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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

As ExxonMobil asks for handouts, startups get to work on carbon capture and sequestration

By Jonathan Shieber

Earlier this week, ExxonMobil, a company among the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions and a longtime leader in the corporate fight against climate change regulations, called for a massive $100 billion project (backed in part by the government) to sequester hundreds of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide in geologic formations off the Gulf of Mexico.

The gall of Exxon’s flag-planting request is matched only by the grit from startup companies that are already working on carbon capture and storage or carbon utilization projects and announced significant milestones along their own path to commercialization even as Exxon was asking for handouts.

These are companies like Charm Industrial, which just completed the first pilot test of its technology through a contract with Stripe. That pilot project saw the company remove 416 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere. That’s a small fraction of the hundred million tons Exxon thinks could be captured in its hypothetical sequestration project located off the Gulf Coast, but the difference between Exxon’s proposal and Charm’s sequestration project is that Charm has actually managed to already sequester the carbon.

The company’s technology, verified by outside observers like Shopify, Microsoft, CarbonPlan, CarbonDirect and others, converts biomass into an oil-like substance and then injects that goop underground — permanently sequestering the carbon dioxide, the company said.

Eventually, Charm would use its bio-based oil equivalent to produce “green hydrogen” and replace pumped or fracked hydrocarbons in industries that may still require combustible fuel for their operations.

1/ Today we're announcing we've delivered @stripe's 416 ton CO₂e carbon removal purchase ahead of schedule, just 12 months after inventing our new carbon removal pathway. The carbon is now in permanent geological storage. https://t.co/ZIy2plK6n9

— Charm Industrial (@CharmIndustrial) April 20, 2021

While Charm is converting biomass into an oil-equivalent and pumping it back underground, other companies like CarbonCure, Blue Planet, Solidia, Forterra, CarbiCrete and Brimstone Energy are capturing carbon dioxide and fixing it in building materials. 

“The easy way to think about CarbonCure we have a mission to reduce 500 million tons per year by 2030. On the innovation side of things we really pioneered this area of science using CO2 in a value-added, hyper low-cost way in the value chain,” said CarbonCure founder and chief executive Rob Niven. “We look at CO2 as a value added input into making concrete production. It has to raise profits.”

Niven stresses that CarbonCure, which recently won one half of the $20 million carbon capture XPrize alongside CarbonBuilt, is not a hypothetical solution for carbon dioxide removal. The company already has 330 plants operating around the world capturing carbon dioxide emissions and sequestering them in building materials.

Applications for carbon utilization are important to reduce the emissions footprints of industry, but for nations to achieve their climate objectives, the world needs to move to dramatically reduce its reliance on emissions spewing energy sources and simultaneously permanently draw down massive amounts of greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere.

It’s why the ExxonMobil call for a massive project to explore the permanent sequestration of carbon dioxide isn’t wrong, necessarily, just questionable coming from the source.

The U.S. Department of Energy does think that the Gulf Coast has geological formations that can store 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (which the company says is more than 130 years of the country’s total industrial and power generation emissions). But in ExxonMobil’s calculation that’s a reason to continue with business-as-usual (actually with more government subsidies for its business).

Here’s how the company’s top executives explained it in the pages of The Wall Street Journal:

The Houston CCS Innovation Zone concept would require the “whole of government” approach to the climate challenge that President Biden has championed. Based on our experience with projects of this scale, we estimate the approach could generate tens of thousands of new jobs needed to make and install the equipment to capture the CO2 and transport it via a pipeline for storage. Such a project would also protect thousands of existing jobs in industries seeking to reduce emissions. In short, large-scale CCS would reduce emissions while protecting the economy.

These oil industry executives are playing into a false narrative that the switch to renewable energy and a greener economy will cost the U.S. jobs. It’s a fact that oil industry jobs will be erased, but those jobs will be replaced by other opportunities, according to research published in Scientific American.

“With the more aggressive $60 carbon tax, U.S. employment would still exceed the reference-case forecast, but the increase would be less than that of the $25 tax,” write authors Marilyn Brown and Majid Ahmadi. “The higher tax causes much larger supply-side job losses, but they are still smaller than the gains in energy-efficiency jobs motivated by higher energy prices. Overall, 35 million job years would be created between 2020 and 2050, with net job increases in almost all regions.”

ExxonMobil and the other oil majors definitely have a role to play in the new energy economy that’s being built worldwide, but the leading American oil companies are not going to be able to rest on their laurels or continue operating with a business-as-usual mindset. These companies run the risk of going the way of big coal — slowly sliding into obsolescence and potentially taking thousands of jobs and local economies down with them.

To avoid that, carbon sequestration is a part of the solution, but it’s one of many arrows in the quiver that oil companies need to deploy if they’re going to continue operating and adding value to shareholders. In other words, it’s not the last 130 years of emissions that ExxonMobil should be focused on, it’s the next 130 years that aim to be increasingly zero-emission.

Bux, a European Robinhood, raises $80M to expand its neo-broker platform

By Ingrid Lunden

A new wave of apps have democratized the concept of investing, bringing the concept of trading stocks and currencies to a wider pool of users who can use these platforms to make incremental, or much larger, bets in the hopes of growing their money at a time when interest rates are low. In the latest development, Bux — a startup form Amsterdam that lets people invest in shares and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) without paying commissions (its pricing is based on flat €1 fees for certain services, no fees for others) — has picked up some investment of its own, a $80 million round that it.

