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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Kandji nabs $60M Series B as Apple device management platform continues to thrive

By Ron Miller

During the pandemic, having an automated solution for onboarding and updating Apple devices remotely has been essential, and today Kandji, a startup that helps IT do just that, announced a hefty $60 million Series B investment.

Felicis Ventures led the round with participation from SVB Capital, Greycroft, Okta Ventures and The Spruce House Partnership. Today’s round comes just 7 months after a $21 million Series A, bringing the total raised across three rounds to $88.5 million, according to the company.

CEO Adam Pettit says that the company has been growing in leaps in bounds since the funding round last October.

“We’ve seen a lot more traction than even originally anticipated. I think every time we’ve put targets up onto the board of how quickly we would grow, we’ve accelerated past them,” he said. He said that one of the primary reasons for this growth has been the rapid move to work from home during the pandemic.

“We’re working with customers across 40+ industries now, and we’re even seeing international customers come in and purchase so everyone now is just looking to support remote workforces and we provide a really elegant way for them to do that,” he said.

While Pettit didn’t want to discuss exact revenue numbers, he did say that it has tripled since the Series A announcement. That is being fueled in part he says by attracting larger companies, and he says they have been seeing more and more of them become customers this year.

As they’ve grown revenue and added customers, they’ve also brought on new employees, growing from 40 to 100 since October. Pettit says that the startup is committed to building a diverse and inclusive culture at the company and a big part of that is making sure you have a diverse pool of candidates to choose from.

“It comes down to at the onset just making the decision that it’s important to you and it’s important to the company, which we’ve done. Then you take it step by step all the way through, and we start at the back into the funnel where are candidates are coming from.”

That means clearly telling their recruiting partners that they want a diverse candidate pool. One way to do that is being remote and having a broader talent pool to work with. “We realized that in order to hold true to [our commitment], it was going to be really hard to do that just sticking to the core market of San Diego or San Francisco, and so now we’ve expand expanded nationally and this has opened up a lot of [new] pools of top tech talent,” he said.

Pettit is thinking hard right now about how the startup will run its offices whenever they allowed back, especially with some employees living outside major tech hubs. Clearly it will have some remote component, but he says that the tricky part of that will be making sure that the folks who aren’t coming into the office still feel fully engaged and part of the team.

Window Snyder’s new startup Thistle Technologies raises $2.5M seed to secure IoT devices

By Zack Whittaker

The Internet of Things has a security problem. The past decade has seen wave after wave of new internet-connected devices, from sensors through to webcams and smart home tech, often manufactured in bulk but with little — if any — consideration to security. Worse, many device manufacturers make no effort to fix security flaws, while others simply leave out the software update mechanisms needed to deliver patches altogether.

That sets up an entire swath of insecure and unpatchable devices to fail, and destined to be thrown out when they break down or are invariably hacked.

Security veteran Window Snyder thinks there is a better way. Her new startup, Thistle Technologies, is backed with $2.5 million in seed funding from True Ventures with the goal of helping IoT manufacturers reliably and securely deliver software updates to their devices.

Snyder founded Thistle last year, and named it after the flowering plant with sharp prickles designed to deter animals from eating them. “It’s a defense mechanism,” Snyder told TechCrunch, a name that’s fitting for a defensive technology company. The startup aims to help device manufacturers without the personnel or resources to integrate update mechanisms into their device’s software in order to receive security updates and better defend against security threats.

“We’re building the means so that they don’t have to do it themselves. They want to spend the time building customer-facing features anyway,” said Snyder. Prior to founding Thistle, Snyder worked in senior cybersecurity positions at Apple, Intel, and Microsoft, and also served as chief security officer at Mozilla, Square, and Fastly.

Thistle lands on the security scene at a time when IoT needs it most. Botnet operators are known to scan the internet for devices with weak default passwords and hijack their internet connections to pummel victims with floods of internet traffic, knocking entire websites and networks offline. In 2016, a record-breaking distributed denial-of-service attack launched by the Mirai botnet on internet infrastructure giant Dyn knocked some of the biggest websites — Shopify, SoundCloud, Spotify, Twitter — offline for hours. Mirai had ensnared thousands of IoT devices into its network at the time of the attack.

Other malicious hackers target IoT devices as a way to get a foot into a victim’s network, allowing them to launch attacks or plant malware from the inside.

Since device manufacturers have done little to solve their security problems among themselves, lawmakers are looking at legislating to curb some of the more egregious security mistakes made by default manufacturers, like using default — and often unchangeable — passwords and selling devices with no way to deliver security updates.

California paved the way after passing an IoT security law in 2018, with the U.K. following shortly after in 2019. The U.S. has no federal law governing basic IoT security standards.

Snyder said the push to introduce IoT cybersecurity laws could be “an easy way for folks to get into compliance” without having to hire fleets of security engineers. Having an update mechanism in place also helps to keeps the IoT devices around for longer — potentially for years longer — simply by being able to push fixes and new features.

“To build the infrastructure that’s going to allow you to continue to make those devices resilient and deliver new functionality through software, that’s an incredible opportunity for these device manufacturers. And so I’m building a security infrastructure company to support that security needs,” she said.

With the seed round in the bank, Snyder said the company is focused on hiring device and back-end engineers, product managers, and building new partnerships with device manufacturers.

Phil Black, co-founder of True Ventures — Thistle’s seed round investor — described the company as “an astute and natural next step in security technologies.” He added: “Window has so many of the qualities we look for in founders. She has deep domain expertise, is highly respected within the security community, and she’s driven by a deep passion to evolve her industry.”

MasterClass co-founder’s Outlier.org raises $30M for affordable, virtual college courses

By Anthony Ha

Outlier.org — a startup offering intro-level college courses online and at a relatively affordable price — is announcing that it has raised $30 million in Series B funding.

The startup was founded by CEO Aaron Rasmussen, previously co-founder at MasterClass (which Axios reports is raising new funding at a $2.5 billion valuation). Like Rasmussen’s old company, Outlier offers beautifully shot online courses; unlike MasterClass, students can actually earn college credit.

When Outlier launched in the fall of 2019, Rasmussen said his goal was to make a college education more affordable and accessible — though he also told me that Outlier is only focused on bringing intro-level classes online, not the entire curriculum.

This idea seems even more appealing during a pandemic, when a completely “normal” college experience isn’t really available to anyone. In fact, Rasmussen said there’s been a surge in interest from universities that want to partner with Outlier, especially since some colleges are struggling to attract students — so with difficult financial choices ahead, they can use Outlier to supplement their offerings.

“We’ve learned that many universities love the idea of high-quality intro classes for students,” he said. “That was a question mark for us, [but] many say, ‘We want to focus on upper level courses, so this a great way to keep people on track.'”

To that end, Outlier has hired Anjuli Gupta as its head of partnerships. Gupta previously led university partnerships at Coursera, and Rasmussen suggested the company could work with high schools and employers, not just universities.

Of course, the pandemic has created some challenges for Outlier as well. Initially, in order to produce its classes, Rasmussen said the company was shipping its instructors “literally 500 pounds of cinematography equipment.” Now it has developed a production method where a small crew sets everything up, then the instructor teaches on the set alone.

“It’s just you, a motion-controlled dolly and little pieces of tape telling you where to push all the buttons,” he said. “Then [the crew] remotely runs the cameras, you’re hitting record and they can see everything coming in through the feeds, so you’re remotely directed.”

Outlier currently offers six classes, including Calculus I, Microeconomics, Astronomy and Philosophy, with a goal of expanding to 14 by the end of 2022. Rasmussen said the company is now allowing students to join courses in new cohorts every two weeks — so even though the lectures are pre-recorded, you’re still moving through the class with a group of fellow students. And Outlier has built a variety of custom student support tools — for example, the company can identify when a student is “falling behind” and reach out.

The startup has also expanded its partnership with the University of Pittsburgh into a five-year agreement, with students receiving credit from the school and faculty at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown providing academic oversight. (Though it seems that some faculty members are unhappy about the arrangement.) They’ve also partnered to offer $3.8 million worth of scholarships to 1,000 frontline workers.

Each Outlier course costs $400, which the company says is approximately one-sixth the cost of a traditional college class. Still, Rasmussen said, “I couldn’t have afforded it when I was growing up,” so he’s trying to find ways to make the program even more affordable — hence the scholarships, as well as monthly payment plans with Klarna (Outlier covers the interest on student payments).

The new funding was led by GV (formerly known Google Ventures), with participation from Unusual Ventures, GSV, Harrison Metal and Gaingels, bringing Outlier’s total funding to $46 million.

“We’re inspired by Outlier.org’s mission to increase educational access and equity, and to reduce student debt,” said GV’s John Lyman in a statement. “We strongly believe in Aaron Rasmussen and the founding team’s vision to provide better access to more affordable education for hundreds of millions of students around the globe.”

Newly-christened Percent wants to make it easier to securitize corporate debt

By Danny Crichton

Debt is the new equity. As founders run around trying to fend off prying VCs from their cap tables, they are increasingly turning to debt products like revenue-based securities in order to get the capital they need today while protecting them from dilution they don’t want tomorrow. It’s a huge business, with leading company Pipe just valued at $2 billion and others like CapChase cashing in on founders’ newly-found love of debt.

All those new securities creates a dilemma for potential investors: how do they evaluate every single new debt product from every single company? It’s a problem they face not just in the startup world, but also private debt in general as companies borrow hundreds of billions of dollars per year. The solution is securitization and syndication, aggregating the small debts from multiple companies and fusing them together into one consistent new security. It’s a major component of capital markets, but one that remains mired in legacy business practices.

