Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.
We’re off and running with good milestones achieved for NASA’s commercial crew program, which means it’s more likely than ever we’ll actually see astronauts launch from U.S. soil before the year is out.
If that’s not enough to get you pumped about the space sector in 2020, we also have a great overview of 2019 in space tech investment, and a look forward at what’s happening next year from Space Angels’ Chad Anderson. Plus, we announced our own dedicated space event, which is happening this June.
SpaceX launched its Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft on Sunday. No one was on board, but the test was crucial because it included firing off the in-flight abort (IFA) safety system that will protect actual astronauts should anything go wrong with future real missions.
The SpaceX in-flight abort test included this planned fireball, as the Falcon 9 rocket it launched upon broke up.
The IFA seems to have worked as intended, propelling the Crew Dragon away from the Falcon 9 it was launched on top of at high speed. In an actual emergency, this would ensure that the astronauts aboard were transported to a safe distance, and then returned to Earth at a safe speed using the onboard parachutes, which seem to have deployed exactly as planned.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is looking a bit further ahead, in the meantime, to when his company’s Starship spacecraft is fully operational and making regular trips to Mars. Musk said he wants to be launching Starships as much as thrice daily, with the goal of moving megatons of cargo and up to a million people to Mars at full target operating pace.
Secretive space launch startup SpinLaunch is adding to its operating capital with a new $35 million investment, a round led by Airbus Ventures, GV and more. The company wants to use rotational force to effectively fling payloads out of Earth’s atmosphere – without using any rockets. Sounds insane, but I’ve heard from people much smarter than me that the company, and the core concept, is sound.
I spoke to Space Angels CEO Chat Anderson about his company’s quarterly tracking of private investment in the space technology sector, which they’ve been doing since 2017. They’re uniquely well-positioned to combine data from both public sources and the companies they speak to, and perform due diligence on, so there’s no better place to look for insight on where we’ve been, and an educated perspective on where we’re going. (ExtraCrunch subscription required).
Rocket Lab was born in New Zealand, and still operates a facility and main launch pad there, but it’s increasingly building out its U.S. presence, too. Now, the company shared its plans to build a combined HQ/Mission Control/rocket fab facility in LA. Construction is already underway, and it should be completed later this year.
‘Rideshare’ in space means something entirely different than it does on Earth – you’re not hailing an Uber, you’re booking one portion of cargo space aboard a rocket with a group of other clients. Orbex has a new customer that bought up all the capacity for one of its future rideshare missions, planned for 2022. The new launch provider hasn’t actually launched any rockets, however, so it’ll have to pass that key milestone before it makes good on that new contract.
Yes, it’s official: TechCrunch is hosting its on space-focused tech event on June 25 in LA. This will be a one-day, high-profile program featuring discussions with the top companies and people in space tech, startups and investment. We’ll be revealing more about programming over the next few months, but if you get in now you can guarantee your spot.
The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.
The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.
That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.
Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.
“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.
Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.
Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.
Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.
African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.
That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.
The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.
Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.
Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.
Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.
This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.
For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation
“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.
This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.
More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.
Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.
The spotlight this week is back on Tencent, which has made some interesting moves in gaming and content publishing. There will be no roundup next week as China observes the Lunar New Year, but the battle only intensifies for the country’s internet giants, particularly short-video rivals Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou, which will be vying for user time over the big annual holiday. We will surely cover that when we return.
Tencent’s storied gaming studio TiMi is looking to accelerate international expansion by tripling its headcount in the U.S. in 2020, the studio told TechCrunch this week, though it refused to reveal the exact size of its North American office. Eleven-year-old TiMi currently has a team working out of Los Angeles on global business and plans to grow it into a full development studio that “helps us understand Western players and gives us a stronger global perspective,” said the studio’s international business director Vincent Gao.
Gao borrowed the Chinese expression “riding the wind and breaking the wave” to characterize TiMi’s global strategy. The wind, he said, “refers to the ever-growing desire for quality by mobile gamers.” Breaking the wave, on the other hand, entails TiMi applying new development tools to building high-budget, high-quality AAA mobile games.
The studio is credited for producing one of the world’s most-played mobile games, Honor of Kings, a mobile multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, and taking it overseas under the title Arena of Valor. Although Arena of Valor didn’t quite take off in Western markets, it has done well in Southeast Asia in part thanks to Tencent’s publishing partnership with the region’s internet giant Garena.
Honor of Kings and a few other Tencent games have leveraged the massive WeChat and QQ messengers to acquire users. That raises the question of whether Tencent can replicate its success in overseas markets where its social apps are largely absent. But TiMi contended that these platforms are not essential to a game’s success. “TiMi didn’t succeed in China because of WeChat and QQ. It’s not hard to find examples of games that didn’t succeed even with [support from] WeChat and QQ.”
Call of Duty: Mobile is developed by Tencent and published by Activision Blizzard (Image: Call of Duty: Mobile via Twitter)
When it comes to making money, TiMi has from the outset been a strong proponent of game-as-a-service whereby it continues to pump out fresh content after the initial download. Gao believes the model will gain further traction in 2020 as it attracts old-school game developers, which were accustomed to pay-to-play, to follow suit.
All eyes are now on TiMi’s next big move, the mobile version of Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty. Tencent, given its experience in China’s mobile-first market, appears well-suited to make the mobile transition for the well-loved console shooter. Developed by Tencent and published by Blizzard, in which Tencent owns a minority stake, in September, Call of Duty: Mobile had a spectacular start, recording more worldwide downloads in a single quarter than any mobile game except Pokémon GO, which saw its peak in Q3 2016, according to app analytics company Sensor Tower.
The pedigreed studio has in recent times faced more internal competition from its siblings inside Tencent, particularly the Lightspeed Quantum studio, which is behind the successful mobile version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). While Tencent actively fosters internal rivalry between departments, Gao stressed that TiMi has received abundant support from Tencent on the likes of publishing, business development and legal matters.
Ever since WeChat rolled out its content publishing function — a Facebook Page equivalent named the Official Account — back in 2012, articles posted through the social networking platform have been free to read. That’s finally changing.
This week, WeChat announced that it began allowing a selected group of authors to put their articles behind a paywall in a trial period. The launch is significant not only because it can inspire creators by helping them eke out additional revenues, but it’s also a reminder of WeChat’s occasionally fraught relationship with Apple.