Alongside this, the company is announcing a new CEO. Founder Nick Bortot is stepping away and Yorick Naeff, an early employee of the company who had been the COO, is taking over. Bortot will remain a shareholder and involved with the company, which will be using to expand its geographical footprint and expand its tech platform and services to users, said Naeff in an interview.

“Since we started, Bux has been trying to make investments affordable and intuitive, and that will still be the case,” he said. The average age of a Bux customer is 30, so while affordable and intuitive are definitely priorities to capture younger users, it also means that if Bux can earn their loyalty and show positive returns, they have the potential to keep them for a long time to come.

The funding is coming from an interesting group of investors. Jointly led by Prosus Ventures and Tencent (in which Prosus, the tech division of Naspers, is a major investor), it also included ABN Amro Ventures, Citius, Optiver, and Endeit Capital — all new investors — as well as previous backers HV Capital and Velocity Capital Fintech Ventures.

Naeff said in an interview that Bux isn’t disclosing its valuation with this round. But for some context, he confirmed that the startup has around 500,000 customers across the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France and Belgium, using not just its main Bux Zero app, but also Bux Crypto and Bux X (a contracts for difference (CFDs) app).

Crypto remains a niche but extremely active part of the wider investment market and Naeff described Bux Crypo — formed out of Bux acquiring Blockport last year — as “very profitable.” The company had only raised about $35 million before this round, and it’s been around since 2014, so while he wouldn’t comment on wider profitability, you can draw some conclusions from that.

For some further valuation context, another big player in trading in Europe, eToro, in March announced it was going public by way of a SPAC valuing it at $10 billion. (Note: eToro is significantly bigger, adding 5 million users last year alone.)

Others in the wider competitive landscape include Robinhood out of the US, which had plans but appeared to have stalled in its entry into Europe; Trade Republic out of Germany, which raised $67 million a year ago from the likes of Accel and Founders Fund; and Revolut, which has been running a trading app for some time.

The opportunity that Bux is targeting is a very simple one: technology, and specifically innovations in banking and apps, have opened the door to making it significantly easier for the average consumer to engage in a new set of financial services.

At the same time, some of the more traditional ways of “growing” one’s capital, by way of buying and selling property or opening savings accounts, are not as strong these days as they were in the past, with the housing market being too expensive to enter for younger people, and interest rates very low, leading those consumers to considering other options open to them. Social media is also playing a major role here, opening up conversations around investing that have been traditionally run between professionals in the industry.

“We’re looking for industries that solve big societal needs and fintech continues to be one of them,” said Sandeep Bakshi, who heads up investments for Prosus in Europe, in an interview. “Interest rates being what they are, there are no opportunities for individuals to save and that represents a massive opportunity, and we’re happy to partner and be a part of the journey.”

Although there is a wave of so-called neo-brokers in the market today, Bux’s unique selling point, Naeff said, is the company’s tech stack.

In comparison to others providing trading apps, he said Bux is the first and only one of them to have built a full-stack system of its own.

“It’s not on top of existing broker, which makes it a nimble and modular,” he said. “This is especially critical because fintech is a game of scale, but every market is completely different when you consider tax, payment systems and the ID documents that one needs in order to fill KYC requirements.”

And that is before you consider that doing business in Europe means doing business in a number of different languages.

“Our system is here to scale across Europe,” he said. “The fact that we are live in five countries, and the only neo-broker doing that, shows that this modular system is working.”

Indeed, the scaling opportunity is one of the reasons why China’s tech giant Tencent, owner of WeChat and a vast gaming empire, has come on board.

“We are excited about backing BUX as they are the leading neo-broker in Europe and have been able to build a platform that is sustainable and scalable. BUX is the only neo-broker in Europe that offers zero commission investing without being dependent on kickbacks or payments for order flow. This ensures that its interests are fully aligned with its customers. We will support BUX in its journey of pursuing consistent growth for the years to come”, said Alex Leung, Assistant GM at Tencent, Strategic Development, in a statement.

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.

How to Schedule Emails and Texts to Send Anytime You Want

By David Nield
Your messages don’t have to go out right away. Be strategic about when your recipient gets them.

Can the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood Be Saved?

By Angela Watercutter
Cinephiles have been mourning the news that the iconic movie theater won’t reopen. But there might still be hope for the Cinerama Dome.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

SpaceX wins NASA contract to develop human landing system for returning to the moon

By Darrell Etherington

The winner of NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract award is SpaceX, which bid $2.9 billion for the privilege of developing the means by which NASA astronauts will return to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program. SpaceX was in the running alongside Blue Origin and Dynetics, but reportedly undercut both those prospective suppliers considerably with its bid, according to The Washington Post.

SpaceX proposed using its Starship spacecraft, currently under development, as the landing vehicle for astronauts once they arrive at their lunar destination. The HLS is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program, which will begin with uncrewed flights, followed by a Moon fly-by with a human crew, and eventually a human lunar landing at the South Pole of the Moon, during a mission which had been targeting 2024 as its fly date.

NASA announced that SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics made up the entirety of its field of approved vendors for bidding on the HLS contracts back in April last year. Since then, both Blue Origin (which bid alongside a “national team” that included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper) and Dynetics have built full-scale models of their system and submitted proposals detailing their plans for the functional versions to NASA for consideration. Meanwhile, SpaceX has been actively testing functional prototypes of its Starship spacecraft in Texas, and is also in the process of developing the Super Heavy booster that will propel it to the Moon once it’s ready.

