This year has shaken up venture capital, turning a hot early start to 2020 into a glacial period permeated with fear during the early days of COVID-19. That ice quickly melted as venture capitalists discovered that demand for software and other services that startups provide was accelerating, pushing many young tech companies back into growth mode, and investors back into the check-writing arena.
Boston has been an exemplar of the trend, with early pandemic caution dissolving into rapid-fire dealmaking as summer rolled into fall.
We collated new data that underscores the trend, showing that Boston’s third quarter looks very solid compared to its peer groups, and leads greater New England’s share of American venture capital higher during the three-month period.
For our October look at Boston and its startup scene, let’s get into the data and then understand how a new cohort of founders is cropping up among the city’s educational network.
Boston’s third quarter was strong, effectively matching the capital raised in New York City during the three-month period. As we head into the fourth quarter, it appears that the silver medal in American startup ecosystems is up for grabs based on what happens in Q4.
Boston could start 2021 as the number-two place to raise venture capital in the country. Or New York City could pip it at the finish line. Let’s check the numbers.
According to PitchBook data shared with TechCrunch, the metro Boston area raised $4.34 billion in venture capital during the third quarter. New York City and its metro area managed $4.45 billion during the same time period, an effective tie. Los Angeles and its own metro area managed just $3.90 billion.
In 2020 the numbers tilt in Boston’s favor, with the city and surrounding area collecting $12.83 billion in venture capital. New York City came in second through Q3, with $12.30 billion in venture capital. Los Angeles was a distant third at $8.66 billion for the year through Q3.
The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected the financial outlook for millions of people, and continues to cause significant fiscal distress to millions more, but such challenging times have also wrought a more resilient and resourceful financial system.
With the ingenuity of crowdfunding, considered to be one of the last decade’s greatest “success stories,” and such desperate times calling for bold new ways to finance a wide variety of COVID-19 relief efforts, we are now seeing an excellent opportunity for banks and other financial institutions to partner with crowdfunding platforms and campaigns, bolstering their efforts and impact.
Before considering how financial institutions can assist with crowdfunding campaigns, we must first look at the diverse array of impressive results from this financing option during the pandemic. As people choose between paying the rent or buying groceries, and countless other despairing circumstances, we must look to some of the more inventive ways businesses, entrepreneurs and people in general are using crowdfunding to provide the COVID-19 relief that cash-strapped consumers with maxed-out or poor credit do not have access to or the government has not provided.
Some great examples of COVID-19 crowdfunding at its best include the following:
The possibilities presented by crowdfunding in this age of the coronavirus are endless, and financial institutions can certainly lend their assistance. Here is how.
Crowdfunding is a substantial and ever-so relevant means of financing all sorts of businesses, people and products. Denying its substantive contribution to the economy, especially in digital finance during this pandemic, is akin to wearing a monocle when you actually need glasses for both of your eyes. Do not be shortsighted on this. Crowdfunding is here to stay. In fact, countless crowdfunding businesses and platforms continue to make major moves within the markets globally. For example, Parpera from Australia, in coordination with the equity-crowdfunding platforms, hopes to rival the likes of GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
This might seem contrary to the original purpose of these campaigns, but the right amount of seed-cash infusions to campaigns that are aligned with your goals as a company is a win-win for both you and the entrepreneurs or causes, especially now in such desperate times of need.
This means that small businesses and medium-sized businesses within your institution’s community could use your help. Consider investing in crowdfunding campaigns similar to the ones mentioned earlier. Better yet, bridge the gaps between financial institutions and crowdfunding platforms and campaigns so that smaller businesses get the opportunities they need to survive through these difficult times.
Last month, the United Nations Development Program released a report proclaiming that digital finance is now allowing people from all over the world to customize and personalize their money-management experiences such that their financial needs have the potential to be more readily and sufficiently met. Financial institutions willing to work as a partner with crowdfunding platforms and campaigns will further these goals and set society up for a more robust rebound from any possible detrimental effects of the COVID-19 recession.
Other countries are already beginning to figure out better ways to regulate the crowdfunding financing industry, such as the recent updates to the European Union’s handling of crowdfunding regulations, set to take effect this fall. Well-established financial institutions can lend their support in defining the policies and standard operating procedures for crowdfunding even during such a chaotic time as the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so will ensure fair and equitable financing for all, at least, in theory.
While originally born out of either philanthropy or early-adopting innovation, depending on the situation, person or product, crowdfunding has become an increasingly reliable means of providing COVID-19 economic relief when other organizations, including the government and some banks, cannot provide sufficient assistance. Financial institutions must lend their vast expertise, knowledge and resources to these worthy causes; after all, we are all in this together.
Virtual meetings are a fundamental part of how we interact with each other these days, but even when (if!?) we find better ways to mitigate the effects of Covid-19, many think that they will be here to stay. That means there is an opportunity out there to improve how they work — because let’s face it, Zoom Fatigue is real and I for one am not super excited anymore to be a part of your Team.
mmhmm, the video presentation startup from former Evernote CEO Phil Libin with ambitions to change the conversation (literally and figuratively) about what we can do with the medium — its first efforts have included things like the ability to manipulate presentation material around your video in real time to mimic newscasts — is today announcing an acquisition as it continues to hone in on a wider launch of its product, currently in a closed beta.
It has acquired Memix, an outfit out of San Francisco that has built a series of filters you can apply to videos — either pre-recorded or streaming — to change the lighting, details in the background, or across the whole of the screen, and an app that works across various video platforms to apply those filters.
Like mmhmm, Memix is today focused on building tools that you use on existing video platforms — not building a video player itself. Memix today comes in the form of a virtual camera, accessible via Windows apps for Zoom, WebEx and Microsoft Teams; or web apps like Facebook Messenger, Houseparty and others that run on Chrome, Edge and Firefox.
Libin said in an interview that the plan will be to keep that virtual camera operating as is while it works on integrating the filters and Memix’s technology into mmhmm, while also laying the groundwork for building more on top of the platform.
Libin’s view is that while there are already a lot of video products and users in the market today, we are just at the start of it all, with technology and our expectations changing rapidly. We are shifting, he said, from wanting to reproduce existing experiences (like meetings) to creating completely new ones that might actually be better.