WeChat launched its long-awaited paywall for articles published on its platform
Let’s rewind to 2017 when WeChat, in a much-anticipated move, added a “tipping” feature to articles published on Official Account. The function was meant to boost user engagement and incentivize writers off the back of the popularity of online tipping in China. On live streaming platforms, for instance, users consume content for free but many voluntarily send hosts tips and virtual gifts worth from a few yuan to the hundreds.
WeChat said at the time that all transfers from tipping would go toward the authors, but Apple thought otherwise, claiming that such tips amounted to “in-app purchases” and thus entitled it to a 30% cut from every transaction, or what is widely known as the “Apple tax.”
WeChat disabled tipping following the clash over the terms but reintroduced the feature in 2018 after reaching consensus with Apple. The function has been up and running since then and neither WeChat nor Apple charged from the transfers, a spokesperson from WeChat confirmed with TechCrunch.
If the behemoths’ settlement over tipping was a concession on Apple’s end, Tencent has budged on paywalls this time.
Unlike tipping, the new paywall feature entitles Apple to its standard 30% cut of in-app transactions. That means transfers for paid content will go through Apple’s in-app purchase (IAP) system rather than WeChat’s own payments tool, as is the case with tipping. It also appears that only users with a Chinese Apple account are able to pay for WeChat articles. TechCrunch’s attempt to purchase a post using a U.S. Apple account was rejected by WeChat on account of the transaction “incurring risks or not paying with RMB.”
The launch is certainly a boon to creators who enjoy a substantial following, although many of them have already explored third-party platforms for alternative commercial possibilities beyond the advertising and tipping options that WeChat enables. Zhishi Xingqiu, the “Knowledge Planet”, for instance, is widely used by WeChat creators to charge for value-added services such as providing readers with exclusive industry reports. Xiaoe-tong, or “Smart Little Goose”, is a popular tool for content stars to roll out paid lessons.
Not everyone is bullish on the new paywall. One potential drawback is it will drive down traffic and discourage advertisers. Others voice concerns that the paid feature is vulnerable to exploitation by clickbait creators. On that end, WeChat has restricted the application to the function only to accounts that are over three months old, have published at least three original articles and have seen no serious violations of WeChat rules.
During this week’s Democratic debate, there was a lot of talk, unsurprisingly, about ensuring the future of this country’s children and grandchildren. Climate change was of particular interest to billionaire Tom Steyer, who said repeatedly that addressing it would be his top priority were he elected U.S. president.
As it happens, earlier the same day, we’d spent time on the phone with two venture capitalists who think of almost nothing else every day. The reason: they both invest in so-called deep tech, and they meet routinely with startups whose central focus is on making the world habitable for generations of people to come — as well as trying to produce outsize financial returns, of course.
The two VCs with whom we talked know each other well. Siraj Khaliq is a partner at the global venture firm Atomico, where he tries to find world-changing startups that are enabled by machine learning, AI, and computer vision. He has strong experience in the area, having cofounded The Climate Corporation back in 2006, a company that helps farmers optimize crop yield and that was acquired by Monsanto in 2013 for roughly $1 billion.
Seth Bannon is meanwhile a founding partner of Fifty Years, a nearly five-year-old, San Francisco-based seed-stage fund whose stated ambition is backing founders who want to solve the world’s biggest problems. The investors’ interests overlap so much that Khaliq is also one of Fifty Years’s investors.
From both, we wanted to know which companies or trends are capturing their imagination and, in some cases, their investment dollars. Following are excerpts from our extended conversation earlier this week. (We thought it was interesting; hopefully you will, too.)
TC: Seth, how would you describe what you’re looking to fund at your firm?
SB: There’s a Winston Churchill essay [penned nearly 100 years ago] called “Fifty Years Hence” that describes what we do. He predicts genomic engineering, synthetic biology, growing meat without animals, nuclear power, satellite telephony. Churchill also notes that because tech changes so quickly that it’s important that technologists take a principled approach to their work. [Inspired by him] we’re backing founders who can make a ton of money while doing good and focusing on health, disease, the climate crisis . . .
TC: What does that mean exactly? Are you investing in software?
SB: We’re not so enthusiastic about pure software because it’s been so abstracted away that it’s become a commodity. High school students can now build an app, which is great, but it also means that competitive pressures are very high. There are a thousand funds focused on software seed investing. Fortunately, you can now launch a synthetic biology startup with seed funding, and that wasn’t possible 10 years ago. There are a lot of infrastructural advancements happening that makes [deep tech investing even with smaller checks] interesting.
TC: Siraj, you also invest exclusively on frontier, or deep tech, at Atomico . What’s your approach to funding startups?
SK: We do Series A [deals] onward and don’t do seed stage. We primarily focus on Europe. But there’s lot of common thinking between us and Seth. As a fund, we’re looking for big problems that change the world, sometimes at companies that won’t necessarily be big in five years but if you look out 10 years could be necessary for humanity. So we’re trying to anticipate all of these big trends and focus on three or four theses a year and talk as much as we can with academics and other experts to understand what’s going on. Founders then know we have an informed view.
Last year, we focused on synthetic biology, which is a becoming so broad a category that it’s time to start subdividing it. We were also doing AI-based drug discovery and quantum computing and we started to spend some time on energy as well. We also [continued an earlier focus on ] the future of manufacturing and industry. We see a number of trends that make [the latter] attractive, especially in Europe where manufacturing hasn’t yet been digitized.
TC: Seth, you mentioned synthetic biology infrastructure. Can you elaborate on what you’re seeing that’s interesting on this front?
SB: You’ve maybe heard of directed evolution, technology that allows biologists to use the power of evolution to get microbes or other biological machines to do what they want them to do that would have been impossible before. [Editor’s note: here, Bannon talked a bit about Frances Arnold, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who was awarded the prize in 2018 for developing the technique.]
So we’re excited to back [related] startups. One, Solugen, enzymatically makes industrial chemicals [by combining genetically modified enzymes with organic compounds, like plant sugars]. Hydrogen peroxide is $6 billion dollar industry, and it’s currently made through a petroleum-based process in seven-football-field-long production plants that sometimes explode and kill people.
TC: Is this then akin to Zymergen, which develops molecules in order to create unique specialty materials?
SB: Zymergen mainly works as a kind of consultant to help companies engineer strains that they want. Solugen is a vertically integrated chemicals company, so it [creates its formulations], then sells directly into industry.
TC: How does this relate to new architectures?