Percent is building an end-to-end technology securitization platform for debt originators to connect with a much wider network of investors than traditional institutions to get the best rates at the fastest speeds. When we last checked in a year ago with the company, previously known as Cadence, it had just raised $4 million and had processed $125 million through its platform in its short lifetime.

Well, it has now structured more than $400 million across its platform, an eye-popping performance that has attracted new VC interest, this time from Sep Alavi at White Star Capital and Karen Page at B Capital. The two firms are investing $12.5 million in a Series A into Percent, with previous backers Revel Partners and Recharge Capital participating.

For CFOs, Percent’s pitch is that it can offer a wider spectrum of private debt buyers to originators, therefore lowering the cost of capital. The traditional corporate debt world remains quite clubby, with major institutional holders being connected to originators through investment banks. High fees and a limited investor base can raise expenses significantly. Through its platform, Percent can break that clubbiness and open the debt world to a wider range of buyers.

Furthermore, Percent also acts as the deal origination and transaction platform, allowing companies to easily put together debt offerings, process requests for information, and avoid the sort of “attach Excel financials to email or upload to cloud” workflow that remains a mainstay in these processes.

Percent’s business model is to take a percentage fee on the dollars originated on its platform as well as an additional percentage fee if it is the underwriter itself. In this way, it has essentially a recurring-revenue model — the more debt that is transacted on its platform, the more continuous revenue the company generates over time.

Percent scored one of its biggest wins to date with the securitization of $144 million in debt originated by FAT Brands, the owners of popular restaurant franchises like Fatburger and Johnny Rockets. Precent acted as co-lead bookrunner with lead Jefferies for the debt announced yesterday, and FAT noted that its cost of capital was significantly lower than its previous two securitizations from last year. Given the changing macro environment and the radically shifting fortunes in the foods service business in the wake of COVID-19 though, it is hard to precisely identify what changed the cost of capital and what extent a modern technology stack helped the company’s debt performance. Outside of FAT Brands, Percent has a list of many of its other originators available.

Nelson Chu, the founder and CEO of Percent, noted that he was particularly interested in finding investors with knowledge of capital markets and the enterprise sales cycle. He observed in an interview that as more and more VCs in recent years have tended to come from product and growth roles at startups rather than the traditional path through an investment bank, there are fewer VCs with knowledge or interest in the capital markets space.

Alavi at White Star has invested in a range of financial services and blockchain companies, while Page at B Capital has long been in the enterprise space at Apple and as an early employee at cloud provider Box.

Percent’s team in New York City this week. Image Credits: Percent

Percent, which is headquartered in New York City and was founded in 2018, has expanded its team by double over the past year as it scales up its engineering and sales teams.

Queenly raises $2.3M for its dress marketplace

By Alex Wilhelm

One of our favorite companies from the most recently Y Combinator batch has closed a seed round. This morning Quenly announced that it has closed a $2.262 million round, following its $800,000 pre-seed raise. TechCrunch covered the company in February, noting that the company was building something akin to the StockX for women’s formal wear.

Queenly runs a marketplace that allows individuals and small stores to resell dresses after they’ve been worn, allowing for more women to access the items they want to wear to a prom, quinceanera, or pageant at a lower price point. And as the service could help reduce net clothing waste, it could have a positive environmental impact as well.

The model has continued to find backers. According to co-founder Trisha Bantigue, the biggest check in Queenly’s seed round came from Dragon Capital, an investing group that she said quickly saw her startup’s potential, investing the day after they met. Notably, the seed round, which Bantigue had roughly half-filled even before its Y Combinator cohort’s launch event, did not have a lead investor. Instead, she described her most recent backers as more of a collection of investors that can bring different strategic value-adds to Queenly.

Brightlane Ventures put capital in, for example. Bantigue said that they provide candidate sourcing help. She also cited Amino Capital’s analytics knowledge, which will help her company’s technical co-founder Kathy Zhou. NextView Ventures also invested, an investor that Bantigue said had deep experience in resale marketplaces and commerce. Interlace Ventures and Shakti Capital also took part.

Queenly, long a team of two, intends to expand its staff to six full-time workers with its new funds. That means that Zhou will be supplemented by two more engineers, and Bantigue will be backed up by a head of growth, and a head of opps. Six full-time staff isn’t many, unless you’re starting from a base of two. Then it’s a trebling.

Queenly had set out to raise $1.5 million, but wound up raising $2.1 million, a number that grew to $2.262 million by the time that TechCrunch caught up with the company earlier this week.

Notably, Bantigue turned down a larger, $1.5 million check after closing around $1.1 million of the round. Why not on as much capital as possible? She said that Y Combinator and its managing director Michael Seibel had warned her startup cohort against raising too much money too early. And, she explained, her team is more focused on building long-term more “sustainable” growth than short-term “hypergrowth.” She cited startups that raised lots of capital quickly only to later burn out as a cautionary tale.

The new capital was raised using a simple agreement for future equity, or SAFE at a single cap.

Queenly’s model of allowing individuals and partner stores resale dresses provides it with two distinct supply sources. TechCrunch asked which is its key driver of growth. Per Bantigue, the partner selling model is still new, but thus far has yielded a simpler, and lower-friction supply source for her company.

TechCrunch was also curious about how the company handles quality, fraud and returns, especially in light of our recent, and illustrative dive into StockX which has a related set of hurdles to clear.

Bantigue explained that her firm has two main ways that dresses are vetted. For those priced at $300 or less, they ship directly from sellers to buyers, after submitting proof photos of the condition of the dress’s components. Those that cost more than $300 are routed through the company’s own operation, where it can provide stricter quality control.

With more capital than it has ever had, a growing team, and a large market that is largely offline today, the startup should have plenty of room to grow. Let’s see how far it can get with this new investment.

 

Ex.co acquires video adtech company Cedato

By Anthony Ha

Ex.co is announcing its very first acquisition — it’s buying Cedato, a video monetization startup founded in 2015.

Previously known as Playbuzz, Ex.co is short for The Experience Company, and it provides publishers and other customers with an easy way to add interactive and visual elements (such as polls and product recommendations) to their content. The company says its publisher business grew revenue by 300% between 2018 and 2020.

According to co-founder and CEO Tom Pachys, over the past year, he’s become convinced that artificial intelligence is “taking over everything we do.”

“We started searching for companies that did video in a sophisticated way, meaning using [machine learning] as part of their core engines,” Pachys said. “When I say that, I mean things like choosing the right content, choosing the right ad, knowing how to manage an [ad] auction in the right way.”

He said Cedato stood out because it’s able to do all of this without affecting page load time, this will be increasingly important to Google’s Core Web Vitals measurements, and therefore to search rankings.

“It’s always a tradeoff between efficiencies and revenues in general,” Pachys said. “But for [Cedato], in a very surprising way, they can increase speed and increase revenues.”

By adding Cedato’s technology, Ex.co will be able to offer its customers things like predictive recommendations for video content, header bidding for video ads and improved support for connected TVs. Conversely, the company will continue to support existing Cedato customers while also offering them additional products.

“We’re not taking anything away, we’re just adding more solutions,” Pachys said.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed, but the entire Cedato team (based in New York and Israel) will be joining Ex.co.

“Since the company’s inception, Cedato has been laser-focused on creating the most advanced video tools with a simple, customer-first approach,” said Cedato founder and CEO Ron Dick in a statement. “Ex.co has a similar vision, powerful technology, and a large, loyal clientele base. Working together enables us to offer cutting-edge technology to our range of global partners, continuing to lead the way with product innovation that supports the market’s primary needs.”

Pachys added that Ex.co is looking to make another AI-related acquisitions, with the next one likely coming on the commerce side.

Forget the piggy bank, Till Financial’s kids’ spend management app gets Gates’ backing

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Today’s children and teens want more power and control over their spending.

And while there are a number of financial services and apps out there aimed at helping this demographic save and invest money (Greenlight being among the most popular and well-known), one startup is coming at the space from another angle: helping younger people also better manage their spend.

Till Financial describes itself as a collaborative family financial tool that aims to empower kids to become smarter spenders. The New York-based company’s banking platform is designed to encourage “open and honest” discussions between parents and their kids. And it has just raised $5 million to help it advance on that goal.

A slew of investors put money in the round, including Elysian Park Ventures, Melinda Gates’ venture fund Pivotal Ventures with Magnify Ventures, Afore Capital, Luge Capital, Alpine Meridian Ventures, The Gramercy Fund, SM Ventures (the family office of the founders/CEOs of Stadium Goods) and Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Scout Fund. Also participating were angel investors such as the founders of fintech Petal, the founders of alcohol marketplace Drizly, the president of Transactis, and the president of 1800Flowers.

Part of Till’s goal is to help kids “learn by doing” and gain confidence in spending decisions. It arms them with a bank account, digital and physical debit card and goal-based savings. For example, say a teen wants to buy an iPad, they can set up an account that they can save toward that iPad and give family members (such as grandparents, for example) the opportunity to pitch in the same amount, or more. They can also set up recurring payments for things like Netflix or Spotify subscriptions so they can get a taste of what it’s like to pay regular bills.

“Parents and the current banking options miss the point when they just focus on savings. We need to first prepare kids to be Smarter Spenders, supported by savings and investing,” said Taylor Burton, who founded the company with Tom Pincince. “On Till, kids learn to spend with intention and purpose, while parents gain confidence and trust based on transparency and accountability.”

To Pincince, the market is clearly underserved.