“There is a profound change in the world that we are just at the beginning of,” he said in an interview. “The main thing is that everything is hybrid. If you imagine all the experiences we can have, from in person to online, or recorded to live, up to now almost everything in life fit neatly into one of those quadrants. The boundaries were fixed. Now all these boundaries have melted away we can rebuild every experience to be natively hybrid. This is a monumental change.”
That is a concept that the Memix founders have not just been thinking about, but also building the software to make it a reality.
“There is a lot to do,” said Pol Jeremias-Vila, one of the co-founders. “One of our ideas was to try to provide people who do streaming professionally an alternative to the really complicated set-ups you currently use,” which can involve expensive cameras, lights, microphones, stands and more. “Can we bring that to a user just with a couple of clicks? What can be done to put the same kind of tech you get with all that hardware into the hands of a massive audience?”
Memix’s team of two — co-founders Inigo Quilez and Jeremias-Vila, Spaniards who met not in Spain but the Bay Area — are not coming on board full-time, but they will be helping with the transition and integration of the tech.
Libin said that he first became aware of Quilez from a YouTube video he’d posted on “The principles of painting with maths”, but that doesn’t give a lot away about the two co-founders. They are in reality graphic engineering whizzes, with Jeremias-Vila currently the lead graphics software engineer at Pixar, and Quilez until last year a product manager and lead engineer at Facebook, where he created, among other things, the Quill VR animation and production tool for Oculus.
Because working the kind of hours that people put in at tech companies wasn’t quite enough time to work on graphics applications, the pair started another effort called Beauty Pi (not to be confused with Beauty Pie), which has become a home for various collaborations between the two that had nothing to do with their day jobs. Memix had been bootstrapped by the pair as a project built out of that. And other efforts have included Shadertoy, a community and platform for creating Shaders (a computer program created to shade in 3D scenes).
That background of Memix points to an interesting opportunity in the world of video right now. In part because of all the focus (sorry not sorry!) on video right now as a medium because of our current pandemic circumstances, but also because of the advances in broadband, devices, apps and video technology, we’re seeing a huge proliferation of startups building interesting variations and improvements on the basic concept of video streaming.
Just in the area of videoconferencing alone, some of the hopefuls have included Headroom, which launched the other week with a really interesting AI-based approach to helping its users get more meaningful notes from meetings, and using computer vision to help presenters “read the room” better by detecting if people are getting bored, annoyed and more.
Vowel is also bringing a new set of tools not just to annotate meetings and their corresponding transcriptions in a better way, but to then be able to search across all your sessions to follow up items and dig into what people said over multiple events.
And Descript, which originally built a tool to edit audio tracks, earlier this week launched a video component, letting users edit visuals and what you say in those moving pictures, by cutting, pasting and rewriting a word-based document transcribing the sound from that video. All of these have obvious B2B angles, like mmhmm, and they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Indeed, the huge amount of IP out there is interesting in itself. Yet the jury is still out on where all of it would best live and thrive as the space continues to evolve, with more defined business models (and leading companies) only now emerging.
That presents an interesting opportunity not just for the biggies like Zoom, Google and Microsoft, but also players who are building entirely new platfroms from the ground up.
mmhmm is a notable company in that context. Not only does it have the reputation and inspiration of Libin behind it — a force powerful enough that even his foray into the ill-fated world of chatbots got headlines — but it’s also backed by the likes of Sequoia, which led a $21 million round earlier this month.
Libin said he doesn’t like to think of his startup as a consolidator, or the industry in a consolidation play, as that implies a degree of maturity in an area that he still feels is just getting started.
“We’re looking at this not so much consolidation, which to me means marketshare,” he said. “Our main criteria is that we wanted to work with teams that we are in love with.”
Earlier this week I asked startups to share their Q3 growth metrics and whether they were performing ahead of behind of their yearly goals.
Lots of companies responded. More than I could have anticipated, frankly. Instead of merely giving me a few data points to learn from, The Exchange wound up collecting sheafs of interesting data from upstart companies with big Q3 performance.
Naturally, the startups that reached out were the companies doing the best. I did not receive a single reply that described no growth, though a handful of respondents noted that they were behind in their plans.
Regardless, the dataset that came together felt worthy of sharing for its specificity and breadth. And so other startup founders can learn from how some of their peer group are performing. (Kidding.)
Let’s get into the data, which has been segmented into buckets covering fintech, software and SaaS, startups focused on developers or security and a final group that includes D2C and fertility startups, among others.
Obviously, some of the following startups could land in several different groups. Don’t worry about it! The categories are relaxed. We’re here to have fun, not split hairs!
Lunar, the Nordic challenger bank that started out life as a personal finance manager app (PFM) but acquired a full banking license in 2019, has raised €40 million in Series C funding from existing investors.
The injection of capital follows a €20 million Series B disclosed in April this year and comes on the back of Lunar rolling out Pro paid-for subscriptions — similar to a number of other challenger banks in Europe — personal consumer loans, and the launch of business bank accounts in August.
The latter appears to have been an instant success, perhaps proof there is — like in the U.K. — pent up demand for more accessible banking for sole traders. Just months since launching in Denmark, Lunar Business claims to have signed up more than 50% of all newly founded sole trader businesses in the country.
I’m also told that Lunar has seen “best-in-class” user engagement with users spending €1,100 per month versus what the bank says is a €212 EU average for card transactions. Overall, the bank has 5,000 business users and 200,000 private users across Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Meanwhile — and most noteworthy — after launching its first consumer lending products on its own balance sheet, Lunar has set its sights on the “buy now, pay later” market, therefore theoretically encroaching on $10.65 billion valued Klarna, and Affirm in the U.S. which just filed to go public. Other giants in the BNPL space also include PayPal.
Lunar founder and CEO Ken Villum Klausen says the “schizophrenic” Nordic banking market is the reason why the challenger is launching BNPL. “It’s the most profitable banking landscape in the world, but also the most defensive, with least competition from the outside,” he says. “This means that the traditional banking customer is buying all their financial products from their bank”.