SB: The way to think about it is that there’s a bunch of application-level companies, but as synthetic biology companies start to take off, there’s a bunch of emerging infrastructure layer companies. One of these is Ansa Biotechnologies, which has a fully enzymatic process or writing DNA. Like Twist, which went public, they make DNA using a chemical process [to sell to clients in the biotechnology industry. [Editor’s note: More on the competition in this emerging space here.]
Also, if you look at plant-based alternatives to meat, they’re more sustainable but also far more expensive than traditional beef. Why is that? Well plant-based chicken is more expensive because the processing infrastructure being used is more than 10 years behind real chicken processing, where you’ll see robot arms that cut up chicken so efficiently that it looks like a Tesla factory. [Alternative meat] companies are basically using these extruders built in the ’70s because the industry has been so small, and that’s because there’s been a lot of skepticism from the investment community in these companies. Or there was. The performance of Beyond Meat’s IPO ended it. Now there’s a rush of founders and dollars into that space, and whenever you have a space where the core infrastructure has been neglected, there’s opportunity. A former mechanical engineer with Boeing has started a company, Rebellyous Foods, to basically build the AWS for the plant-based food industry, for example. She’s using [the machines she’s building] to sell plant-based chicken nuggets [but that’s the longer-term plan].
TC: Siraj, You say last year you started to spend time on energy. What’s interesting to you as it relates to energy?
SK: There’s been some improvement in how we capture emissions, but [carbon emissions] are still very deleterious to our health and the planet’s health, and there are a few areas to think about [to address the problem]. Helping people measure and control their consumption is one approach, but also we think about how to produce new energy, which is a shift we [meaning mankind] need to undertake. The challenge [in making that shift] is often [capital expenditures]. It’s hard for venture investors to back companies that are [building nuclear reactors], which makes government grants the best choice for early innovation oftentimes. There is one company, Seaborg, that has figured out a clever reactor. It’s not a portfolio company but it’s [compelling].
SB: We also really like what Seaborg is doing. These [fourth generation] nuclear companies have a whole host of approaches that allow for smaller, safer reactors that you wouldn’t mind having in your backyard. But Siraj put his finger on it: as an early-stage deep tech investor, we have to consider the capital plan of a company, and if it needs to raise billions of dollars, early investors will get really diluted, so early-stage venture just isn’t the best fit.
TC: There are areas you like, though, because costs have fallen so much.
SB: Yes. Satellite telephony used to be one of those areas. Some of the satellites in space right now cost $350 million [to launch] and took three to four years to build, which would be really hard for any early-stage investor to fund, But now, a new generation of companies is building satellites for one-tenth of the cost in months, not years. That’s a game changer. They can iterate faster. They can build a better product. They don’t have to raise equity to build and launch either; they can raise from a debt financier, [from whom they can] borrow money and pay it back over time. That model isn’t available to a company like Uber or Lyft, because those companies can’t say, ‘X is going to cost us Y dollars and it will pay back Z over time.’
TC: What of concerns that all these cheap satellites are going to clog up the sky pretty quickly?
SB: It’s a real concern. Most [of today’s satellites] are low earth satellites, and the closer to the earth they are, the brighter they are; they reflect the sun more, the more satellites we’re seeing instead of stars. I do think it’s incumbent on all of these companies to think about how they are contributing to the future of humanity. But [when you can transmit more information from satellites], the stability of governments improves, too, so maybe the developed world needs to sacrifice a bit. I think that’s a reasonable tradeoff. If on the other hand, we’re putting up satellites to help people buy more crap . . .
TC: It’s like the argument for self-driving cars in a way. Life becomes more efficient, but they’ll require far more energy generation, for example. There are always second-order consequences.
SK: But think of how many how many people are killed in driving accidents, versus terrorist attacks. Humans have many great qualities, but being able to drive a lethal machine consistently isn’t one of them. So when we take that into perspective, it’s really important that we build autonomous vehicles. You [voice] a legitimate concern and often when there are step changes, there are discontinuities along the way that lead to side effects that aren’t great. That comes down to several things. FIrst, infastructure will have to keep up. We’ll also have to create regulations that don’t lead to the worst outcomes. One our investments, Lilium in Munich, has built an entirely electric air taxi service that’s built on vertical takeoff. It’s nimble. It’s quiet enough to operate in city environments.
On roads, cars are constrained by 2D terrain and buildings, but [in the air] if you can do dynamic air traffic control, it opens up far much efficient transport. If you can get from downtown London to Heathrow [airport] in five minutes versus 50 minutes in a Tesla, that’s far more energy efficient.
London-based seed fund LocalGlobe is incredibly active at the early-stage end of the startup pipeline with a broad focus across multiple sectors and areas, including health.
We interviewed partner Julia Hawkins about the opportunities and risks related to femtech investing in light of the fund’s early backing for Ferly, a female-founded startup with a subscription app that describes itself as an audio guide to “mindful sex.”
The startup says its mission is to open up conversations around female sexual pleasure and create a place for self-discovery and empowering community — touting “sex-positive” content that it says is “backed by research, written by experts, and personalized to you.”
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Fyllo, a digital marketing company focused on the cannabis industry, has acquired CannaRegs, a website offering subscription access to state and municipal cannabis regulations. Fyllo founder and CEO Chad Bronstein (pictured above) said his company paid $10 million in cash and stock.
Bronstein previously served as chief revenue officer at digital marketing company Amobee, and he told me that the two companies are “very complementary,” particularly since regulations and compliance present “a unique technical challenge” when it comes to advertising cannabis products.
Ultimately, his goal is for Fyllo to offer “compliance as a service,” with artificial intelligence helping brands and publishers ensure that all their cannabis advertising follows local laws. At the same time, Bronstein said Fyllo will continue to support CannaRegs’ 150-plus customers (mostly law firms, real estate professionals and cannabis operators) and work to bring more automation to the platform.
In addition, CannaRegs founder and CEO Amanda Ostrowitz will become Fyllo’s chief strategy officer, with CannaRegs’ 30 employees continuing to work out of their Denver office. This brings Fyllo’s total headcount to around 70.
“In a short period of time, Fyllo has emerged as an essential platform for publishers and cannabis companies to build creative campaigns in a safe and compliant way,” Ostrowitz said in a statement. “By teaming up with Fyllo, we have the chance to build a truly remarkable brand that can disrupt the entire industry. We look forward to delivering our same quality of data to existing customers and incorporating that data into Fyllo’s platform to become a one-stop-shop for cannabis brands looking to grow their businesses.”
Chicago-based Fyllo raised $18 million in funding last year.