The plan here was for NASA to have chosen all three companies to build out initial versions in order to satisfy the early requirements of the contract, and then ultimately, it was generally thought that the agency would select a couple from the list of three to build human landers, in order to provide it with some flexibility when it comes to means of getting to the lunar surface. That’s essentially how NASA operated with its Commercial Crew program for the International Space Station, which saw awards for both SpaceX and Boeing to build astronaut transport spacecraft. SpaceX has already qualified and begun to operate its vehicle, and Boeing hopes to bring its option online either late this year or early next.

SpaceX has won a lot of trust at NASA by delivering on the Commercial Crew program with a reliable, reusable human-rated spacecraft in the Crew Dragon. The Post also says that in addition to its attractive pricing, NASA wasn’t drawn to Starship’s flexibility and cargo capacity, since it’s aiming to be able to fly not just humans, but also large quantities of supplies and materials to the Moon, and eventually, beyond.

Starship is a long way off from that goal at the moment, however; SpaceX has been quickly developing new iterations in a rapid prototyping approach to its test phase, but the most recent Starship high-altitude flight ended poorly with an explosion prior to landing. Other elements of the test program, however, including showing that Starship can successfully reorient itself in mid-air and slow its decent for landing, have been more successful on past tests. None of the tests so far have left Earth’s atmosphere, however, nor have they involved any human flight testing, both of which will require a lot more development before the spacecraft is deemed mission-ready.

SpaceX was also the launch provider chosen to deliver components of the Lunar Gateway satellite in 2024, working with Maxar, which will produce the actual Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost. These, however, will be delivered via Falcon Heavy, which has already had multiple successful launches.

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.

What we all missed in UiPath’s latest IPO filing

By Alex Wilhelm

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. It’s hard to say that a company looking to go public at a valuation north of $25 billion is a letdown, but compared to preceding levels of hype, the numbers were a bit of a shock.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. 

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Here at The Exchange, we wondered if the somewhat slack news regarding UiPath’s potential IPO valuation was a warning to late-stage investors; the number of unicorns being minted or repriced higher feels higher than ever, and late-stage money has never been more active in the venture-backed startup world than it has been recently.

If UiPath were about to eat about $10 billion in worth to go public, it wouldn’t be the best indicator of how some of those late-stage bets will perform.

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.

That should either limit or close its private/public valuation gap, and, we imagine, lower a few investors’ blood pressure. Let’s look at the numbers.

UiPath’s fascinating 2020

The top-line numbers for UiPath’s 2020 are impressive. As we’ve discussed, the company grew its revenues from $336.2 million in 2019 to $607.6 million in 2020, while boosting its gross profit margin by 7 percentage points to 89% last year. That’s great!

And it improved its net margins from -155% in 2019 to just -15% in 2020. The company’s rapid growth, improving revenue quality and extreme deficit reduction were among the reasons it was a bit surprising to see its estimated public-market value come in so far underneath its final private price.

But let’s dig into the company’s quarterly results — a big thanks to the reader who sent us in this direction — to get a clearer picture of UiPath. Here’s the data:

Image Credits: UiPath filing

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

By Anna Heim

Coinbase’s direct listing was a massive finance, startup and cryptocurrency event that impacted a host of public and private investors, early employees, and crypto-enthusiasts. Regardless of where one sits in the broader tech and venture world, Coinbase storming north of a $100 billion valuation during its first day of trading was the biggest startup happening of the year.

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. Anthemis’ Ruth Foxe Blader told The Exchange, for example, that “the Coinbase listing shows this great inflection point for crypto,” with another “wave” of startup work in the space coming up.

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?


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Presuming that Coinbase’s listing will positively impact its niche and others around it is not a stretch. But to make sure we weren’t misreading sentiment, and to get deeper into the why of the concept, The Exchange reached out to venture capitalists who invest in the broader fintech world to get their take. We even roped in an analyst or two to round out our panel.

The answer is not a simple yes. There are several ways to approach investing in the cryptocurrency space — from buying coins themselves, to investing in mainstream-ish institutions like legal exchanges, to the more exotic, like supporting efforts on the forefront of the decentralized blockchain world. And while it is somewhat clear that most folks expect more capital to be available for crypto projects, it’s not clear where it may end up inside the market.

We’ll wrap by considering what impact Coinbase’s direct listing will have, if any, on non-crypto fintech venture capital investing.

After yesterday’s examination of how blazingly hot the venture capital market looked in the first quarter, we’re again trying to gauge the private market’s temperature. Let’s talk to some folks on the ground and hear what they are seeing.

Are crypto startups less risky now?

Coinbase’s direct listing floated a company that is worth more than all but two major blockchains, namely Ethereum and Bitcoin. Several other chains have aggregate coin values in the 11-figure range, but a 12-digit worth is still rare among crypto assets.

The scale of Coinbase’s valuation post-listing matters, according to Chainalysis Chief Economist Phillip Gradwell. Gradwell told The Exchange that “Coinbase’s $100 billion valuation today demonstrates that venture investors can make great returns from putting money into crypto companies, not just cryptocurrencies. That proof point is good for the entire ecosystem.”

More simply, it is now eminently reasonable to invest in the companies working in the crypto space instead of merely putting capital to work hard-buying coins themselves. The other way to consider the comment is to realize that Coinbase’s share price appreciation is steep enough since its 2012 founding to rival the returns of some coins over the same time frame.

