FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Yesterday — May 29th 2020Your RSS feeds

Jeremy Conrad left his own VC firm to start a company, and investors like what he’s building

By Connie Loizos

When this editor first met Jeremy Conrad, it was in 2014, at the 8,000-square-foot former fish factory that was home to Lemnos, a hardware-focused venture firm that Conrad had cofounded three years earlier.

Conrad —  who as a mechanical engineering undergrad at MIT worked on self driving cars, drones and satellites — was still excited about investing in hardware startups, having just closed a small new fund even while hardware was very unfashionable. One investment his team had made around that time was in Airware, a company that made subscription-based software for drones and attracted meaningful buzz and $118 million in venture funding before abruptly shutting down in 2018.

For his part, Conrad had already moved on, deciding in late 2017 that one of the many nascent teams that was camping out at Lemnos was on to a big idea relating the future of construction. Conrad didn’t have a background in real estate per se or even an earlier interest in the industry. But the “more I learned about it — not dissimilar to when I started Lemnos — It felt like there was a gap in the market, an opportunity that people were missing,” says Conrad from his home in San Francisco, where he has hunkered down throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Enter Quartz, Conrad’s now 1.5-year-old, 14-person company, which quietly announced $7.75 million in Series A funding earlier this month, led by Baseline Ventures, with Felicis Ventures, Lemnos and Bloomberg Beta also participating.

What it’s selling to real estate developers, project managers and construction supervisors is really two things, which is safety and information. Using off-the-shelf hardware components that are reassembled in San Francisco and hardened (meaning secured to reduce vulnerabilities), the company incorporates its machine-learning software into this camera-based platform, then mounts the system onto cranes a construction sites. From there, the system streams 4K live feeds of what’s happening on the ground, while also making sense of the action.

Say dozens of concrete pouring trucks are expected on a construction site. The cameras, with their persistent view, can convey through a dashboard system whether and when the trucks have arrived and how many, says Conrad. It can determine how many people on are on a job site, and whether other deliveries have been made, even if not with a high degree of specificity. “We can’t say [to project managers] that 1,000 screws were delivered, but we can let them know whether the boxes they were expecting were delivered and where they were left,” he explains.

It’s an especially appealing proposition in the age of coronavirus, as the technology can help convey information that’s happening at a site that’s been shut down, or even how closely employees are gathered. Conrad says the technology also saves on time by providing information to those who might not otherwise be able to access it. Think of the developer who is on the 50th floor of the skyscraper he or she is building, or even the crane operator who is perhaps moving a two-ton object and has to rely on someone on the ground to deliver directions but can enjoy far more visibility with the aid of a multi-camera set-up.

Quartz, which today operates in California but is embarking on a nationwide rollout, was largely inspired by what Conrad was seeing in the world of self-driving. From sensors to self-perception systems, he knew the technologies would be even easier to deploy at construction sites, and he believed it could make them safer, too. Indeed, like cars, construction sites are astonishingly dangerous. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, of the worker fatalities in private industry in 2018, more than 20% were in construction.

Conrad also saw an opportunity to take on established companies like Trimble, a 42-year-old, publicly traded, Sunnyvale, Ca.-based company that sells a portfolio of tools to the construction industry and charges top dollar for them, too. (Quartz is currently charging $2,000 per month per construction site for its series of cameras, their installation, a livestream and “lookback” data, though this may well rise at its adds additional features.)

It’s a big enough opportunity in fact, that Quartz is not alone in chasing it. Last summer, for example, Versatile, an Israeli-based startup with offices in San Francisco and New York City, raised $5.5 million in seed funding from Germany’s Robert Bosch Venture Capital and several other investors for a very similar platform,  though it uses sensors mounted under the hook of a crane to provide information about what’s happening. Construction Dive, a media property that’s dedicated to the industry, highlights many other, similar and competitive startups in the space, too.

Still, Quartz has Conrad, who isn’t just any founding CEO. Not only does he have that background in engineering, but having founded a venture firm and spent years as an investor may serve him well, too. He thinks a lot about the payback period on its hardware, for example.

Unlike a lot of founders, he also says he loves the fundraising process. “I get the highest quality feedback from some of the smartest people I know, which really helps focus your vision,” says Conrad, who says that Quartz, which operates in California today, is now embarking on a nationwide rollout.

“When you talk with great VCs, they ask great questions. For me, it’s best free consulting you can get.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

3 bearish takes on the current edtech boom

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Edtech is booming, but a short while ago, many companies in the category were struggling to break through as mainstream offerings. Now, it seems like everyone is clamoring to get into the next seed-stage startup that has the phrase “remote learning” on its About page.

And so begins the normal cycle that occurs when a sector gets overheated — boom, bust and a reckoning. While we’re still in the early days of edtech’s revitalization, it isn’t a gold mine all around the world. Today, in the spirit of balance and history, I’ll present three bearish takes I’ve heard on edtech’s future.

Quizlet’s CEO Matthew Glotzbach says that when students go back to school, the technology that “sticks” during this time of massive experimentation might not be bountiful.

“I think the dividing line there will be there are companies that have been around, that are a little more entrenched, and have good financial runway and can probably survive this cycle,” he said. “They have credibility and will probably get picked [by schools].” The newer companies, he said, might get stuck with adoption because they are at a high degree of risk, and might be giving out free licenses beyond their financial runway right now.

BeeHero smartens up hives to provide ‘pollination as a service’ with $4M seed round

By Devin Coldewey

Vast monoculture farms outstripped the ability of bee populations to pollinate them naturally long ago, but the techniques that have arisen to fill that gap are neither precise nor modern. Israeli startup BeeHero aims to change that by treating hives both as living things and IoT devices, tracking health and pollination progress practically in real time. It just raised a $4 million seed round that should help expand its operations into U.S. agriculture.

Honeybees are used around the world to pollinate crops, and there has been growing demand for beekeepers who can provide lots of hives on short notice and move them wherever they need to be. But the process has been hamstrung by the threat of colony collapse, an increasingly common end to hives, often as the result of mite infestation.

Hives must be deployed and checked manually and regularly, entailing a great deal of labor by the beekeepers — it’s not something just anyone can do. They can only cover so much land over a given period, meaning a hive may go weeks between inspections — during which time it could have succumbed to colony collapse, perhaps dooming the acres it was intended to pollinate to a poor yield. It’s costly, time-consuming, and decidedly last-century.

So what’s the solution? As in so many other industries, it’s the so-called Internet of Things. But the way CEO and founder Omer Davidi explains it, it makes a lot of sense.

“This is a math game, a probabilistic game,” he said. “We’ve modeled the problem, and the main factors that affect it are, one, how do you get more efficient bees into the field, and two, what is the most efficient way to deploy them?”

Normally this would be determined ahead of time and monitored with the aforementioned manual checks. But off-the-shelf sensors can provide a window into the behavior and condition of a hive, monitoring both health and efficiency. You might say it puts the API in apiculture.

“We collect temperature, humidity, sound, there’s an accelerometer. For pollination, we use pollen traps and computer vision to check the amount of pollen brought to the colony,” he said. “We combine this with microclimate stuff and other info, and the behaviors and patterns we see inside the hives correlate with other things. The stress level of the queen, for instance. We’ve tested this on thousands of hives; it’s almost like the bees are telling us, ‘we have a queen problem.’ ”

All this information goes straight to an online dashboard where trends can be assessed, dangerous conditions identified early and plans made for things like replacing or shifting less or more efficient hives.

The company claims that its readings are within a few percentage points of ground truth measurements made by beekeepers, but of course it can be done instantly and from home, saving everyone a lot of time, hassle and cost.

The results of better hive deployment and monitoring can be quite remarkable, though Davidi was quick to add that his company is building on a growing foundation of work in this increasingly important domain.

“We didn’t invent this process, it’s been researched for years by people much smarter than us. But we’ve seen increases in yield of 30-35% in soybeans, 70-100% in apples and cashews in South America,” he said. It may boggle the mind that such immense improvements can come from just better bee management, but the case studies they’ve run have borne it out. Even “self-pollinating” (i.e. by the wind or other measures) crops that don’t need pollinators show serious improvements.

