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As concerns rise over forest carbon offsets, Pachama’s verified offset marketplace gets $15 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Restoring and preserving the world’s forests has long been considered one of the easiest, lowest cost, and simplest ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

It’s by far the most popular method for corporations looking to take an easy first step on the long road to decarbonizing or offsetting their industrial operations. But in recent months the efficacy, validity, and reliability of a number of forest offsets have been called into question thanks to some blockbuster reporting from Bloomberg.

It’s against this uncertain backdrop that investors are coming in to shore up financing for Pachama, a company building a marketplace for forest carbon credits that it says is more transparent and verifiable thanks to its use of satellite imagery and machine learning technologies.

That pitch has brought in $15 million in new financing for the company, which co-founder and chief executive Diego Saez Gil said would be used for product development and the continued expansion of the company’s marketplace.

Launched only one year ago, Pachama has managed to land some impressive customers and backers. No less an authority on things environmental than Jeff Bezos (given how much of a negative impact Amazon operations have on the planet), gave the company a shoutout in his last letter to shareholders as Amazon’s outgoing chief executive. And the largest ecommerce company in Latin America, Mercado Libre, tapped the company to manage an $8 million offset project that’s part of a broader commitment to sustainability by the retailing giant.

Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund is an investor in the latest round, which was led by Bill Gates’ investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Other investors included Lowercarbon Capital (the climate-focused fund from über-successful angel investor, Chris Sacca), former Über executive Ryan Graves’ Saltwater, the MCJ Collective, and new backers like Tim O’Reilly’s OATV, Ram Fhiram, Joe gebbia, Marcos Galperin, NBA All-star Manu Ginobilli, James Beshara, Fabrice Grinda, Sahil Lavignia, and Tomi Pierucci.

That’s not even the full list of the company’s backers. What’s made Pachama so successful, and given the company the ability to attract top talent from companies like Google, Facebook, SapceX, Tesla, OpenAI, Microsoft, Impossible Foods and Orbital Insights, is the combination of its climate mission applied to the well-understood forest offset market, said Saez Gil.

“Restoring nature is one of the most important solutions to climate change. Forests, oceans and other ecosystems not only sequester enormous amounts of CO2from the atmosphere, but they also provide critical habitat for biodiversity and are sources of livelihood for communities worldwide. We are building the technology stack required to be able to drive funding to the restoration and conservation of these ecosystems with integrity, transparency and efficiency” said Diego Saez Gil, Co-founder and CEO at Pachama. “We feel honored and excited to have the support of such an incredible group of investors who believe in our mission and are demonstrating their willingness to support our growth for the long term”. 

Customers outside of Latin America are also clamoring for access to Pachama’s offset marketplace. Microsoft, Shopify, and Softbank are also among the company’s paying buyers.

It’s another reason that investors like Y Combinator, Social Capital, Tobi Lutke, Serena Williams, Aglaé Ventures (LVMH’s tech investment arm), Paul Graham, AirAngels, Global Founders, ThirdKind Ventures, Sweet Capital, Xplorer Capital, Scott Belsky, Tim Schumacher, Gustaf Alstromer, Facundo Garreton, and Terrence Rohan, were able to commit to backing the company’s nearly $24 million haul since its 2020 launch. 

“Pachama is working on unlocking the full potential of nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Carmichael Roberts from BEV, in a statement. “Their technology-based approach will have an enormous multiplier effect by using machine learning models for forest analysis to validate, monitor and measure impactful carbon neutrality initiatives. We are impressed by the progress that the team has made in a short period of time and look forward to working with them to scale their unique solution globally.” 

 

Goldman Sachs leads $23M in funding for Brazilian e-commerce startup Olist

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Olist, a Brazilian e-commerce marketplace integrator, has raised $23 million in a Series D round extension led by new investor Goldman Sachs Asset Management that brings its total Series D financing to $80 million.

Existing backer Redpoint Ventures, which first put money in Olist in 2015, also participated in the latest round. With this latest infusion, Olist has now raised over $126 million since its 2015 inception. This round is reportedly its last before the company plans to go public, according to Bloomberg.

SoftBank led the first tranch of Olist’s Series D in November as well as the company’s $46 million Series C in 2019. Valor Capital, Velt Partners, FJ Labs, Península and angel Kevin Efrusy had previously invested in the first tranche of the Series D.

Olist connects small businesses to larger product marketplaces to help entrepreneurs sell their products to a larger customer base. The company was founded with the mission of helping small merchants gain market share across the country through a SaaS licensing model to small brick and mortar businesses.

As of October 2019, Olist had more than 7,000 customers and used a drop-shipping model to send products directly from stores to clients around the country, allowing them to grow with a capital-light model.

Today, Olist says its platform provides tools that support “all the stages of an e-commerce operation” with the goal of helping merchants see “rapid increases in sales volume.” It currently has about 25,000 merchants on its platform.

The startup is no doubt benefiting from the pandemic-fueled e-commerce boom taking place all over the world as more people have turned to online shopping. Latin America, in general, has been home to increased e-commerce adoption.

Olist says its revenue tripled to a record number in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the previous year, although it did not provide hard figures. It also reportedly doubled revenue in 2020, according to Bloomberg.

Olist Store, the company’s flagship product, gives merchants a way to manage product listings, logistics and store payments. It also offers “a unique sales experience” through channels such as Mercado Livre, B2W and Via Varejo. The product saw a record GMV in the first half of the year, which was up 2.5 times over the same period in the prior year, the company said.

Last year, Olist launched a new product, Olist Shops, giving users the ability to create a virtual showcase “in less than 3 minutes” that also offers payment checkout tools and integration with logistics operators. Shops has interfaces in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, and since its launch, it has attracted more than 200,000 users in 180 countries, according to Olist.

“The pandemic has accelerated digitalizing business processes around the world, thus spurring e-commerce growth in a surprising way,” said Tiago Dalvi, Olist’s founder and CEO, in a written statement. 

The company plans to use its new capital to invest in technology and products, pursuing new mergers and acquisitions and boosting its internationalization process. This is on top of two acquisitions Olist made last year — Clickspace and Pax Logistica, which gave Olist entry into the heated logistics space with more than 4,000 registered drivers.

Specifically, CFO Eduardo Ferraz said the company is in preliminary discussions with ERPs, retailers, and companies with complementary solutions to its own.

“That is why we also decided to expand the investment in our Series D and bring Goldman Sachs as another relevant investor to our cap table,” he said.

David Castelblanco, managing director and head of Latin America Corporate and Growth Equity Investing for the Goldman Sachs Asset Management, said his firm was impressed with how Olist empowers SMBs to generate more revenue.

“Tiago and the Olist team are incredibly customer oriented and have created an innovative technological solution for their e-commerce clients,” he added.

Olist is operating in an increasingly crowded space. In March, we covered São Paulo-based Nuvemshop’s $90 million raise that was led by Silicon Valley venture firm Accel. That company has developed an e-commerce platform that aims to allow SMBs and merchants to connect more directly with their consumers. 

SoftBank in talks to invest up to $500 million in Swiggy

By Manish Singh

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 is in advanced stages of talks to invest up to half a billion dollars into food delivery startup Swiggy, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The new investment values the Indian startup at about $5.5 billion, the sources said.

The new investment would add to the $800 million fundraise Swiggy unveiled earlier this month. SoftBank began exploring investment in India’s food delivery space earlier this year, and also looked at Swiggy’s rival Zomato. But the investment firm picked Swiggy earlier this week, a person familiar with the matter said.