“The legacy banks really don’t care about this young person and the early digital players are really missing the mark,” he said. 

And despite the plethora of apps targeting the demographic, Pincince believes there’s plenty of room for the right players.

“The reality is you’re talking about a swath of kids under the age of 18 and over the age of eight that is the single largest unbanked population,” he said. “We’re not fighting to be the top of your son’s wallet. We’re fighting to be the first product into that wallet.”

Indeed, it’s a big market — the average middle-class family in the U.S. spends $284,570 per child by the time they turn 18.

The platform is free to all families and, early on, attracted the attention of Peggy Mangot, operating partner/COO of PayPal Ventures. She invested personally in Till in its pre-seed rounds. Prior to PayPal, Mangot ran development of Greenhouse, Well Fargo’s fee-free mobile banking app that aimed to help younger users build responsible spending habits.

Mangot has three kids and recalls that when they were shopping online, she’d give them her credit card. Or, if they were going to the corner store or meeting with friends, she’d give them cash.

“But that way, the money is meaningless to them. They didn’t really know how to understand what things cost and there was no sense of ownership,” she said. “It was just me handing over cash or a card.”

What attracted her the most about Till, Mangot said, was the team’s approach to treat younger people “with respect and agency.”

She also believes that by helping children and teens understand important financial lessons at a younger age, the world will ultimately be full of more responsible adults.

“By putting these tools in the hands of these young people early, they’ll have years and years of experience before they’re more independent and have to manage their paycheck and bills,” Mangot told TechCrunch. “Once you have mass adoption, it’s going to create a much more financially literate, confident and in control set of young adults than we’ve ever had.”

Besides making money on interchange fees, Till aims to earn revenue by partnering with merchants to offer rewards to users. It also plans to earn referral fees by referring the teens to other financial institutions when they get older and have different needs.

“It’s not our intention to be your son or daughter’s forever bank. It’s our intention to be the first bank,” Pincince said. “So, they hit the age of maturity, we’re actually giving them a high-five off of our platform and introducing them to maybe their first college loan or their first credit card.”

With $30M extension, BigID boosts Series D to $100M at $1.25B valuation

By Ron Miller

When we last heard from BigID at the end of 2020, the company was announcing a $70 million Series D at a $1 billion valuation. Today, it announced a $30 million extension on that deal valuing the company at $1.25 billion just 4 months later.

This chunk of money comes from private equity firm Advent International, and brings the total raised to over $200 million across 4 rounds, according to the company. The late stage startup is attracting all of this capital by building a security and privacy platform. When I spoke to CEO Dimitri Sirota in September 2019 at the time of the $50 million Series C, he described the company’s direction this way:

“We’ve separated the product into some constituent parts. While it’s still sold as a broad-based [privacy and security] solution, it’s much more of a platform now in the sense that there’s a core set of capabilities that we heard over and over that customers want.”

Sirota says he has been putting the money to work, and as the economy improves he is seeing more traction for the product set. “Since December, we’ve added employees as we’ve seen broader economic recovery and increased demand. In tandem, we have been busy building a whole host of new products and offerings that we will announce over the coming weeks that will be transformational for BigID,” he said.

He also said that as with previous rounds, he didn’t go looking for the additional money, but decided to take advantage of the new funds at a higher valuation with a firm that he believes can add value overall. What’s more, the funds should allow the company to expand in ways it might have held off on.

“It was important to us that this wouldn’t be a distraction and that we could balance any funding without the need to over-capitalize, which is becoming a bigger issue in today’s environment. In the end, we took what we thought could bring forward some additional product modules and add a sales team focused on smaller commercial accounts,” Sirota said.

Ashwin Krishnan, a principal on Advent’s technology team in New York says that BigID was clearly aligned with two trends his firm has been following. That includes the explosion of data being collected and the increasing focus on managing and securing that data with the goal of ultimately using it to make better decisions.

“When we met with Dimitri and the BigID team, we immediately knew we had found a company with a powerful platform that solves the most challenging problem at the center of these trends and the data question,”Krishnan said.

Past investors in the company include Boldstart Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners and Tiger Global. Strategic investors include Comcast Ventures, Salesforce Ventures and SAP.io.

SmartNews’ COVID-19 vaccine alert reaches 1M users in Japan a week after launching

By Catherine Shu

Screenshots of SmartNews' Vaccine Alert and Map features for its Japanese app

SmartNews’ Vaccine Alert and Map features for its Japanese app

SmartNews announced today that its tools to help Japanese users find nearby COVID-19 vaccine bookings have reached more than one million users just a week after launching. The news discovery unicorn decided to create Vaccine Alert and Map features for its Japanese app because many people there are frustrated by the speed of vaccine rollouts. In the United States, where vaccinations are going much faster, SmartNews just released a feature that lets people find appointments by zip code today.

The company has more than 20 million monthly active users combined in Japan and the United States.

According to a public opinion poll by Nippon TV, more than 70% of Japanese people are dissatisfied with its slow vaccine rollout. That sentiment was echoed in SmartNews’ own research, which surveyed 900 people aged 65 to 79 at the beginning of April, and found that more than 90% felt there was insufficient information available about when and where they could get vaccinated. Challenges included the lack of a central portal for vaccine booking information, meaning local government offices and healthcare providers were inundated with questions.

A screenshot of SmartNews' vaccine locater feature for the American version of its app

A screenshot of SmartNews’ vaccine finder feature for the American version of its app

To create its Vaccine Alert and Map, SmartNews aggregated information from 1,741 municipalities across Japan. The Vaccine Alert lets users know when they are eligible to get a shot based on their location, age, occupation and health conditions. The Vaccine Map combines data from about 37,000 facilities, so people can see where bookings are available near them or get notified when their healthcare providers begin taking reservations.

The features were released on April 12, the day vaccinations began for elderly people in Japan, and had more than one million users a week later. This is in part because SmartNews is one of the country’s most popular news aggregator apps and also because the new features were covered by TV Asahi, a major TV station.

A company representative told TechCrunch that many people who signed up for the vaccine features were already SmartNews users, but it has also seen new downloads as people share their vaccination appointments with friends and family.

Founders Factory Africa partners with Small Foundation to invest in 18 agritech startups

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Johannesburg-based investment company Founders Factory Africa (FFA) today announced a partnership with Small Foundation that will see it select 18 agritech startups for an acceleration and incubation program.

Small Foundation is a Dublin-based philanthropic organization that focuses on the rural and agriculture sector in sub-Saharan Africa. With this partnership, Small Foundation is making an undisclosed investment in FFA to build and scale agritech startups on the continent.

“The partnership stands to make a significant impact across the continent by supporting agritech startups who can innovate and improve the delivery of a range of services to smallholder farmers and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises in the agricultural sector,” an excerpt in a statement read.

According to the South African-based venture development and investment company founded by Roo Rogers and Alina Truhina, early-stage founders will need to apply to join the Founders Factory Africa Venture Scale or Venture Build portfolios. These startups will have access to funding between $100,000 to $250,000 and hands-on technical support.

This is a change from when the company launched in 2018. FFA is an extension of the Founders Factory organisation that has invested in more than 130 companies globally. In 2018, FFA launched its first vertical in fintech when it partnered with the continent’s largest bank, Standard Bank, to invest in fintech startups. Some of the startups include Bwala, LipaLater, MVXchange and OkHi.

The following year, it took on a second investor in South African healthcare company Netcare Group and, via the partnership, invested in health-tech startups like RxAll, Redbird and Wellahealth.

Last year when we reported this partnership, startups in FFA’s Venture Scale accelerator program received a £30,000 cash investment and £220,000 in support services. Those in the Venture Build program received £60,000 cash and £100,000 toward support.   

For this third partnership, Truhina says FFA will be investing a total of $300,000 in cash and hands-on support for companies in its Venture Scale program. However, startups in Venture Build will be receiving up to $250,000 in funding.

The Venture Scale program involves providing support for existing startups operating in seed to pre-Series A stages. On the other hand, the Venture Build program is for founders wanting to launch a startup in Africa, who may or may not have a concept or an idea

Currently, there are 23 companies across FFA’s Scale and Build portfolios. These startups, mainly from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, have collectively raised more than $7 million during and after the program. Truhina says FFA plans to increase this number to nearly 90 startups in total by 2024.

“We will build, scale and invest in 88 startups with current FFA investors (Standard Bank, Netcare and Small Foundation) until 2024. We plan to continue to take on new investors and continue to work on the continent indefinitely,” she said.

Founders Factory Africa

While FFA is dedicating a fund for agritech startups, it has invested in other startups with agritech solutions for instance Nigeria’s Foodlocker. The company forecasts foodstuff demand through machine learning and helps buyers procure goods from smallholder farmers. But despite this proposition, FFA classifies the startup as a fintech investment.

“Foodlocker was a company we selected and invested in under our Fintech portfolio, as the startup has a financial component. With Small Foundation, we are setting up a new dedicated agritech sector,” said Truhina. Small Foundation joins Standard Bank and Netcare in the peculiarity of assistance offered to FFA portfolio startups. From sector expertise and footprint across the continent to access to clients, POCs and pilots, these investors are trying to fill in the gap in sectors ripe for exponential growth.

But though fintech has caught on well with both local and international investors, the same cannot be said for health tech and agritech. According to Briter Bridges, fintech accounted for 31% of the total $1.3 billion raised by African startups. Health-tech startups accounted for 9%, while agritech startups represented just 7%.

Small Foundation wants to improve this number in its own little way, and concurrently has a plan to “end extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.” Conor Brosnan, the CEO and chair of the foundation, holds that tackling the sector’s biggest issues with the FFA will bring the company toward achieving this objective.