The platform is more than a growth aid and labor saver. Colony collapse is killing honeybees at enormous rates, but if it can be detected early, it can be mitigated and the hive potentially saved. That’s hard to do when time from infection to collapse is a matter of days and you’re inspecting biweekly. BeeHero’s metrics can give early warning of mite infestations, giving beekeepers a head start on keeping their hives alive.

“We’ve seen cases where you can lower mortality by 20-25%,” said Davidi. “It’s good for the farmer to improve pollination, and it’s good for the beekeeper to lose less hives.”

That’s part of the company’s aim to provide value up and down the chain, not just a tool for beekeepers to check the temperatures of their hives. “Helping the bees is good, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem. You want to help whole operations,” Davidi said. The aim is “to provide insights rather than raw data: whether the queen is in danger, if the quality of the pollination is different.”

Other startups have similar ideas, but Davidi noted that they’re generally working on a smaller scale, some focused on hobbyists who want to monitor honey production, or small businesses looking to monitor a few dozen hives versus his company’s nearly 20,000. BeeHero aims for scale both with robust but off-the-shelf hardware to keep costs low, and by focusing on an increasingly tech-savvy agriculture sector here in the States.

“The reason we’re focused on the U.S. is the adoption of precision agriculture is very high in this market, and I must say it’s a huge market,” Davidi said. “Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, so you have a small area where you can have a big impact.”

The $4 million seed round’s investors include Rabo Food and Agri Innovation Fund, UpWest, iAngels, Plug and Play, and J-Ventures.

BeeHero is still very much also working on R&D, exploring other crops, improved metrics and partnerships with universities to use the hive data in academic studies. Expect to hear more as the market grows and the need for smart bee management starts sounding a little less weird and a lot more like a necessity for modern agriculture.

Truthset raises $4.75M to help marketers score their data

By Anthony Ha

Data, the cliche goes, is the new oil of the digital economy. But Truth{set} co-founder and CEO Scott McKinley wants to know: “Why does no one care about the quality of that fuel?”

That’s an issue McKinley saw in his seven years as an executive at Nielsen, where he said he realized that marketing data products are “all built on massive error.” As evidence, he pointed to recent studies showing that bad data leads marketers to waste 21 cents of every dollar, and that in many cases, consumer data is “similar to or even worse than what you’d get if you used random chance to create a target list.

McKinley argued, “You wouldn’t drive a car to a gas station where there’s no octane rating on the pump.” He created Truth{set} to provide that octane rating to marketers, and to “shine the light on that whole ecosystem.”

More specifically, the company scores the consumer data that marketers are buying on accuracy, on a scale between 0.00 and 1.00. To create these scores, Truth{set} checks the data against independent data sources, as well as first-party data and panels.

“In order for us to do this, we had to develop a perspective on what is truthful and what is not,” McKinley said. “And so instead of building our own data sets, we said, ‘Let’s be smarter than that, let’s verify everybody else’s data with these independent sources of truth.'”

Truthset screenshot

Image Credits: Truthset

In addition to coming out of stealth, Truth{set} is also announcing that it has raised $4.75 million in seed funding from startup studio super{set}, WTI, Ulu Ventures, and strategic angel investors.

The company says it’s compatible with demand-side platforms, data management platforms and customer platforms. It also integrates with the leading data providers including Facebook, LiveRamp and The Trade Desk.

McKinley added that the platform can even “suppress” consumer IDs that don’t meet a marketer’s standards, so that they’re not used in targeting.

Throughout our conversation, he emphasized the idea of independence, arguing that in order to provide trustworthy scores, “You cannot have a conflict of interest.” At the same time, Truthset is working closely with the data providers to score their data and to help them improve their accuracy. The goal is to create an expectation among marketers that if data is accurate, it will come with a score from Truth{set}.

“There’s a FOMO thing here — if you’re not being measured, what are you hiding?” McKinley said.

Storage marketplace Warehouse Exchange raises $2.2M

By Anthony Ha

Warehouse Exchange, a startup that describes itself as the Airbnb of warehouse space, has raised $2.2 million in seed funding.

The company was founded Jonathan Rosenthal (CEO of Saybrook Management) and Dan Pimentel (previously CFO/COO of startup Hub TV). They recently brought on former eHarmony CEO Grant Langston as Warehouse Exchange’s chief executive.

Langston admitted that his new job might sound pretty different from running an online dating company, but he said that in both cases, it’s really about using technology to build a marketplace.

In the case of Warehouse Exchange, Langston said the opportunity lies in the fact that “businesses that wanted warehouse space were not welcome in warehouses.” Specifically, there are plenty of new e-commerce companies that want “smaller footprints for shorter periods of time and want to handle their own inventory,” but particularly pre-pandemic, most of the third-party logistics companies (known as 3PLs) operating warehouses weren’t interested in that business.

So Warehouse Exchange has created a marketplace connecting renters with flexible warehouse space. Langston said businesses are renting space through the marketplace for an average of 11 months (though it usually starts with a shorter amount of time and then gets extended).

Warehouse Exchange CEO Grant Langston

Warehouse Exchange CEO Grant Langston

In fact, the company said it’s seen 22,000 searches on its site in the past 18 months. The warehouse space, meanwhile, might not come from traditional warehouse operators, but instead from other organizations that have extra space that they want to monetize.

Langston added, “3PLs are typically not interested in this small e-commerce demand, but what has happened in the last eight weeks is that a lot of these companies have lost their anchor tenant and need to rethink their revenue.”

In order for a warehouse shift to this model, Langston said some rethinking is required, but “the infrastructure is quite light.” Usually, you just need partitions to separate different parts of the warehouse.

Given the broader concerns about warehouse safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, I also asked about who is responsible for those issues within the warehouses. Langston said it’s up to the individual tenants, noting that in many cases it’s just one person running an e-commerce business, and that “in a general sense, there’s not a lot of intermingling between tenants.”

The new funding comes from investors including Xebec Realty. Langston said he’s already working to raise a Series A, with a target of $6 to $7 million.

Tia Health gets over $24 million to build a network of holistic health clinics and virtual services for women

By Jonathan Shieber

Tia Health, the developer of a network of digital wellness apps, clinics and telehealth services designed to treat women’s health holistically, has raised $24.275 million in a new round of funding.

The company said the financing would support the expansion of its telehealth and clinical services to new markets, although co-founder and chief executive Carolyn Witte would not disclose, where, exactly those locations would be.

Co-founded initially as a text-based tool for women to communicate and receive advice on sexual health and wellness, Witte and her co-founder Felicity Yost always had bigger ambitions for their business.

Last year, Tia launched its first physical clinic in New York and now boasts a team of 15 physicians, physician assistants, registered nurses, therapists and other treatment providers. The support staff is what helps keeps cost down, according to Witte.

“We reduce the cost of care by 40% [and] we do that through collaborative care staffing. [That] leverages mid-level providers like nurse practitioners to deliver higher-touch care at lower cost,” she said. 

Tia closed its most recent round before shelter-in-place went into effect in New York on March 17, and since then worked hard to port its practices over to telehealth and virtual medicine, Witte said.

Two days later, Tia went live with telehealth services and the company’s membership of 3,000 women responded. Witte said roughly half of the company’s patients have used the company’s telehealth platform. Since Tia began as an app first before moving into physical care services, the progression was natural, said Witte. The COVID-19 epidemic just accelerated the timeline. “In the last 90 days close to 50% of Tia’s 3,000 members have engaged in chat or video,” Witte said. 

The move to telehealth also allowed Tia to take in more money for its services. With changes to regulation around what kinds of care delivery are covered, telehealth is one new way to make a lot of money that’s covered by insurance and not an elective decision for patients.

“That has allowed us to give our patients the ability to use their insurance for that virtual care and bill for those services,” Witte said of the regulatory changes. 

The staff at Tia consists not just of doctors and nurse practitioners (there are two of each), but also licensed clinical therapists that provide mental health services for Tia’s patient population too.

“Before COVID we surveyed our 3,000 patients in NY about what they want and mental health was the most requested service,” said Witte. “We saw a 400% increase in mental health-related messages on my platform. We rolled out this behavioral health and clinical program paired with our primary care.”