Swiggy and SoftBank declined to comment.

The new investment talks come amid Zomato raising $910 million in recent months as the Gurgaon-headquartered firm prepares for an IPO this year. The last tranche of investment valued Zomato at $5.4 billion. During its fundraise, Zomato said it was raising money partially to fight off “any mischief or price wars from our competition in various areas of our business.”

A third player, Amazon, also entered the food delivery market in India last year, though its operations are still limited to parts of Bangalore.

At stake is India’s food delivery market, which analysts at Bernstein expect to balloon to be worth $12 billion by 2022, they wrote in a report to clients earlier this year.

After raising $800 million, Swiggy co-founder and chief executive Sriharsha Majety told employees in a memo that the new fundraise “gives us a lot more firepower than the planned investments for our current business lines. Given our unfettered ambition though, we will continue to seed/experiment new offerings for the future that may be ready for investment later. We will just need to now relentlessly invent and execute over the next few years to build an enduring iconic company out of India.”

He added in that memo that the long-term goal for the startup is to serve 500 million users in the next 10-15 years, pointing to Chinese food giant Meituan, which had 500 million transacting users last year and is valued at over $100 billion.

“We’re coming out of a very hard phase during the last year given Covid and have weathered the storm, but everything we do from here on needs to maximise the chances of our succeeding in the long-term,” he wrote.

Swiggy, which counts Prosus Ventures among its largest investors, last year eliminated some jobs — so did Zomato — and scaled down its cloud kitchen efforts as it attempted to stay afloat during the pandemic, which had prompted New Delhi to enforce a months-long lockdown.

Swiggy's performance this year, per Prosus Ventures. pic.twitter.com/AqcKYQ8ml1

— Manish Singh (@refsrc) December 23, 2020

TechCrunch reported on Wednesday that SoftBank Vision Fund 2 is also in talks to invest in Zeta. The investment firm, which has also written checks to e-commerce giant Flipkart, ride-hailing firm Ola, and budget hospitality startup Oyo, earlier this month backed social commerce Meesho.

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

By Manish Singh

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

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

A SoftBank spokesperson declined to comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home gym startup Tempo raises $220M to meet surge in demand for its workout device

By David Riggs

When the pandemic forced everyone to stay at home last year, many gym-goers looked to at-home fitness makers to fill the void for their cardiovascular and strength-training workouts.

To help meet that demand, Tempo, the five-year-old fitness startup founded by Moawia Eldeeb and Josh Augustin, closed a $220 million Series C round led by SoftBank. The company plans to use the raise to shore up its supply chain, keep up with increased consumer demand and fuel efforts such as R&D and content. Other participants in the Series C round included Bling Capital, DCM, General Catalyst and Norwest Venture Partners. 

Tempo’s freestanding cabinet, which the company launched in February 2020, includes a 42-inch touchscreen with a 3D motion-tracking camera that consistently scans, tracks and coaches users as they work out.

It currently sells three hardware bundles, starting at $2,495, that include accessories like barbells, dumbbells, a folding bench, a kettlebell system, a squat rack, a workout mat, a recovery foam roller and a heart rate monitor, depending on which bundle customers spring for. Users also pay a $39 monthly subscription to access on-demand and live classes. 

[gallery ids="2137299,2137301,2137366,2137300,2137302,2137365"]

The concept for Tempo came about in 2015 when Eldeeb and Augustin developed SmartSpot, a computer vision-augmented smart screen they sold to gyms that helped trainers analyze and improve their clients’ form during workouts. With the trove of data generated and collected by SmartSpot, Eldeeb and Augustin developed a program that identified fitness users’ most common movement errors and utilized machine learning to offer unique recommendations for each individual user — a program that became part of the foundation for Tempo. 

“Being a personal trainer once, I remember charging $150 an hour,” explains Eldeeb. “I want to create a better experience and offer it to many more people for a lot less. That means we’re going to continue to invest in the core technology that makes that possible.” 

Tempo’s launch came during a particularly opportune time. With the pandemic unfolding, demand for at-home fitness solutions soared. The startup has seen sales surge 1,000% since it began taking pre-orders in early 2020, with delivery delays currently ranging between five to seven weeks — a common issue faced by other at-home fitness companies such as Peloton, Tonal and Echelon. Tempo users have collectively performed 5 million workouts, or clocked 40,000 hours on their devices to date, according to the company. 

“That [supply chain] was definitely an issue,” acknowledges Eldeeb, pointing to production challenges posed by factories temporarily shutting down or reducing operations in 2020. “We were doing this for the first time at scale, and we’d made small quantities of the product before [launch]. But for our first year in the market, we had to solve all those problems and still ship the product, which was a huge undertaking. We basically had to reduce sales because I wanted the factory workers to be safe.” 

For Tempo, the opportunity to scale is enormous, as the global market is estimated to reach $29.4 billion by 2025. With new funding in tow, Eldeeb wants to capitalize on surging demand, with plans of doubling down on logistics and its supply chain, growing employee headcount and expanding its content to offer yoga and boxing classes later this year.  

With vaccinations across the U.S. steadily increasing and gyms reopening, the big question is whether people will stick with their at-home fitness workouts, throw themselves back into their old gym routines or adopt a hybrid model that marries the two. Eldeeb is betting that now that more people have acclimated to working out in their homes, they’ll stay the course out of sheer convenience, pointing to a Consumer Trends report from The New Consumer published earlier this year indicating that 81% of people under the age of 40 prefer to exercise at home. 

If true, then companies like Tempo will continue to reap the benefits of this shift of fitness into the home. 

 

From pickup basketball to market domination: My wild ride with Coupang

By Ram Iyer
Ben Sun Contributor
Ben Sun is co-founder and general partner at Primary Venture Partners, a seed-stage VC firm based in NYC.

A month ago, Coupang arrived on Wall Street with a bang. The South Korean e-commerce giant — buoyed by $12 billion in 2020 revenue — raised $4.55 billion in its IPO and hit a valuation as high as $109 billion. It is the biggest U.S. IPO of the year so far, and the largest from an Asian company since Alibaba’s.

But long before founder Bom Kim rang the bell, I knew him as a fellow founder on the hunt for a good idea. We stayed in touch as he formed his vision for what would become Coupang, and I built it alongside him as an investor and board member.

As a board member, I’ve observed a brief quiet period following the IPO. But now I want to share how exactly our paths intersected, largely because Bom exemplifies what founders should aspire to and should seek: big risks, dogged determination, and obsessive responsiveness to the market.

Bom fearlessly turned down an acquisition offer from then-market-leader Groupon, ferociously learned what he didn’t know, made a daring pivot even after becoming a billion-dollar company, and iteratively built a vision for end-to-end market dominance.

Why I like talking to founders early

In 2008, I met Bom while playing a weekend game of pickup basketball at Stuyvesant High School. We realized we had a mutual acquaintance through my recently-sold startup, Community Connect Inc. He told me about the magazine he had sold and his search for a next move. So we agreed to meet up for lunch and go over some of his ideas.

To be honest, I don’t remember any of those early ideas, probably because they weren’t very good. But I really liked Bom. Even as I was crapping on his ideas, I could tell he was sharp from how he processed my feedback. It was obvious he was super smart and definitely worth keeping in touch with, which we continued to do even after he relocated to go to HBS.