“This is a pivotal time to invest in the growing area of agritech in Africa, which has transformative potential for local livelihoods. We are excited to see FFA’s highly skilled teamwork with immensely talented African entrepreneurs to deliver scaled solutions to some of the biggest challenges faced by the sector,” he said.

In three years, Founders Factory Africa has managed to enlist the services and finances of three influential partners. Yet, it has 55 more startups to invest in before 2024, so we should expect an increased investment activity and more partnerships to fund startups in other sectors.

The firm also has fresh capital in the works for its portfolio companies as it advances, though. It’s in the process of raising a $35 million “Africa Seed Fund” which will exist alongside FFA and execute follow-on capital in some portfolio companies.

Satellite Vu’s $5M seed round will fuel the launch of its thermal imaging satellites

By Devin Coldewey

Earth imaging is an increasingly crowded space, but Satellite Vu is taking a different approach by focusing on infrared and heat emissions, which are crucial for industry and climate change monitoring. Fresh from TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield, the company has raised a £3.6M ($5M) seed round and is on its way to launching its first satellite in 2022.

The nuts and bolts of Satellite Vu’s tech and master plan are described in our original profile of the company, but the gist is this: while companies like Planet have made near-real-time views of the Earth’s surface into a thriving business, other niches are relatively unexplored — like thermal imaging.

The heat coming off a building, geological feature, or even a crowd of people is an enormously interesting data point. It can tell you whether an office building or warehouse is in use or empty, and whether it’s heated or cooled, and how efficient that process is. It can find warmer or cooler areas that suggest underground water, power lines, or other heat-affecting objects. It could even make a fair guess at how many people attended a concert, or perhaps an inauguration. And of course it works at night.

An aerial image side by side with a thermal image of the same area.

You could verify, for instance, which parts of a power plant are active, when.

Pollution and other emissions are also easily spotted and tracked, making infrared observation of the planet an important part of any plan to monitor industry in the context of climate change. That’s what attracted Satellite Vu’s first big piece of cash, a grant from the U.K. government for £1.4M, part of a £500M infrastructure fund.

CEO and founder Anthony Baker said that they began construction of their first satellite with that money, “so we knew we got our sums right,” he said, then began the process of closing additional capital.

Seraphim Capital, a space-focused VC firm whose most relevant venture is probably synthetic aperture satellite startup Iceye, matched the grant funds, and with subsequent grant the total money raised is in excess of the $5M target (the extra is set aside in a convertible note).

“What attracted us to Satellite Vu is several things. We published some research about this last year: there are more than 180 companies with plans to launch smallsat constellations,” said Seraphim managing partner James Bruegger. But very few, they noted, were looking at the infrared or thermal space. “That intrigued us, because we always thought infrared had a lot of potential. And we already knew Anthony and Satellite Vu from having put them through our space accelerator in 2019.”

They’re going to need every penny. Though the satellites themselves are looking to be remarkably cheap, as satellites go — $14-15M all told — and only seven will be needed to provide global coverage, that still adds up to over $100M over the next couple years.

Simulated image of a Satellite Vu imaging satellite.

Image Credits: Satellite Vu

Seraphim isn’t daunted, however: “As a specialist space investor, we understand the value of patience,” said Bruegger. Satellite Vu, he added, is a “poster child” for their approach, which is to shuttle early stage companies through their accelerator and then support them to an exit.

It helps that Baker has lined up about as much potential income from interested customers as they’ll need to finance the whole thing, soup to nuts. “Commercial traction has improved since we last spoke,” said Baker, which was just before he presented at TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 Startup Battlefield:

The company now has 26 letters of intent and other leads that amount to, in his estimation, about a hundred million dollars worth of business — if he can provide the services they’re asking for, of course. To that end the company has been flying its future orbital cameras on ordinary planes and modifying the output to resemble what they expect from the satellite network.

Companies interested in the latter can buy into the former for now, and the transition to the “real” product should be relatively painless. It also helps create a pipeline on Satellite Vu’s side, so there’s no need for a test satellite and service.

An aerial image side by side with a thermal image of the same area.

Another example of the simulated satellite imagery – same camera as will be in orbit, but degraded to resemble shots from that far up.

“We call it pseudo-satellite data — it’s almost a minimum viable product.We work with the companies about the formats and stuff they need,” Baker said. “The next stage is, we’re planning on taking a whole city, like Glasgow, and mapping the whole city in thermal. We think there will be many parties interested in that.”

With investment, tentative income, and potential customers lining up, Satellite Vu seems poised to make a splash, though its operations and launches are small compared with those of Planet, Starlink, and very soon Amazon’s Kuiper. After the first launch, tentatively scheduled for 2022, Baker said the company would only need two more to put the remaining six satellites in orbit, three at a time on a rideshare launch vehicle.

Before that, though, we can expect further fundraising, perhaps as soon as a few months from now — after all, however thrifty the company is, tens of millions in cash will still be needed to get off the ground.

9 investors, execs and founders discuss Zagreb’s startup potential

By Mike Butcher

Startups may not spring to mind when speaking about the beautiful country of Croatia. Indeed, the country is most popular as a tourist destination, and given that tourism accounted for about 20% of its GDP in 2018, to an extent, its pre-pandemic focus was mostly on growing its share of the international tourism market.

But Croatia’s entrepreneurs haven’t been quiet: Startups like Infobip and Rimac are significant local hero businesses now, and the region can boast of high-quality talent in the tech, automotive, manufacturing, and agtech spaces. With only two venture capital firms operating in the capital of Zagreb, the startup scene is still young, but the country’s relatively recent EU membership has given it access to a growing set of direct investment instruments.

The current tax framework on capital gains tax (zero if you hold the shares for more than two years) and a new ‘digital nomad’ visa are helping to attract investors and talent to the city, which is also close to some of the best beaches in the world.

Access to fresh, outside capital is always a catalyst for growth, so to get an inside look at Zagreb’s fast-growing startup ecosystem, we spoke with nine local founders, investors and C-level executives.

According to the respondents, Zagreb’s strongest tech areas include HR solutions, automotive, fintech, mobile gaming, IoT, insurtech, and AI. The city’s angel investor scene isn’t very strong yet, but that could be attributed to the ecosystem’s youth.


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The city has an excellent work-life balance, and most of the talent wants to stay there. “Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easier to land remote jobs and stay in Zagreb, which will positively impact our ecosystem,” one of the investors said.

However, with competition heating up, startups looking for larger, serious investment will probably have to look beyond the country’s borders while trying to retain their engineering talent. Luckily, an increasing number of international investors are looking at Zagreb for their deal flow pipeline.

Some top Croatian startups include: Agrivi, Amodo, Ascalia, Bellabeat, Cognism, Degordian, Dok-Ing, Infobip, Mindsmiths, OptimoRoute, Oradian, Photomath, Repsly, ReversingLabs, ScoreAlarm, Sportening and AdScanner.

We surveyed:


Lucija Ilicic, CEO, PlatePay

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Photomath, Sportening, and Mindsmiths.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
Mostly revenue-oriented.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
People would choose to live and move here during the pandemic. Some of them did, especially having in mind that Croatia now has the digital nomad visa.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Investors: Fil Rouge Capital, Feelsgood, Zicer, Bird Incubator; Founders: Ivan Klarić, Damir Sabol, Mislav Malenica, Mate Riimac

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
The Croatian startup ecosystem really grew during last year and has huge potential. I see it as a perfect place for digital nomads, home of a few new unicorns and a European center for AI solutions development.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Sportening, Mindsmiths, and of course, PlatePay.

 

Julien Coustaury, partner, Fil Rouge Capital

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
Strong in fintech, automotive, insurtech, and AI. We are excited that the whole ecosystem is growing strong with flagships such as Rimac, Optimoroute, Oradian, Infobeep, Agrivi, Tvbeat, Orqa, and Bellabeat, and our relevant funding partners with us and a new PE fund that have just been creating. There is money, talent and we have unicorns in Croatia. Very few weaknesses in Croatia at the moment, especially with the current tax framework on capital gains (zero if you hold the shares for more than two years) and the digital nomad visa. A giant leap for the region!

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Oradian, Lebesgue, Optimoroute, Gideon Brothers, Worcon, TVbeat, Orqa, Ascalia, Epoets Society, Hoss, Jade, Miret, My Valet, Sendbee, She’s Well, Spotsie, Taia, TDA, and Twire.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
The ecosystem still a bit small to talk about the vertical focus. [We have] two active funds: SC ventures and Fil Rouge Capital. FRC runs an accelerator program along the YC model. The angel scene is a bit disappointing at the moment with not a lot of investments. Funderbeam [is] pretty active here. The quality and quantity is amazing at the moment in Croatia, probably a factor of the ecosystem being rather young.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
The current fiscal climate makes it very attractive for people to relocate/stay in Zagreb, no doubt. One million people here; proximity to one of the best seas in the world — all the ingredients are here to make it the beacon of the up and coming startup world!

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
FRC is definitely the main player in Zagreb; SC ventures, Funderbeam, Novak Law for lawyers, Algebra University, ZICER, Hub 385, Step RI.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
No doubt a key hub in Europe on par with Vienna.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Oradian, Lebesgue, Optimoroute, Gideon Brothers, Worcon, TVbeat, Orqa, Ascalia, Epoets Society, Hoss, Jade, Miret, My Balet, Sendbee, She’s well, Spotsie, Taia, TDA, and Twire.