As Tia continues to expand the services it offers to its patients, the next piece of the puzzle to provide a complete offering for women’s health is pregnancy planning and fertility, according to Witte.

The company sees itself as part of a movement to repackage a healthcare industry that has concentrated on treating specific illnesses rather than patient populations that have unique profiles and care needs.

Rather than focusing on a condition or medical specialization like cardiology, gastroenterology, gynecology or endocrinology, the new healthcare system treats cohorts or groups of people — those over 65, adult men and women, as groups with their own specific needs that cross these specializations and require different types of care.

We are really focused on collecting longitudinal data to better understand and treat women’s health,” said Witte. “A stepping stone in that regard is expanding our service line to support the pregnancy journey.” 

Tia’s latest round was led by new investor Threshold Ventures, with participation from Acme Ventures (also a new backer) and previous investors, including Define Homebrew, Compound and John Doerr, the longtime managing partner at KPCB.

When the company launched, its stated mission was to use women’s data to improve women’s health.

“We believe reproductive-aged women deserve a similar focus, and a new model of care designed end-to-end, just for us,” the company said in a statement

As Tia continues to stress, women have been “under-researched and underserved by a healthcare system that continues to treat us as ‘small men with different parts’ — all-too-often neglecting the complex interplay of hormones, gene regulation, metabolism and other sex-specific differences that make female health fundamentally distinct from male health. It’s time for that to change.”

But Tia won’t be changing anything on the research front anytime soon. The company is not pursuing any clinical trials or publishing any research around how the ways in which women’s menstrual cycles may affect outcomes or influence other systems, according to Witte. Rather the company is using that information in its treatment of individual patients, she said.

The company did just hire a head of research — an expert in reproductive genomics, which Witte said was to start to understand how the company can build out proof points around how Tia’s care model can improve outcomes. 

Tia will reopen its brick-and-mortar clinic in New York on June 1 and will be expanding to new locations over the course of the year. That expansion may involve partnerships with corporations or existing healthcare providers, the company said.

“By partnering with leading health systems, employers, and provider networks to scale our Connected Care Platform, and open new physical and digital Tia doors, we can make ‘the Tia Way’ the new standard of care for women and providers everywhere,” Tia said in a statement.

As it does so, the company said it will continue to emphasize its holistic approach to women’s health.

As the company’s founders write:

Being a healthy woman is all-too-often reduced to not having an STD or an abnormal Pap, but we know that the leading cause of death for women in America is cardiovascular disease. We also know that women are diagnosed with anxiety and depression at twice the rate of men, and that endocrine and autoimmune disorders are on the rise. In pregnancy, c-section and preterm birth rates continue to go up instead of down, as does maternal mortality, with the U.S. reporting more maternal deaths than any developed country in the world.

We believe that the solution is a preventive “whole women’s health” model…

Italy’s Commerce Layer raises $6M led by Benchmark for its headless e-commerce platform

By Ingrid Lunden

In the world of commerce, the last few months have underscored the fact that every retailer, brand and entity that sells or distributes something needs to have a digital strategy. Today, one of the startups that’s built a platform aimed at giving them more control in that process is announcing a Series A to continue expanding its business.

Commerce Layer, which has built a “headless” e-commerce platform — used to develop online sales strategies that use APIs to plug your inventory to take orders and payments from a variety of endpoints like other marketplaces, your own site and app (and the various payment systems you might use depending on the country you’re selling into), messaging services, social channels, and more — has raised a Series A of $6 million, which CEO and founder Filippo Conforti said the startup will be using to continue expanding in more geographies and adding in more endpoints to fit the needs of its current (and future) customers.

The funding is being led by Benchmark Capital, with participation also from Mango Capital, DAXN, PrimeSet, SV Angel, and NVInvestments. The startup is based out of Italy — specifically, just outside of Florence in Tuscany. And so the funding is notable for a few reasons: first, for the investors; second, what it says about this particular category in the tech ecosystem right now; and third, that even in what was at one point the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Western countries, we are seeing signs of recovery and activity in the tech ecosystem.

In fact, Commerce Layer was talking to Benchmark and others in the Valley well before the outbreak of the pandemic, and the term sheets with those investors were signed in January, also before things really kicked off in Italy. What took significantly longer was the process after, in which many individual investors in the startup, based in Italy, had to sign off paperwork related to the new investors and the fact that Commerce Layer was also incorporating in the US as part of that deal. All of that was handled remotely.

The world of e-commerce has changed a huge amount in the last couple of decades. The early days saw people ‘shopping’ online but ordering through email, eventually giving way to having your own site or selling perhaps on a marketplace like eBay or Amazon. Modern times have made that process both easier and more complex.

Complex, because brands and retailers now have a large array of options and permutations for how to sell something, both on their own sites as well as on a number of other platforms (some, as we have described before, have foregone sites altogether).

Easier, because the rise of APIs to enable developers to plug into a number of other systems without building everything themselves from scratch (including, even, platforms like RapidAPI, which has also recently raised $25 million, to help organise and manage how those APIs are used).

This is where Commerce Layer fits into the picture, with an API-based system that is able to manage multiple SKUs, prices, and inventory data to help its customers sell in any currency, with distributed inventory models, and global shipping that makes it easy to add or adjust where and when you are selling, be it across your site or app, or a different platform altogether.

There are a number of tools on the market today to enable the very smallest, and the very biggest, merchants to develop and power online sales for brick-and-mortar or pure-play e-commerce companies and brands; and there are even a number of “headless” options out there.

The wider list is pretty extensive, but some of the bigger names include Shopify, BigCommerce, Commercetools, and Ecwid and Strapi (both of which also announced funding just last week, see here and here).

Conforti — who got his start in e-commerce a decade ago when building online commerce solutions for Gucci — acknowledges that the competitive landscape is indeed very big, but also believes that the key lies services like his being significantly younger, and thus more modern and easy to use, than even the legacy headless systems or services developed by older e-commerce enablers.

“Being headless is mandatory in order to provide a truly omnichannel experience to customers,” Conforti said. If you’re not API-first that is a flag, he added. “Everyone knows it’s the future, and the present.” He said that he considered Commercetools, another European company, “the only real competitor” although “they were born 15 years ago so you get some older technology. Commerce Layer is more fresh with more modern APIs.”

Customers of Commerce Layer include Chilly’s (the fashionable water bottle company), Au Depart, Richard Ginori and more, who Conforti says help shape what his startup builds next: for example one of its customers wants an integration with Farfetch, the high-end fashion marketplace, and so they are building that to subsequently offer it as an option to others.

Eric Vishria, a general partner at Benchmark who is joining the board of the startup with this round, said that the distinction is great enough between what Commerce Layer has built and what already exists on the market to take a bet on the company.

“Right now there is a huge gap between the mom-and-pop, give-me-a-generic-template-based-storefront-quickly, and the invest-a-hundred-engineers-and-millions-of-dollars-to-build-everything-from-scratch,” he said. “The most likely approach to fill that need is the JAM stack and API approach – like Commerce Layer, which will give companies radically more flexibility to create unique experiences than a template. But allows them to build quickly and inexpensively by assembling building blocks rather than everything from scratch.

“We committed to investing in Commerce Layer before the pandemic took hold, but I couldn’t be more delighted to invest in a company founded in Italy right now. The fact that the team continued to build and grow in Italy through this all is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit.

Benchmark once had a full European arm, which separated and now goes by the name Balderton. Meanwhile, it has also continued to invest in a number of startups in the region from its own funds, including Zendesk (Denmark), Elastic (Netherlands), Contentful and ResearchGate.

Greyparrot bags $2.2M seed to scale its AI for waste management

By Natasha Lomas

London-based Greyparrot, which uses computer vision AI to scale efficient processing of recycling, has bagged £1.825 million (~$2.2M) in seed funding, topping up the $1.2M in pre-seed funding it had raised previously. The latest round is led by early stage European industrial tech investor Speedinvest, with participation from UK-based early stage b2b investor, Force Over Mass.