It is within this context that Lunar’s BNPL products are built as “post-purchase,” where Lunar will prompt its users after they have bought something (not dissimilar to Curve’s planned credit offering). For example, if you were to buy a new television, the app will ask if you want to split the purchase into instalments. “This does not require merchant agreements etc, and will work on all transactions both retail and e-commerce,” explains Klausen.
“We do not view Klarna as a direct competitor as they are not in the Nordic clearing system,” he adds. “Hence, you cannot pay your bills, get your salary and use it for daily banking. Klarna is enormous in Sweden, but relatively small in Denmark, Norway and Finland”.
In total, Lunar has raised €104 million from investors including Seed Capital, Greyhound Capital, Socii Capital and Chr. Augustinus Fabrikker. The challenger has offices in Aarhus, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, with a headcount of more than 180 employees. It plans to launch its banking app in Finland in the first half of 2021.
Now, what did we get to? Aside from a little of everything, we ran through:
Whew! It was a lot, but also very good fun. Look for clips on YouTube if you’d like, and we’ll chat you all next Monday.
Yes, the media f’ing gorged on the Quibi story yesterday. We did, they did, everyone did. And really, truly, how could anyone not? Nearly $2 billion came in (with $350 million heading back), a star-studded lineup of executives and production teams, an absolutely massive advertising campaign, and a PR strategy that all but begged the sun to melt Icarus’ wings.
Our collective exhalation on the complete clusterfuck that was Quibi though leads to a legitimate and interesting question: are we obnoxiously attacking a good-faith failure? Wasn’t Quibi a bet just like every other startup, a bet that just happened to fail? A16Z’s general partner Andrew Chen put it vividly on Twitter, saying “It’s gross” and lauding the entrepreneurial challenge of building a startup:
all the people rushing to their keyboards to type in their "i told you so" hot takes on Quibi:
It's gross. Building a company is hard, why celebrate a fail?
Go build something instead of using your energy to let twitter know how smart you are the say the consensus thing.
I understand this view, deeply. In fact, all of us at TechCrunch understand this. One of the things that we pride ourselves on here is respecting the hustle. We know how hard it is to launch a startup. As a team, we collectively talk to thousands of founders every year, and we hear the heartbreaking stories and the downright trauma at times that comes with building a company. Occasionally (and yes, we focus most of our reporting here), we hear about the wins and successes too.
Let’s be honest: most startups fail. Most ideas turn out wrong. Most entrepreneurs are never going to make it. That doesn’t mean no one should build a startup, or pursue their passions and dreams. And when success happens, we like to talk about it, report on, and try to explain why it happens — because ultimately, more entrepreneurial success is good for all of us and helps to drive progress in our world.
But let’s also be clear that there are bad ideas, and then there are flagrantly bad ideas with billions in funding from smart people who otherwise should know better. Quibi wasn’t the spark of the proverbial college dropout with a passion for entertainment trying to invent a new format for mobile phones with ramen money from friends and family. Quibi was run by two of the most powerful and influential executives in the United States today, who raised more money for their project than other female founders have raised collectively this year.
Chen makes an important point that many obvious ideas in tech started as dumb ideas. That’s true! In fact, the history of technology is littered with examples of ideas that investors and the press thought were either dumb or impossible to build (which is a more polite way to say “dumb”).
for everyone who “obviously” knows when they see a bad idea in tech – everyone citing Quibi today – here’s a thread for you. https://t.co/QpXXKG16Vm
— Andrew Chen (@andrewchen) October 22, 2020
Why do supposedly dumb ideas turn out to be smart? Part of the reason is that what starts out as dumb slowly iterates into something that is very smart. Facebook was just a “facebook” for checking out your classmates on college campuses. If it had ended there and withered away like many other social networks before it, we might well have put it in the waste bin of history. But Zuckerberg and his crew iterated — adding features like photos, a feed, messaging and more with an extreme focus on growth that made the product so much more than when it started.
We’ve seen this pattern again and again throughout time. Founders get feedback from users, they iterate, they pivot, they try new things, and slowly but surely they start to migrate from what might have been a very raw concept to something much more ready to compete in the ferocious marketplace of business and consumer attention today.
This was never the story with Quibi. There was never an iteration of the product, or a long-range plan to assiduously cultivate users and talent as the company found traction while carefully husbanding its capital for the inevitable tough moments in the growth of any company.
Yes, we in the commentariat do make mistakes, but analysts weren’t dumb in pointing out all of Quibi’s glaring, red-alert flaws. Those analysts were smart. They were right. They might not be right next time, of course — no analyst should get too overconfident in their predictions. But at the same time, we shouldn’t just collectively throw up our hands and declare every idea that comes our way a brilliant gift from the heavens. Most ideas are dumb, and we and everyone else have every right to point that out.
So respect the hustle. Don’t kick a hardworking entrepreneur down who is just trying to get their project out there and show it the world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t call out stupid when you see it. The best entrepreneurs know that — even at its most vituperative — critical feedback is the necessary ingredient to startup success. Lauding everyone lauds no one.
Render, the winner of our Disrupt SF 2019 Startup Battlefield, today announced that it has added another $4.5 million onto its existing seed funding round, bringing total investment into the company to $6.75 million.
The round was led by General Catalyst, with participation from previous investors South Park Commons Fund and a group of angels that includes Lee Fixel, Elad Gil and GitHub CTO (and former VP of Engineering at Heroku) Jason Warner.
The company, which describes itself as a “Zero DevOps alternative to AWS, Azure and Google Cloud,” originally raised a $2.25 million seed round in April 2019, but it got a lot of inbound interest after winning the Disrupt Battlefield. In the end, though, the team decided to simply raise more money from its existing investors.
“We spoke to a bunch of people after Disrupt, including Ashton Kutcher’s firm, because he was one of the judges,” Render co-founder and CEO Anurag Goel explained. “In the end, we decided that we would just raise more money from our existing investors because we like them and it helped us get a better deal from our existing investors. And they were all super interested in continuing to invest.”
What makes Render stand out is that it fulfills many of the promises of Heroku and maybe Google Cloud’s App Engine. You simply tell it what kind of service you are going to deploy and it handles the deployment and manages the infrastructure for you.
