrests and violence in the country. Last year, employees from U.S.-headquartered enterprise startup PandaDoc were arrested in Minsk by the Belarus police, in an act of state-led retaliation for their protests against President Alexander Lukashenko. In April, Imaguru, the country’s main startup hub, event and co-working space in Minsk — and birthplace of a number of startups, including MSQRD, which was acquired by Facebook — was also shut down by the Lukashenko regime.

Meanwhile, VOCHI was being featured as App of the Day in the App Store across 126 countries worldwide, and growing revenues to around $300,000 per month.

“Personal videos take an increasingly important place in our lives and for many has become a method of self-expression. VOCHI helps to follow the path of inspiration, education and provides tools for creativity through video,” said Andrei Avsievich, General Partner at Bulba Ventures, where VOCHI was incubated. “I am happy that users and investors love VOCHI, which is reflected both in the revenue and the oversubscribed round.”

The additional funds will put VOCHI on the path to a Series A as it continues to work to attract more creators, improve user engagement, and add more tools to the app, says Lesun.

Filing: Instant grocery startup Gopuff to raise $1B on a $15B post-money valuation

By Ingrid Lunden

Gopuff, the “instant” grocery delivery startup that has been on an acquisition and expansion tear in the last several months to scale its business, is also racing to raise money to fuel those efforts. Documents uncovered by Prime Unicorn Index and shared with TechCrunch show that the startup has filed papers in Delaware to raise up $1 billion raise at a $14 billion pre-money valuation.

As with all Delaware filings, they only tell part of the story, so the company might ultimately raise more or less before the round closes. (And in this case it looks like “more.”)

For some funding context, it was only in March that Gopuff raised $1.15 billion at an $8.9 billion valuation. And that round came just months after a $380 million round (at a $3.8 billion) valuation. With Gopuff’s instant grocery model comes instant funding, it seems: together the three rounds would total around $2.5 billion in funding in the space of 10 months. (Investors in the company’s previous rounds have included Accel, D1 Capital Partners, Fidelity Management and Research Company, Baillie Gifford, Eldridge, Reinvent Capital, Luxor Capital, and SoftBank.)

Much like the investment race in the transportation-on-demand market, a large part of the fundraising in instant grocery seems to be aimed at scaling as fast as possible to build technological, operational and customer moats.

So for Gopuff, some of the money it’s raised so far has been used to expand organically. That is, it’s investing to acquire new customers and build out its infrastructure — riders, “dark” stores stocked with their products, and most recently “Gopuff kitchens” — within the 650+ cities in the U.S. where it already operates its $1.95 flat fee “in minutes” delivery service. It will likely be doing so at a particularly fast pace, considering that others like DoorDash are also moving in to compete in earnest around the same model for quick deliveries of a limited selection of food and drinks, home essentials, and over-the-counter medication.

But alongside that, some of the cash it is amassing is also being used for acquisitions. So far, these have been limited to the U.S. and to expand Gopuff’s breadth in that market. It bought alcohol retailer BevMo for $350 million in November 2020; and in June of this year Gopuff acquired logistics tech company rideOS for $115 million.

The next stage of that acquisition process looks like it may be focused on snapping up similar companies in key markets where Gopuff wants to be in the future, particularly internationally, as it works to fill out a reported ambition of reaching $1 billion in revenues this year (3x last year’s numbers).

In June, there were rumors around that Gopuff had approached Flink, an instant grocery player in Germany. While that has not gone anywhere (yet?), well-placed sources have told us — and, it seems, others — that Gopuff is also casting its international eye on England, engaging in discussions to acquire two different instant delivery companies based out of London, first Fancy back in February, and more recently, Dija.

Gopuff also declined to comment on Dija but we have multiple, well-placed sources telling us it’s in the works. (The Fancy deal closed in May.)

London is a hugely competitive market for instant grocery delivery at the moment — not least because it is dense and often hard to get around, has demonstrated a strong consumer appetite for on-demand delivery services, and has a population of younger people with a decent amount of disposable income to pay a little more for convenience.

That speaks of opportunity, but also possibly too many hopefuls as well. In addition to Dija and Fance, we have Turkey’s Getir, backed by Sequoia and a number of others on an ambitious international roll at the moment; Gorillas (like Flink, from Berlin); Zapp; and Weezy — all offering “instant” grocery delivery. And these are just the standalone, newer startups. Still to come: established restaurant delivery players like Deliveroo that might also throw their hats into the ring.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that field, we’ve heard that Dija has been struggling to raise more money, and that led to the startup looking for buyers as an alternative.

That is a trend that’s playing out elsewhere too: In Spain Getir earlier this month acquired Blok, another new instant player that was struggling to get investors on board. We confirmed with well-placed sources that Dija had also talked with Getir in this context (that didn’t go anywhere) before Gopuff entered the picture. There will likely be more of these.

“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” is how one big investor recently described the instant grocery market to me.

Given that online grocery remains a relatively minor part of the market — even with the pandemic and its habit-changing impact on e-commerce, it’s still under 10% of sales, even in the most adoption-friendly cities — there is still a lot to play for in “instant” groceries. But if this latest round shows us anything, it’s that the most promising of these delivery companies will continue raising a lot more money to position themselves as consolidators within it.