The 2019 founded startup — and TechCrunch Disrupt SF battlefield alum — has trained a series of machine learning models to recognize different types of waste, such as glass, paper, cardboard, newspapers, cans and different types of plastics, in order to make sorting recycling more efficient, applying digitization and automation to the waste management industry.

Greyparrot points out that some 60% of the 2BN tonnes of solid waste produced globally each year ends up in open dumps and landfill, causing major environmental impact. While global recycling rates are just 14% — a consequence of inefficient recycling systems, rising labour costs, and strict quality requirements imposed on recycled material. Hence the major opportunity the team has lit on for applying waste recognition software to boost recycling efficiency, reduce impurities and support scalability.

By embedding their hardware agnostic software into industrial recycling processes Greyparrot says it can offer real-time analysis on all waste flows, thereby increasing efficiency while enabling a facility to provide quality guarantee to buyers, mitigating against risk.

Currently less than 1% of waste is monitored and audited, per the startup, given the expensive involved in doing those tasks manually. So this is an application of AI that’s not so much taking over a human job as doing something humans essentially don’t bother with, to the detriment of the environment and its resources.

Greyparrot’s first product is an Automated Waste Monitoring System which is currently deployed on moving conveyor belts in sorting facilities to measure large waste flows — automating the identification of different types of waste, as well as providing composition information and analytics to help facilities increase recycling rates.

It partnered with ACI, the largest recycling system integrator in South Korea, to work on early product-market fit. It says the new funding will be used to further develop its product and scale across global markets. It’s also collaborating with suppliers of next-gen systems such as smart bins and sorting robots to integrate its software.

“One of the key problems we are solving is the lack of data,” said Mikela Druckman, co-founder & CEO of Greyparrot in a statement. “We see increasing demand from consumers, brands, governments and waste managers for better insights to transition to a more circular economy. There is an urgent opportunity to optimise waste management with further digitisation and automation using deep learning.”

“Waste is not only a massive market — it builds up to a global crisis. With an increase in both world population and per capita consumption, waste management is critical to sustaining our way of living. Greyparrot’s solution has proven to bring down recycling costs and help plants recover more waste. Ultimately it unlocks the value of waste and creates a measurable impact for the environment,” added Marie-Hélène Ametsreiter, lead partner at Speedinvest Industry, in another statement.

Greyparrot is sitting pretty in another aspect — aligning with several strategic areas of focus for the European Union, which has made digitization of legacy industries, industrial data sharing, investment in AI, plus a green transition to a circular economy core planks of its policy plan for the next five+ years. Just yesterday the Commission announced a €750BN pan-EU support proposal to feed such transitions as part of a wider coronavirus recovery plan for the trading bloc. 

Spectrm raises $3M Series A from Runa Capital for its conversational marketing platform

By Mike Butcher

In the “Age of Corona” — as some like to call it, the roboticization of industry and business has been super-charged by the pandemic. So while companies using messaging platforms to drive customers towards purchases was always on a long term trend, the sheer volume of people staying online 24/7 during global lockdowns has led to this tactic also being boosted.

So it’s therefore understandable that Spectrm, an AI-powered conversational marketing platform that does just this, has raised $3 million in Series A funding from international VC fund Runa Capital.

Spectrm automates conversations to engage and convert customers online via an AI-driven algorithm. Then marketers use that data to segment the customer base and build stronger customer relationships. The platform is used by companies like eBay, Ford, Groupon, Renault, KLM, and more.

According to Global WebIndex research, social media users are now spending an average of 2 hours and 24 minutes per day across eight social networks and messaging apps. And during Covid-19-driven lockdowns, that would have been much more.

Сonversational marketing is a hot area. Facebook Messenger marketing has 10-80 times better engagement than email, for instance.

Max Koziolek, co-founder and CEO of Spectrm, said in a statement: “Our vision is to combine the power of conversations with the reach of the largest platforms in the world… we believe conversation is a deeply human experience that is more effective and more insightful than any other format in marketing”,

Dmitry Galperin, Partner at Runa Capital said: “Instead of trying to cover all marketing communication channels, it is much more effective to direct efforts to those that generate the most customer insights and highest ROI. Conversational marketing is one of those channels.”

Spectrm’s competitors include LivePerson (Nasdaq listed), ManyChat (raised $19.1M), Snaps.io ($11.3M), Automat.ai ($10.9M), and Chatfuel ($120K).

Bolt, the European on-demand transport company, raises $109M on a $1.9B valuation

By Ingrid Lunden

Bolt, a rival to Uber and others providing on-demand ridesharing, scooters and other transportation services across some 150 cities in Europe and Africa, is today announcing another capital raise as it weathers a difficult market climate where, because of COVID-19, many are staying in place and avoiding modes of transport that put them into contact with others.

The Estonia-based company is today announcing that it has picked up an additional €100 million ($109 million) in equity funding. Bolt also confirmed that is now valued at €1.7 billion (or nearly $1.9 billion at today’s rates).

The investment is coming from a single investor, Naya Capital Management, which was also a major backer of the company in its last round, a $67 million Series C in July 2019. Technically this would make this latest round a Series D although we are checking that detail with the company.

The funding is one more example of how investors are continuing to support their most promising, and/or most capitalised, portfolio companies as they face drastic losses of business during the COVID-19 pandemic, which can only be more complicated for a startup built on a business model that — even in the best of times — is very capital-intensive.

Before this round, in April we’d been hearing that Bolt was running out of runway and that they were in discussion also with the Estonian government — a big supporter of the country’s tech industry — to underwrite debt in the company. We have also asked Bolt if it raised any debt funding and will update this as we learn more.

Bolt — which says it has 30 million users in over 35 countries globally — has now raised over €300 million, with other investors including Nordic Ninja — a new fund out of Helsinki backed by a number of Japanese LPs to invest in Northern European startups (Bolt is based out of Tallinn) — Creandum, G Squared, Invenfin (a fund out of South Africa backed by investment holding company Remgro) and Superangel, a fund out of Estonia that has been backing the startup since its earliest days, as well as Didi (and, by association, SoftBank and Uber), Daimler, Korelya Capital and Spring Capital.

Formerly known as Taxify, Bolt rebranded last year as it expanded beyond private car rides into other areas like electric scooters and food delivery — and the plan will be to use this funding to expand all three business areas in the coming months, along with newer product categories like Business Delivery in-city same-day courier services and Bolt Protect for people to continue to use its ride-hailing services by kitting out cars with plastic sheeting between driver and passenger seats.

Uber, Bolt’s publicly traded business rival, has laid bare just how painful the pandemic has been for business. The company has laid off nearly 7,000 employees in recent weeks, and while we currently have little visibility of the impact on the contractors it engages to move people, food and other items in its network, its next quarterly earnings (which will cover the full brunt of the pandemic) should more clearly spell out the drop-off in overall business.

Bolt doesn’t go into the details of that situation itself, except to acknowledge that business is not as usual.

“Even though the crisis has temporarily changed how we move, the long-term trends that drive on-demand mobility such as declining personal car ownership or the shift towards greener transportation continue to grow,” said Markus Villig, CEO and co-founder, in a statement. “We are happy to be backed by investors that look past the typical Silicon Valley hype and support our long term view. I am more confident than ever that our efficiency and localisation are a fundamental advantage in the on-demand industry. These enable us to continue offering affordable transportation to millions of customers and the best earnings for our partners in the post-COVID world.”

A lot of people have talked about how fundraising has become more complicated now. Not only are people not able to meet in person and get more embedded in evaluating an opportunity, but many are unable to see what the future will hold in terms of market demand and the overall economy.

That’s left a lot of the activity at the moment spread between startups that are seeing a lot of business lift precisely because of present circumstances; startups that have businesses that are continuing to enjoy a lot of trade despite present circumstances; and startups that are strong enough (or already so highly capitalised) that investors want to support them to make sure they don’t go under. More typically, startups that are securing funding are falling into more than one of the above categories, as is the case with Bolt.

“We are delighted to have the opportunity to invest in Bolt at this stage in the company’s growth story,” Masroor Siddiqui, managing partner, CIO and founder of Naya Capital Management, said in a statement. “Under Markus’ leadership, Bolt has established itself as one of the most competitive and innovative players in global mobility. We believe that Bolt is helping drive a fundamental change in how consumers interact with the transport infrastructure of their cities and look forward to the company’s continued execution on its strategic vision.”

