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Today — February 20th 2020Your RSS feeds

These specialized Africa VC funds are welcoming co-investors

By Jake Bright

For global venture capitalists still on the fence about entering Africa, a first move could be co-investing with a proven fund that’s already working in the region.

Africa’s startup scene is performance-light — one major IPO and a handful of exits — but there could be greater returns for investors who get in early. For funds from Silicon Valley to Tokyo, building a portfolio and experience on the continent with those who already have expertise could be the best start.

VC in Africa

Africa has one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the world, as ranked by startup origination and year-over-year increases in VC spending. There’s been a mass mobilization of capital toward African startups around a basic continent-wide value proposition for tech.

Significant economic growth and reform in the continent’s major commercial hubs of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia is driving the formalization of a number of informal sectors, such as logistics, finance, retail and mobility. Demographically, Africa has one of the world’s fastest-growing youth populations, and continues to register the fastest global growth in smartphone adoption and internet penetration.

Africa is becoming a startup continent with thousands of entrepreneurs and ventures who have descended on every problem and opportunity.

Codecademy has already outlived many rivals — is that enough?

By Connie Loizos

Codeacademy, the New York-based online interactive platform that offers coding classes in a wide variety of programming languages, is a little like background noise; it’s been operating reliably since founder Zach Sims created the company while still a Columbia University student in 2011. It’s a brand that people know and that millions have used, but because it has grown steadily, without headline-making funding rounds — or, conversely, newsworthy layoffs —  the 90-person company doesn’t routinely attract a lot of press attention.

That’s fine with Sims, who we spoke with last week following the most recent bout of bad publicity for Lambda School, a younger rival that has raised $48 million from investors, compared with the $42.5 million that Codecademy has raised over time. Sims says his company is continuing to chug along nicely.

The question, increasingly, is whether that’s ‘nice’ enough for VCs. Indeed, Codecademy — like a lot of startups right now — is in the awkward position of being a smart, solid, steadily but not massively growing business — which raises questions about its next steps.

The last time we’d spoken with Sims, roughly two years ago, Codecademy — which struggled for years with how to produce meaningful revenue —  had recently launched two premium products. One of these, Codecademy Pro, helps users who are willing to spend $40 per month (or $240 per year) to learn the fundamentals of coding, as well as develop a deeper knowledge in up to 10 areas, including machine learning and data analysis. Sims says this has taken off, though he declined to share specifics.

A second offering, Codecademy Pro Intensive, that was designed to immerse learners from six to 10 weeks in either website development, programming or data science, has since been dropped.

Who are the company’s paid users? Sims says they tend to fall into one of two buckets: those who are learning a discrete skill set, perhaps to build a website in a pinch, and those who are gainfully employed but looking to climb the ladder or switch jobs and who see Codeacademy as a way to spend a couple of hours a week to develop the skills to get there. Roughly 60 percent  are based in the U.S.; the rest are elsewhere, including in India and Brazil. (The need for coding skills “isn’t a U.S.-only phenomenon,” Sims notes.)

Sims suggests the payback on investment can be fairly quick, given Codecademy’s pricing. By way of comparison, some on-premise coding schools charge upwards of $20,000 a year — a big enough expense that in order to make themselves more accessible, they invite students to pay nothing upfront and instead collect a percentage of their salary once they find a job.

Naturally, because Codecademy largely lives online, so do occasional criticisms about its perceived shortcomings. One customer — a self-described computer science major — authored a thoughtful review in December, writing that “being a programmer is more than simply being able to memorize syntax.” While Codecademy has introduced “thousands to the fundamentals of computer science,” through “addictive bite-sized pieces that are easy to accomplish,” this person wrote that it falls short in helping cultivate a “coders’ mindset.”

Either way, enough people are finding value in Codecademy’s vast number of offerings that it recently reached an important milestone —  it’s now cash-flow positive — having doubled it revenue last year.

Sims is understandably proud of this accomplishment, noting that “there are few [coding platforms] that are growing sustainably and profitably and generating cash that can be invested back into the business.”

Codecademy is enjoying the same tailwinds it has from the start, too. Though skepticism has grown around coding schools more broadly, the ability to design, shape, correct, and secure software will only grow more valuable. Receiving a related education that comes affordably remains an appealing proposition.

It’s a case the company is continuing to make for consumers and, we gather, more enterprises that are starting to offer Codecademy type classes to employees. Though Codecademy already sells classes in volume packs, Sims suggests that a big push in 2020 will involve tie-ups with companies that want to provide what it teaches as a perk.