The future of transportation industry is bursting at the seams with startups aiming to bring everything from flying cars and autonomous vehicles to delivery bots and even more efficient freight to roads.
One investor who is right at the center of this is Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, a seed-stage venture capital fund for entrepreneurs changing the future of transportation.
In case you missed last year’s event, TC Sessions: Mobility is a one-day conference that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon. The event will be held May 14, 2020 in the California Theater in San Jose, Calif.
Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.
And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.
Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.
Foxconn Technology Group, the Taiwanese electronics giant best known for its iPhone manufacturing contract, is forming a joint venture with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to build electric vehicles in China.
According to the filing, each party will own 50% of the venture to develop and manufacture electric vehicles and engage in an IOV, what Foxconn parent company Hon Hai calls the “internet of vehicles” business. Hon Hai’s direct shareholding in the subsidiary will not exceed 40%, the filing says.
The venture will initially focus on making electric vehicles for China. But these vehicles could be exported at a later date, according to Foxconn.
The wording in the regulatory filing suggests these will be new vehicles that are designed and built from the ground up and not a project to electrify any of the vehicles in FCA’s current portfolio.
The venture could give FCA a better path to capturing more business in China, the world’s largest market for electric vehicles.
Foxconn has invested in other electric vehicle ventures before, although this appears to be the first tie-up in which the company will develop and build the product. EV startup Byton was originally started as Future Mobility Corporation as a joint venture between Harmony Auto, Tencent and Foxconn. And Foxconn is also an investor in XPeng Motors, the Chinese electric vehicle startup that recently raised a fresh injection of $400 million in capital and has taken on Xiaomi as a strategic investor.
When Visa bought Plaid this week for $5.3 billion, a figure that was twice its private valuation, it was a clear signal that traditional financial services companies are looking for ways to modernize their approach to business.
With Plaid, Visa picks up a modern set of developer APIs that work behind the scenes to facilitate the movement of money. Those APIs should help Visa create more streamlined experiences (both at home and inside other companies’ offerings), build on its existing strengths and allow it to do more than it could have before, alone.
But don’t take our word for it. To get under the hood of the Visa-Plaid deal and understand it from a number of perspectives, TechCrunch got in touch with analysts focused on the space and investors who had put money into the erstwhile startup.
The last few years have seen many cities ban plastic bags, plastic straws and other common forms of waste, giving environmentally conscious alternatives a huge boost — among them Loliware, purveyor of fine disposable goods created from kelp. Huge demand and smart sourcing has attracted a big first funding round.
I covered Loliware early on when it was one of the first companies to be invested in by the Ocean Solutions Accelerator, a program started in 2017 by the nonprofit Sustainable Ocean Alliance. Founder Chelsea “Sea” Briganti told me about the new funding on the SOA’s strange yet quite successful “Accelerator at Sea” program late last year.
The company makes straws primarily, with other products planned, out of kelp matter. Kelp, if you’re not familiar, is a common type of aquatic algae (also called seaweed) that can grow quite large and is known for its robustness. It also grows in vast, vast quantities in many coastal locations, creating “kelp forests” that sustain entire ecosystems. Intelligent stewardship of these fast-growing kelp stocks could make them a significantly better source than corn or paper, which are currently used to create most biodegradable straws.
A proprietary process turns the kelp into straws that feel plastic-like but degrade simply (and not in your hot drink — it can stand considerably more exposure than corn and paper-based straws). Naturally the taste, desirable in some circumstances but not when drinking a seltzer, is also removed.
It took a lot of R&D and fine-tuning, Briganti told me:
“None of this has ever been done before. We led all development from material technology to new-to-world engineering of machinery and manufacturing practices. This way we ensure all aspects of the product’s development are truly scalable.”
They’ve gone through more than a thousand prototypes and are continuing to iterate as advances make possible things like higher flexibility or different shapes.
“Ultimately our material is a massive departure from the paradigms with which other companies are approaching the development of biodegradable materials,” she said. “They start with a problematic, last-forever, fossil fuel-derived paradigm and try to make it not so bad — this is step-change development and too slow and frumpy to truly make an impact.”
Of course it doesn’t matter how good your process is if no one is buying it, a fact that plagues many ethics-first operations, but in fact demand has grown so fast that Loliware’s biggest challenge has been scaling to meet it. The company has gone from a few million to a hundred million in recent years to a projected billion straws shipping in 2020.
“It takes us about 12 months to get to full automation [from the lab],” she said. “Once we get to full automation, we license the tech to a strategic plastic or paper manufacturer. Meaning, we do not manufacture billions of straws, or anything, in-house.”
It makes sense, of course, just as contracting out your PCB or plastic mold or what have you. Briganti wanted to have global impact, and that requires taking advantage of global infrastructure that’s already there.
Lastly, the consideration of a sustainable ecosystem was always important to Briganti, as the whole company is founded on the idea of reducing waste and using fundamentally ethical processes.
“Our products utilize a super-sustainable supply of seaweed, a supply that is overseen and regulated by local governments,” Briganti said. “In 2020, Loliware will launch the first-ever Algae Sustainability Council (ASC), which allows us to be at the helm of the design of these new global seaweed supply chain systems as well as establishing the oversight, ensuring sustainable practices and equitability. We are also pioneering what we have coined the ‘Zero Waste Circular Extraction Methodology,’ which will be a new paradigm in seaweed processing, utilizing every component of the biomass as it suggests.”
The $5.9 million “super seed” round has many investors, including several who were on board the ship in Alaska for the Accelerator at Sea this past October (as SOA Seabird Ventures). The CEO of Blue Bottle Coffee has invested, as have New York Ventures, Magic Hour, For Good VC, Hatzimemos/Libby, Geekdom Fund, HUmanCo VC, CityRock and Closed Loop Partners.
The money will be used for scaling and further R&D; Loliware plans to launch several new straw types (like a bent straw for juice boxes), a cup and a new utensil. 2020 may be the year you start seeing the company’s straws in your favorite coffee shop rather than a few early adopters here and there. You can keep track of where they can be found here at the company’s website.
Getsafe, the German insurtech that offers home contents insurance via an app, has launched in the U.K., despite an increasingly competitive market for insurance in the country, and the thorny regulatory issue of Brexit.
This has seen Getsafe incorporate an independent British subsidiary based in London, in order to shield it ahead of future political decisions about the future trading relationship between the U.K. and the European Union.