Thriva raises £4M from Target in an era when at-home blood testing is more crucial than ever

By Mike Butcher

Thriva emerged in 2016 as an at-home blood-testing startup allowing people to check, for instance, cholesterol levels. In the era of a pandemic, however, at-home blood testing is about to become quite a big deal, alongside the general trend towards people pro-actively taking control of their health.

It’s now has secured a £4 million extension to its Series A funding round from Berlin-based VC Target Global . The investment takes Thriva’s total funding to £11m. The investment comes from Target Global’s new Early Stage Fund II and will top up the £6m Series A raised in 2019. Existing investors include Guinness Asset Management and Pembroke VCT.

Thriva have processed over 115,000 test at-home blood tests since 2016. Interestingly, these customers actually use the information to improve their health, with 76 percent of Thriva users achieving an improvement in at least one of their biomarkers between tests.

The startup has also launched personalized health plans and high-quality supplements, scaling up it’s partnerships with hospitals and other healthcare providers.

Founded by Hamish Grierson, Eliot Brooks and Tom Livesey, it claims to be growing 100% year-on-year and has expanded its team to 50 team members in the company’s London Headquarters.

In a statement Grierson said: “As the world faces unprecedented challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis, we have all been forced to view our health, and our mortality, in a new light.”

Speaking to TechCrunch he added: “While there are other at-home testing companies, we don’t see them as directly competitive. Thriva isn’t a testing company. Our at-home blood tests are an important data point but they’re just the beginning of the long-term relationships we’re creating with our customers. To deliver on our mission of putting better health in your hands, we not only help people to keep track of what’s really happening inside their bodies, we actually help them to make positive changes that they can see the effects of over time.”

Dr Ricardo Schäfer – Partner at Target Global said: “When we first met the team behind Thriva, we were immediately hooked by their mission to allow people to take health into their own hands.”

Statespace, the platform that trains gamers, raises $15 million

By Jordan Crook

Statespace has today raised a $15 million Series A financing round led by Khosla, with partner Samir Kaul joining the board. Existing investors, such as FirstMark Capital, Lux and Expa, also participated in the round, as well as newcomer June Fund.

Statespace launched out of stealth in 2017 with a product called Aim Lab, which recreates the physics of popular FPS games to help players practice their aim and work on their weaknesses. Statespace was founded by neuroscientists from New York University, and goes beyond the mechanics of aim itself to understand and measure several parts of a player’s game, from visual acuity across the quadrants of the screen to reaction time.

Anyone from an average gamer to a professional can use Aim Lab to improve. But the company has other offerings, too. The company is working on the Academy, which will launch in Q3 of this year, and was built in partnership with MasterClass and a number of top streamers. Users can get advanced tutorials from these streamers, which include KingGeorge (Rainbox Six Siege), SypherPK (Fortnite), Valkia (Overwatch), Drift0r (CoD) and Launders (CS:GO).

Statespace has also partnered with the Pro Football Hall of Fame to develop the “Cognitive Combine.” Just like the NFL Combine measures general skills and abilities, such as speed, strength, agility, etc., the Cognitive Combine is meant to give a general assessment of a player’s skill in a game-agnostic manner.

[gallery ids="1992521,1992522,1992523,1992524"]

The company also works directly with esports teams such as 100 Thieves and Philadelphia Fusion, building custom data dashboards and products so those teams can get a deeper look at their metrics and build practice regimes around their weaknesses.

Statespace is also sprinting to make its products more available to a broader user base, including launching a mobile version of Aim Lab and introducing Aim Lab on Xbox, with plans to launch PlayStation support soon. The company also plans to launch support for 400 games next month.

Interestingly, the technology behind Statespace, which lets the company measure well beyond the kill:death ratio and look at cognitive ability, can be used for many other applications. The company has applied for a grant alongside several universities to work on a commercial application for stroke rehabilitation.

Statespace will use the funding to continue growing the team, which has doubled since raising $2.5 million in August of 2019. The company has also brought on a few notable hires from bigger companies, including new VP of Engineering Scott Raymond (formerly of Gowalla, Facebook and Airbnb), Jenna Hannon as VP of Marketing (formerly of Uber, Uber Eats) and Phil Charm as VP of Growth (formerly of Checkr, Gainsight).

According to founder and CEO Wayne Mackey, Statespace has 2 million registered users and 500,000 monthly active users, up 400% from January.

Virtual events startup Run The World just nabbed $10.8 million from a16z and Founders Fund

By Connie Loizos

Run The World, a year-old startup that’s based in Mountain View, Calif., and has small teams both in China and Taiwan, just nabbed $10.8 million in Series A funding co-led by earlier backer Andreessen Horowitz and new backer Founders Fund.

It’s easy to understand the firms’ interest in the company, whose platform features every functionality that a conference organizer might need in a time of a pandemic and even afterward, given that many outfits are rethinking more permanently how to produce events that include far-flung participants. Think video conferencing, ticketing, interactivity and networking.

We’d written about the startup a few months ago as it was launching with $4.3 million in seed funding led by Andreessen partner Connie Chan, who was joined by a slew of other seed-stage backers, including Pear Ventures, GSR Ventures, and Unanimous Capital. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the current climate, Run The World has received a fair amount of traction since, according to cofounder and CEO  Xiaoyin Qu, who’d previously led products for both Facebook and Instagram.

“Since we launched in February —  and waived all set-up fees for events impacted by the coronavirus — we are receiving hundreds of inbound event requests each day,” Qu says. More specifically, she says the startup has doubled the size of its core team to 30 employees and enabled organizers from a wide variety of countries to oversee more than 2,000 events at this point.

Qu says that a lot of event planners who’ve used Zoom to run webinars are now choosing Run The World instead because of its focus on engagement and social features. For example, attendees to an event on the platform are invited to create a video profile akin to an Instagram Story that can help inform other attendees about who they are. It also organizes related “cocktail parties” where it can match attendees for several minutes at a time, and attendees can choose who they want to follow up with afterward.

That heavy focus on social networking isn’t accidental. Qu met her cofounder,  Xuan Jiang, at Facebook, where Jiang was a technical lead for Facebook events, ads and stories.

Of course, Run The World —  which takes 25% of ticket sales in exchange for everything from the templates used, to ticket sales, to payment processing, and streaming and so forth — still has very stiff competition in Zoom. The nine-year-old company has seen adoption by consumers soar since February, with 300 million daily meeting participants using the service as of April’s end.

Not only is it hard to overcome that kind of network effect, but Run The World is hardly alone in trying to steer event organizers its way. Earlier this week, for example, Bevy, an events software business cofounded by the founder of the events series Startup Grind, announced it has raised $15 million in Series B funding led by Accel. Other young online events platforms to similarly raise venture backing in recent months include London-based Hopin (who recent round was also led by Accel, interestingly) and Paris-based Eventmaker.

Still, the fresh funding should help. While Run The World has grown “entirely organically through word of mouth” to date, says Qu, the startup plans to grow its team and will presumably start spending at least a bit on marketing.

It could well get a boost on this last front by its social media savvy investors.

In addition to a16z and founders fund, numerous other backers in its Series A include Will Smith’s Dreamers VC and Kevin Hart’s Hartbeat Capital.

PathSpot sells a scanner that fact checks your handwashing efficacy

By Natasha Mascarenhas

The novel coronavirus disease has reminded millions that handwashing is a great way to avoid preventable diseases. Christine Schindler, the CEO and co-founder of PathSpot, has been preparing for the past three months for the past three years.

“I’ve been obsessed with handwashing,” Schindler said, who has a background in biomedical engineering and public health. Combine that obsession with her experience building low-cost resources in hospitals atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and PathSpot was born.

Christine Schindler, CEO of PathSpot

PathSpot sells handwashing hygiene machinery to any place “where food is served, handled or stored,” according to Schindler. Its customers range from restaurants and packing facilities to cafeterias and farms.

PathSpot sells a scanner that mounts on a wall next to handwashing sinks. An individual can come to the hand hygiene machine, place their hands in it and get a green or red light depending on if their hands are clean.