Cleo Capital‘s Sarah Kunst expanded on the point, telling The Exchange in an email that “it’s now credible to say you’re a crypto startup and plan to IPO [versus] having acquisition or ICO be the only proven exit paths in the U.S.”

Philippines ‘buy now, pay later’ startup Plentina raises $2.2M seed round

By Catherine Shu

Plentina co-founders Kevin Gabayan and Earl Valencia

Plentina co-founders Kevin Gabayan and Earl Valencia

E-wallets are rapidly gaining popularity in the Philippines, overtaking credit cards, which have a penetration rate of under 10%. Fintech startup Plentina is leveraging that trend with buy now, pay later (BNPL) installment loans that can be used and repaid through e-wallets.

The company announced today it has closed a $2.2 million seed round, co-led by former Tableau executive and ClearGraph chief executive officer Andrew Vigneault, Unpopular Ventures and DV Collective. Other participants included JG Digital Equity Ventures (JGDEV), Amino Capital, Canaan Partners Scout Fund and Ignite Impact Fund.

Its last funding was $750,000 pre-seed round raised last year from investors including Techstars, Emergent Ventures and the 500 Startups Vietnam Fund. Plentina also participated in the Techstars Western Union and Stanford’s StartX accelerator programs.

Plentina launched in the Philippines in October 2020 and has been downloaded more than 30,000 times. Its merchant partners include 7-Eleven Philippines and Smart Communications, a telecom provider with more than 70 million prepaid subscribers.  The company will use its seed round to onboard more merchant partners in the Philippines before expanding in Southeast Asia and other regions.

Plentina uses machine learning models to gauge the creditworthiness of loan applicants, drawing on founders Kevin Gabayan and Earl Valencia’s data science backgrounds. Gabayan was data science lead at Bump Technologies and then spent five years working at Google after it acquired the startup. Valencia’s experience includes serving as managing director of digital transformation at Charles Schwab.

“We’re making BNPL work in emerging markets where few have credit scores and merchants can’t easily integrate technology,” Valencia, Plentina’s chief business officer, told TechCrunch. In addition to alternative credit scoring, the startup also focuses on making installment payment work with merchants’ legacy workflows, he said.

So for, Plentina has generated 10 million credit scores from alternative data sources, including mobile data obtained with user permission and retail loyalty programs, and will continue to develop its models as its merchant partnerships and customer base grows. Customers who build good credit scores with Plentina can increase their credit limits and unlock more offers.

Loans have a flat 5% service fee, with no interest. 7-Eleven and Smart Communications both offer 14 day loans, and Plentina will introduce more dynamic loan terms in the future, Valencia said. Loans can be used to purchase goods at all of 7-Eleven’s 3000 stores in the Philippines and prepaid mobile airtime with Smart Communications.

Other installment loan services in the Philippines include BillEase, Tendopay and Cashalo. Valencia said Plentina “aim[s] to be a customer’s financial service partner throughout their lifetime. We’re starting by offering closed-loop store credit for essentials purchases for consumers to easily establish their financial identity. As a customer’s financial wellness matures, we can graduate them into additional financial services.”

In a press statement about his investment, Vigneault said, “I’ve worked with many early stage fintech companies over the years. However, I’ve come across few founders who are as impressive as Kevin and Earl and have been able to achieve such levels of success with customers, channel partners, and product at such an early stage.”

Plastic Is Falling From the Sky. But Where’s It Coming From?

By Matt Simon
At any given time, 1,100 tons of microplastic are floating over the western US. New modeling shows the surprising sources of the nefarious pollutant.

Scary Video Games Help Me Cope With My Fears About Reality

By Zoë Hannah
From jump scares to terrifying monsters, games like Amnesia and Little Nightmares prepare me to handle a world filled with anxiety triggers.

Uber hit with default ‘robo-firing’ ruling after another EU labor rights GDPR challenge

By Natasha Lomas

Labor activists challenging Uber over what they allege are ‘robo-firings’ of drivers in Europe have trumpeted winning a default judgement in the Netherlands — where the Court of Amsterdam ordered the ride-hailing giant to reinstate six drivers who the litigants claim were unfairly terminated “by algorithmic means”.

The court also ordered Uber to pay the fired drivers compensation.

The challenge references Article 22 of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — which provides protects for individuals against purely automated decisions with a legal or significant impact.

The activists say this is the first time a court has ordered the overturning of an automated decision to dismiss workers from employment.

However the judgement, which was issued on February 24, was issued by default — and Uber says it was not aware of the case until last week, claiming that was why it did not contest it (nor, indeed, comply with the order).

It had until March 29 to do so, per the litigants, who are being supported by the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) and Worker Info Exchange (WIE).

Uber argues the default judgement was not correctly served and says it is now making an application to set the default ruling aside and have its case heard “on the basis that the correct procedure was not followed”.

It envisages the hearing taking place within four weeks of its Dutch entity, Uber BV, being made aware of the judgement — which it says occurred on April 8.

“Uber only became aware of this default judgement last week, due to representatives for the ADCU not following proper legal procedure,” an Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch.

A spokesperson for WIE denied that correct procedure was not followed but welcomed the opportunity for Uber to respond to questions over how its driver ID systems operate in court, adding: “They [Uber] are out of time. But we’d be happy to see them in court. They will need to show meaningful human intervention and provide transparency.”