I soon began investing in and incubating businesses, starting mostly with my own capital. When I got a call from an executive recruiter working for a company in Chicago called Groupon — who told me they were at a $50 million run rate in only a few months — I became fascinated with their model and started talking to some of the investors, former employees, and merchants.

Inspired, and as a new parent, I decided to launch a similar daily-deal business for families: Instead of skydiving and go-kart racing, we offered deals on kids’ music classes and birthday party venues. While I was working on this idea, John Ason, an angel investor in Diapers.com, said I should meet with the founder and CEO Marc Lore. By the end of the meeting, Marc and I etched a partnership to launch DoodleDeals.com co-branded with Diapers.com. The first deal did over $70,000 — great start.

I’ve observed a brief quiet period following the IPO. But now I want to share how exactly our paths intersected, largely because Bom exemplifies what founders should aspire to and should seek: big risks, dogged determination, and obsessive responsiveness to the market.

All that time, I kept in touch with Bom. In February 2010, we were catching up over lunch at the Union Square Ippudo, and he asked if I had heard of Buywithme, a Boston-based Groupon clone. He hadn’t yet heard about Groupon, so I explained the business model and shared the numbers. He thought something similar might transfer well to South Korea, where he was born and his parents still lived.

This kind of conversation is exactly why I love working with founders early, even before the idea forms: You learn a lot about them as they explore, wrestle with uncertainty, and eventually build conviction on a business they plan to spend the next decade-plus building. Ultimately, success comes down to founders’ belief in themselves; when you develop the same belief in them as an investor, it is pretty magical. I was starting to really believe in Bom.

The idea gets real — and moves fast

I'm not Korean — I am ethnically Chinese — so Bom put together slides on the Korean market and why it was perfect for the daily-deal model. In short: a very dense population that’s incredibly online.

I’m not Korean — I am ethnically Chinese — so Bom put together slides on the Korean market and why it was perfect for the daily-deal model. In short: a very dense population that’s incredibly online. Image Credits: Ben Sun

I told Bom he should drop out of business school and do this. He said, “You don’t think I can wait until I graduate?” I responded, “No way! It will be over by then!”

First-mover advantage is real in a business like this, and it didn’t take Bom long to see that. He raised a small $1.3 million seed round. I invested, joined the board. Because of my knowledge of the deals market and my entrepreneurial experience, Bom asked me to get hands-on in Korea — not at all typical for an investor or even a board member, but I think of myself as a builder and not just a backer, and this is how I wanted to operate as an investor.

Once he realized time was of the essence, Bom was heads down. For context, he was engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Nancy, who also went to Harvard undergrad and was a successful lawyer. Imagine telling your fiancée, “Honey, I am dropping out of business school, moving to Korea to start a company. I will be back for the wedding. Not sure if I will ever be coming back to the U.S.”

I emailed Bom, saying: “Bom — honestly as a friend. Enjoy your wedding. It is a real blessing that your fiancée is being so supportive of you doing this. Launching a site a few weeks before the wedding is going to be way too distracting and she won’t feel like your heart is in it. Launching a few weeks later is not going to make or break this business. Trust me.”

Bom didn’t listen. He launched Coupang in August 2010, two weeks before the wedding. He flew back to Boston, got married, and — running on basically no sleep — sneaked out for a 20-minute nap in the middle of his reception. Right after the wedding, he flew back to Seoul. Nancy has to be one of the most supportive and understanding partners I have ever seen. They are now married and have two kids.

Jumping on new distribution, turning down an acquisition offer

Mortgage is suddenly sexy as SoftBank pumps $500M in Better.com at a $6B valuation

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Digital mortgage lender Better.com has raised a $500 million round from Japanese investment conglomerate SoftBank that values the company at $6 billion.

The financing is notable for a few reasons. For one, that new $6 billion valuation is up 50% from the $4 billion it was valued at last November when it raised $200 million in Series D financing. It’s also up tenfold from its $600 million valuation at the time of its Series C raise in August 2019.

Secondly, it’s further proof that mortgage — a traditionally “unsexy” industry that has long been in need of disruption — is officially hot. For all its controversy, when SoftBank invests, people pay attention.

The COVID-19 pandemic and historically low mortgage rates fueled acceleration in the online lending space in a way that no one could have anticipated. That, combined with the general fervor in venture funding, means it’s not a big surprise that Better.com has raised $700 million in just a matter of months.

The investment brings Better.com’s total funding raised to over $900 million since its 2014 inception. Other backers include Goldman Sachs, Kleiner Perkins, American Express, Activant Capital and Citi, among others.

According to The Wall Street Journal, SoftBank is buying shares from Better’s existing investors, and agreed to give all of its voting rights to CEO and founder Vishal Garg “in a sign of its eagerness” to invest in the company. 

During a one-on-one interview at LendIt Fintech’s USA 2020 virtual event in October, Garg told me that an IPO was definitely in the works.

“We’ll do it when it’s right,” he said. “One of the core tenets of American capitalism is the ability for your customers to buy your stock.”

And in February, Bloomberg reported that the startup had tapped Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Corp. for a planned initial public offering in the U.S. But there’s been no further word since. It’s not unusual for companies to raise large sums before an IPO. Affirm did it last year, for example.

Also last October, Varg told me that before the pandemic, Better was processing about $1.2 billion a month in loans. But as of October 2020, it was funding over $2.5 billion per month, and had gone from 1,500 staffers to about 4,000 worldwide. 

“When the pandemic started we were doing less than sort of like $50 million a month of revenue,” he said at the time. “We’re two-and-a half times that now.”

Since then, those numbers have gone up even more. A company spokesperson told me today that Better.com funded $14 billion in loan volume in the first quarter of 2021 alone and that it is currently funding over $4 billions in loans a month. For some context, Better.com funded $25 billion in loan volume in all of 2020. And, it currently has 6,000 employees — up 2,000 from last October.

This article was updated post-publication with some additional numbers provided by the company.

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 invests $160M in media localization provider Iyuno-SDI Group

By Catherine Shu

Iyuno-SDI Group, a provider of translated subtitles and other media localization services, announced today it has raised $160 million in funding from SoftBank Vision 2. The company said this makes the fund one of its largest shareholders.

Iyuno-SDI Group was formed after Iyuno Media Group completed its acquisition of SDI Media last month. In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Iyuno-SDI Group chief executive officer David Lee, who launched Iyuno in 2002 while he was an undergraduate in Seoul, described how the company’s proprietary cloud-based enterprise resource planning software allows it to perform localization services—including subtitles, dubbing and accessibility features—at scale.

Iyuno also built its own neural machine translation engines, trained on data from specific entertainment genres, to help its human translators work more quickly. The company’s clients have included Netflix, Apple iTunes, DreamWorks, HBO and Entertainment One.

Now that its merger is complete, Iyuno-SDI Group operates a combined 67 offices in 34 countries, and is able to perform localization services in more than 100 languages.

SoftBank Group first invested in Iyuno Media Group through SoftBank Ventures Asia, its venture capital arm, in 2018. SoftBank Vision 2 will join Lee and investors Altor, Shamrock Capital Advisors and SoftBank Ventures Asia Corporation on Iyuno-SDI Group’s board of directors.

Grasping at hidden objects

By Brian Heater

Happy Robotics Week, to those who celebrate. I know a lot of us are unable to be with our loved ones this year, which means no robotics tree, robotics baskets full of robot eggs and green robot beer. Still, the National Robotics Week organization is putting on a bunch of virtual events across 50 states through April 11.