Technology-wise, the company does not compete with Purell, but instead fact checks it to an extent. PathSpot uses visible light fluorescent spectral imaging to identify specific contaminants on someone’s hand that can carry bacteria and potentially make them sick. It shines a specific wavelength onto the hand, takes an image, and sends that image through a series of filters and algorithms to identify if unwanted contaminants are present.

Schindler says that the scanner takes less than two seconds to do a whole scan of someone’s hands.

It is looking for the most common transmission vectors, like fecal matter, for food-borne illnesses, like e.coli.

“It’s not identifying if your hand is washed or not in terms of whether it has water droplets,” she said. “Because most of the time people fail a wash, they wash their hands, but they didn’t wash for the full 20 seconds or didn’t use soap in the proper areas.”

But would it save someone from the coronavirus? Schindler says that the coronavirus is transmitted predominantly through respiratory droplets and fecal matter, as of now. PathSpot covers the latter, she said.

However, according to the CDC, it is still unclear if the virus found in feces can cause COVID-19. There has not been any confirmed report of the virus spreading from feces to a person, and scientists believe the risk is low.

So PathSpot can’t specifically detect the coronavirus right now, but instead can detect every-day and potentially infectious contaminants. Overall sentiment around sanitation has increased since COVID-19 began in the United States. Schindler said that usage of the machine has gone up 500% across their hundreds of customer

PathSpot’s second product is a live dashboard to help restaurants better manage and train their staff around sanitation. “We can tell if the hot spots were right under their right pinky fingernail, or underneath their jewelry,” she said. “We can see where all the hot spots are.”

Efficacy wise, a study shows that the scanner was found to have sensitivity and specificity of 100% and 99%, respectively, during nominal use within a food service environment. Restaurants that use PathSpot see handwashing rates increase by more than 150% in one month of using the product, PathSpot said.

PathSpot charges a monthly subscription fee that includes the device itself and the data dashboard, as well as consultancy from its team to the customer regarding actionable insights. The pricing ranges based on size and number of devices, but on average it starts at $175 a month, Schindler said.

Competitors to PathSpot include FoodLogiQ, which has raised $31.8 million in funding to date; Nima Sensor, which has raised $13.2 million in funding to date; Impact Vision, which has raised $2.8 million in funding to date; and CoInspect, which has raised $5.2 million in funding to date. Schindler insisted that competitors focus more on the food and sourcing itself versus the individual handling of it.

Today, the startup announced it has raised $6.5 million in a Series A round led by Valor Siren Ventures, which is a fund formed by Starbucks and Valor Equity Partners . Existing investors FIKA Ventures and Walden Venture Capital also participated.

The new financing brings PathSpot’s total known venture capital to $10.5 million. Richard Tait, a partner at VSV, will take a seat on PathSpot’s board of directors.

PathSpot is raising during a time when its product is more palatable to the general public. Yet its main customer, restaurants, are reeling from the pandemic and are barely able to complete payroll for their entire staff. PathSpot, therefore, targets the next generation of restaurants that rise after the pandemic — the ones that have no choice but to be digitally enabled and adopt technology to keep sanitation in check.

VergeSense grabs $9M for its people-counting sensor tech as offices eye COVID changes

By Natasha Lomas

Facilities management looks to be having a bit of a moment, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

VergeSense, a U.S. startup that sells a “sensor as a system” platform targeted at offices — supporting features such as real-time occupant counts and foot-traffic-triggered cleaning notifications — has closed a $9 million strategic investment led by Allegion Ventures, a corporate VC fund of security giant Allegion.

JLL Spark, Metaprop, Y Combinator, Pathbreaker Ventures, and West Ventures also participated in the round, which brings the total funding raised by the 2017-founded startup to $10.6M including an earlier seed round.

VergeSense tells TechCrunch it’s seen accelerated demand in recent weeks as office owners and managers try to figure out how to make workspaces safe in the age of COVID-19 — claiming bookings are “on track” to be up 500% quarter over quarter. (Though it admits business did also take a hit earlier in the year, saying there was “aftershock” once the coronavirus hit.)

So while, prior to the pandemic, VergeSense customers likely wanted to encourage so called ‘workplace collisions’ — i.e. close encounters between office staff in the hopes of encouraging idea sharing and collaboration — right now the opposite is the case, with social distancing and looming limits on room occupancy rates looking like a must-have for any reopening offices.

Luckily for VergeSense, its machine learning platform and sensor packed hardware can derive useful measurements just the same.

It’s worked with customers to come up with relevant features, such as a new Social Distancing Score and daily occupancy reports. While it already had a Smart Cleaning Planner feature which it reckons will now be in high demand. It also envisages customers being able to plug into its open API to power features in their own office apps that could help to reassure staff it’s okay to come back in to work, such as indicating quiet zones or times where there are fewer office occupants on site.

Of course plenty of offices may remain closed for some considerable time or even for good — Twitter, for example, has told staff they can work remotely forever — with home working a viable job for much office work. But VergeSense and its investors believe the office will prevail in some form, but with smart sensor tech that can (for example) detect the distance between people becoming a basic requirement.

“I think it’s going to less overall office space,” says VergeSense co-founder Dan Ryan, discussing how he sees the office being changed by COVID-19. “A lot of customers are rethinking the need to have tonnes of smaller, regional offices. They’re thinking about still maintaining their big hubs but maybe what those hubs actually look like is different.

“Maybe post-COVID, instead of people coming into the office five days a week… for people that don’t necessarily need to be in the office to do their work everyday maybe three days a week or two days a week. And that probably means a different type of office, right. Different layout, different type of desks etc.”

“That trend was already in motion but a lot of companies were reluctant to experiment with remote work because they weren’t sure about the impact on productivity and that sort of thing, there was a lot of cultural friction associated with that. But now we all got thrust into that simultaneously and it’s happening all at once — and we think that’s going to stick,” he adds. “We’ve head that feedback consistently from basically all of our customers.”

“A lot of our existing customers are pulling forward adoption of the product. Usually the way we roll out is customers will do a couple of buildings to get started and it’ll be phased rollout plan from there. But now that the use-case for this data is more connected to safety and compliance, with COVID-19, around occupancy management — there’s CDC guidelines [related to building occupancy levels] — now to have a tool that can measure and report against that is viewed as more of a mission critical type thing.”

VergeSense is processing some 6 million sensor reports per day at this point for nearly 70 customers, including 40 FORTUNE 1000 companies. In total it says it provides its sensor hardware plus SaaS across 20 million sqft, 250 office buildings, and 15 countries.

“There’s an extreme bear case here — that the office is going to disappear,” Ryan adds. “That’s something that we don’t see happening because the office does have a purpose, rooted in — primarily — human social interaction and physical collaboration.

“As much as we love Zoom and the efficiency of that there is a lot that gets lost without that physical collaboration, connection, all the social elements that are built around work.”

VergeSense’s new funding will go on scaling up to meet the increased demand it’s seeing due to COVID and for scaling its software analytics platform.

It’s also going to be spending on product development, per Ryan, with alternative sensor hardware form factors in the works — including “smaller, better, faster” sensor hardware and “some additional data feeds”.

“Right now it’s primarily people counting but there’s a lot of interest in other data about the built environment beyond that — more environmental types of stuff,” he says of the additional data feeds it’s looking to add. “We’re more interested in other types of ambient data about the environment. What’s the air quality on this floor? Temperature, humidity. General environmental data that’s getting even more interest frankly from customers now.

“There is a fair amount of interest in wellness of buildings. Historically that’s been more of a nice to have thing. But now there’s huge interest in what is the air quality of this space — are the environmental conditions appropriate? I think the expectations from employees are going to be much higher. When you walk into an office building you want the air to be good, you want it to look nicer — and that’s why I think the acceleration [of smart spaces]; that’s a trend that was already in motion but people are going to double down and want it to accelerate even faster.”

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Rob Martens, president of Allegion Ventures, added: “In the midst of a world crisis, [the VergeSense team] have quickly positioned themselves to help senior business leaders ensure safer workspaces through social distancing, while at the same time still driving productivity, engagement and cost efficiency. VergeSense is on the leading edge of creating data-driven workspaces when it matters most to the global business community and their employees.”