Uber pointed to a separate judgement by the Amsterdam Court last month — which rejected another ADCU- and WIE-backed challenge to Uber’s anti-fraud systems, with the court accepting its explanation that algorithmic tools are mere aids to human ‘anti-fraud’ teams who it said take all decisions on terminations.

“With no knowledge of the case, the Court handed down a default judgement in our absence, which was automatic and not considered. Only weeks later, the very same Court found comprehensively in Uber’s favour on similar issues in a separate case. We will now contest this judgement,” Uber’s spokesperson added.

However WIE said this default judgement ‘robo-firing’ challenge specifically targets Uber’s Hybrid Real Time ID System — a system that incorporates facial recognition checks and which labor activists recently found mis-identifying drivers in a number of instances.

It also pointed to a separate development this week in the UK where it said the City of London Magistrates Court ordered the city’s transport regulator, TfL, to reinstate the licence of one of the drivers revoked after Uber routinely notified it of a dismissal (also triggered by Uber’s real time ID system, per WIE).

Reached for comment on that, a TfL spokesperson said: “The safety of the travelling public is our top priority and where we are notified of cases of driver identity fraud, we take immediate licensing action so that passenger safety is not compromised. We always require the evidence behind an operator’s decision to dismiss a driver and review it along with any other relevant information as part of any decision to revoke a licence. All drivers have the right to appeal a decision to remove a licence through the Magistrates’ Court.”

The regulator has been applying pressure to Uber since 2017 when it took the (shocking to Uber) decision to revoke the company’s licence to operate — citing safety and corporate governance concerns.

Since then Uber has been able to continue to operate in the UK capital but the company remains under pressure to comply with a laundry list of requirements set by TfL as it tries to regain a full operator licence.

Commenting on the default Dutch judgement on the Uber driver terminations in a statement, James Farrar, director of WIE, accused gig platforms of “hiding management control in algorithms”.

“For the Uber drivers robbed of their jobs and livelihoods this has been a dystopian nightmare come true,” he said. “They were publicly accused of ‘fraudulent activity’ on the back of poorly governed use of bad technology. This case is a wake-up call for lawmakers about the abuse of surveillance technology now proliferating in the gig economy. In the aftermath of the recent UK Supreme Court ruling on worker rights gig economy platforms are hiding management control in algorithms. This is misclassification 2.0.”

In another supporting statement, Yaseen Aslam, president of the ADCU, added: “I am deeply concerned about the complicit role Transport for London has played in this catastrophe. They have encouraged Uber to introduce surveillance technology as a price for keeping their operator’s license and the result has been devastating for a TfL licensed workforce that is 94% BAME. The Mayor of London must step in and guarantee the rights and freedoms of Uber drivers licensed under his administration.”  

When pressed on the driver termination challenge being specifically targeted at its Hybrid Real-Time ID system, Uber declined to comment in greater detail — claiming the case is “now a live court case again”.

But its spokesman suggested it will seek to apply the same defence against the earlier ‘robo-firing’ charge — when it argued its anti-fraud systems do not equate to automated decision making under EU law because “meaningful human involvement [is] involved in decisions of this nature”.

 

Inside the US’ epic first-quarter venture capital results

By Anna Heim

It’s no surprise that the venture capital market was incredibly active in the United States during the first quarter of 2021, but precisely how strong has only recently become clear. This morning, we’re digging into the data.

According to a report from PitchBook, venture capitalists unleashed a wave of capital in the first three months of the year. So much, in fact, that funding in the United States nearly doubled compared to the same quarter of 2020.

We’ll dig into specific numbers and trends regarding aggregate venture capital results in a moment, but what stood out the most while digesting the Q1 dataset was how strong VC results appeared across different states; a solo late-stage boom the quarter was not.

Seed deal volume appeared strong and early-stage venture capital activity could reach new highs in 2021, but late-stage venture capital activity in the United States is already setting records in both deal count and invested dollars.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


We’ll parse the headline numbers and then dive into seed and super late-stage data with the help of Sarah Kunst of Cleo Capital, Jenny Lefcourt of Freestyle Capital, Iris Choi of Floodgate and Laela Sturdy of CapitalG.

With their help, we’ll contextualize the numbers and weave anecdotal observations into what the charts and graphs tell us. Especially in the case of seed data, which is famously laggy, added context is crucial. Let’s go!

A Q1 overview

According to PitchBook’s report, some 3,987 venture capital rounds were closed in the United States during Q1 2021. Those deals were worth $69 billion, a figure up nearly 93% from 2020’s first-quarter 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; we’ll have to wait for at least another quarter’s data to confidently predict full-year records for 2021.

Powering the rapid start to the venture capital year was a holistic boom: Seed deal volume is forecasted to have set a multi-year high, perhaps matching the historically strong Q2 2018 period. Early-stage venture capital during Q1 2021 was also robust, with $14.5 billion deployed across 1,170 rounds. Both numbers set a pace for fresh records in 2021.

And then there was late-stage dealmaking, which soared in the first quarter. In 2020, late-stage venture capital deals were worth $111.4 billion raised from 3,504 rounds. In the first quarter of 2021, some $51.9 billion was invested into late-stage startups across 1,291 deals.

Valuations and round sizes continued to rise across the board. If there was a better time to raise a big whack of venture capital as a U.S.-based startup, we cannot recall it. And the data seems to scream that the good times are now as good, or gooder, than ever.