There’s been a bit of financial news over the past week, also worth noting. On Tuesday, Sarcos joined the rarified air of robotic SPACs. While it’s true there’s been a flurry of activity on that front in the startup world, robotics companies have been slower to embrace the whole blank-check-reverse-merger deal. Berkshire-Grey is the one company that immediately springs to mind.

Image Credits: Sarcos Robotics

Sarcos builds robotics and robotic exoskeletons that look like they were designed for a James Cameron movie. The company has already raised a bunch of money, including a $40 million round, back in September, but is probably most notable to mainstream readers for being at the center of Delta’s recent high-tech push. The airline plans to use some of the company’s tech to help employees lift large payloads.

Image Credits: Rapid Robotics

San Francisco-based Rapid Robotics, meanwhile, announced a $12 million Series A. That brings the company’s funding to date up to $17.5 million, hot on the heels of a decent-sized seed round. The company’s objective is providing a kind of plug and play solution for robotics manufacturing, and essentially lowering the barrier of entry for manufacturing automation across a range of industries.

SoftBank, which continues to be quite bullish on the space, just acquired 40% of AutoStore for a cool $2.8 billion, putting the Norwegian company’s valuation at $7.7 billion. The company uses robotics to maximize warehouse storage, consolidating it into around a quarter of the space. It already has a sizable footprint, as well — 20,000 robots deployed at around 600 locations. Per SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son:

We view AutoStore as a foundational technology that enables rapid and cost-effective logistics for companies around the globe. We look forward to working with AutoStore to aggressively expand across end markets and geographies.

And because it can’t all be investment news (I mean, it can, but who wants that?), some cool research out of MIT. Researchers from the school, along with ones from Harvard and Georgia Tech, showcased a robot that uses radio waves to sense hidden objects. The tech allows RF-Grasp to pick up things that are covered up or otherwise out of its line of vision. MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib describes it as “superhuman perception.”

Norway’s Kolonial rebrands as Oda, bags $265M on a $900M valuation to grow its online grocery delivery business in Europe

By Ingrid Lunden

Food delivery startups, and specifically those focused on grocery delivery, continue to reap super-sized rounds of funding in Europe, buoyed by a year of pandemic living that has led many consumers to shift to shopping online. Today, the latest of these is coming out of Norway.

Kolonial, a startup based out of Oslo that offers same-day or next-day delivery of food, meal kits and home essentials — its aim is to provide “a weekly shop” for prices that compete against those of traditional supermarkets — has raised €223 million ($265 million) in an equity round of funding. Along with that, the company — profitable as of last year — is rebranding to Oda and plans to use the money (and new name) to expand to more markets, starting first with Finland and then Germany in 2022.

The market for online grocery ordering and delivery is gearing up to be a very crowded one, with hundreds of millions of dollars being poured by investors into the fuel tanks of a range of startups — each originating out of different geographies, each with a slightly different approach. Oda believes it has the right mix to end up at the front of the pack.

“We have found ourselves in a unique position,” CEO and co-founder Karl Munthe-Kaas said in an interview with TechCrunch. “We have built a service targeting the mass market with instant deliveries and low prices, because if you want to capture the full basket for the family, you can’t be a premium service. We’ve done that, and we’re profitable.”

And now, it will have the backing of two e-commerce heavyweights for its next steps. SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 and Prosus (the tech holdings of South Africa’s Naspers), are co-leading the round, with past backers Kinnevik and a strategic investor, Norwegian “soft discount” chain REMA, also participating.

Munthe-Kaas confirmed to TechCrunch in an interview that Oda is valued at €750 million ($900 million) post-money.

The funding is a big leap for Oda (the name is not officially going to come into effect until the end of this month, although the company is already describing itself with the new brand, so we’ll follow that lead). PitchBook data notes that before this round, Oda had only raised about $96 million, and its last valuation was estimated to be just $178 million in 2017.

The company has certainly come a long way. Founded in 2013 by ten friends, Kolonial originally seemed to have a more modest vision when it first started out: Kolonial in Norwegian doesn’t mean “colonial” (a connotation Munthe-Kaas nevertheless said the startup wanted to avoid, one big reason for the change), but “cornershop.” These days, Oda is focused more on competing against large supermarkets — its average order size is $120 — yet with a significantly more efficient cost base behind the scenes.

It’s also been helped by the current climate. Online grocery shopping has been growing and maturing for a while now, but the last year been a veritable hothouse in that process: Covid-19, shelter in place orders and a general desire for people to keep their distance all compelled many more consumers to try out online grocery shopping for the first time, and many have stuck with it.

“We have seen a significant inflection point with grocery over the last year with the market transitioning online, accelerated by Covid,” said Larry Illg, CEO of Prosus Food, in a statement. “Oda’s leadership and impressive growth in Norway paired with its ground-breaking technology and ambition to scale across Europe and beyond makes them an ideal partner to tackle the grocery opportunity over the coming years.”

Oda has over the years grown to become the sector leader in a category it arguably helped define in its home country. It was profitable last year on revenues of €200 million, and it currently controls some 70% of Norway’s online grocery ordering and delivery market based on its own particular approach to the model.

That model involves Oda building and controlling its own supply chains from producers to consumers (no partnerships with third y partphysical retailers), producing several of the products itself (such as baked goods) to order, and using centralized fulfillment centers to manage orders for large geographies.

“Centralized warehouses means 50 supermarkets in one location,” Munthe-Kaas said, adding that this also makes the business significantly greener, too.

Those fulfillment centers, meanwhile, are operated at “extreme efficiency”, in his words. Oda’s grocery item picking averages out at 212 units per hour — that is, the amount of items “picked” for orders in a week divided by the number of hours in a week. The next closest UPH number in the industry, Munthe-Kaas said, was Ocado in the UK at 170 UPH, and the norm, he added, was more like 100 UPH, with physical store picking (where customers select items from shelves themselves) averaging out at 70 UPH.

All of this translates to much more cost-effective operations, including more efficient ordering and stock rotation, which helps Oda make better margins on its sales overall. Munthe-Kaas declined to go into the details of how Oda manages to get such high UPH numbers — that’s competitive knowledge, he said — noting only that a lot of automation and data analytics goes into the process.

That will be music to the ears of SoftBank, which has had a complicated run in e-commerce in the last several years, backing a number of interesting juggernauts that have nonetheless found themselves unable to improve on challenging unit economics.

“Oda’s leading position in Norway is testament to the merits of its bespoke and data-driven approach in offering a personalised, holistic and reliable online grocery experience,” said Munish Varma, managing partner for SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “We believe that Oda’s customer-centric focus, market-leading automation technology and fulfillment efficiency are a winning combination, and position Oda for success in scaling internationally for the benefit of customers and suppliers alike.”   

The big challenge for Oda going forward will be whether it can transplant its business model as it has been developed for Norway into further markets.

Oda will not only be looking for customer traction for its own business, but it will be doing so potentially against heavy competition from others also looking to expand outside their borders.

There are other online supermarket plays like Rohlik out of the Czech Republic (which in March bagged $230 million in funding); Everli out of Italy (formerly called Supermercato24, it also raised $100 million); Picnic out of the Netherlands (which has yet to announce any recent funding but it feels like it’s only a matter of time given it too has publicly laid out international ambitions); and Ocado in the UK (which also has raised huge amounts of money to pursue its own international ambitions).