 

Josip Orsolic, CEO, Lilcodelab

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
IT, automotive, manufacturing, farming (different SaaS and IoT solutions).

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Rimac Automobili, Microblink, Five, Nanobit, Agrivi.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
It’s a small circle of people and not a lot of diversity, although it is getting better. Many new young successful investors emerged in the last few years.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
They will stay, maybe go to the suburbs, but just looking at the rental prices for flats/apartments I don’t see any shift in people moving outside of the city.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Mate Rimac, Damir Sabol, Alan Sumina, Tomislav Car, Luka Abrus.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
I believe the tech scene is going to grow more and more. Many companies from other countries are opening up engineering hubs in Zagreb. There is a lot of talent, people are drawn to tech jobs; it is heavily covered by the media. Each success is celebrated and covered by the media, so there is a feeling that tech companies are being pushed, even though there are other successful companies from other industries.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Agrivi, Parklio, Seek and Hit, Electrocoin, TestDome, Include.

Vedran Tolic, founder & CBO, Q agency

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
Strongest: Online betting, HR solutions, fintech, mobile gaming, IoT.
Weakest: Gaming for serious platforms; AI solutions are still in their infancy.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
PhotoMath, Agrivi, SofaScore, TalentLyft, Jenz, and Bellabeat.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
The scene is getting stronger, but for any serious investment, startups have to look beyond our borders.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
Zagreb has an excellent work-life balance, and most of the talent want to stay here. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easier to land remote jobs and stay in Zagreb, which will positively impact our ecosystem.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Founders: We have many charismatic founders who are raising awareness around startups and entrepreneurship in general. They are reaching large audiences and getting attention from government, the education system and the public.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
Shifting from mostly agency work for foreign companies to a more product-oriented scene — especially in AI and ML. Products will revolve around customer and employee engagement, automation and prediction of processes which are today done by a large workforce.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Photomath, Agrivi, Bellabeat, Jenz

 

Bozidar Pavlovic, managing director, airt

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
AI, SaaS, electric cars manufacturing, and software development in general.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Rimac Automobili, Nanobit, Infinum, Five, Agrivi, Aircash, Identyum, Airt, Mindsmiths, Electrocoin, Agency 04, Oradian, Microblink, Photomath, Agency Q, Revuto, Optimoroute, Amodo, Lemax, Ampnet, RobotiqAI, and Velebit AI.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
The scene is growing recently — Zagreb is capital of Croatia, thus attracting capital and people. A recent near-unicorn (Rimac, with heavy investment from Hyundai and Porsche) helped raise visibility for this vibrant ecosystem.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
Even before the pandemic, Zagreb was very attractive for tech experts worldwide due to its appealing price of accommodation, security, comfort of living and relatively high salaries. I am expecting to see the masses return after vaccination.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Davor Runje, Nikola Pavesic, Drazen Orescanin, Frane Sesnic, Tin Tezak, Ante Magzan, and Luka Sucic.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
I see it blooming, mostly due to upcoming adoption of EUR as a local currency.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Amodo, Agrivi, Photomath, Identyum.

 

Matej Zelic, COO, Spotsie

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
Oil and energy, Industry 4.0. Most excited to be a part of digital transformation in the old-fashioned industries.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Rimac, Agrivi, Oradian, Miret, SofaScore.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
The startup ecosystem in Croatia is still in early stages of development. The investment scene (except a few business angels) started a  few years ago backed by EU with just two VCs (FRC and SVC) without a strategic plan and focus.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
People will stay here.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Fil Rouge Capital, South Central Ventures. Mate Rimac, Damir Sabol, Frane Sesnic

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
Because of micro-location, the digital nomad program, and IT talent pool, Zagreb is on the way to becoming the No. 1 tech location in CEE and Europe.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Gideon Brothers, Spotsie.

 

Miroslav Kovac, CEO, Coffee Cloud

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
IoT, software analytics, big data, coffee industry.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Agrivi, Repsly.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
Very poor startup ecosystem.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
Most of the last year was in partial lockdown.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)
Sasa Cvetojecic, Hrvoje Prpic, Fil Rouge Capital, Bird Incubator.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
At the same place.

 

Vedran Blagus, investment manager, South Central Ventures

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
Industry is very agnostic. Most of them work in B2B or the enterprise space. They lack B2C knowledge, growth/expansion plan and investor relations.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
AdScanner, Agrivi, ReversingLabs, TalentLyft, Sportening, Codemap, Gideon Brothers.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
Two VCs operating – Fil Rouge Capital (Pre-Seed, Seed, Series A – industry agnostic; B2C and B2B) and South Central Ventures (Seed, Series A, B2B). In the past six to twelve months, C-level executives from corporates started investing in startups in early stages (up to EUR 200k), but keep their investments below the radar.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
I believe that it will stay the same as it is. Development/operations in Zagreb, expansion to other European cities by opening offices there.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Founders – Matija Zulj, Marin Curkovic, Mate Rimac, Marin Saric, Alan Sumina, Matija Kopic.
Investors – Luka Sucic, Stevica Kuharski, Vedran Blagus.
Lawyers – Marijana Sarolic Robic.
Media – Ivan Brezak Brkan, Bernard Ivezic.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
Founders who exited companies they’ve been building for the past 10 years will found new companies and/or invest in early stage startups. More international investors looking at Zagreb for pipeline/investments.

 

Daniel Stefanic, investor

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Infobip, Rimac seem to be hottest ones in Croatia.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
There’s some incredibly smart people involved in STEM in Croatia – world class. They just need better pathways to commercialisation and access to capital.

Oath Care just raised $2 million to develop a social, health-focused app that groups expectant and new parents

By Connie Loizos

Being an expectant mom can be frightening, as can mothering an infant or toddler. The answers don’t come automatically, and while there’s no shortage of books and websites (and advice from grandparents) about how to parent at every stage, finding satisfying information often proves a lot harder than imagined.

There are online social groups that deliver some of the social and emotional support that new parents need, no matter where they live. There are many dozens of mom communities on Facebook, for example. However, it’s because there’s room for improvement on this theme — big groups can feel isolating, bad information abounds —that Oath Care, a young, four-person San Francisco-based startup, just raised $2 million in seed funding from XYZ Ventures, General Catalyst, and Eros Resmini, former CMO of Discord and managing partner of the Mini Fund.

What is it building? Founder Camilla Hermann describes it as a subscription-based mobile app that’s focused on improving the lives of new mothers by combining parents who have lots in common with healthcare specialists and moderators who can guide them in group chats, as well as one-on-one video calls.

More specifically, she says, for $20 per month, Oath matches pregnant and postpartum moms in circles of up to 10 based on factors like stage of pregnancy, age of child, location, and career so they can ask questions of each other, with the help of a trained moderator (who is sometimes a mother with older children).

Oath also pushes curriculum that Oath’s team is developing in-house to members based on each group’s specific needs. Not last, every group is given collective access to medical specialists who can answer general questions as part of the members’ subscription and who are also available for consultations when individualized help is needed.

Hermann says the pricing of these 15-minute-long consultations is still being developed, but that the medical experts with whom it’s already working see the app as a form of lead generation.

It’s an interesting concept, one that could be taken in a host of directions, acknowledges Hermann who says she was inspired to cofound the company based on earlier work developing a contact tracing technology created to track outbreaks like Ebola in real time.

As she said yesterday during a Zoom call with TechCrunch and her cofounder, Michelle Stephens, a pediatric clinician and research scientist: “We’ve fundamentally misunderstand something really important about health in the West; we think that [changes] happen to one person at a time or one part of the body at a time, but it always happens in interconnected systems both inside and outside the body, which fundamentally means that it is always happening in community.”

For her part, Stephens — who was introduced to Hermann at a dinner years ago — says her motivation in cofounding Oath was born out of research into childhood stress, and that by “better equipping parents to be those positive consistent caregivers in their child’s life,” Oath aims to help enable stronger, more intimate child-parent bonds.

It might sound grand for a mobile app, but it also sounds like a smart starting point. Though the idea is to match mothers in similar situations at the outset to help bolster theirs and their children’s health, it’s easy to imagine the platform evolving in a way that brings together parents in numerous groups based on interests, from preschool applications to autism to same-sex parenting. It’s easy to see the platform helping to sell products that parents need. It’s easy to imagine the company amassing a lot of valuable information.

Indeed, says Hermann, the longer-term vision for Oath is to create rich datasets that it hopes can be used to improve health outcomes, including by identifying health issues earlier. Relatedly, it also hopes to build relationships with health systems and payers in order to increase access to its products.

For now, Oath is mostly just trying to keep up with demand. Hermann says the “small and scrappy” company found its first 50 users through Facebook ads, and that this base quickly tripled organically before Oath was forced to create a growing waitlist for what has been a closed beta until now. (Oath is “anticipating a full launch in late summer,” says Stephens.)

That’s not to say the company isn’t thinking at all about next steps.

While right now it is “laser focused on building out the most exceptional experience for this specific cohort of users in this specific period of time of their lives,” says Hermann, once it builds out many more communities of small trusted groups with “high engagement and high trust,” there is “a lot you can layer on top of that. It’s virtually limitless.”

As UiPath closes above its final private valuation, CFO Ashim Gupta discusses his company’s path to market

By Alex Wilhelm

After an upward revision, UiPath priced its IPO last night at $56 per share, a few dollars above its raised target range. The above-range price meant that the unicorn put more capital into its books through its public offering.