Vietnam-based healthcare booking app Docosan gets $1M seed funding led by AppWorks

By Catherine Shu

Based in Ho Chi Minh City, Docosan helps patients avoid long waits by letting them search and book doctors through its app. The company announced today it has raised more than $1 million in seed funding, which is claims is one of the largest seed rounds ever for a Vietnamese healthtech startup. The investment was led by AppWorks, the Taiwan-based early-stage investor and accelerator program, with participation from David Ma and Huat Ventures.

Founded in 2020, the app has been used by about 50,000 patients for bookings and now has more than 300 individual healthcare providers, ranging from small family pediatric clinics to neurosurgeons at large private hospitals, co-founder and chief executive officer Beth Ann Lopez told TechCrunch. Providers are vetted before being added to the platform and have on average 18 years of clinical experience.

Lopez said advance doctor bookings aren’t the norm in Vietnam. Instead, people who use private healthcare providers have to “choose between over 30,000 private hospitals and clinics spread across the hospital with huge variations in price and quality. This is why people use word of mouth recommendations from their family and friends to choose a healthcare provider. Then they show up at a hospital or clinic and wait in line, sometimes for hours.”

Docosan’s users can filter providers with criteria like location and specialty, and see pricing information and verified customer reviews. It recently added online payment features and insurance integrations. The company, which took part in Harvard’s Launch Lab X plans to launch telehealth and pharmacy services as well.

For healthcare providers on the app, Docosan provides software to manage bookings and ease wait times, a key selling point during the COVID-19 pandemic because many people are reluctant to sit in crowded waiting rooms. Lopez said another benefit is reducing the number of marketing and adminstrative tasks doctors have to do, allowing them to spend more time with patients.

The startup plans to expand into other countries. “Docosan is a solution that works well anywhere with a large, fragmented private healthcare system,” said Lopez. “We would all benefit from a world in which it’s as easy to find a great doctor as it is a book a Grab taxi.”

In press statement, AppWorks partner Andy Tsai said, “We noticed Docosan’s potential early on because of its participation in the AppWorks Accelerator. Docosan’s founders demonstrated strong experience and dedication to the healthcare issues in the region. We are proud to be supporting Docosan’s vision of better healthcare access for all.”

Republican antitrust bill would block all Big Tech acquisitions

By Taylor Hatmaker

There are about to be a lot of antitrust bills taking aim at Big Tech, and here’s one more. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) rolled out a new bill this week that would take some severe measures to rein in Big Tech’s power, blocking mergers and acquisitions outright.

The “Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act” would ban any acquisitions by companies with a market cap of more than $100 billion, including vertical mergers. The bill also proposes changes that would dramatically heighten the financial pain for companies caught engaging in anti-competitive behavior, forcing any company that loses an antirust suit to forfeit profits made through those business practices.

At its core, Hawley’s legislation would snip some of the red tape around antitrust enforcement by amending the Sherman Act, which made monopolies illegal, and the Clayton Act, which expanded the scope of illegal anti-competitive behavior. The idea is to make it easier for the FTC and other regulators to deem a company’s behavior anti-competitive — a key criticism of the outdated antitrust rules that haven’t kept pace with the realities of the tech industry.

The bill isn’t likely to get too far in a Democratic Senate, but it’s not insignificant. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee, proposed legislation earlier this year that would also create barriers for dominant companies with a habit of scooping up their competitors. Klobuchar’s own ideas for curtailing Big Tech’s power similarly focus on reforming the antitrust laws that have shaped U.S. business for more than a century.

Click to access The%20Trust-Busting%20for%20the%20Twenty-First%20Century%20Act.pdf

The Republican bill may have some overlap with Democratic proposals, but it still hits some familiar notes from the Trump era of hyperpartisan Big Tech criticism. Hawley slams “woke mega-corporations” in Silicon Valley for exercising too much power over the information and products that Americans consume. While Democrats naturally don’t share that critique, Hawley’s bill makes it clear that antitrust reform targeting Big Tech is one policy area where both political parties could align on the ends, even if they don’t see eye to eye on the why.

Hawley’s bill is the latest, but it won’t be the last. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who spearheads tech antitrust efforts in the House, previously announced his own plans to introduce a flurry of antitrust reform bills rather than one sweeping piece of legislation. Those bills, which will be more narrowly targeted to make them difficult for tech lobbyists to defeat, are due out in May.

1Password acquires SecretHub and launches new enterprise secrets management tool

By Frederic Lardinois

1Password, the password management service that competes with the likes of LastPass and BitWarden, today announced a major push beyond the basics of password management and into the infrastructure secrets management space. To do so, the company has acquired secrets management service SecretHub and is now launching its new 1Password Secrets Automation service.

1Password did not disclose the price of the acquisition. According to CrunchBase, Netherlands-based SecretHub never raised any institutional funding ahead of today’s announcement.

For companies like 1Password, moving into the enterprise space, where managing corporate credentials, API tokens, keys and certificates for individual users and their increasingly complex infrastructure services, seems like a natural move. And with the combination of 1Password and its new Secrets Automation service, businesses can use a single tool that covers them from managing their employee’s passwords to handling infrastructure secrets. 1Password is currently in use by more then 80,000 businesses worldwide and a lot of these are surely potential users of its Secrets Automation service, too.