“Our customers are all people who are writing code. And they just want to deploy this code really easily without having to worry about servers, or maintenance, or depending on DevOps teams — or, in many cases, hiring DevOps teams,” Goel said. “DevOps engineers are extremely expensive to hire and extremely hard to find, especially good ones. Our goal is to eliminate all of that work that DevOps people do at every company, because it’s very similar at every company.”
One new feature the company is launching today is preview environments. You can think of them as disposable staging or development environments that developers can spin up to test their code — and Render promises that the testing environment will look the same as your production environment (or you can specify changes, too). Developers can then test their updates collaboratively with QA or their product and sales teams in this environment.
Development teams on Render specify their infrastructure environments in a YAML file and turning on these new preview environments is as easy as setting a flag in that file.
“Once they do that, then for every pull request — because we’re integrated with GitHub and GitLab — we automatically spin up a copy of that environment. That can include anything you have in production, or things like a Redis instance, or managed Postgres database, or Elasticsearch instance, or obviously APIs and web services and static sites,” Goel said. Every time you push a change to that branch or pull request, the environment is automatically updated, too. Once the pull request is closed or merged, Render destroys the environment automatically.
The company will use the new funding to grow its team and build out its service. The plan, Goel tells me, is to raise a larger Series A round next year.
The venture capital industry’s comeback from fear in Q1 and parts of Q2 to Q3 greed is worth understanding. To get our hands around what happened to private capital in 2020, we’ve taken looks into both the United States’ VC scene and the global picture this week.
Catching you up, there was lots of private money available for startups in the third quarter, with the money tilting toward later-stage rounds.
Late-stage rounds are bigger than early-stage rounds, so they take up more dollars individually. But Q3 2020 was a standout period for how high late-stage money stacked up compared to cash available to younger startups.
For example, according to CB Insights data, 54% of all venture capital money invested in the United States in the third quarter was part of rounds that were $100 million or more. That worked out to 88 rounds — a historical record — worth $19.8 billion.
The other 1,373 venture capital deals in the United States during Q3 had to split the remaining 46% of the money.
While the broader domestic and global venture capital scenes showed signs of life — dollars invested in Europe and Asia rose, American seed deal volume perked back up, that sort of thing — it’s the late-stage data that I can’t shake.
To my non-American friends, the data we have available is focused on the United States, so we’ll have to examine the late-stage dollar boom through a domestic lens. The general points should apply broadly, and we’ll always do our best to keep our perspective broad.
RepTrak, founded in 2004, helps businesses measure their reputations (and their competitors’ reputations) through a database of more than 1 million company ratings collected every year. Meanwhile, Onclusive (formerly known as AirPR) offers a variety of tools to analyze the impact of PR and earned media coverage on a company’s bottom line.
Those two areas might not sound dramatically different, but Beltramo said that for PR professionals, they represent two separate goals — and that RepTrak’s reputation data helps to fill in some of the areas that Onclusive was missing.
“We made our name in PR analytics, [measuring] what I would call bottom of the funnel,” he said. “It’s an important objective for PR: Are you driving sales? Are you driving downloads?”
By combining Onclusive’s data with RepTrak’s, Beltramo said they’re giving PR people “a good measure to shoot for at the top of the funnel” — and for some, improving reputation may be more important than driving sales: “At bigger companies with longer cycles and bigger issues, reputation is where the PR person’s psyche was focused.”
Conversely, he said that for a chief communications officer who’d previously paid more attention to high-level reputation, Onclusive’s provides more real-time data and tactical tools.
Beltramo added that there will be multiple stages to the partnership. First, the companies are working to present Onclusive’s media analytics in the RepTrak system. Eventually, information will be flowing in the opposite direction too, with Onclusive’s team figuring out how to incorporate RepTrak as well.
“I am pleased that our partnership with Onclusive will give our clients an even more proactive way to activate their reputation management efforts by using the RepTrak Platform to prioritize and diagnose opportunities and threats, then drill into the details of their media presence to take action,” said RepTrak CEO Kylie Wright-Ford in a statement. “The media and cultural environments are very dynamic right now, so companies need to have a complete set of accurate data to make the right decisions.”
Yuanfudao, a homework tutoring-app founded in 2012, has raised $2.2 billion from investors, surpassing Byju’s as the most valuable edtech company in the world. The Beijing-based company is now worth $15.5 billion dollars, almost double its valuation set in March.
The company views the new capital as two separate extension rounds of its March raise, a $1 billion Series G financing event. The G1 round was led by Tencent with participation from Hillhouse Capital, Boyu Capital and IDG Capital. The G2 financing was led by DST Global, with participation from CITICPE, GIC, Temasek, TBP, DCP, Ocean Link, Greenwoods and Danhe Capital.
The money will be used to develop curriculum and expand Yuanfudao’s online educational service, amid a larger boom in remote learning. In 2018, the company told TechCrunch that a majority of its revenue came from selling live courses. Its goal then was to fund and bring more AI into its products, and improve its user experience.
In the two years since, Yuanfudao has doubled its total users to 400 million students across China. Today’s funding suggests that it will push more live, online coursework and broaden out its closed loop system of learning.
Currently, Yuanfudao offers a variety of products: live tutoring, online Q&A arm, and math problem checking arm.
Yuanfudao’s physical footprint, which includes 30,000 employees in teaching centers across China, could fuel its online services. In 2014, it set up an AI Research Institute and technology laboratory with elite schools including Tsinghua University, Peking University, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Microsoft. The goal? To bring insights from that institute directly into the app. The company sees AI as an opportunity to see what student weaknesses look like, which it can then address in teacher curriculum and product design.
Asia more broadly has a stronger education market because of consumer spending and a cultural focus on outcomes in education. Thus, the shift to digital learning has poured fuel on an already booming education market. One report says that the education economy in China alone could be worth $81 billion in two years.
As my colleague Rita Liao pointed out, Yuanfudao is nowhere near alone in the race to win the tutoring market. Other well-funded companies include Zuoyebang, a Beijing-based startup that focuses on online learning and last raised $750 million in June; and Yiqizuoye, which has Singapore sovereign fund Temasek as an investor.