For a company in a market as competitive as robotic process automation (RPA), the funds are welcome. In fact, RPA has been top of mind for startups and established companies alike over the last year or so. In that time frame, enterprise stalwarts like SAP, Microsoft, IBM and ServiceNow have been buying smaller RPA startups and building their own, all in an effort to muscle into an increasingly lucrative market.

In June 2019, Gartner reported that RPA was the fastest-growing area in enterprise software, and while the growth has slowed down since, the sector is still attracting attention. UIPath, which Gartner found was the market leader, has been riding that wave, and today’s capital influx should help the company maintain its market position.

It’s worth noting that when the company had its last private funding round in February, it brought home $750 million at an impressive valuation of $35 billion. But as TechCrunch noted over the course of its pivot to the public markets, that round valued the company above its final IPO price. As a result, this week’s $56-per-share public offer wound up being something of a modest down-round IPO to UiPath’s final private valuation.

Then, a broader set of public traders got hold of its stock and bid its shares higher. The former unicorn’s shares closed their first day’s trading at precisely $69, above the per-share price at which the company closed its final private round.

So despite a somewhat circuitous route, UiPath closed its first day as a public company worth more than it was in its Series F round — when it sold 12,043,202 shares sold at $62.27576 apiece, per SEC filings. More simply, UiPath closed today worth more per-share than it was in February.

How you might value the company, whether you prefer a simple or fully-diluted share count, is somewhat immaterial at this juncture. UiPath had a good day.

While it’s hard to know what the company might do with the proceeds, chances are it will continue to try to expand its platform beyond pure RPA, which could become market-limited over time as companies look at other, more modern approaches to automation. By adding additional automation capabilities — organically or via acquisitions — the company can begin covering broader parts of its market.

TechCrunch spoke with UiPath CFO Ashim Gupta today, curious about the company’s choice of a traditional IPO, its general avoidance of adjusted metrics in its SEC filings, and the IPO market’s current temperature. The final question was on our minds, as some companies have pulled their public listings in the wake of a market described as “challenging”.

Why did UiPath not direct list after its huge February raise?

Per Diem raises $2.3M to help local businesses build subscription programs

By Anthony Ha

It might be time for neighborhood restaurants and coffee shops to start thinking about a subscription business — at least according to a new Y Combinator-backed startup called Per Diem. The company is announcing today that it has raised $2.3 million in seed funding led by Two Sigma Ventures.

As co-founder CEO Tomer Molovinsky put it, Per Diem helps local businesses “build their own Amazon Prime.” He said that he and his co-founder/CTO Doron Segal started working on this during the pandemic, as local businesses became more willing to consider new models to increase loyalty and regular purchases.

Not that this is an entirely new concept. In fact, Molovinsky said a number of the startup’s early customers already offered subscriptions of their own, like Norman’s Farm Market with its CSA subscription for produce, or IVX Coffee with a program initially focused on filling up reusable mugs with coffee.

But apparently these programs were usually managed through spreadsheets or an “old-school Rolodex,” making them increasingly difficult to manage as they grew. So Per Diem has built software to handle things like ordering, pickups/deliveries and payments.

Per Diem

Image Credits: Per Diem

“Today we offer support for both local delivery and shipping, and then we plan to build that out [with] different types of integrations, delivery partners and shipping partners,” Molovinsky said. “But we’re building on that core fundamental, which is that this is a brick-and-mortar business. That’s the ultimate differentiator.”

In other words, Per Diem emphasizes creating a strong in-store experience for subscribers, since that’s where they build a real relationship with the business.

“I don’t want to build a future where … I’m getting all my food from warehouses in another state,” Segal added. “I want to be able to say, ‘Oh, I get my food from John, I get my coffee from Linda.'”

Per Diem says that after Norman’s Farm Market used the software to offer vegetable box subscription on its website, it sold over 500 subscriptions in the first month alone. And IVX is now able to offer a full menu of espresso, match and coffee (drip and bean) subscriptions, with the average subscriber visiting the store five days a week.

Per Diem founders Doron Segal and Tomer Molovinsky

Per Diem founders Doron Segal and Tomer Molovinsky. Image Credits: Per Diem

The startup is currently focused on New York, but it’s already working with businesses in Phoenix and Washington, D.C. as well, and Molovinsky said there are no real geographic limitations.

Ultimately, he said he’s hoping to create “more value” for businesses, which could eventually mean cross-promoting different subscriptions or creating a neighborhood-wide subscription.

“We want to stay focused on what are the things we can unlock for [our customers],” he said. “They’re struggling with email marketing, so we added tools like that into our system. Over time, we can build up our system to continue to strengthen the relationship between the customer and the business.”

Dear Sophie: How can I get my startup off the ground and visit the US?

By Annie Siebert
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

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Dear Sophie,

I’m a female entrepreneur who created my first startup a few months ago.

Once my startup gets off the ground — and as COVID-19 gets under control — I’d like to visit the United States to test the market and meet with investors. Which visas would allow me to do that?

—Noteworthy in Nairobi

Dear Noteworthy,

Congratulations on founding your startup! There are many ways to engage with the U.S. startup ecosystem, and you can start now, even before you physically come to the United States.

I recommend doing some research into the programs and resources offered to entrepreneurs like you through the U.S. Embassy and Consulates near you in your home country. I recently interviewed Lilly Wahl-Tuco, a foreign service officer who has worked for the U.S. Department of State for 15 years, on my podcast.

Wahl-Tuco discussed some of the State Department resources — including programs, competitions and grants — made available by U.S. embassies and consulates for entrepreneurs living in the area.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

Serving as the first Environment, Science, Technology and Health (ESTH) officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2015, Wahl-Tuco was tasked with energizing the entrepreneurs of Bosnia. After she traveled around the country, visiting every incubator and meeting several entrepreneurs, Wahl-Tuco said she was surprised that most of the people she talked with didn’t know about the resources that the U.S. government offers through its embassies.

She recommends that entrepreneurs reach out, network and do online research to figure out what’s offered in their country or even if other foreign embassies offer resources and programs aimed at entrepreneurs.

Wahl-Tuco also suggested that entrepreneurs reach out to their local U.S. Embassy. For example, you can contact the U.S. Embassy in Kenya to find out if you can discuss your startup and business plan with an ESTH officer (if there is one) or someone else there. Connecting with embassy staff can open up many opportunities.

Need an Angel Investor? Just Open Up Clubhouse

By Arielle Pardes
Consider it like 'Shark Tank' on your phone: Every week on Angelhouse, founders make a pitch to a panel of investors as hundreds of people listen in.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Extra Crunch roundup: UiPath’s IPO filing, predicting revenue, how to pivot properly, much more

By Walter Thompson

This is not a boast, but a warning: I could write a how-to article on almost any topic.

Give me enough time to do some research, and I can put together a reliable step-by-step for building a custom gaming PC, installing a hot water heater or interpreting public health data. But since I’ve never actually done those things, I would encourage you to ignore any advice I have to offer.

Trusted advice comes from experience. That’s why Ron Miller interviewed three entrepreneurs who have each built multiple companies to uncover some essential truths about achieving product-market fit:

  • Pouyan Salehi, CEO and co-founder, Scratchpad
  • Rami Essaid, CEO and founder,  Finmark
  • Melonee Wise, CEO and co-founder, Fetch Robotics

The basic tenets presented in Ron’s story will resonate with anyone who’s launched a startup.

Alex Wilhelm was particularly prolific this morning: For The Exchange, he studied UiPath’s 2020 quarterly results to get a clearer picture of its first S-1/A filing. Is the “somewhat slack news regarding UiPath’s potential IPO valuation” a harbinger of things to come?


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In a follow-up, he recapped news from the public debuts of Coinbase, UiPath, Zenvia, AppLovin and Grab, all of which “adds up to a somewhat muddled picture of the current IPO market.” It feels like we’re in a turbulent window, but it’s also possible that we’re in the calm after the storm, he suggests.

Final note: I asked TechCrunch graphic designer/illustrator Bryce Durbin to create an image to accompany this primer on raising a Series A round. He didn’t just exceed my expectations — it’s my favorite TechCrunch illustration ever. Thanks, Bryce!

I hope you got something out of reading Extra Crunch this week. Have a great weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

 

Building the right team for a billion-dollar startup

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

From building out Facebook’s first office in Austin to putting together most of Quora’s team, Bain Capital Ventures managing director Sarah Smith has done a bit of everything when it comes to hiring.

At TechCrunch Early Stage, she spoke about how to ensure the critical early hires are the right ones to grow a business. As an investor, Smith has a broad view into the problems companies face as they search for the right candidates to spur organizational success.

She touched on a number of issues, such as who to hire and when, when to fire, and how to ensure diversity from the earliest days.

So you want to raise a Series A

"So you want to raise a Series A" pamphlet in the style of "The Simpsons"

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

During a seed funding round, a founder needs to convince a venture capital investor on a vision. But during a Series A fundraise, napkin-stage ideas don’t make the cut — a founder needs product progress, numbers and revenue (or at least a plan to eventually generate some).

In many ways, the stakes are higher for a Series A — and Bucky Moore, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, joined TechCrunch Early Stage last week to give founders tactical advice on the process of raising one.

Moore spoke about storytelling over semantics, pricing, and where his firm sees itself “raising the bar” for startups.

With the right tools, predicting startup revenue is possible

For a long time, “revenue” seemed to be a taboo word in the startup world. Fortunately, things have changed with the rise of SaaS and alternative funding sources such as revenue-based investing VCs.

Still, revenue modeling remains a challenge for founders. How do you predict earnings when you’re still figuring it out?