“Companies need to protect their infrastructure secrets as much if not more than their employees’ passwords,” said Jeff Shiner, CEO of 1Password. “With 1Password and Secrets Automation, there is a single source of truth to secure, manage and orchestrate all of your business secrets. We are the first company to bring both human and machine secrets together in a significant and easy-to-use way.”

In addition to the acquisition and new service, 1Password also today announced a new partnership with GitHub. “We’re partnering with 1Password because their cross-platform solution will make life easier for developers and security teams alike,” said Dana Lawson, VP of partner engineering and development at GitHub, the largest and most advanced development platform in the world. “With the upcoming GitHub and 1Password Secrets Automation integration, teams will be able to fully automate all of their infrastructure secrets, with full peace of mind that they are safe and secure.”

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

By Anna Heim

Microsoft’s huge purchase of healthtech 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 mega-deal, 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?


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


To get a handle on the situation, we’ve compiled Q1 2021 and historical venture capital investment data via PitchBook, spoken to an active venture capitalist with a focus on AI-powered startups, and heard from a couple of startups recently featured on CB Insights’ list of leading AI upstarts for their take on the recent news.

The picture that emerges is one of strong investor interest and the expectation of even more in the wake of the Microsoft-Nuance tie-up. For AI startups, it’s a great time to be in the market.

This morning, we’ll start with a look into recent venture capital activity in the AI/ML market and its historical context. Then we’ll talk to Zetta Ventures’ Jocelyn Goldfein and a few companies in the AI space. Let’s go!

A venture capital rush

According to historical data compiled by PitchBook, venture capital investment into U.S.-based, AI-focused startups is enjoying a strong start to the year. Per the group’s provided dataset, from the start of 2021 through April 12, or the first 101 days of the year, 442 deals in the space were worth $11.65 billion.

In 2020, the same query for U.S.-based startups working in the AI and ML space — the line between ML and AI is blurrier than ever — turned up 1,601 rounds worth $27.49 billion.

ConsenSys raises $65M from JP Morgan, Mastercard, UBS to build infrastructure for DeFi

By Mike Butcher

ConsenSys, a key player in crypto and a major proponent of the Ethereum blockchain, has raised a $65 million funding round from J.P. Morgan, Mastercard, and UBS AG, as well as major blockchain companies Protocol Labs, the Maker Foundation, Fenbushi, The LAO and Alameda Research. Additional investors include CMT Digital and the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund. As well as fiat, several funds invested with Ethereum-based stablecoins, DAI and USDC, as consideration.

Sources told TechCrunch that this is an unpriced round because of the valuation risk, and the funding instrument is “full”, so the round is being closed now.

The fundraise looks like a highly strategic one, based around the idea that traditional institutions will need visibility into the increasingly influential world of ‘decentralized finance’ (DeFi) and the Web3 applications being developed on the Ethereum blockchain.

In a statement on the fundraise, ConsenSys said it has been through a “period of strategic evolution and growth”, but most outside observers would agree that this is that’s something of an understatement.

After a period of quite a lot of ‘creative disruption’ to put it mildly (at one point a couple of years ago, ConsenSys seemed to have everything from a VC fund, to an accelerator, to multiple startups under its wing), the company has restructured to form two main arms: ConsenSys, the core software business; and ConsenSys Mesh, the investment arm, incubator, and portfolio. It also acquired the Quorum product from J.P. Morgan which has given it a deeper bench into the enterprise blockchain ecosystem. This means it now has a very key product suite for the Etherum platform, including products such as Codefi, Diligence, Infura, MetaMask, Truffle, and Quorum.

This suite allows it to serve both public and private permissioned blockchain networks. It can also support Layer 2 Ethereum networks, as well as facilitate access to adjacent protocols like IPFS, Filecoin, and others. ConsenSys is also a major contributor to the Ethereum 2.0 project, for obvious reasons.

Commenting on the fundraise, Joseph Lubin, founder of ConsenSys and co-founder, Ethreum said in a statement: “When we set out to raise a round, it was important to us to patiently construct a diverse cap table, consistent with our belief that similar to how the web developed, the whole economy would join the revolutionaries on a next-generation protocol. ConsenSys’ software stack represents access to a new automated objective trust foundation enabled by decentralized protocols like Ethereum. We are proud to partner with preeminent financial firms alongside leading crypto companies to further converge the centralized and decentralized financial domains at this particularly exciting time of growth for ConsenSys and the entire industry.”

With financial institutions able to see, ‘in public’ DeFi happening on Ethereuem, because of the public chain, they can see how much of the financial system is gradually starting to merge with the blockchain world. So it’s becoming clearer what attracts these major institutions.

Mike Dargan, Head of Group Technology at UBS said: “Our investment in ConsenSys adds proven expertise in distributed ledger technology to our UBS Next portfolio.”

For MasterCard this appears to be not just a pure investment – Consensys has been working with it on a private permissioned network.

Raj Dhamodharan, executive vice president of digital asset and blockchain products and partnerships at Mastercard said: “Enterprise Ethereum is a key infrastructure on which we and our partners are building payment and non-payment applications to power the future of commerce… Our investment and partnership with ConsenSys helps us bring secure and performant Enterprise Ethereum capabilities to our customers.”

Colleen Sullivan, Co-Founder and CEO of CMT Digital said: “ConsenSys is the pioneer in bridging the gaps across traditional finance, centralized crypto, and DeFi, and more broadly, between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. We are proud to participate in this funding round as the ConsenSys team continues to pave the way for global users  — retail and institutional — to easily access the crypto ecosystem.”