The startup, founded by CEO Lilac Bar David and CTO Liran Zelkha, is creating a bank account and associated products designed for freelancers, with features like early access to direct deposit payments and the ability to set aside a percentage of income for taxes.
The account (and associated Visa debit card) is free of overdraft fees or minimum balance requirements; Bar David said the company only makes money from card processing fees.
She also said that the platform has seen rapid growth this year, with transactions up 700% since the beginning of the pandemic and nearly 100,000 accounts opened since the launch in 2019.
Bar David suggested that the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19 has prompted (or forced) more skilled workers — such as programmers and digital marketers — to turn to freelancing. Meanwhile, she’s also seen “a big shift from part-time freelance to full-time freelance.”
Lili CEO Lilac Bar David
Bar David predicted that the recent growth of the freelance economy won’t simply disappear once the pandemic is over, because workers are discovering the benefits of freelancing.
“If you have a 9-to-5 job, you’re dependent on one employer,” she said. “If something happens you’re out of a job … If you’ve got a diversified customer base, you’re not dependent on just one source of income.”
In recent months, Lili has added new features like automatically generated quarterly income and expense reports, a digital debit card (which customers can use before the physical card arrives in the mail) and the ability to send and receive money via Google Pay (Lili already supported Cash App and Venmo).
Bar David said the startup decided to raise more funding to expand its engineering team and further accelerate its growth. Apparently she was preparing for a traditional Series A fundraising process (albeit one that was conducted in the middle of a pandemic), but “our current investors were so tremendously impressed by the product-market fit and the growth” that they were willing to fund almost all of the new round.
So the Series A was led by previous investor Group 11, with participation from Foundation Capital, AltaIR Capital, Primary Venture Partners and Torch Capital — along with new backer Zeev Ventures.
“As the global workforce evolves at a rapid pace, we are excited to lead another round of funding to help Lili capitalize on unprecedented demand and offer an entirely new solution to help freelancers seamlessly save time and money,” said Group 11’s Dovi Frances in a statement.
Buildings are the bedrocks of civilization — places to live, places to work (well, normally, in a non-COVID-19 world) and places to play. Yet how we conceive buildings, architect them for their uses, and ultimately construct them on a site has changed remarkably little over the past few decades. Housing and building costs continue to rise, and there remains a slow linear process from conception to construction for most projects. Why can’t the whole process be more flexible and faster?
Well, a trio of engineers and architects out of MIT and Georgia Tech are exploring that exact question.
MIT’s former treasurer Israel Ruiz along with architects Anton Garcia-Abril of MIT and Debora Mesa of Georgia Tech have joined together on a startup called WoHo (short for “World Home”) that’s trying to rethink how to construct a modern building by creating more flexible “components” that can be connected together to create a structure.
WoHo’s Israel Ruiz, Debora Mesa, and Anton Garcia-Abril. Photo by Tony Luong via WoHo.
By creating components that are usable in a wide variety of types of buildings and making them easy to construct in a factory, the goal of WoHo is to lower construction costs, maximize flexibility for architects, and deliver compelling spaces for end users, all while making projects greener in a climate unfriendly world.
The team’s ideas caught the attention of Katie Rae, CEO and managing partner of The Engine, a special fund that spun out of MIT that is notable for its lengthy time horizons for VC investments. The fund is backing WoHo with $4.5 million in seed capital.
Ruiz spent the last decade overseeing MIT’s capital construction program, including the further buildout of Kendall Square, a neighborhood next to MIT that has become a major hub for biotech innovation. Through that process, he saw the challenges of construction, particularly for the kinds of unique spaces required for innovative companies. Over the years, he also built friendships with Garcia-Abril and Mesa, the duo behind Ensamble Studio, an architecture firm.
With WoHo, “it is the integration of the process from the design and concept in architecture all the way through the assembly and construction of that project,” Ruiz explained. “Our technology is suitable for low-to-high rise, but in particularly it provides the best outcomes for mid-to-high rise.”
So what exactly are these WoHo components? Think of them as well-designed and reusable blocks that can be plugged together in order to create a structure. These blocks are consistent and are designed to be easily manufactured and transported. One key innovation is around an improved reinforced cement that allows for better building quality at lower environmental cost.
Conception of a WoHo component under construction. Photo via WoHo
We have seen modular buildings before, typically apartment buildings where each apartment is a single block that can be plugged into a constructed structure (take for example this project in Sacramento). WoHo, though, wants to go further in having components that offer more flexibility and arrangements, and also act as the structure themselves. That gives architects far more flexibility.
It’s still early days, but the group has already gotten some traction in the market, inking a partnership with Swiss concrete and building materials company LafargeHolcim to bring their ideas to market. The company is building a demonstration project in Madrid, and targeting a second project in Boston for next year.
Geocoding startup what3words — which chunks the world into 3mx3m squares, giving each a unique three-word label to simplify location sharing — has nabbed another in-vehicle integration, via a partnership with Here Technologies.
The pair said today that OEMs using Here’s navigation platform can include what3words as an in-car nav feature directly through the Here Search API, instead of needing to integrate itself. Existing users of the platform will be able to be given access to what3word’s addressing tech via an update.
Here says its map data services can be found in 150 million vehicles worldwide at this point.
It’s by no means the first such integration for what3words which has found cars to be a natural fit for its simplified, ‘rolls-off-the-tongue’ addressing system. The 2013-founded startup inked a partnership with Ford last year, for example. It also counts Daimler as an investor.
Letting drivers speak or type three words to input a location into their car’s GPS system has clear benefits vs requiring they correctly specify a full address. what3words also pinpoints a more specific location than a typical postcode — and works for destinations that don’t have a street address (the start of a hiking trial or specific lay-by; a particular entrance for a campus etc).
what3words further notes that its tech has been adopted by global car companies, logistics providers and mobility apps, including Mercedes-Benz, Tata Motors, DB Schenker, Hermes and Cabify.
In recent years the novel addressing system has also found favor with Airbnb as a way of simplifying location sharing for less traditional types of stays.
Commenting on its latest partnership in a statement, what3words CEO and co-founder, Chris Sheldrick, said: “We are seeing increasing demand from automakers and mobility services. Now that we are embedded in Here, we can enable our address system simply and easily in both new and legacy vehicles.”