And there is also the wave of companies that are building more fleet-of-foot approaches around smaller inventories and much faster turnaround times, the idea being that this can cater both to individuals and a different way of shopping — smaller and more often — even if you are a family.

Among these so-called “q-commerce” (quick commerce) players, covering just some of the most recent funding rounds, Glovo just last week raised $528 million; Gorillas in Berlin raised $290 million; Turkey’s Getir — also rapidly expanding across Europe — picked up $300 million on a $2.6 billion valuation as Sequoia took its first bite into the European food market; and reportedly Zapp in London has also closed $100 million in funding.

Deliveroo, which went public last week, is also now delivering groceries (in partnership with Sainsbury’s) alongside its restaurant delivery service.

These, ironically, are more cornershop replacements than Oda itself (formerly called Kolonia, or “cornershop” in Norwegian), and Munthe-Kaas said he sees them as “complementary” to what Oda does.

Indeed, Munthe-Kaas remains very committed to the basic rulebook that Oda has lived by for years.

“You need to beat the physical stores on quality, selection and price and get it home delivered,” he said. “This is a margin business and the only way to optimize is to be completely relentless.”

But he also understands that this might ultimately need to be modified depending on the market. For example, while the company has not worked with other retailers in Norway — even the investment by REMA is not for distribution but for better economies of scale in procuring products that REMA and Oda will sell independently from each other — this might be a route that Oda chooses to take in other markets.

“We’re in discussions with several other retailers, wholesalers and producers,” he said. “It’s important to get sourcing terms and have upstream logistics, but there are many ways of achieving that. We are super open to making partnerships on that front, but we still think the way to win is to run the value chain.”

Manticore Games raises $100 million to build a ‘creator multiverse’

By Lucas Matney

The gaming sector has never been hotter or had higher expectations from investors who are dumping billions into upstarts that can adjust to shifting tides faster that the existing giants will.

Bay Area-based Manticore Games is one of the second-layer gaming platforms looking to build on the market’s momentum. The startup tells TechCrunch they’ve closed a $100 million Series C funding round, bringing their total funding to $160 million. The round was led by XN, with participation from Softbank and LVP alongside existing investors Benchmark, Bitkraft, Correlation Ventures and Epic Games.

When Manticore closed its Series B back in September 2019, VCs were starting to take Roblox and the gaming sector more seriously, but it took the pandemic hitting to really expand their expectations for the market. “Gaming is now a bonafide super category,” CEO Frederic Descamps tells TechCrunch.

Manticore’s Core gaming platform is quite similar to Roblox conceptually, the big difference is that the gaming company is aiming to quickly scale up a games and creator platform geared towards the 13+ crowd that may have already left Roblox behind. The challenge will be coaxing that demographic faster than Roblox can expand its own ambitions, and doing so while other venture-backed gaming startups like Rec Room, which recently raised at a $1.2 billion valuation, race for the same prize.

Like other players, Manticore is attempting to build a game discovery platform directly into a game engine. They haven’t built the engine tech from scratch, they’ve been working closely with Epic Games which makes the Unreal Engine and made a $15 million investment in the company last year.

A big focus of the Core platform is giving creators a true drag-and-drop platform for game creation with a specific focus on “remixing” allowing users to pick pre-made environments, drop pre-rendered 3D assets into them, choose a game mode and publish it to the web. For creators looking to inject new mechanics or assets into a title, there will be some technical know-how necessary but Manticore’s team hopes that making the barriers of entry low for new creators means that they can grow alongside the platform. Manticore’s big bet is on the flexibility of their engine, hoping that creators will come on board for the chance to engineer their own mechanics or create their own path towards monetization, something established app store wouldn’t allow them to.

“Creators can implement their own styles of [in-app purchases] and what we’re really hoping for here is that maybe the next battle pass equivalent innovation will come out of this,” co-founder Jordan Maynard tells us.

This all comes at an added cost, developers earn 50% of revenues from their games, leaving more potential revenue locked up in fees routed to the platforms that Manticore depends on than if they built for the App Store directly, but this revenue split is still much friendlier to creators that what they can earn on platforms like Roblox.

Building cross-platform secondary gaming platforms is host to plenty of its own challenges. The platforms involved not only have to deal with stacking revenue share fees on non-PC platforms, but some hardware platforms that are reticent to allow them all, an area where Sony has been a particular stickler with PlayStation. The long-term success of these platforms may ultimately rely on greater independence, something that seems hard to imagine happening on consoles and mobile ecosystems.

Arm announces the next generation of its processor architecture

By Frederic Lardinois

Arm today announced Armv9, the next generation of its chip architecture. Its predecessor, Armv8 launched a decade ago and while it has seen its fair share of changes and updates, the new architecture brings a number of major updates to the platform that warrant a shift in version numbers. Unsurprisingly, Armv9 builds on V8 and is backward compatible, but it specifically introduces new security, AI, signal processing and performance features.

Over the last five years, more than 100 billion Arm-based chips have shipped. But Arm believes that its partners will ship over 300 billion in the next decade. We will see the first ArmV9-based chips in devices later this year.

Ian Smythe, Arm’s VP of Marketing for its client business, told me that he believes this new architecture will change the way we do computing over the next decade. “We’re going to deliver more performance, we will improve the security capabilities […] and we will enhance the workload capabilities because of the shift that we see in compute that’s taking place,” he said. “The reason that we’ve taken these steps is to look at how we provide the best experience out there for handling the explosion of data and the need to process it and the need to move it and the need to protect it.”

That neatly sums up the core philosophy behind these updates. On the security side, ArmV9 will introduce Arm’s confidential compute architecture and the concept of Realms. These Realms enable developers to write applications where the data is shielded from the operating system and other apps on the device. Using Realms, a business application could shield sensitive data and code from the rest of the device, for example.

Image Credits: Arm

“What we’re doing with the Arm Confidential Compute Architecture is worrying about the fact that all of our computing is running on the computing infrastructure of operating systems and hypervisors,” Richard Grisenthwaite, the chief architect at Arm, told me. “That code is quite complex and therefore could be penetrated if things go wrong. And it’s in an incredibly trusted position, so we’re moving some of the workloads so that [they are] running on a vastly smaller piece of code. Only the Realm manager is the thing that’s actually capable of seeing your data while it’s in action. And that would be on the order of about a 10th of the size of a normal hypervisor and much smaller still than an operating system.”

As Grisenthwaite noted, it took Arm a few years to work out the details of this security architecture and ensure that it is robust enough — and during that time Spectre and Meltdown appeared, too, and set back some of Arm’s initial work because some of the solutions it was working on would’ve been vulnerable to similar attacks.

Image Credits: Arm

Unsurprisingly, another area the team focused on was enhancing the CPU’s AI capabilities. AI workloads are now ubiquitous. Arm had already done introduced its Scalable Vector Extension (SVE) a few years ago, but at the time, this was meant for high-performance computing solutions like the Arm-powered Fugaku supercomputer.

Now, Arm is introducing SVE2 to enable more AI and digital signal processing (DSP) capabilities. Those can be used for image processing workloads, as well as other IoT and smart home solutions, for example. There are, of course, dedicated AI chips on the market now, but Arm believes that the entire computing stack needs to be optimized for these workloads and that there are a lot of use cases where the CPU is the right choice for them, especially for smaller workloads.

“We regard machine learning as appearing in just about everything. It’s going to be done in GPUs, it’s going to be done in dedicated processors, neural processors, and also done in our CPUs. And it’s really important that we make all of these different components better at doing machine learning,” Grisenthwaite said.