Additional reporting: Natasha Lomas

Updated to clarify the total being raised to $1 billion and to increase the total valuation in the Series H. PrimeUnicorn originally placed it at $750 million; sources corrected the figure.

Sendlane raises $20M to convert shoppers into loyal customers

By Christine Hall

Sendlane, a San Diego-based multichannel marketing automation platform, announced Thursday it raised $20 million in Series A funding.

Five Elms Capital and others invested in the round to give Sendlane total funding of $23 million since the company was founded in 2018.

Though the company officially started three years ago, co-founder and CEO Jimmy Kim told TechCrunch he began working on the idea back in 2013 with two other co-founders.

They were all email marketers in different lines of business, but had some common ground in that they were all using email tools they didn’t like. The ones they did like came with too big of a price tag for a small business, Kim said. They set out to build their own email marketing automation platform for customers that wanted to do more than email campaigns and newsletters.

When two other companies Kim was involved in exited in 2017, he decided to put both feet into Sendlane to build it into a system that maximized revenue based on insights and integrations.

In late 2018, the company attracted seed funding from Zing Capital and decided in 2019 to pivot into e-commerce. “Based on our personal backgrounds and looking at the customers we worked with, we realized that is what we did best,” Kim said.

Today, more than 1,700 e-commerce companies use Sendlane’s platform to convert more than 100 points of their customers’ data — abandoned carts, which products sell the best and which marketing channel is working — into engaging communications aimed at driving customer loyalty. The company said it can increase revenue for customers between 20% and 40% on average.

The company itself is growing 100% year over year and seeing over $7 million in annual recurring revenue. It currently has 54 employees right now, and Kim expects to be at around 90 by the end of the year and 150 by the end of 2022. Sendlane currently has more than 20 open roles, he said.

That current and potential growth was a driver for Kim to go after the Series A funding. He said Sendlane became profitable last year, which is why it has not raised a lot of money so far. However, as the rapid adoption of e-commerce continues, Kim wants to be ready for the next wave of competition coming in, which he expects in the next year.

He considers companies like ActiveCampaign and Klaviyo to be in line with Sendlane, but says his company’s differentiator is customer service, boasting short wait times and chats that answer questions in less than 15 seconds.

He is also ready to go after the next vision, which is to unify data and insights to create meaningful interactions between customers and retailers.

“We want to start carving out a new space,” Kim added. “We have a ton of new products coming out in the next 12 to 18 months and want to be the single source for customer journey data insights that provides flexibility for your business to grow.”

Two upcoming tools include Audiences, which will unify customer data and provide insights, and an SMS product for two-way communications and enabled campaign-level sending.

 

Magic lands $27M Series A for its ‘plug and play’ passwordless tech

By Carly Page

Magic, a San Francisco-based startup that builds “plug and play” passwordless authentication technology, has raised $27 million in Series A funding.

The round, led by Northzone and with participation from Tiger Global, Volt Capital, Digital Currency Group and CoinFund, comes just over a year after Magic launched from stealth, rebranding from its previous name Formatic. 

The company, like many others, is on a mission to end traditional password-based authentication. Magic’s flagship SDK, which launched in April 2020, enables developers to implement a variety of passwordless authentication methods with just a few lines of code and integrates with a number of modern frameworks and infrastructures.

Not only does the SDK make it easier for companies and developers to implement passwordless auth methods in their applications, but it could also help to mitigate the expensive fallout that many have to deal with as a result of data breaches.

“This is why the password is so dangerous,” Sean Li, Magic co-founder and CEO tells TechCrunch. “It’s like a Jenga tower right now — a hacker breaching your system can download an entire database of encrypted passwords, and then easily crack them. It’s a huge central point of failure.”

The company recently built out its SDK to add support for WebAuthn, which means it can support hardware-based authentication keys like Yubico, as well as biometric-based Face ID and fingerprint logins on mobile devices. 

“It’s less mainstream right now, but we’re making it super simple for developers,” says Li. “This way we can help promote new technologies, and that’s really good for user security and privacy.” 

It’s a bet that seems to be working: Magic has recorded a 13% month-over-month increase in developer signups, and the number of identities secured is growing at a rate of 6% weekly, according to Magic. It has also secured a number of big-name customers, from crypto news publisher Decrypt to fundraising platform Fairmint.

Wendy Xiao Schadeck, a partner at Northzone said: “We couldn’t be more excited to support Sean and the Magic team as they redefine authentication for the internet from the bottom up, solving a core pain point for developers, users, and companies. 

“It was clear to us that they’re absolutely loved by their customers because the team is so obsessed with serving every single part of the developer journey across several communities. What’s potentially even more exciting is what they will be able to do to empower users and decentralize the identity layer of the web.”

The company now plans to continue to scale its platform and expand its team to meet what Magic describes as “soaring” demand. The startup, which currently has 30 employees that work remotely on a full-time basis, expects to at least double its headcount across all core functions, including product, engineering, design, marketing, finance, people and operations.

It’s also planning to build out the SDK even further; Li says he wants to be able to plug into more kinds of technology, from low-code applications to workflow automations. 

“The vision is much bigger than that. We want to be the passport of the internet,” Li adds.

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