“Automotive OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers can now provide the what3words service to their customers through the Here Search API instead of having to integrate it themselves,” added Jørgen Behrens, SVP and chief product officer at Here Technologies in another supporting statement. “This will allow drivers to navigate easily in dense, urban environments with non-standard addressing schemes or seamlessly get to any location, be it a local pub or a trailhead.”
The pre-launch company has spent the last two years building what it describes as a “cloud-native” online card processor that directly connects to card networks. The aim is to offer a modern replacement for the 20 to 40-year-old payments card processing tech that is mostly in use today.
Backing Silverflow’s €2.6 million seed round is U.K.-based VC Crane Venture Partners, with participation from Inkef Capital and unnamed angel investors and industry leaders from Pay.On, First Data, Booking.com and Adyen. It brings the fintech startup’s total funding to date to ~€3 million.
Bootstrapped while in development and launching in 2021, Silverflow’s founders are CEO Anne-Willem de Vries (who was focused on card acquiring and processing at Adyen), CBDO Robert Kraal (former Adyen COO and EVP global card acquiring & processing of Adyen) and CTO Paul Buying (founder of acquired translation startup Livewords).
“The payments tech stack needs an upgrade,” Kraal tells me. “Today’s card payment infrastructure based on 30 to 40-year-old technology is still in use across the global payment landscape. This legacy infrastructure is costing everyone time and money: consumers, merchants, payment-service-providers and banks. The legacy platforms require a lengthy on-boarding process and are expensive to maintain, [and] they also aren’t fit for purpose today because they don’t support data use”.
In addition, Kraal says that adding new functionality is a lengthy and expensive process, requiring the effort of specialised engineers which ultimately slows down innovation “for the whole card payments system”.
“Finally, every acquirer provides its customer with a different processing platform, which for a typical payment service provider (PSP) means they have to deal with multiple legacy platforms — and all the costs and specialised support each entails,” adds de Vries.
To solve this, Silverflow claims it has built the first payments processor with a “cloud-native platform” built for today’s technology stack. This includes offering simple APIs and “streamlined data flows” directly integrated into the card networks.
Continues de Vries: “Instead of managing a complex network of acquirers across markets with dozens of bank and card network connections to maintain, Silverflow provides card-acquiring processing as a service that connects to card networks directly through a simple API”.
Target customers are PSPs, acquirers and “global top-market merchants” that are seeing €500 million to 10 billion in annual transactions.
“As a managed service, Silverflow provides the maintenance for connections and new product innovation that users have typically had to support in-house or work on long-term product road maps with suppliers,” explains Kraal. “Based in the cloud, Silverflow is infinitely scalable for peak flows and also provides robust data insights that users haven’t previously been able to access”.
With regards to competitors, Kraal says there are no other companies at the moment doing something similar, “as far as we are aware”. Currently, acquirers use traditional third-party processors, such as SIA, Omnipay, Cybersource or MIGS. Some companies, like Adyen, have built their own in-house processing platform.
So, why hasn’t a cloud-native card processing platform like Silverflow been done before and why now? A lack of awareness of the problem might be one reason, says de Vries.
“Unless you have built several integrations to acquirers during your career, you are not aware that the 30 to 40-years-old infrastructure is still in use. This is not typically a problem some bright college graduates would tackle,” he posits.
“Second, to build this successfully, you need to have prior knowledge of the card payments industry to navigate all the legal, regulatory and technical requirements.
“Thirdly, any large corporate currently active in card payment processing will be aware of the problem and have the relevant industry knowledge. However, building a new processing platform would require them to allocate their most talented staff to this project for two-three years, taking away resources from their existing projects. In addition, they would also need to manage a complex migration project to move their existing customers from their current system to the new one and risk losing some of the customers along the way”.
French startup Alan is building health insurance products. And 100,000 people are now covered through Alan . I caught up with the company’s co-founder and CEO Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve so that he could give us an update on the product.
Alan has obtained its own health insurance license and is a proper insurance company. It doesn’t partner with existing insurance companies. The company primarily sells its insurance product to other companies.
In France, employees are covered by both the national health care system and private insurance companies. So Alan convinces other companies to use its product for all employees.
Over the years, Alan has diversified its offering with high-end coverage, partnerships with CNP Assurances, Livi and Petit Bambou, a focus on new verticals, such as companies in the hospitality industry or retired individuals.
“We’ve kept shipping, and I even think that our pace has increased. We’ve released some exciting stuff in recent months, for our members, for companies and for us internally,” Samuelian-Werve told me.
The biggest change isn’t visible to the end user. The company has built a service that lets them generate a new insurance package on demand. It uses historical data to figure out pricing on the fly. And it opens up some market opportunities as big companies want a custom insurance product depending on their needs.
The biggest Alan customer is a company with 1,000 to 1,500 employees. But the startup is currently selling its product to bigger companies. The idea is that companies above 100 employees can get a custom insurance package.
For the customer, pricing remains transparent as Alan shows you how much it costs to cover your medical needs depending on what you’re asking for. Alan adds a membership fee on top of that to access the platform and related services.
Alan is also introducing a new messaging feature. You can start a text discussion with a doctor whenever you have a question about your health — it’s included in your insurance package. Alan doesn’t want to replace your general practitioner. But having a doctor that you can text is always helpful when you’re not sure what to do next.
On the other side of the screen, there are actual doctors answering your questions. “We’ve hired a full-time doctor and we’re working with a bit under 10 doctors on a part-time basis,” Samuelian-Werve told me.
Alan’s app has been redesigned with a bigger emphasis on your health instead of your insurance. The company shows you all your interactions with health professionals. You can add documents and notes to consolidate information in the same place.
It sounds a bit like France’s DMP, which acts as a personal repository for all your health-related documents. And Alan doesn’t want to replace the public initiative. The startup would like to take advantage of the service to upload and download data at some point down the road.
If you give your consent, Alan can also proactively nudge you about your health. For instance, given your child’s age, Alan can notify you when they’re supposed to get vaccinated. Or if you haven’t been to the dentist in a year, Alan can tell you that it’s time to get a routine checkup.