As for raw performance, Arm believes its new architecture will allow chip manufacturers to gain more than 30% in compute power over the next two chip generations, both for mobile CPUs but also the kind of infrastructure CPUs that large cloud vendors like AWS now offer their users.

“Arm’s next-generation Armv9 architecture offers a substantial improvement in security and machine learning, the two areas that will be further emphasized in tomorrow’s mobile communications devices,” said Min Goo Kim, the executive vice president of SoC development at Samsung Electronics. “As we work together with Arm, we expect to see the new architecture usher in a wider range of innovations to the next generation of Samsung’s Exynos mobile processors.”

Big banks rush to back Greenwood, Killer Mike’s Atlanta-based digital bank for underrepresented customers

By Jonathan Shieber

Before even taking its first deposit, Greenwood, the digital banking service targeting Black and Latino individuals and business owners, has raised $40 million — only a few months after its launch.

Coming in to finance the new challenger bank are six of the seven largest U.S. Banks and the payment technology developers Mastercard and Visa.

That’s right, Bank of America, PNC, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Truist, are backing a bank co-founded by a man who declared, “I’m with the revolutionary. I’m with the radical policy,” when stumping for then Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Joining the financial services giants in the round are FIS, a behind-the-scenes financial services tech developer; along with the venture capital firms TTV Capital, SoftBank Group’s SB Opportunity Fund, and Lightspeed Venture Partners. Sports investors Quality Control and All-Pro NFL running back Alvin Kamara also came in to finance the latest round.

Atlanta-based Greenwood was launched last October by a group that included former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and Bounce TV founder, Ryan Glover.

“The net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family and eight times greater than that of a Latino family. This wealth gap is a curable injustice that requires collaboration,” said \ Glover, Chairman and Co-founder of Greenwood, in a statement. “The backing of six of the top seven banks and the two largest payment technology companies is a testament to the contemporary influence of the Black and Latino community. We now are even better positioned to deliver the world-class services our customers deserve.”

Named after the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Okla., which was known as the Black Wall Street before it was destroyed in a 1921 massacre, the digital bank promises to donate the equivalent of five free meals to an organization addressing food insecurity for every person who signs up to the bank. And every time a customer uses a Greenwood debit card, the bank will make a donation to either the United Negro College FundGoodr (an organization that addresses food insecurity) or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In addition, each month the bank will provide a $10,000 grant to a Black or Latinx small business owner that uses the company’s financial services.

“Truist Ventures is helping to inspire and build better lives and communities by leading the Series A funding round for Greenwood’s innovative approach to building greater trust in banking within Black and Latino communities,” said Truist Chief Digital and Client Experience Officer Dontá L. Wilson who oversees Truist Ventures, in a statement. “In addition to the opportunity to work with and learn from this distinguished group of founders, our investment in Greenwood is reflective of our purpose and commitment to advancing economic empowerment of minority and underserved communities.”

So far, 500,000 people have signed up for the wait list to bank with Greenwood.

Afriex raises $1.2M seed to scale its payments and remittances platform across Africa

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Sending money from the U.S. to Nigeria can be a painstaking process. For remittance platforms like Western Union, it will cost a transfer fee and take between one to five business days for money sent from a U.S. debit card to enter a Nigerian bank account

Crypto remittance platforms are rising to the challenge of fixing these cross-border payment issues by reducing time and fees. Just yesterday, we talked about Flux, a Nigerian fintech solving this problem in the present YC W2021 batch. Today, another YC-backed startup, Afriex — but from the Summer 2020 batch — is raising a $1.2 million seed round. 

The company founded by Tope Alabi and John Obirije in 2019 provides instant, zero-fee transfers to Africans at home and in the diaspora. It allows users to deposit cash on the app, send money to a bank account or another user, and withdraw money to a connected bank or debit card

Like other crypto remittance platforms, Afriex has built its business on stablecoins — cryptocurrency backed by the dollar. In essence, the company buys cryptocurrency in one country and sells it in another to offer better exchange rates. This is in contrast to better-known platforms like Western Union and Wise that use traditional banking systems.

Last year while the startup graduated from YC, it claimed to be processing about $500,000 per month in transaction fees and is used in over 30 countries. At the time, Afriex was only present in Nigeria and the U.S. But having started operations in Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, Afriex claims to be processing millions of dollars each month for thousands of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. On its website, though, Afriex states that customers can only send money to and from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Canada, and the U.S.

With the new investment, the Lagos and San Francisco-based startup is looking to scale up by growing the team and expanding to other markets.

Pan-African VC firm Launch Africa led the seed round. Other investors include Y Combinator, SoftBank Opportunity Fund, Future Africa, Brightstone VC, Processus Capital, Uncommon Ventures, A$AP Capital, Precursor Ventures, and Ivernet Holdings. Angel investors like Russell Smith, Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon, Furqan Rydhan, and Andrea Vaccari also took part.

The SoftBank Opportunity Fund, a subsidiary of the SoftBank Group, targets founders of color in the U.S. running early-stage startups. Since launching in June 2020, it has invested in 22 startups and Afriex seems to be the only one catering to a set of users in the US and another continent.

This is due to Alabi’s upbringing as an immigrant child who has had a mix of both worlds. It was difficult to send money home to Nigeria and his experience as a blockchain developer at Consensys made him realize he could solve a problem.

“We would go back home every two years and even then, I would always take note of what was missing and what could be improved. I would find myself having to pay for foreign expenses with money that was sitting in a US bank account,” said Alabi. “Traditional remittance companies were so slow and expensive that I knew I could do it better with crypto. Remittance is the best and most important use case for crypto. Our goal is to build the world’s largest remittance company, starting with emerging markets.”

Trading platform eToro to go public via SPAC merger in $10B deal

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Multi-asset investing and trading platform and Robinhood competitor eToro announced Tuesday it will go public via a merger with SPAC FinTech Acquisition Corp. V in a massive $10.4 billion deal.

Once the transaction closes sometime in the third quarter, the combined company will operate as eToro Group Ltd. and is expected to be listed on the Nasdaq exchange.

The 14-year-old Israeli company was founded on a “vision of opening up capital markets.” It launched its platform in the U.S. just over two years ago and has seen rapid growth as of late. Last year, eToro said it added over 5 million new registered users and generated gross revenues of $605 million, representing 147% year over year growth. In January alone, the company added over 1.2 million new registered users and executed more than 75 million trades on its platform. That compares to 2019 when monthly registrations averaged 192,000 and 2020, when they grew to 440,000.

eToro said its platform is capitalizing on a number of secular trends such as the rise of digital wealth platforms, growing retail participation and mainstream crypto adoption. The company no doubt benefitted from the recent rise in retail investment interest, and in consumer investment apps and services specifically, which resulted from the so-called ‘meme stock’ activity that began with Redditors trading GameStop stock in order to frustrate institutional short-sellers.

The platform, which spans “social” stock trading and cryptocurrency exchange, in November 2019 acquired Delta, the crypto portfolio tracker app. eToro claims to be one of the first regulated platforms to offer cryptoassets. Its platform is regulated in the U.K., Europe, Australia, the U.S. and Gibraltar.