To launch its flagship home contents insurance in the U.K., the startup has also partnered with with Hiscox. It currently partners with Munich Re and AXA for other markets.
Founded in May 2015 by Christian Wiens and Marius Blaesing in Heidelberg, Getsafe initially launched as a digital insurance broker before pivoting to a direct to consumer insurance offering of its own (its brokerage business was sold to Verivox).
Pitching itself as a digital insurer aimed at millennials — and one of the fastest growing digital insurance apps in Germany — Getsafe’s flagship product offers flexible home contents insurance, along with other “modules,” such as personal possessions cover (which insures possessions out of home) and accidental damage cover. The idea is that you build and only pay for the exact cover you need.
Earlier this week, I took the Getsafe on-boarding process for a spin and signed up for basic home contents insurance. The process was just about as painless as it could be and within just a few minutes I had cover for less than £5 per month, which felt very competitive.
Of course, the startup isn’t without digital competitors here in the U.K. — Brolly Contents is one, for example — and the proof of any insurance product is when you need to make a claim. To do this, Getsafe has developed a claims chatbot called Carla, who is available 24 hours a day to answer questions and report claims. Let’s hope I never have to chat to Carla.
Getsafe CEO and founder Christian Wiens says the U.K. is an attractive market (despite Brexit) because consumers are used to buying financial products digitally. He cites the U.K. being by far the largest market in Europe for e-commerce, noting that mobile payments are also standard here and “neo-banks” such as Monzo, Revolut, Starling and N26 are well-established. In contrast, he argues that insurance is yet to catch up. “With our smartphone app, Getsafe will aim to close this gap in the market,” says Wiens.
In June 2019, Getsafe raised $17 million (€15m) in a Series A funding. The round was led by Earlybird, with participation from CommerzVentures (and other existing investors).
Joby Aviation has raised a $590 million Series C round of funding, including $394 million from lead investor Toyota Motor Corporation, the company announced today. Joby is in the process of developing an electric air taxi service, which will make use of in-house developed electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that will in part benefit from strategic partner Toyota’s vehicle manufacturing experience.
This brings the total number of funding in Joby Aviation to $720 million, and its list of investors includes Intel Capital, JetBlue Technology Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures and more. Alongside this new round of funding, Joby gains a new board member: Toyota Motor Corporation EVP Shigeki Tomoyama.
Founded in 2009, Joby Aviation is based in Santa Cruz, California. The company was founded by JoeBen Bevirt, who also founded consumer photo and electronics accessory maker Joby. Its proprietary aircraft is a piloted eVTOL, which can fly at up to 200 miles per hour for a total distance of over 150 miles on a single charge. Because it uses an electric drivetrain and multi rotor design, Joby Aviation says it’s “100 times quieter than conventional aircraft during takeoff and landing, and near-silent when flying overhead.”
These benefits make eVTOL craft prime candidates for developing urban aerial transportation networks, and a number of companies, including Joby as well as China’s EHang, Airbus and more are all working on this type of craft for use in this kind of city-based short-hop transit for both people and cargo.
The sizeable investment made by Toyota in this round is a considerable bet for the automaker on the future of air transportation. In a press release detailing the round, Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda indicated that the company is serious about eVTOLs and air transport in general.
“Air transportation has been a long-term goal for Toyota, and while we continue our work in the automobile business, this agreement sets our sights to the sky,” Toyoda is quoted as saying. “As we take up the challenge of air transportation together with Joby, an innovator in the emerging eVTOL space, we tap the potential to revolutionize future transportation and life. Through this new and exciting endeavor, we hope to deliver freedom of movement and enjoyment to customers everywhere, on land, and now, in the sky.”
Joby Aviation believes that it can achieve significant cost benefits vs. traditional helicopters for short aerial flights, eventually lowering costs through maximizing utilization and fuel savings to the point where it can be “accessible to everyone.” To date, Joby has completed sub-scale testing on its aircraft design, and begun full flight tests of production prototypes, along with beginning the certification process for its aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the end of 2018.
If you’re a current student and you love robots — and the AI that drives them — you do not want to miss out on TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020. Our day-long deep dive into these two life-altering technologies takes place on March 3 at UC Berkeley and features the best and brightest minds, makers and influencers.
We’ve set aside a limited number of deeply discounted tickets for students because, let’s face it, the future of robotics and AI can’t happen without cultivating the next generation. Tickets cost $50, which means you save more than $200. Reserve your student ticket now.
Not a student? No problem, we have a savings deal for you, too. If you register now, you’ll save $150 when you book an early-bird ticket by February 14.
More than 1,000 robotics and AI enthusiasts, experts and visionaries attended last year’s event, and we expect even more this year. Talk about a targeted audience and the perfect place for students to network for an internship, employment or even a future co-founder.
What can you expect this year? For starters, we have an outstanding lineup of speaker and demos — more than 20 presentations — on tap. Let’s take a quick look at just some of the offerings you don’t want to miss:
That’s just a sample — take a gander at the event agenda to help you plan your time accordingly. We’ll add even more speakers in the coming weeks, so keep checking back.
TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 takes place on March 3 at UC Berkeley. It’s a full day focused on exploring the future of robotics and a great opportunity for students to connect with leading technologists, founders, researchers and investors. Join us in Berkeley. Buy your student ticket today and get ready to build the future.
Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.
NextNav LLC has raised $120 million in equity and debt to commercially deploy an indoor-positioning system that can pinpoint a device’s location — including what floor it’s on — without GPS .
The company has developed what it calls a Metropolitan Beacon System, which can find the location of devices like smartphones, drones, IoT products or even self-driving vehicles in indoor and urban areas where GPS or other satellite location signals cannot be reliably received. Anyone trying to use their phone to hail an Uber or Lyft in the Loop area of Chicago has likely experienced spotty GPS signals.
The MBS infrastructure is essentially bolted onto cellular towers. The positioning system uses a cellular signal, not line-of-sight signal from satellites like GPS does. The system focuses on determining the “altitude” of a device, CEO and co-founder Ganesh Pattabiraman told TechCrunch.
GPS can provide the horizontal position of a smartphone or IoT device. And wifi and Bluetooth can step in to provide that horizontal positioning indoors. NextNav says its MBS has added a vertical or “Z dimension” to the positioning system. This means the MBS can determine within less than 3 meters the floor level of a device in a multi-story building.
It’s the kind of system that can provide emergency services with critical information such as the number of people located on a particular floor. It’s this specific use-case that NextNav is betting on. Last year, the Federal Communication Commission issued new 911 emergency requirements for wireless carriers that mandates the ability to determine the vertical position of devices to help responders find people in multi-story buildings.