How we dodged risks and raised millions for our open-source machine learning startup

Image Credits: erhui1979 / Getty Images

If you have a great idea within the open-core framework, expect your risks to be much lower than with a traditional business structure.

Clearly communicate this fact to venture capitalists for the best chance at securing the seed funding your organization needs.

But it takes more: Boasting a strong community around an emerging open-source product essentially serves as an “introduction letter” to venture capitalists. It highlights the founders’ ability to successfully execute their vision, as well as the mission to bring their product to a commercial reality.

Additionally, the iterative nature of open-source projects leads to fostering a sense of teamwork between the founders, their team, and investors and stakeholders.

Founder and investor Melissa Bradley outlines how to nail your virtual pitch meeting

Image Credits: Ureeka

Melissa Bradley is the co-founder of a startup called Ureeka, an investor at 1863 Ventures, and a professor at Georgetown’s business school. So it’s not an understatement to say that she understands the fundraising process from every angle.

She both invested and fundraised for her own startup during this last year, where the landscape has shifted drastically. At TechCrunch Early Stage, she led a session on how to nail your virtual pitch meeting.

Bradley covered how to allocate your time during the meeting, how to prepare, how to close out the meetings with a clear list of action items, and what to avoid.

Scale CEO Alex Wang and Accel’s Dan Levine explain why sometimes unconventional VC deals are best

Image Credits: Eric Millette / Scale AI

Scale CEO and co-founder Alex Wang credits their success since founding — which includes raising over $277 million and achieving breakeven status in terms of revenue — to early support from investors, including Accel’s Dan Levine.

Accel haș participated in four of Scale’s financing rounds, and Levine wrote one of the company’s very first checks. So on this past week’s episode of Extra Crunch Live, we spoke with Levine and Wang about how that first deal came together, and what their working relationship has been like in the years since.

 

Ride-hailing’s profitability promise is in its final countdown

Let’s parse Uber’s latest, vet its profit promise, consider its rivals and their performance, and then ask ourselves if the great ride-hailing and food-delivery booms will ever make back the money they cost to scale.

 

UiPath’s first IPO pricing could be a warning to late-stage investors

Co-founder and CEO of UiPath Daniel Dines

Image Credits: Noam Galai/Getty Images

For UiPath, its initial IPO price interval is a disappointment, though the company could see an upward revision in its valuation before it does sell shares and begin to trade.

But more to the point, the company’s private-market valuation bump followed by a quick public-market correction stands out as a counter-example to something that we’ve seen so frequently in recent months.

Is UiPath’s first IPO price interval another indicator that the IPO market is cooling?

 

How to choose and deploy industry-specific AI models

Image of flow chart on a blackboard.

Image Credits: alexsl / Getty Images

As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, previously cutting-edge — but generic — AI models are becoming commonplace, such as Google Cloud’s Vision AI or Amazon Rekognition.

While effective in some use cases, these solutions do not suit industry-specific needs right out of the box. Organizations that seek the most accurate results from their AI projects will simply have to turn to industry-specific models.

Any team looking to expand its AI capabilities should first apply its data and use cases to a generic model and assess the results.

Let’s dive into each of these approaches and how businesses can decide which one works for their distinct circumstances.

Atomico’s talent partners share 6 tips for early-stage people ops success

Photo of Talent Partners Caro Chayot and Dan Hynes

Image Credits: Atomico

In the earliest stages of building a startup, it can be hard to justify focusing on anything other than creating a great product or service and meeting the needs of customers or users.

However, there are still a number of surefire measures that any early-stage company can and should put in place to achieve “people ops” success as they begin scaling, according to venture capital firm Atomico‘s talent partners, Caro Chayot and Dan Hynes.

Long story short: You need to recruit for what you need, but you also need to think about what is coming down the line.

5 questions about Grab’s epic SPAC investor deck

grab 1

Image Credits: Roslan Rahman/Getty Images

Southeast Asian superapp Grab is going public via a SPAC.

Grab, which provides ride-hailing, payments and food delivery, will trade under the ticker symbol “GRAB” on the Nasdaq exchange when the combination is complete.

Let’s walk through several key points from Grab’s SPAC investor deck, including growth, segment profitability, aggregate costs and COVID-19, among other factors.

Expect an even hotter AI venture capital market in the wake of the Microsoft-Nuance deal

Microsoft’s huge purchase of health tech AI company Nuance led the technology news cycle this week. The $19.7 billion transaction is Microsoft’s second-largest to date, only beaten by its purchase of LinkedIn some years ago.

For the AI space, the sale is a coup. Nuance was already a public company, but to see Microsoft offer a firm premium over its public-market value demonstrates the value that AI technology can have to wealthy companies. For startups working in the AI space, the Nuance deal is good news; the value of AI revenue was repriced by the acquisition’s announcement — and for the better.

In light of the megadeal, The Exchange dug into the AI venture capital market. What’s happening on the startup side of the coin in the artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) space?

What’s fueling hydrogen tech?

market-maps-hydrogen-fuel-cell

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

When the word “hydrogen” is uttered today, the average non-insider’s mind likely gravitates toward transportation — cars, buses, maybe trains or 18-wheelers, all powered by the gas.

But hydrogen is, and does, a lot of things, and a better understanding of its other roles — and challenges within those roles — is necessary to its success in transportation.

Hydrogen is now capturing the attention of governments and private sector players, fueled by new tech, global green energy legislation and post-pandemic “green recovery” schemes.

5 product lessons to learn before you write a line of code

Rearview shot of a young businesswoman having a brainstorming session in a modern office

Image Credits: LaylaBird / Getty Images

Before a startup can achieve product-market fit, founders must first listen to their customers, build what they require and fashion a business plan that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile.

The numbers will tell the true story, but when it happens, you’ll feel it in your bones because sales will be good, customers will be happy and revenue will be growing.

Reaching that tipping point can be a slog, especially for first-time founders. To uncover some basic truths about building products, we spoke to three entrepreneurs who have each built more than one company.

Inside the US’ epic first-quarter venture capital results

In broad strokes, the United States had a crushing venture capital start to the new year, pandemic be damned.

That is especially true when we consider 2020’s full-year figures. Last year, venture capitalists deployed some $166 billion into U.S.-based startups across 12,546 rounds. In contrast, if the first quarter’s pace was maintained during the rest of 2021, the United States would see around 16,000 rounds worth around $280 billion.

Of course, we cannot see the future, so those projections are merely shared to underscore how active the first quarter proved to be.

Dear Sophie: How can I get an H-1B without the lottery?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie:

For the past few years, our company has put very promising candidates into the annual H-1B lottery. None of them have been selected — and none of them meet the requirements for other work visas like an O-1A.

We lost out again in this year’s H-1B lottery. Are there any other ways we can obtain H-1Bs for our team members?

— Soldiering On in Sunnyvale

 

Alexa von Tobel outlines how founders should manage personal finances

Alexa von Tobel

Image Credits: Alexa von Tobel

Few people are more knowledgeable on the topic of how founders should manage their finances than Alexa von Tobel.

She is a certified financial planner, started her own company in the midst of the recession (which happened to be a wildly successful personal finance startup that sold for hundreds of millions of dollars), and is now a VC who invests and advises founders.

At Early Stage 2021, she gave a presentation on how founders should think about managing their own wealth. Startup founders can often put all their money into their venture and end up paying more attention to the finances of their company than their own bank account.

Von Tobel outlined the various steps you can take to stay out of debt, build credit and accumulate wealth through investments to ensure you have financial peace of mind as you take on the most stressful venture of your life: Starting a company.

How to pivot your startup, save cash and maintain trust with investors and customers

Olive CEO Sean Lane

Image Credits: Olive

A few years ago, founder Sean Lane thought he’d achieved product-market fit.

Speaking to attendees at TechCrunch’s Early Stage virtual event, Lane said Queue, a secure digital check-in tablet for hospital waiting rooms that reduced wait times by uniting and correcting electronic medical records, was “selling like hotcakes.” But once Lane realized it would only ever address one piece of a much bigger market opportunity, he sold off the product, laid off two-thirds of the people affiliated with it and redirected the employees who were left.

Lane explained that what he really wanted to build is what his company — since renamed Olive — has now become, a robotic process automation (RPA) company that takes on hospital workers’ most tedious tasks so nurses and physicians can spend more time with patients.

Building customer-first relationships in a privacy-first world is critical

Concept of knowledge, data and protection. Paper human head with pad lock.

Image Credits: jayk7 (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

In business today, many believe that consumer privacy and business results are mutually exclusive — to excel in one area is to lack in the other. Consumer privacy is seen by many in the technology industry as an area to be managed.

But the truth is that the companies that champion privacy will be better-positioned to win in all areas. This is especially true as the digital industry continues to undergo tectonic shifts in privacy — both in government regulation and browser updates.

For startups choosing a platform, a decision looms: Build or buy?

Blank green arrow signs pointing in both directions on top of a metal post.

Image Credits: Chris Jongkind (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Founders shouldn’t be worried about starting companies that rely on other platforms.

Platforms exist to help startups get to users and customers faster and should be used as a means to an end, but everyone must get their piece.

Coinbase’s direct listing alters the landscape for fintech and crypto startups

Coinbase’s direct listing was a massive finance, startup and cryptocurrency event, and the transaction’s effects will be felt for some time in the public market, but also among the startups and capital that comprise the private market.

In the buildup to Coinbase’s flotation — and we’d argue especially after it released its blockbuster Q1 2021 results — there was a general expectation that the unicorn’s direct listing would provide a halo effect for other startups in the space.