The transaction includes commitments for a $650 million common share private placement from leading investors including ION Investment Group, SoftBank Vision Fund 2, Third Point LLC, Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC and Wellington Management. The overall $10.4 billion implied equity value of the merger arrangement includes an implied enterprise value for eToro of $9.6 billion.

eToro currently has over 20 million registered users across 100 countries, and its social community is rapidly expanding due to the growth of its total addressable market, supported in part by secular trends such as the growth of digital wealth platforms and the rise in retail participation.

It expects to receivedapproval from FINRA for a broker dealer license, with plans to launch stocks in the U.S. in the second half of 2021. In a written statement, FinTech V chairman Betsy Cohen said that its sponsor platform Fintech Masala seeks out companies “with outsized growth, effective controls and excellent management teams.”

“eToro meets all three of these criteria,” she added. “In the last few years, eToro has solidified its position as the leading online social trading platform outside the U.S., outlined its plans for the U.S. market, and diversified its income streams. It is now at an inflection point of growth, and we believe eToro is exceptionally positioned to capitalize on this opportunity.”

ElevateBio raises $525M to advance its cell and gene therapy technologies

By Darrell Etherington

ElevateBio, one of the leading biotech companies focused on gene-based therapies has raised a massive $525 million Series C round of financing, more than doubling the company’s $193 million Series B funding which closed last year. This new funding comes from existing investor Matrix Capital Management, and also adds new investors SoftBank and Fidelity Management & Research Company, and will be used to help the company expand its R&D and manufacturing capabilities, as well as continue to spin out new companies and partnerships based on its research.

Cambridge, Mass-based ElevateBio was founded to bridge the world of academic research and development of cell and gene therapies with that of commercialization and production-scale manufacturing. The startup identified a need for more efficient means of brining to market the ample, promising science that was being done in developing therapeutics that leverage cellular and genetic editing, particularly in treatment of severe and chronic illness. Its business model focuses on both developing and commercializing its own therapies, and also working through long-term partnerships with academic research institutions and other therapeutics biotech companies to bring their own technologies to market.

To this end, ElevateBio is in the business of frequent spin-out company creation, with the new entities each focused on a specific therapeutic. The company has announced three such companies to date, including AlloVir (in partnership with Baylor College of Medicine), HighPassBio (a venture with gene-editing company Fred Hutchinson) and Life Edit Therapeutics (in partnership with AgBiome). There are additional spin-outs in the works, too, according to ElevateBio, but they are not being disclosed publicly yet.

As you might expect, ElevateBio seems to have benefited from the increased appetite for biotech investment stemming from the global pandemic and its impacts. ElevateBio’s AlloVir spin-out is actually working on a T cell therapy candidate for addressing COVID-19, which is potentially effective in eliminating cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 in a patient to slow the spread of the disease and reduce its severity.

WeWork unbundles its products in an attempt to make itself over, but will the strategy work?

By Mary Ann Azevedo

For years, there was a debate as to whether WeWork was a tech company or more of a real estate play. At first, most people viewed WeWork as a real estate startup disguised as a tech startup.

And as it kept scooping up more and more property, the lines continued to blur. Then we all watched as the company’s valuation plummeted and its IPO plans went up in smoke. Today, WeWork is rumored to be going public via a SPAC at a $10 valuation, down significantly from the $47 billion it was valued at after raising $1 billion in its SoftBank-led Series H round in January 2019. 

Co-founder and then-CEO Adam Neumann notoriously stepped down later that year amid allegations of a toxic combination of arrogance and poor management. WeWork has since been very publicly trying to redeem itself and turn around investor — and public — perception.

Chairman Marcelo Claure kicked off a strategic, five-year turnaround plan in earnest in February 2020. That same month, the beleaguered company named a real estate — not tech — exec as its new CEO, a move that set tongues wagging.

WeWork then also set a target of becoming free cash flow positive by a year to 2022 as part of its plan, which was aimed at both boosting valuation and winning back investor trust. 

It likely saw the demise of competitor Knotel, which ended up filing for bankruptcy and selling assets to an investor, and realized it needed to learn from some of that company’s mistakes.

The question now is: Has WeWork legitimately turned a corner? 

Since the implementation of its turnaround plan, the company says it has exited out of over 100 pre-open or underperforming locations. (It still has over 800 locations globally, according to its website.) WeWork has also narrowed its net loss to $517 million in Q3 2020 from $1.2 billion in the third quarter of 2019. 

Meanwhile, revenue has taken a hit, presumably due to the impact of the coronavirus. Revenue slumped to $811 million the 2020 third quarter, compared with $934 million in Q3 2019.

The pandemic presented WeWork with challenges, but also — some might say — opportunity.

With so many people being forced to work from home and avoiding others during the work day, the office space in general struggled. WeWork either had to adapt, or potentially deal with a bigger blow to its valuation and bottom line.

WeWork’s dilemma is similar to  those of real estate companies around the world. With so many companies shifting to remote work not just temporarily, but also permanently, landlords everywhere have had to adjust. 

For example, as McKinsey recently pointed out, all landlords have been forced to be more flexible and restructure tenant leases. So in effect, anyone operating commercial real estate space has had to become more flexible, just as WeWork has.

For its part, WeWork has taken a few steps to adapt. For one, it realized its membership-only plan was not going to work anymore, and a dip in membership was evidence of that. So, it worked to open its buildings to more people through new On Demand and All Access options. The goal was to give people who were weary of working out of their own homes a place to go, say one day a week, to work. WeWork also saw an opportunity to work with companies to offer up its office space as a perk via an All Access offering, as well as with universities that wanted to give their students an alternative place to study. 

For example, Georgetown did a pretty unique partnership with WeWork to have one of its locations serve as “their replacement library and common space.” And, companies like Brandwatch have recently shifted from leveraging WeWork’s traditional spaces to instead offer employees access to WeWork locations around the globe via All Access passes. 

WeWork has also launched new product features. At the beginning of the year, the company launched the ability to book space on the weekend and outside of business hours. 

The unbundling of space

I talked with Prabhdeep Singh, WeWork’s global head of marketplace, who is overseeing the new products and also spearheading WeWork’s shift online, to learn more about the company’s new strategy.

“What we’ve essentially done is unbundle our space,” he said. “It used to be that the only way to enjoy our spaces was via a bundled subscription product and monthly memberships. But we realized with COVID, the world was shifting, and to open up our platform to a broader group of people and make it as flexible as humanly possible. So they can now book a room for a half hour or get a day pass, for example. The use cases are so wide.”

Since On Demand launched as a pilot in New York City in August 2020, demand has steadily been climbing, according to Singh. So far, reservations are up by 65% — and revenue up by 70% — over the 2020 fourth quarter. But of course, it’s still early and they were starting from a small base. Nearly two-thirds of On Demand reservations are made by repeat customers, he added.

“Over the last year and a half, we’ve been really figuring out what things we want to focus on what things we don’t,” Singh said. “As a flexible space provider, we are looking at where the world is going. And while we’re a small part of the whole commercial office space industry, we are working to use technology to enable a flexible workspace experience via a great app and the digitization of our spaces.”

For now, things seem to be looking up some. In February, WeWork says it had nearly twice as many active users compared to January. Also, people apparently like having the option to come in at off hours. Weekend bookings now account for an estimated 14.5% of total bookings.

Nearly double as many existing members purchased All Access passes in February 2020 compared to January to complement their existing private office space during COVID, the company said. 

In the beginning of the COVID-19, WeWork saw a higher departure of small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) than of its enterprise members, partially due to the nature of their businesses and the need to more immediately manage cash flow, the company said. But in the third quarter of 2020, SMB desk sales were up 50% over the second quarter.