Today, the MBS is in the Bay Area and Washington D.C. The company plans to use this new injection of capital to expand its network to the 50 biggest markets in the U.S., in part to take advantage of the new FCC requirement.
The technology has other applications. For instance, this so-called Z dimension could come in handy for locating drones. Last year, NASA said it will use NextNav’s MBS network as part of its City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation facilities at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
The round was led by funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group . Existing investors Columbia Capital, Future Fund, Telcom Ventures, funds managed by Goldman Sachs Asset Management, NEA and Oak Investment Partners also participated.
XM Satellite Radio founder Gary Parsons is executive chairman of the Sunnyvale, Calif-based company.
Mozilla laid off about 70 employees today, TechCrunch has learned.
In an internal memo, Mozilla chairwoman and interim CEO Mitchell Baker specifically mentions the slow rollout of the organization’s new revenue-generating products as the reason for why it needed to take this action. The overall number may still be higher, though, as Mozilla is still looking into how this decision will affect workers in the U.K. and France. In 2018, Mozilla Corporation (as opposed to the much smaller Mozilla Foundation) said it had about 1,000 employees worldwide.
“You may recall that we expected to be earning revenue in 2019 and 2020 from new subscription products as well as higher revenue from sources outside of search. This did not happen,” Baker writes in her memo. “Our 2019 plan underestimated how long it would take to build and ship new, revenue-generating products. Given that, and all we learned in 2019 about the pace of innovation, we decided to take a more conservative approach to projecting our revenue for 2020. We also agreed to a principle of living within our means, of not spending more than we earn for the foreseeable future.”
Mozilla has decided to lay some folks off and restructure things. All the leads in QA got let go. I haven’t been let go (so far). No idea what I will be working on or who I will be reporting to. Some good work friends let go :(
— Chris Hartjes (@grmpyprogrammer) January 15, 2020
Baker says laid-off employees will receive “generous exit packages” and outplacement support. She also notes that the leadership team looked into shutting down the Mozilla innovation fund but decided that it needed it in order to continue developing new products. In total, Mozilla is dedicating $43 million to building new products.
“As we look to the future, we know we must take bold steps to evolve and ensure the strength and longevity of our mission,” Baker writes. “Mozilla has a strong line of sight to future revenue generation, but we are taking a more conservative approach to our finances. This will enable us to pivot as needed to respond to market threats to internet health, and champion user privacy and agency.”
The organization last reported major layoffs in 2017.
Over the course of the last few months, Mozilla started testing a number of new products, most of which will be subscription-based once they launch. The marquee feature here is including its Firefox Private Network and a device-level VPN service that is yet to launch, but will cost around $4.99 per month.
All of this is part of the organization’s plans to become less reliant on income from search partnerships and to create more revenue channels. In 2018, the latest year for which Mozilla has published its financial records, about 91% of its royalty revenues came from search contracts.
We have reached out to Mozilla for comment and will update this post once we hear more.
Update (1pm PT): In a statement posted to the Mozilla blog, Mitchell Baker reiterates that Mozilla had to make these cuts in order to fund innovation. “Mozilla has a strong line of sight on future revenue generation from our core business,” she writes. “In some ways, this makes this action harder, and we are deeply distressed about the effect on our colleagues. However, to responsibly make additional investments in innovation to improve the internet, we can and must work within the limits of our core finances”
Here is the full memo:
Office of the CEO <email@example.com>
I have some difficult news to share. With the support of the entire Steering Committee and our Board, we have made an extremely tough decision: over the course of today, we plan to eliminate about 70 roles from across MoCo. This number may be slightly larger as we are still in a consultation process in the UK and France, as the law requires, on the exact roles that may be eliminated there. We are doing this with the utmost respect for each and every person who is impacted and will go to great lengths to take care of them by providing generous exit packages and outplacement support. Most will not join us in Berlin. I will send another note when we have been able to talk to the affected people wherever possible, so that you will know when the notifications/outreach are complete.
This news likely comes as a shock and I am sorry that we could not have been more transparent with you along the way. This is never my desire. Reducing our headcount was something the Steering Committee considered as part of our 2020 planning and budgeting exercise only after all other avenues were explored. The final decision was made just before the holiday break with the work to finalize the exact set of roles affected continuing into early January (there are exceptions in the UK and France where we are consulting on decisions.) I made the decision not to communicate about this until we had a near-final list of roles and individuals affected.
Even though I expect it will be difficult to digest right now, I would like to share more about what led to this decision. Perhaps you can come back to it later, if that’s easier.
You may recall that we expected to be earning revenue in 2019 and 2020 from new subscription products as well as higher revenue from sources outside of search. This did not happen. Our 2019 plan underestimated how long it would take to build and ship new, revenue-generating products. Given that, and all we learned in 2019 about the pace of innovation, we decided to take a more conservative approach to projecting our revenue for 2020. We also agreed to a principle of living within our means, of not spending more than we earn for the foreseeable future.
This approach is prudent certainly, but challenging practically. In our case, it required difficult decisions with painful results. Regular annual pay increases, bonuses and other costs which increase from year-to-year as well as a continuing need to maintain a separate, substantial innovation fund, meant that we had to look for considerable savings across Mozilla as part of our 2020 planning and budgeting process. This process ultimately led us to the decision to reduce our workforce.
At this point, you might ask if we considered foregoing the separate innovation fund, continuing as we did in 2019. The answer is yes but we ultimately decided we could not, in good faith, adopt this. Mozilla’s future depends on us excelling at our current work and developing new offerings to expand our impact. And creating the new products we need to change the future requires us to do things differently, including allocating funds, $43M to be specific, for this purpose. We will discuss our plans for making innovation robust and successful in increasing detail as we head into, and then again at, the All Hands, rather than trying to do so here.
As we look to the future, we know we must take bold steps to evolve and ensure the strength and longevity of our mission. Mozilla has a strong line of sight to future revenue generation, but we are taking a more conservative approach to our finances. This will enable us to pivot as needed to respond to market threats to internet health, and champion user privacy and agency.
I ask that we all do what we can to support each other through this difficult period.
Google Cloud today announced the launch of its premium support plans for enterprise and mission-critical needs. This new plan brings Google’s support offerings for the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) in line with its premium G Suite support options.