The widely held perspective raised two questions: Will the success of Coinbase’s direct listing bolster private investment in crypto-focused startups, and will that success help other areas of financially focused startup work garner more investor attention?

Billion-dollar B2B: Cloud-first enterprise tech behemoths have massive potential

Abstract minimalist conceptual multiple coloured zig zag strip joined as one moving upwards on blue background.

Image Credits: twomeows (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

The “billion-dollar B2B” paradigm refers to the forces shaping a new class of cloud-first, enterprise-tech behemoths with the potential to reach $1 billion in ARR — and achieve market capitalizations in excess of $50 billion or even $100 billion.

One of the biggest factors driving billion-dollar B2Bs is a simple but important shift in how organizations buy enterprise technology today.

How startups can ensure CCPA and GDPR compliance in 2021

Padlock in woman's hand. Data, information, property and security on the Internet concept. White background

Image Credits: tumsasedgars (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Data is the most valuable asset for any business in 2021. If your business is online and collecting customer personal information, your business is dealing in data, which means data privacy compliance regulations will apply to everyone — no matter the company’s size.

Small startups might not think the world’s strictest data privacy laws — the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — apply to them, but it’s important to enact best data management practices before a legal situation arises.

Should Dell have pursued a more aggressive debt-reduction move with VMware?

Michael Dell, founder and chief executive officer of Dell Inc., speaks during the 2015 Dell World Conference in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. Dell said trimming debt for the massive deal to combine his namesake company with EMC Corp. should progress relatively quickly in the next couple of years. Photographer: Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image Credits: Bloomberg / Getty Images

When Dell announced it was spinning out VMware, the move itself wasn’t surprising; there had been public speculation for some time.

But Dell could have gone a number of ways in this deal, despite its choice to spin VMware out as a separate company with a constituent dividend instead of an outright sale.

It seems Dell hopes to have its cake and eat it too with this deal: It generates a large slug of cash to use for personal debt relief while securing a five-year commercial deal that should keep the two companies closely aligned.

What we all missed in UiPath’s latest IPO filing

Robotic process automation platform UiPath filed its first S-1/A this week, setting an initial price range for its shares. The numbers were impressive, if slightly disappointing because what UiPath indicated in terms of its potential IPO value was a lower valuation than it earned during its final private fundraising.

Here at The Exchange, we wondered if the somewhat slack news regarding UiPath’s potential IPO valuation was a warning to late-stage investors.

But in good news for UiPath shareholders, most everyone — ourselves included! — who discussed the company’s price range didn’t dig into the fact that the company first disclosed quarterly results to the same S-1/A filing that included its IPO valuation interval. And those numbers are very interesting, so much so that The Exchange is now generally expecting UiPath to target a higher price interval before it debuts.

But let’s dig into the company’s quarterly results to get a clearer picture of UiPath.

The IPO market is sending us mixed messages

If you only stayed up to date with the Coinbase direct listing this week, you’re forgiven. It was, after all, one heck of a flotation.

But underneath the cryptocurrency exchange’s public debut, other IPO news that matters did happen this week. And the news adds up to a somewhat muddled picture of the current IPO market.

To cap off the week, let’s run through IPO news from UiPath, Coinbase, Grab, AppLovin and Zenvia. The aggregate dataset should help you form your own perspective about where today’s IPO markets really are in terms of warmth for the often unprofitable unicorns of the world.

AI-driven audio cloning startup gives voice to Einstein chatbot

By Natasha Lomas

You’ll need to prick up your ears for this slice of deepfakery emerging from the wacky world of synthesized media: A digital version of Albert Einstein — with a synthesized voice that’s been (re)created using AI voice cloning technology drawing on audio recordings of the famous scientist’s actual voice.

The startup behind the ‘uncanny valley’ audio deepfake of Einstein is Aflorithmic (whose seed round we covered back in February).

While the video engine powering the 3D character rending components of this ‘digital human’ version of Einstein is the work of another synthesized media company — UneeQ — which is hosting the interactive chatbot version on its website.

Alforithmic says the ‘digital Einstein’ is intended as a showcase for what will soon be possible with conversational social commerce. Which is a fancy way of saying deepfakes that make like historical figures will probably be trying to sell you pizza soon enough, as industry watchers have presciently warned.

The startup also says it sees educational potential in bringing famous, long deceased figures to interactive ‘life’.

Or, well, an artificial approximation of it — the ‘life’ being purely virtual and Digital Einstein’s voice not being a pure tech-powered clone either; Alforithmic says it also worked with an actor to do voice modelling for the chatbot (because how else was it going to get Digital Einstein to be able to say words the real-deal would never even have dreamt of saying — like, er, ‘blockchain’?). So there’s a bit more than AI artifice going on here too.

“This is the next milestone in showcasing the technology to make conversational social commerce possible,” Alforithmic’s COO Matt Lehmann told us. “There are still more than one flaws to iron out as well as tech challenges to overcome but overall we think this is a good way to show where this is moving to.”

In a blog post discussing how it recreated Einstein’s voice the startup writes about progress it made on one challenging element associated with the chatbot version — saying it was able to shrink the response time between turning around input text from the computational knowledge engine to its API being able to render a voiced response, down from an initial 12 seconds to less than three (which it dubs “near-real-time”). But it’s still enough of a lag to ensure the bot can’t escape from being a bit tedious.

Laws that protect people’s data and/or image, meanwhile, present a legal and/or ethical challenge to creating such ‘digital clones’ of living humans — at least not without asking (and most likely paying) first.

Of course historical figures aren’t around to ask awkward questions about the ethics of their likeness being appropriated for selling stuff (if only the cloning technology itself, at this nascent stage). Though licensing rights may still apply — and do in fact in the case of Einstein.

“His rights lie with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is a partner in this project,” says Lehmann, before ‘fessing up to the artist licence element of the Einstein ‘voice cloning’ performance. “In fact, we actually didn’t clone Einstein’s voice as such but found inspiration in original recordings as well as in movies. The voice actor who helped us modelling his voice is a huge admirer himself and his performance captivated the character Einstein very well, we thought.”

Turns out the truth about high-tech ‘lies’ is itself a bit of a layer cake. But with deepfakes it’s not the sophistication of the technology that matters so much as the impact the content has — and that’s always going to depend upon context. And however well (or badly) the faking is done, how people respond to what they see and hear can shift the whole narrative — from a positive story (creative/educational synthesized media) to something deeply negative (alarming, misleading deepfakes).

Concern about the potential for deepfakes to become a tool for disinformation is rising, too, as the tech gets more sophisticated — helping to drive moves toward regulating AI in Europe, where the two main entities responsible for ‘Digital Einstein’ are based.

Earlier this week a leaked draft of an incoming legislative proposal on pan-EU rules for ‘high risk’ applications of artificial intelligence included some sections specifically targeted at deepfakes.

Under the plan, lawmakers look set to propose “harmonised transparency rules” for AI systems that are designed to interact with humans and those used to generate or manipulate image, audio or video content. So a future Digital Einstein chatbot (or sales pitch) is likely to need to unequivocally declare itself artificial before it starts faking it — to avoid the need for Internet users to have to apply a virtual Voight-Kampff test.

For now, though, the erudite-sounding interactive Digital Einstein chatbot still has enough of a lag to give the game away. Its makers are also clearly labelling their creation in the hopes of selling their vision of AI-driven social commerce to other businesses.

Data scientists: Bring the narrative to the forefront

By Ram Iyer
Peter Wang Contributor
Peter Wang is CEO and co-founder of data science platform Anaconda. He’s also a co-creator of the PyData community and conferences, and a member of the board at the Center for Humane Technology.

By 2025, 463 exabytes of data will be created each day, according to some estimates. (For perspective, one exabyte of storage could hold 50,000 years of DVD-quality video.) It’s now easier than ever to translate physical and digital actions into data, and businesses of all types have raced to amass as much data as possible in order to gain a competitive edge.

However, in our collective infatuation with data (and obtaining more of it), what’s often overlooked is the role that storytelling plays in extracting real value from data.

The reality is that data by itself is insufficient to really influence human behavior. Whether the goal is to improve a business’ bottom line or convince people to stay home amid a pandemic, it’s the narrative that compels action, rather than the numbers alone. As more data is collected and analyzed, communication and storytelling will become even more integral in the data science discipline because of their role in separating the signal from the noise.

Yet this can be an area where data scientists struggle. In Anaconda’s 2020 State of Data Science survey of more than 2,300 data scientists, nearly a quarter of respondents said that their data science or machine learning (ML) teams lacked communication skills. This may be one reason why roughly 40% of respondents said they were able to effectively demonstrate business impact “only sometimes” or “almost never.”

The best data practitioners must be as skilled in storytelling as they are in coding and deploying models — and yes, this extends beyond creating visualizations to accompany reports. Here are some recommendations for how data scientists can situate their results within larger contextual narratives.

Make the abstract more tangible

Ever-growing datasets help machine learning models better understand the scope of a problem space, but more data does not necessarily help with human comprehension. Even for the most left-brain of thinkers, it’s not in our nature to understand large abstract numbers or things like marginal improvements in accuracy. This is why it’s important to include points of reference in your storytelling that make data tangible.

For example, throughout the pandemic, we’ve been bombarded with countless statistics around case counts, death rates, positivity rates, and more. While all of this data is important, tools like interactive maps and conversations around reproduction numbers are more effective than massive data dumps in terms of providing context, conveying risk, and, consequently, helping change behaviors as needed. In working with numbers, data practitioners have a responsibility to provide the necessary structure so that the data can be understood by the intended audience.

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