TechCrunch understands that the fundraise was started around the time of the Quorum acquisition, last June. The $65 million round is in majority fiat currency as opposed to cryptocurrency and is an adjunct to the round done with JP Morgan last summer.

The presence of significant crypto players such as Maker Protocol Labs shows the significance of the fund-raise, beyond the simple transaction. The announcement also comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO, which makes for interesting timing.

ConsenSys’ products have become highly significant in the world where developers, enterprises, and consumers meet blockchain and crypto. In its statement, the company claims MetaMask now has over three million monthly active users across mobile and desktop, a 3x increase in the last five or six months, it says. This is roughly the same amount of monthly active customers as Coinbase.

The ConsenSys announcement comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO. While Coinbase is acting as an exchange to turn fiat into crypto and vice versa, it has also been getting into DeFi of late. Where there are also resemblances with ConsenSys, is that Coinbase, with 3 million users, is used as a wallet, and MetMask, which also has 3 million users, can also be used as a wallet. The comparison ends there, but it’s certainly interesting, given Coinbase’s $100 billion valuation.

As Jeremy Millar, Chief Development Officer, told me: “Coinbase has pioneered an exchange, in one of the world’s was regulated financial markets, the US. And it has helped drive significant interest in the space. We enjoy a very positive relationship with Coinbase, trying to further enable the ecosystem and adoption of the technology.”

The background to this raise is that a lot of early-stage blockchain and crypto companies have been raising a lot of money recently, but much of this has been through crypto investment firms. Only a handful of Silicon Valley VCs are backing blockchain, such as Andreessen Horowitz.

What’s interesting about this announcement is that these incumbent financial giants are not only taking an interest, but working alongside ConsenSys to both invest and build products on Ethereum.

It’s ConsenSys’ view that every payment service provider, banks will need this financial infrastructure in the future, especially for DeFI.

Given there is roughly $43 billion collateralized in DeFi, it’s increasingly the case that major investors are involved, and there are increasingly higher returns than traditional yield and bond or bond yields.

The moves by Central Banks into digital currencies is also forcing companies and governments to realize digital currency, and the ‘blockchain rails’ on which it runs, is here to stay. This is what is suggested by the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund’s (a Shenzhen / Hong Kong joint partnership) decision to get involved.

Another aspect of this story is that ConsenSys is sitting on some extremely powerful products. Consensys has six products that serve three different types of people.

Service developers who are building on Ethereum are using Truffle to develop smart contracts. Users joining the NFT hype are using MetaMask underneath it all.

The MetaMask wallet allows users to swap one token for another. This has proved quite lucrative for ConsenSys, which says it has resulted in $1.8 billion in volume in decentralized exchange use. ConsenSys takes a 0.875 percent cut on every swap that it serves.

And institutions are using Consensys’ products. The company says more than 150,000 developers use Infura’s APIs, and 4.5 million developers create and deploy smart contracts using Truffle, while its Protocols group — developer of Hyperledger Besu and ConsenSys Quorum — are building Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) for six central banks, says Consensys.

Consensys is also making hay with the NFT boom. Developers are using Consensys products for the nodes and infrastructure on Ethereum which stores the NFT files.

Consensys is also riding two waves. One is the developer eave and the other is the financial system wave.

As a spokesperson said: “Where the interest in money and invention started happening was on public networks like Ethereum. So we really believe that these are converging and they will continue to, and every one of our products offers public main net compatibility because we think this is the future.”

Millar added: “If we want to help the world adopt the technology we need to meet it at its adoption point, which for many large enterprises means inside the firewall first. But similarly, we think, just like the public Internet, the real value – the disruptive value – changes the ability to do this on a broader permissionless basis, especially when you have sufficient privacy and authentication available.”

Pine Labs acquires Southeast Asian startup Fave for $45 million

By Manish Singh

Pine Labs said on Tuesday it has acquired Southeast Asian startup Fave in a deal valued at $45 million as the Indian firm looks to strengthen its offerings in the domestic and international markets.

Fave helps an offline merchant connect and retain customers by using gift cards and vouchers. The startup allows merchants to accept digital payments by having a customer scan a QR code. Once the payment is made, the customer automatically receives a cashback / loyalty point through the Fave app that can only be redeemed at that specific business during future transactions.

“Customers love us because they get safe money, cashback and rewards for being on the platform. And merchants love us because they get a lot of new and repeat customers,” explained Joel Neoh, co-founder and chief executive of Fave.

This offering has especially proven useful to merchants in the pandemic as they scramble for ways to drive sales from existing customers, said Amrish Rao, chief executive of Pine Labs, in an interview. “Consumers, too, were looking for ways of cost-savings or ways to optimize their purchases.”

Pine Labs, which acquired a gift cards solution provider Qwikcilver in 2019, made its first investment in Fave last year.

Rao drew comparisons between Fave and Honey, saying the Southeast Asian startup is doing to offline businesses what Honey has achieved in the online world. “For the first time with QR, what I realized was you can do a wonderful job when it comes to loyalty, rewards, and the redemption in the offline world,” said Rao.

Leadership of Fave will continue to work at the startup post-acquisition and Rao said the team is working to bring Fave’s offering to customers in 3,700 Indian cities. (This is one of the rare times when a Southeast Asian startup is launching its offering in India.)

Neoh said in an interview that Fave also plans to launch a pay now later product in the next one to two months.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

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