“Premium Support has been designed to better meet the needs of our customers running modern cloud technology,” writes Google’s VP of Cloud Support, Atul Nanda. “And we’ve made investments to improve the customer experience, with an updated support model that is proactive, unified, centered around the customer, and flexible to meet the differing needs of their businesses.”
The premium plan, which Google will charge for based on your monthly GCP spent (with a minimum cost of what looks to be about $12,500 per month), promises a 15-minute response time for P1 cases. Those are situations when an application or infrastructure is unusable in production. Other features include training and new product reviews, as well as support for troubleshooting third-party systems.
Google stresses that the team that will answer a company’s calls will consist of “content-aware experts” that know your application stack and architecture. Like with similar premium plans from other vendors, enterprises will have a Technical Account manager who works through these issues with them. Companies with global operations can opt to have (and pay for) technical account managers available during business hours in multiple regions.
The idea here, however, is also to give GCP users more proactive support, which will soon include a site reliability engineering engagement, for example, that is meant to help customers “design a wrapper of supportability around the Google Cloud customer projects that have the highest sensitivity to downtime.” The Support team will also work with customers to get them ready for special events like Black Friday or other peak events in their industry. Over time, the company plans to add more features and additional support plans.
As with virtually all of Google’s recent cloud moves, today’s announcement is part of the company’s efforts to get more enterprises to move to its cloud. Earlier this week, for example, it launched support for IBM’s Power Systems architecture, as well as new infrastructure solutions for retailers. In addition, it also acquired no-code service AppSheet.
The market for companies developing dairy substitutes is really getting frothy.
In December, the startup Perfect Day Foods announced it had raised $110 million in financing for its dairy replacement and now Califia Farms, the producer of a range of oat and almond milk products (along with a slew of coffees, juices, and non-dairy snacks) has raised $225 million in fresh financing.
Investors in the round include the Qatar Investment Authority, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, Temasek, Canada’s Claridge and Hong Kong-based Green Monday Ventures (among others).
For Temasek, the deal comes on the heels of an incredibly successful investment in Beyond Meat, the plant-based meat substitute which has partnership agreements with food chains like Dunkin, McDonald’s, and Carl’s Jr. and whose meteoric rise in its public offering was one of the most successful of the IPOs of the last year.
Money from the new investor base, which joins previous investors Sun Pacific, Stripes and Ambrosia in backing the company, will be used to expand its oat-based suite of products and to launch other new product lines. The company said it will also use the money to increase its production capacity, research and development efforts, and geographical expansion.
Founded in 2010, Califia Farms is one of several startups that are making dairy replacements — either using plant-based ingredients or genetically modified organisms to produce the proteins and sugars that make dairy what it is.
Other companies like Perfect Day, Ripple Foods, Oatly have all raised capital to capture some aspect of the over $1 trillion dairy market.
“The more than $1 trillion global dairy and ready-to-drink coffee industry is ripe for continued disruption with individuals all over the world seeking to transform their health & wellness through the adoption of minimally processed and nutrient rich foods thatare better for both the planet and the animals,” said Greg Steltenpohl, Califia founder and chief executive, in a statement.
Barclays served as the financial advisor and placement agent for Califia on the capital raise.
French startup Lydia is raising a $45 million Series B round (€40 million). Tencent is leading the round with existing investors CNP Assurances, XAnge and New Alpha also participating.
If you live in France, chances are you already know Lydia quite well. The company has become a ubiquitous mobile payment app, especially for people under 30 years old. Think about it as a sort of Square Cash or Venmo, but for France.
“At first, we wanted to raise less but we ended up raising more,” Lydia co-founder and CEO Cyril Chiche told me in a phone interview.
The company has managed to attract 3 million users in France. More impressive, 25% of French people between 18 and 30 years old have a Lydia account — and 5,000 people sign up every day. Lydia currently has 90 employees.
More recently, the company has expanded beyond peer-to-peer payment. First, the company wants to help you manage your money in many different ways with an important value — everything should happen in real time.
You can create multiple Lydia accounts to put some money aside or use money in that sub-account for a specific purpose. That feature alone turns the app into a versatile money management app.
For instance, you can associate a Lydia payment card with a Lydia account and a virtual card with another Lydia account — that virtual card works with Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay and more. You can change those settings in real time.
You can share accounts with other Lydia users. And shared accounts are truly shared — everyone can top up and withdraw money from that account. You can spend directly from that account or withdraw money to another account.
You can also turn any Lydia account into a money pot account. In just a few taps, you can generate a link and share it with your friends so that they can add money using their regular payment card or a Lydia account.
More recently, the company has introduced “the market”, a marketplace of other financial products. From the Lydia app, you can borrow up to €1,000 in just a few seconds. You can also insure your phone and other mobile devices. You can get some free credit when you open a bank account, insure your home with Luko, switch to another electricity and gas provider, compare mobile phone and internet providers and more.
And that strategy is going to be key in the future. “We have an ambitious goal, which is turning Lydia into a mobile financial service app,” Chiche said.
He also pointed out that the company that has been the most successful when it comes to creating a mobile marketplace of financial products is Tencent with WeChat.
“Tencent is also the number one player in the video game industry, and there’s no industry with as much user engagement,” Chiche said. Tencent acquired Supercell, bought 40% of Epic Games, acquired Riot Games (League of Legends), invested in Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, Discord, etc. Lydia hopes that it can learn from Tencent on the user engagement front.
Compared to many fintech startups, Lydia doesn’t want to replace banks altogether — the company says it wants to build a meta-banking app. Peer-to-peer payments represent the top of the funnel and a great user acquisition strategy thanks to networking effects.
You can then connect your Lydia account with your bank account and your debit card. This way, you can send money back and forth between your Lydia accounts and your bank account. As a user, that strategy slowly pays off over time. After a while, you end up spending money directly from your Lydia account and relying more heavily on Lydia’s native payment features, with your bank account acting as a money back end.
At the bottom of the funnel, Lydia hopes that it can turn active Lydia users into paid customers with a handful of in-house and third-party financial products. In other words, Lydia doesn’t want to become a credit institution like a traditional bank, it wants to become a financial hub. Expanding the marketplace will be a big focus for the company going forward.
While Lydia is available in other European countries, Lydia is still massively used in its home market with other markets lagging behind. With today’s funding round, growth in foreign countries is going to be the second key topic.
Hulu is preparing to roll out new forms of advertising this year — one which will allow viewers to have more say in the ads that plays, and another that lets the viewer engage with the brand in question, either by getting information sent directly to their mobile phone or by using QR codes. In later months, Hulu is also considering digital product insertion to enhance the ad opportunities within its own original programming.