Ecwid raises $42M from Morgan Stanley and PeakSpan

By Ingrid Lunden

In the same week that Facebook announced a redoubled effort to make a bigger mark in e-commerce, one of its long-time partners has closed a large round of funding. Ecwid, the startup that sells e-commerce tools directly and via third parties like Square and Wix, letting businesses build e-commerce experiences on their own websites and apps, as well as via Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Google, and more, has raised $42 million from Morgan Stanley and PeakSpan Capital.

Notably, now San Diego-based Ecwid had only raised about $6.5 million since 2009, the year it was founded in Russia as a spinout of X-Cart, a previous company founded by the founder and CEO Ruslan Fazylev; and it’s already profitable. So rather than being used to operate, Fazylev said the funding enabled earlier outside investors — Russia’s Runa Capital, iTech from Latvia and the IT-park business incubator from Kazan — cash out, and gives Ecwid funds that it can use both for acquisitions and to continue expanding its platform organically.

Ecwid is in the stable of e-commerce companies that include the likes of Shopify, BigCommerce and WooCommerce, which have seized on the growth of online shopping over the last decade and helped companies that are not digital by nature — specifically small and medium brick-and-mortar businesses — become a part of that digital economy. And to underscore that low barrier to entry, its pricing starts at free to enable shopping on a website covering 10 or fewer products. (Further priced tiers include the ability to integrate with Facebook and other sites, as well as sell more items, apply more analytics and so on.)

That mandate and opportunity to provide analogue SMBs a route to the next generation of shopping has taken on a new dimension in the last few months. Authorities in many jurisdictions have closed down brick-and-mortar establishments and offices, and restricted day-to-day movement and contact between people in an attempt to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In other words, if e-commerce has been a long-term growth opportunity with upside for those that cared to invest in it, overnight it became a must-have for any small business that wanted to continue to operate through and after this health crisis.

Just as we’ve seen that trend play out for Shopify (whose share price has been on a roll), Fazylev said that Ecwid, too, has had a big boost. Ironically all that activity started after it closed the round (which was raised before COVID-19 really hit).

“The moment we signed the term sheet, things started to go really crazy,” he said. “Overnight, demand tripled because SMBs were under immense pressure to transition to online ordering. We at Ecwid are not worried about the Walmarts of the world but about the small guys and making it super easy for them. And so demand went through the roof.” Transaction volume between March and April grew by 50% and to meet demand.

Even before that, Ecwid was an under-the-radar success, which is why PeakSpan and Morgan Stanley came knocking.  Even if it’s not the 300% growth of the last couple of months, 2019 saw sign-ups double on the platform with a Net Promoter Score of above 60. (Fazylev said Ecwid lives and dies by its Net Promoter Score so he’s especially proud of this above-average figure.)

And in addition to its direct-to-SMB offering, it white labels through a number of popular channels like Wix, GoDaddy and Square. Together, there are some 1.5 million SMBs across 175 countries (and 54 languages) using its e-commerce rails. This might actually have been one reason why it wasn’t a part of the Facebook Shops news: it’s quietly enabling an army of competitors. But to be very clear, when I asked about the omission, Fazylev said he was stumped by it himself.

PeakSpan Capital Co-Founder and Managing Partner Phil Dur, and Pete Chung, Managing Director and Head of Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital, are both joining the board as part of this round.

“Covid-19 is reinforcing what we already knew: e-commerce is vital, and it’s available to even the smallest of merchants now with Ecwid’s free tools that even novice Internet users can adopt quickly,” said Dur, in a statement. “We have been watching Ecwid for many years.The company’s impressive capital efficiency and very strong long-term market opportunity made it an easy decision for us to partner with them during this next phase of growth.”

“Ecwid is truly helping its customers make the most of e-commerce enablement at a time when their traditional retail businesses have been disrupted so dramatically,” said Chung, in a statement. “Ruslan is an e-commerce visionary who has built a team and beloved solution that allows any mom-and-pop shop to embrace the online world,  dramatically expanding their revenue and market potential.”

RapidAPI raises $25M more to expand its API marketplace

By Ingrid Lunden

Less than a year after raising $25M led by Microsoft for its take on building API marketplaces, RapidAPI has rapidly followed that up with another infusion of capital as it reaches 20,000 APIs tracked, integrated, and used across its marketplace by millions of developers. Today the startup is announcing that it raised another $25 million from existing investors Andreessen Horowitz, DNS Capital, Green Bay Ventures, M12 (Microsoft’s Venture Fund), and Grove.

This is a second closing of RapidAPI’s Series B, which we first wrote about last year, bringing the total for the round to $50 million and $62.5 million overall. PitchBook notes that the startup’s previous valuation was $80 million, which would put this now at upwards of $105 million but likely higher, considering that the company has scaled by quite a bit. Co-founder and CEO Iddo Gino would not disclose the actual amount in an interview this week.

APIs are the building blocks of today’s digital world: developers use them to quickly integrate features, data, services and functions into their own apps, removing the need to build and scale all those elements themselves from scratch. But while the big selling point of using APIs is that they allow developers to integrate using only a few lines of code, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The issue is that a lot of API interfaces are not uniform and so sourcing and using a variety of them can become very time-consuming and on aggregate a lot more difficult than the basic concept of API would have you assume.

“You can’t build everything from scratch, and using APIs makes work a lot more efficient,” co-founder Iddo Gino once said to me. “But each API has a different format and authentication strategy. You have to speak a lot of different languages to use them all.”

RapidAPI’s approach is to create a framework that not only helps you find the API you are looking for, but lets you integrate them more easily by way of a single API key and SDK. It covers both free and paid APIs, and public as well as “private” APIs. When your company is a subscriber — by way of the RapidAPI for Teams product — it can also help keep track of your own organization’s API work.

The formula has been a success. There are now 18,000 teams using the Teams product among more than one million developers using the platform overall.

Within that number, RapidAPI — originally founded in Israel in 2015 and now based also in San Francisco — says that since January, it has added 300,000 new developers, up six-fold monthly compared the the same five months of 2019. The marketplace itself now has 20,000 APIs, doubling in the last year, with 1,000 getting added each month. Contributors to its marketplace include Microsoft, Twilio, SendGrid, Nexmo, Skyscanner and (our former stablemate) Crunchbase.

RapidAPI doesn’t charge people to use APIs that are already free to use. Rather it makes its money from subscriptions to its API management service as well as through serving paid APIs. It says that paid subscriptions have also grown by 30,000, with those using the enterprise tier — where you can develop your own white-label, in-house version of a marketplace for your own staff and customers — are on the rise with financial services, insurance companies, carriers and healthcare companies among those building marketplaces on RapidAPI’s rails.

While a lot of businesses, including even tech startups, have had to make big adjustments to work in our new environment and its focus on social distancing to help manage the spread of COVID-19, the same didn’t go for RapidAPI, noted Gino. The company already had remote teams — a consequence of being founded in one country and now essentially having two gravitational poles — and RapidAPI’s team of 75, and its customers, have in their culture working across different environments including virtualised ones.

What the current climate has pointed to, however, is that RapidAPI is the kind of company that stands to benefit from how other organizations are coping with digital transformation, by helping provide developers with libraries that they can use, wherever they happen to be.

Another interesting thing that has come up in the current climate is the impact it’s had on what APIs are getting the most calls. In addition to the regular roster of most popular APIs that include communications, payments and other financial services, Gino told me that APIs related to COVID-19 data have emerged as some of the most heavily trafficked, in line with how so many are working to make sense of what is going on, and how they might help the rest of us.

These include API calls for datasets and geolocation, as well as other statistics, some of which are free and some of which are paid. RapidAPI says that between March 1 and mid-May, the top five COVID APIs had more than 224 million calls with a peak of almost 4.5 million in a single day.

 

Spruce is eliminating the drudgery of real estate, and has $29M more from Scale to make sales easy

By Danny Crichton

Real estate is one of those classic industries we always talk about in Silicon Valley: multi-trillion dollars in scale in terms of assets and transaction volume, but still relying on good ole’ pen and paper to get anything actually done. A huge number of companies have launched to digitize all aspects of real estate, from calculating valuations to monitoring operational costs and underwriting mortgages.