Finally, the company has improved efficiency when it comes to reimbursements. “74% of reimbursements are issued within an hour. And we’re using instant transfers to send money to your bank account,” Samuelian-Werve told me.
As you can see, Alan is releasing incremental updates. They slowly add up and change the product. In the coming years, the company plans to offer its product in multiple European countries.
Acapela, a new startup co-founded by Dubsmash founder Roland Grenke, is breaking cover today in a bid to re-imagine online meetings for remote teams.
Hoping to put an end to video meeting fatigue, the product is described as an “asynchronous meeting platform,” which Grenke and Acapela’s other co-founder, ex-Googler Heiki Riesenkampf (who has a deep learning computer science background), believe could be the key to unlock better and more efficient collaboration. In some ways the product can be thought of as the antithesis to Zoom and Slack’s real-time and attention-hogging downsides.
To launch, the Berlin-based and “remote friendly” company has raised €2.5 million in funding. The round is led by Visionaries Club with participation from various angel investors, including Christian Reber (founder of Pitch and Wunderlist) and Taavet Hinrikus (founder of TransferWise). I also understand Entrepreneur First is a backer and has assigned EF venture partner Benedict Evans to work on the problem. If you’ve seen the ex-Andreessen Horowitz analyst writing about a post-Zoom world lately, now you know why.
Specifically, Acapela says it will use the injection of cash to expand the core team, focusing on product, design and engineering as it continues to build out its offering.
“Our mission is to make remote teams work together more effectively by having fewer but better meetings,” Grenke tells me. “With Acapela, we aim to define a new category of team collaboration that provides more structure and personality than written messages (Slack or email) and more flexibility than video conferencing (Zoom or Google Meet)”.
Grenke believes some form of asynchronous meetings is the answer, where participants don’t have to interact in real-time but the meeting still has an agenda, goals, a deadline and — if successfully run — actionable outcomes.
“Instead of sitting through hours of video calls on a daily basis, users can connect their calendars and select meetings they would like to discuss asynchronously,” he says. “So, as an alternative to everyone being in the same call at the same time, team members contribute to conversations more flexibly over time. Like communication apps in the consumer space, Acapela allows rich media formats to be used to express your opinion with voice or video messages while integrating deeply with existing productivity tools (like GSuite, Atlassian, Asana, Trello, Notion, etc.)”.
In addition, Acapela will utilise what Grenke says is the latest machine learning techniques to help automate repetitive meeting tasks as well as to summarise the contents of a meeting and any decisions taken. If made to work, that in itself could be significant.
“Initially, we are targeting high-growth tech companies which have a high willingness to try out new tools while having an increasing need for better processes as their teams grow,” adds the Acapela founder. “In addition to that, they tend to have a technical global workforce across multiple time zones which makes synchronous communication much more costly. In the long run we see a great potential tapping into the space of SMEs and larger enterprises, since COVID has been a significant driver of the decentralization of work also in the more traditional industrial sectors. Those companies make up more than 90% of our European market and many of them have not switched to new communication tools yet”.
European entrepreneurs who want to launch startups could do worse than Switzerland.
In a report analyzing Europe’s general economic health, cost of doing business, business environment and labor force quality, analysts looked for highly educated populations, strong economies, healthy business environments and relatively low costs for conducting business. Switzerland ended up ranking third out of 31 European nations, according to Nimblefins. (Germany and the UK came out first and second, respectively).
According to official estimates, the number of new Swiss startups has skyrocketed by 700% since 1996. Zurich tends to take the lion’s share, as the city’s embrace of startups has jump-started development, although Geneva and Lausanne are also hotspots.
As well as traditional software engineering startups, Switzerland’s largest city boasts a startup culture that emphasizes life sciences, mechanical engineering and robotics. Compared to other European countries, Switzerland has a low regulatory burden and a well-educated, highly qualified workforce. Google’s largest R&D center outside of the United States is in Zurich.
But it’s also one of the more expensive places to start a business, due to its high cost of living, salary expectations and relatively small labor market. Native startups will need 25,000 Swiss Francs to open an LLC and 50,000 more to incorporate. While they can withdraw those funds from the business the next day, local founders must still secure decent backing to even begin the work.
This means Switzerland has gained a reputation as a place to startup — and a place to relocate, which is something quite different. It’s one reason why the region is home to many fintech businesses born elsewhere that need proximity to a large banking ecosystem, as well as the blockchain/crypto crowd, which have found a highly amenable regulatory environment in Zug, right next door to Zurich. Zurich/Zug’s “Crypto Valley” is a global blockchain hotspot and is home to, among others, the Ethereum Foundation.
Lawyers and accountants tend to err on the conservative side, leading to a low failure rate of businesses but less “moonshot innovation,” shall we say.
But in recent years, corporate docs are being drawn up in English to facilitate communication both inside Switzerland’s various language regions and foreign capital, and investment documentation is modeled after the U.S.
Ten years ago startups were unusual. Today, pitch competitions, incubators, accelerators, VCs and angel groups proliferate.
The country’s Federal Commission for Technology and Innovation (KTI) supports CTI-Startup and CTI-Invest, providing startups with investment and support. Venture Kick was launched in 2007 with the vision to double the number of spin-offs from Swiss universities and draws from a jury of more than 150 leading startup experts in Switzerland. It grants up to CHF 130,000 per company. Fundraising platforms such as Investiere have boosted the angel community support of early funding rounds.
Swiss companies, like almost all European companies, tend to raise lower early-stage rounds than U.S. ones. A CHF 1-2 million Series A or a CHF 5 million Series B investment is common. This has meant smaller exits, and thus less development for the ecosystem.
These are the investors we interviewed:
Jasmin Heimann, partner, Ringier Digital Ventures
What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Consumer-facing startups with first revenues.
What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
AirConsole — a cloud-gaming platform where you don’t need a console and can play with all your friends and family.
Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I really wish that the business case for social and ecological startups will finally be proven (kind of like Oatly showed with the Blackstone investment). I also think that femtech is a hyped category but funding as well as renown exits are still missing.
What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
I am looking for easy, scalable solutions with a great team.
Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I think the whole scooter/mobility space is super hyped but also super capital intensive so I think to compete in this market at this stage is hard. I also think that the whole edtech space is an important area of investment, but there are already quite a lot of players and it oftentimes requires cooperation with governments and schools, which makes it much more difficult to operate in. Lastly, I don’t get why people still start fitness startups as I feel like the market has reached its limits.
How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Switzerland makes — maximum — half of our investments. We are also interested in Germany and Austria as well as the Nordics.
Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Zurich and Lausanne are for sure the most exciting cities, just because they host great engineering universities. Berne is still lagging behind but I am hoping to see some more startups emerging from there, especially in the medtech industry.
How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Overall, Switzerland is a great market for a startup to be in — although small, buying power is huge! So investors should always keep this in mind when thinking about coming to Switzerland. The startup scene is pretty small and well connected, so it helps to get access through somebody already familiar with the space. Unfortunately for us, typical B2C cases are rather scarce.
Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I think it is hard to make any kind of predictions. But on the one hand, I could see this happening. On the other hand, I also think that the magic of cities is that there are serendipity moments where you can find your co-founder at a random networking dinner or come across an idea for a new venture while talking to a stranger. These moments will most likely be much harder to encounter now and in the next couple of months.
Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
I think travel is a big question mark still. The same goes for luxury goods, as people are more worried about the economic situation they are in. On the other hand, remote work has seen a surge in investments. Also sustainability will hopefully be put back on the agenda.
How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Not much. I think we allocated a bit more for the existing portfolio but otherwise we continue to look at and discuss the best cases. The biggest worries are the uncertainties about [what] the future might look like and the related planning. We tell them to first and foremost secure cash flow.
Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Totally! Some portfolio companies have really profited from the crisis, especially our subscription-based models that offer a variety of different options to spend time at home. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum after the lockdown.
What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
What gives me hope is to see that people find ways to still work together — the amount of online events, office hours, etc. is incredible. I see the pandemic also as a big opportunity to make changes in the way we worked and the way things were without ever questioning them.
“I have to choose my words carefully,” says Joe Castelino of Stevens Creek Volkswagen in San Jose, Ca., when asked about the software on which most car dealerships rely for inventory information, to manage marketing, to handle customer relationships and to otherwise help sell cars.
Castelino, the dealership’s service director, laughs as he says this. But the joke has apparently been on car dealers, most of whom have largely relied on a few frustratingly antiquated vendors for their dealer management systems over the years — along with many more sophisticated point solutions.
It’s the precise opportunity that former Tesla CIO, Jay Vijayan, concluded he was well-positioned to address while still in the employ of the electric vehicle giant.
As Vijayan tells it, he knew nothing about cars until joining Tesla in 2011, following a dozen years of working in product development at Oracle, then VMWare. Yet he learned plenty over the subsequent four years. Specifically, he says he helped to build with Elon Musk a central analysis system inside Tesla, a kind of brain that could see all of the company’s internal systems, from what was happening in the supply chain to its factory systems to its retail platform.
Tesla had to build it itself, says Vijayan; after evaluating the existing software of third company providers, the team “realized that none of them had anything close to what we needed to provide a frictionless modern consumer experience.”
It was around then that a lightbulb turned on. If Tesla could transform the experience for its own customers, maybe Vijayan could transform the buying and selling experience for the much bigger, broader automotive industry. Enter Tekion, a now four-year-old, San Carlos, Ca., company that now employs 470 people and has come far enough along that just attracted $150 million in fresh funding led by the private equity investor Advent International.
With the Series C round — which also included checks from Index Ventures, Airbus Ventures, FM Capital and Exor, the holding company of Fiat-Chrysler and Ferrari — the company has now raised $185 million altogether. It’s also valued at north of $1 billion. (The automakers General Motors, BMW, and the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi Alliance are also investors.)
Eric Wei, a managing director at Advent, says that over the last decade, his team had been eager to seize on what’s approaching a $10 billion market annually. Instead, they found themselves tracking incumbents Reynolds & Reynolds, CDKGlobal and Dealertrack, which is owned by Cox Automotive, and waiting for a better player to emerge.
Then Wei was connected to Tekion through Jon McNeill, a former Tesla president and an advisory partner to Advent.
Says Wei of seeing its tech compared with its more established rivals: “It was like comparing a flip phone to an iPhone.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, McNeill, who worked at Tesla with Vijayan, also sings the company’s praises, noting that Tekion even bought a dealership in Gilroy — the “garlic capital” of California — to use as a kind of lab while it was building its technology from scratch.
Such praise is nice, but more importantly, Tekion is attracting the attention of dealers. Though citing competitive reasons, Vijayan declined to share how many have bought its cloud software — which connects dealers with both manufacturers and car buyers and is powered by machine learning algorithms — he says it’s already being used across 28 states.
One of these dealerships is the national chain Serra Automotive, whose founder, Joseph Serra, is now an investor in Tekion.
Another is that Volkswagen dealership in San Jose, where Castelino — who doesn’t have a financial interest in Tekion — speaks enthusiastically about the time and expenses his team is saving because of Tekion’s platform.
For example, he says a customers need only log-in now to flag a particular issue. After that, with the help of an RFID tag, Stevens Creek knows exactly when that customer pulls into the dealership and what kind of help they need, enabling people to greet him or her on arrival. Tekion can also make recommendations based on a car’s history. It might, for instance, suggest to a customer a brake fluid flush “without an advisor having to look through a customer’s history,” he says.
As important, he says, the dealership has been able to cut ties with a lot of other software vendors, while also making more productive use of its time. Says Castelino, “As soon as a [repair order] is live, it’s in a dispatcher’s hand and a technician can grab the car.”
It’s like that with every step, he insists. “You’re saving 15 minutes again and again, and suddenly, you have three hours where your intake can be higher.”
Lucas Matney looks at what the potential was for Quibi and how it missed the mark in media. Danny Crichton discusses why billions of dollars in VC funding isn’t enough in competitive markets like video. Anthony Ha discusses the crazy context of Quibi and our interview with the company earlier this year. And Brian Heater looks at why constraints are not benefits in new products.