The new ad formats are the latest to join an already innovative lineup of ad experiences for Hulu, where the company hasn’t been hesitant about trying out new ideas to make ads more user-friendly. For example, Hulu last year introduced pause ads that pop up only when viewers take a break from streaming. And last month, it rolled out new ‘binge watch ads‘ that allow brands to sponsor ad-free episodes when Hulu detects that a viewer is binge-watching their way through a series.
The goal with these ad experiences is to find a way to make advertising less disruptive to the viewer. In 2020, Hulu is also focused on making its ads more engaging.
In the case of the forthcoming choice-based ads — a sort of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ for advertising — viewers will be able to select which ads from a brand they want to see. For example, users could choose to see ads about ski vacations from a travel company’s ad, or they could watch an ad about beach getaways. They could even pick which option they wanted with their remote.
In addition, Hulu is planning to roll out new transactional ads to help viewers engage with brands of interest. While 80% of viewing today takes place on the TV screen, most people don’t want to transact on the big screen — they’d rather use a computer or a mobile device. In this case, if the viewer wants more information from the advertiser, Hulu will be able to push that to their phone. This could be done by using the mobile phone number or email attached to a Hulu user’s account (given permission, of course), or viewers could hold up their phone to scan a QR code on the ad itself to take more immediate action.
The information the advertiser shares could include a link that takes the viewer right to a website — like a retailer’s shopping site, for example.
“This goes back to that viewer-first advertising promise: less disruptive, more engaging, and more functional. And it will really allow us to improve both the viewer experience and the advertiser’s ROI,” says Jeremy Helfand, VP and Head of Advertising Platforms at Hulu, in a conversation last week at CES.
The new ad formats will round four main themes Hulu is developing for its advertising experiences — situational, which is based on user behavior, as with pause and binge ads; choice-based, which allows the viewer to make a selection; transactional, where the viewer engages with the brand; and integrated storytelling, which is focused on integration sponsorships to blend the brand and content into a more seamless experience.
While Hulu has already dipped its toes into integrated storytelling with several ad experiences, the company is now thinking about the next steps for these ads, Helfand notes.
“We do think that there is a future where we’re able to fuse brands into the content, post-production,” he says. That is, Hulu could digitally insert product placements into its own programming.
“We’re excited about what’s coming up with cooking content on Hulu Kitchen. Theoretically, we could take a KitchenAid mixer and put it on the table even though it’s not there,” he adds, referring to Hulu’s plans for new original food series, including shows from Chrissy Teigen, David Chang, and Eater.
The technology to do this sort of digital ad insertion exists, but Hulu doesn’t know if it plans to develop its own in-house or acquire or partner with a company that already works in this space.
“You have to be able to read the metadata underneath the content as well as visually scan the content,” Helfand explains. “We’ve got a lot of content recognition work that’s already going on inside of Hulu which we use for lots of different reasons, not just for advertising. But there’s also a number of third parties — there’s a whole ad technology industry that’s emerging about being about to do things like that — and we’re looking at partners, as well,” he says.
One area that’s not being prioritized are the ad-supported downloads Hulu once promised. Instead of working out how to deliver offline viewing with ads included, Hulu is thinking about other models — like sponsored downloads, perhaps. But its focus for the near-term is on these newer forms of advertising, not on ad-supported downloads.
“We’re always thinking about the viewer experience and how do we deliver the very best viewer experience. And that obsession with the viewer extends to advertising. Consumers have a choice…They have a choice whether they want an ad-free experience or they want an ad-supported experience. And if they choose an ad-supported search experience, we want to make sure that that experience is just as good as an ad-free one,” says Helfand.
ActionIQ co-founder and CEO Tasso Argyros knows that there are plenty of companies promising to help businesses use their customer data to deliver personalized experiences — as he put it, “The space has gotten very, very hot over the last couple of years.”
But in the face of growing competition, ActionIQ (founded in 2014 and headquartered in New York) has attracted some impressive customers like The New York Times, Conde Nast, American Eagle Outfitters, Vera Bradley and Pandora Media, as well as high-profile investors like Sequoia Capital and Andreessen Horowitz.
Today, it’s announcing that it has raised $32 million in Series C funding.
“At this point, we believe we are four to five years ahead of the market,” Argyros told me. “[Customer data platforms are] very hot, you see people really jumping into it, but nobody really has a product.”
He attributed the rise of these platforms to the growth in customer acquisition costs: “Everybody’s switched their focus from ‘How do we acquire more customers?’ to ‘How do you grow lifetime value?'”
The key, Argyros said, is “delivering personalized experiences at scale.” So if you’re a business trying to understand which customers need to be convinced to stick around, which customers are ready to upgrade to a paid subscription and so on, you need a platform like ActionIQ: “What’s common about all these questions is that they’re all data questions.”
He described ActionIQ’s approach as “product-first,” creating self-serve tools for enterprises rather than relying on consulting or IT services, and he said the product is designed to “drive intelligent actions activated through any channel.”
Argyros contrasted this approach with the large marketing clouds, where he said that stitching together products from various acquisitions has led to “a huge data gap between what marketing clouds promise and what they can actually deliver.” And he said other customer data platforms are limited to bringing the data together — but “just putting customer data in one place, that doesn’t mean business can use the customer data to drive value.”
March Capital Partners led the round, with participation from Cisco Ventures, as well as previous investors Sequoia, Andreessen and FirstMark Capital. Meredith Finn, a partner at March, is joining ActionIQ’s board of directors.
“From my professional experience at Salesforce and Twitter, when it comes to building a relationship with your customers, data is everything,” Finn said in a statement. “ActionIQ took a data-first approach from day one in contrast to many vendors that are now scrambling to address their data gaps by duct taping data infrastructure to their existing point solutions. … The potential of such a platform is limitless, and spans well beyond traditional marketing channels to other areas of customer interactions including web and mobile app experiences, customer support, and sales.”
ActionIQ has now raised a total of $75 million in funding. And while the Series C isn’t significantly larger that the $30 million that ActionIQ raise din 2017, Argyros said the company didn’t need to raise a huge round this time around, because it’s already built out the core product.
“A lot of dollars were invested heavily in the product way before the demand was there,” he said. “The Series B was pretty significant because there was so much upfront product investment. … Most of these funds are going towards expanding the business in sales and marketing.”