 

One of those companies is New York City-based Spruce, which was founded back in 2016 to digitize the prodigious paperwork that must be completed during a real estate transaction, including handling title, ensuring all closing docs are completed, and monitoring compliance in every geographical jurisdiction they operate in. The company raised a cumulative $19.1 million in Series A funding across two tranches (my colleague Jon Shieber covered the first tranche back in 2017), and now it is poised for even more growth.

The company is announcing today that it has added $29 million in growth capital led by Alex Niehenke at Scale Venture Partners, with Zigg Capital and Bessemer participating. Niehenke has previously funded companies like Root Insurance, which is focused on offering more competitive car insurance based on realistic data from drivers.

That seems to be roughly the same thesis here with Spruce — better data and digitalization can massively improve the quality and efficiency of legacy industries.

“Instead of using local offices with manual communication and manual processes, we provide [our clients] with API’s that allow them to scale effectively and to provide great digital experiences to their customers,” said Patrick Burns, the cofounder and CEO of the company. Burns had previously done product at wealth management startup Betterment, where he also met his cofounder Andrew Weisgall.

It can be bewildering how all the startups in real estate tech fit together, but this one is simple. Spruce wants to be the workflow tool for real estate transactions, which means that they don’t underwrite mortgages or handle valuations themselves directly. Rather, the platforms wants to be the central nervous system between buyers, sellers, lenders, and all the coterie of other services required to get a transaction closed. The company handles all kinds of transactions from new home purchases by families to investor-to-investor sales.

What’s interesting is that they have two streams of revenue according to Burns. First, they take a closing fee, which is customary in real estate transactions. Spruce argues that its efficiency cuts the price of closing a transaction, ultimately saving its clients money. Second, the company earns a premium as the agent of record for the title insurance policy agreed to in the transaction, which provides a continual stream of revenue from its clients. Similar to closing fees, title insurance broker fees are customary in the industry.

It’s a pretty clear value proposition, and that’s helped it grow transaction volume dramatically. According to the company, it has processed $1.25 billion of transactions on its platform, and its revenue has grown 400% annually. With roughly five million existing homes sold in the U.S. each month, that’s still an exiguous chunk of the market.

The global pandemic underway right now has taken a massive bite out of real estate transactions, particularly for homes, since buyers mostly can’t attend showings due to social distancing policies. The upshot is that those same social distancing policies have also scrambled the traditional real estate closing, which required passels of attorneys and others to work together to get all documents signed. Spruce — and other digitalization startups in the space — are poised to transition more of that legacy paperwork onto their platforms as industry players look for online approaches.

Burns says the capital will be used to expand Spruce’s product and client partnerships. The company currently has three operations “hubs” in New York, Texas, and California.

Chief, the leadership network for women, raises $15 million in funding

By Jordan Crook

Chief, the social network dedicated exclusively to women in professional leadership positions, announced today that it has $15 million in funding from its existing investors, including General Catalyst, Inspired Capital, GGV Capital, Primary Venture Partners, Flybridge Capital and BoxGroup.

The startup is a highly-vetted network of women who are leaders in their business, either managing a budget, a large team or both. The women are often at the VP or executive level. The company has more than 2,000 members in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago from companies like Google, IBM, HBO, Chobani, Walmart, Visa, Teladoc, Doctors Without Borders and the New York Times.

Chief was founded by Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan, who saw an opportunity to bring community, mentorship and guidance to a very underserved client: the female business leader.

Childers was SVP of Operations at Handy and led the launch of Soap.com, serving as GM there through its acquisition by Amazon. Kaplan was on the founding team of Casper, serving as VP of Communications and Brand, before leaving to co-found Chief.

Chief members are placed into a Core Group, which is industry agnostic, to receive training from one of the company’s contracted and vetted executive coaches alongside their peers. In these peer groups, members talk about their challenges and receive support and guidance from one another, as well as an executive coach. Members also have access to a community chat feature, and Chief’s events, which include leadership workshops, conversations with industry leaders and community roundtables.

Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on in-person features of the platform, such as Core Groups and live events. But Chief has moved swiftly to put all these core services on the web for members to attend and participate virtually.

The company has also fast-tracked the launch of its hiring board, which gives members the ability to privately list great candidates and open positions to the broader network.

Chief vets its members to ensure that the women on the platform ‘get it,’ as Kaplan likes to say.

“We all know it gets lonely at the top, and it gets a lot lonelier a lot earlier for women,” said Childers. “Women are on panels or on the circuit and they’re exhausted. This is a community they don’t have to be the one in the spotlight and feel all the pressure, but can actually be supported in a network of women who feel the exact same way. These women are the only person or one of the few people in their organization who have hit that level of leadership, and really need support from people who get it.”

The company looks at the applicants experience, the size of their organization and immediate team, the reporting structure, budget size, awards and credentials, thought leadership and impact as well as current member nominations.

Interestingly, no more than 9 percent of the Chief membership work in a single industry, which leads to cognitive diversity within the community. The average age of a Chief member is 43, and members manage over $10 billion in collective budget at their organizations and more than 100,000 employees.

Executive-level members pay $7,900 annually, while VP-level members pay $5,800 each year. Chief says that 40 percent of its members are Executives, with the other 60 percent are VPs. The company says that 30 percent of its membership base are women of color.

Chief also operates a Membership Grant program, created to promote diversity of background and thought among members, that brings the cost of an annual membership down to $3,800 for folks coming from non-corporate or underfunded organizations. The company did not disclose what percentage of customers are on the grant program.

Some napkin math then tells us that Chief is likely generating more than $10 million in revenue in 2020, on the conservative end. Kaplan and Childers say that they have a waitlist of 8,000 to join.

The new funding will be used to accelerate growth to meet demand in new cities and support the build-out of technology infrastructure. This latest round brings Chief’s total funding to $40 million.

Autonomous aviation startup Xwing raises $10M to scale its software for pilotless flights

By Kirsten Korosec

Autonomous aviation startup Xwing locked in a $10 million funding round before COVID-19 hit. Now the San Francisco-based startup is using the capital to hire talent and scale the development of its software stack as it aims for commercial operations later this year — pending FAA approvals.

The company announced Wednesday its Series A funding round, which was led by R7 Partners, with participation from early-stage VC Alven, Eniac Ventures and Thales Corporate Ventures. Xwing has already hired several key executives with that fresh injection of capital, including Terrafugia’s former co-founder and COO Anna Dietrich and Ed Lim, a Lockheed Martin and Aurora Flight Sciences veteran who more recently led guidance navigation and control for Uber’s autonomous car division as well as Zipline’s AV delivery drone.

Xwing is different from some of the other autonomous aviations startups that have popped up in recent years. The startup isn’t building autonomous helicopters and planes. Instead, it’s focused on the software stack that will enable pilotless flight of small passenger aircraft.

Xwing is also aircraft agnostic. The company’s engineers are focused on the key functions of autonomous flight, such as sensing, reasoning and control. The software stack, which is designed to work across different kinds of aircraft, is integrated into existing aerospace systems. That strategy of retrofitting existing aircraft will speed up deployment, while maintaining safety and keeping costs in check, according to founder and CEO Marc Piette. It also is a straighter path towards regulatory approval.

“It’s more effective for us to not constrain ourselves to a given vehicle and to develop technology that is considered more of an enabler— from a marketing perspective — than going full stack, Piette said when asked if Xwing would ever try to build an autonomous aircraft from the groundup.

Since Xwing’s last funding round — $4 million in summer 2018 — the company has been developing its tech and working with the FAA to receive flight certification for pilotless aircraft. Once approved, the company will seek to commercialize pilotless flights.

The startup hasn’t named any commercial partners yet. And Piette hasn’t provided details about its commercial strategy either, although he said to expect more announcements this year.

Xwing is already working with Bell for NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS in the NAS) program, an initiative meant to mature the key remaining technologies that are needed to integrate unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace. The program plans to hold demonstration flights this summer.

❌