Interestingly, throughout the pandemic, WeWork has seen its enterprise segment grow at nearly double the rate of its SMBs, now making up over half of the company’s total membership base.

While it’s slowing down investing in new real estate assets in certain markets, it is still working to “right-size” its portfolio via exits.

And, when it comes to its finances, as of March 2, WeWork said its bonds were trading at the highest point since the summer of 2019, when the company failed to go public. That’s way up from a 52-week low of about 28%.

“At ~92% for a ~10% yield, the creditor sentiment is clearly positive and a testament to the overall market’s belief that WeWork’s flexible workspace product has a viable future in the future of real estate,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Just last March, WeWork’s bonds were trading at 43 cents on the dollar and S&P Global had lowered WeWork’s credit rating further into junk territory and put the company on watch for further downgrades, reported Forbes.

Still, the company is not done adapting. Singh told TechCrunch that to make WeWork’s value proposition even stronger, it’s working to offer a “business in a box.” Late last year, WeWork partnered with a number of companies to offer SMBs and startups, for example, services such as payroll, healthcare and business insurance.

A lot of people that come to WeWork are growing businesses,” Singh said. “So while we’ve stuck with our core business services, we’re working to offer more, as in a real suite of HR services that might be complex and expensive for a small business to manage on their own.”

It’s also working to be able to offer its On Demand product globally so that people can opt to work out of a WeWork space from any of its locations around the world.

“Right now, we are in the largest work from home experiment,” Singh said. “I think we’re about to shift to the largest return to work experiment ever. We are just going to be very well positioned.”

The company appears to be trying to become a more sophisticated real estate company that may not be as flashy as the one of the Adam Neumann era, but more stable and more in demand. But is it trying to do too much, too fast?

It will be interesting to see how it all goes.

 

Coupang follows Roblox to a strong first day of trading

By Alex Wilhelm

Another day brings another pubic debut of a multibillion dollar company that performed well out of the gate.

This time it’s Coupang, whose shares are currently up just over 46% to more than $51 after pricing at $35, $1 above the South Korean e-commerce giant’s IPO price range. Raising one’s range and then pricing above it only to see the public markets take the new equity higher is somewhat par for the course when it comes to the most successful recent debuts, to which we can add Coupang.

The company’s mix of rapid growth and slimming deficits appear to have found an audience among public money types, so let’s quickly explore the price they paid. What was the company worth at its IPO price, and what is worth now? And, of course, we’ll want to calculate revenue run rates for each figure.

Oh — we’ll also need to calculate how much money SoftBank made. Inverted J-Curve indeed!

Coupang’s IPO and current value

As Renaissance Capital notes, Coupang boosted its share allocation to 130 million shares from 120 million. This made the value of both primary and secondary shares in its public offering worth a total of $4.55 billion. That’s a lot of damn money.

At its IPO price of $35, the same source pegged the company’s fully diluted IPO valuation at $62.9 billion. By our accounting, the company’s simple valuation at its IPO price came to $60.4 billion. Those numbers are close enough that we’ll just stick with the diluted number out of kindness to the company’s fans.

Doing some quick math, Coupang is worth around $92 billion at the moment. That’s a huge number that nearly zero companies will ever reach. Some do, of course, but as a percentage of startups that start it’s an outlier figure.

Investors’ SPAC push could revamp the private market money game

By Alex Wilhelm

Since last year, we’ve been tracking the growing list of capitalists who got into the SPAC game. You can read an interview we conducted with Amish Jani, the co-founder of FirstMark Capital, about his SPAC here. And if you need a refresher on all things SPAC, we have that for you as well.

This morning, I want to better understand the trend by parsing a few new venture capitalist SPACs. We’ll examine Lerer Hippeau Acquisition Corp. and Khosla Ventures Acquisition Co. I, II and III. The SPACs are, somewhat obviously, associated with New York-based Lerer Hippeau and Menlo Park’s Khosla Ventures. And all four dropped formal S-1 filings last week.


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Today’s topic may sound dry, but it really does matter. As we’ve reported, Lux Capital is in on the SPAC wager, along with Ribbit and, of course, SoftBank. Adding our latest names to the mix and you have to wonder if every VC worth a damn in the future will have their own raft of SPAC offerings.

In that way, as some late-stage venture capital funds invest earlier — and now later — full-service VC outfits will offer first-check to final liquidity, will such a full-stack venture outfit be able to win more deals than a group offering a limited set of financing options? If so, the recent venture capital SPAC wave could become more of a rising tide in time, to torture a metaphor.

Regardless, let’s quickly parse what Khosla and Lerer Hippeau are telling public investors about why they will be great SPACers before working our way backwards to what the resulting pitch must be to startups themselves.

Full-stack capital

The Lerer Hippeau SPAC is the most interesting of the two firms’ combined four offerings, so we’ll start there. That isn’t to diss Khosla, but the Lerer Hippeau blank-check has some explicit wording I want to highlight.

From the Lerer Hippeau Acquisition Corp. S-1 filing, read the following (bolding: TechCrunch):

As our seed portfolio matured over the last decade, we added a growth strategy to our platform through our select funds. This capital enables us to continue providing financial support to our top performing early stage companies as they scale, and to selectively make new investments in later stage companies in the Lerer Hippeau network. With our portfolio now maturing to the stage at which many are considering the public markets, we view SPACs as a natural next step in the evolution of our platform.

After writing that it has had four portfolio companies “publicly announced business combination agreements with SPACs” and noting that it expects more of the same, Lerer Hippeau added that it considers its “expansion into the SPAC market as a highly complementary element of our strategy to support founders throughout their entrepreneurial journeys.”

Coupang files for mega US IPO

By Alex Wilhelm

Earlier today, South Korean e-commerce and delivery giant Coupang filed to go public in the United States. As a private company, Coupang has raised billions, including capital from American venture capital firm Sequoia and Japanese telecom giant SoftBank and its Vision Fund.

Coupang’s revenue growth is nothing short of fantastic.

Coupang’s offering, coming amidst the public debut of a number of well-known technology brands, will be a massive affair. Its first S-1 filing indicates that its IPO will raise capital in the range of $1 billion, far larger than the $100 million placeholder that is more common.

But the company’s scale makes its lofty IPO fundraising goals reasonable. Coupang is huge, with revenues north of $10 billion in 2020 and in improving financial health as it scales. And its revenue growth has accelerated.

Perhaps that explains why the company is reportedly targeting a valuation of $50 billion.

This afternoon, let’s dig into the company’s historical growth, its improving cash flow and its narrowing losses. Coupang’s debut will create a splash when it lands, so we owe it to ourselves to grok its numbers.

And as there are other e-commerce brands with a delivery function waiting in the wings to go public — Instacart comes to mind — how Coupang fares in its IPO matters for a good number of domestic startups and unicorns.

Coupang’s surging scale

The company’s growth across the last half-decade is impressive. Observe its yearly revenue totals from 2016 through 2020:

  • 2016: $1.67 billion.
  • 2017: $2.4 billion (+43.7%).
  • 2018: $4.05 billion (+68.8%).
  • 2019: $6.27 billion (+54.8%).
  • 2020: $11.97 billion (+90.9%).

Sure, some of that 2020 growth is COVID-19 related, but even taking that into account, Coupang’s revenue growth is nothing short of fantastic. And what’s better is that the company has cut its losses in recent years:

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