Whether it intends to paint a picture for investors, too, is less clear. ( Sims declined to answer when we asked about fundraising more broadly.)

Certainly, follow-on rounds are growing harder to land, as described in our piece last week about “portfolio bloat.” The reason: VCs have raised so much money in recent years that they’re funneling it into new startups faster than ever. (They need to find the Next Big Thing to return all that capital.)

That’s leaving a lot of more steadily growing companies to fend for themselves for now.

What the end result will be is an open question. Codecademy’s cash-flow positive status gives it more time to wait on an answer.

Canadian online pharmacy, PocketPills has raised $7.35 million as it expands into Quebec

By Jonathan Shieber

PocketPills, which bills itself as the sole online pharmacy operating in Canada, has raised $7.35 million in new financing as it expands across the country.

Through partnerships with insurers like Pacific Blue Cross the company provides co-insurance reductions for prescriptions. “We have an option for you to come and join our platform just like any pharmacy,” says company co-founder and chief operating officer, Harj Samra.

Samra launched the company in 2018 with Raj Gulia, a fellow proprietor of pharmacies across Canada, and the serial entrepreneur and co-founder of RocketFuel Abhinav Gupta. After RocketFuel’s public offering, Gupta was toying with several ideas for direct to consumer companies when he was approached by Gulia and Samra.

Together the three men launched PocketPills to bring the online pharmacy model to Canada as a way to save money for insurers.

The problem for insurers is that the use of generic drugs in Canada lags behind that of the U.S., says Gupta. “The difference is quite substantial. The U.S is about 90% generic fill rate and in Canada that number is at 70%,” he says. 

PocketPills covers everything that a regular Canadian pharmacy would outside of controlled substances and narcotics. The bulk of the company’s prescriptions to date are for medications for chronic conditions.

Now the company is looking to expand across the country, opening fulfillment locations in Nova Scotia and soon in Quebec.

To back that growth and continue its development, PocketPills turned to a large Canadian family office and the investment firm Waterbridge to finance its $7.35 million round.  

“PocketPills is timed well for massive value creation in the Canadian health care industry through its technology innovations. It has captured a sweet spot at the intersection of cost (insurers and employers), convenience (patients) and care (chronic diseases),” said Manish Kheterpal, Managing Partner, WaterBridge Ventures, in a statement.

 

Yesterday — February 19th 2020Your RSS feeds

Ex-YC partner Daniel Gross rethinks the accelerator

By Lucas Matney

Amid skyrocketing operating expenses, remote work has become an obsession for Bay Area founders looking to have it both ways, accessing Silicon Valley’s networks of capital and opportunity without paying steep premiums for talent.

Daniel Gross has a deeper understanding than most of Silicon Valley’s opportunities. The Jerusalem native was one of Y Combinator’s early successes, joining with an AI startup that, at 23, he sold to Apple (we reported the deal was between $40-60 million). Gross served as a director of machine learning at Apple before returning to YC — this time as a partner.

At age 28, his role at YC behind him, Gross is now working to revamp the startup accelerator model for a remote future with his startup Pioneer. He’s received backing from Marc Andreessen and Stripe to build a program he hopes can give founders access to funding streams and talent networks that are nearly impossible to find outside Silicon Valley.

“In the way software is eating the world, remote is almost eating earth in the sense that it may very well be the way large companies are created, but also perhaps the way that venture funding takes place,” Gross told TechCrunch in an interview. “With Pioneer, the product experiment we’re running is an attempt to build a San Francisco or Mountain View — to build a city on the internet.”

GettyImages 604311102

Marc Andreessen, one of Pioneer’s early investors.

That lofty goal has required quite a bit of tinkering on Gross’s part over the past 18 months since he launched the startup. During that time, he’s shifted the program’s structure from a Reddit-like online contest to win cash grants to what he calls a “fully remote startup generator” that can help remote founders create companies that later apply to Y Combinator or raise money from Pioneer.

“People were really taking advantage of Pioneer as kind of an online accelerator almost organically,” Gross says. “We decided to kind of operationalize that inside and focus more on funding people that are working on things that will turn into companies and potentially offer them more funding.”

Pioneer has already backed more than 100 founders, who have created solutions like remote team product There, desktop app generator ToDesktop and software search engine Metacode.

Pioneer is hoping their efforts can provide opportunities to founders in underserved geographies and regions, but like other investors in Silicon Valley, the startup hasn’t been backing nearly as many female founders as their male counterparts. From funded entrepreneurs publicly announced on Pioneer’s blog, less than 15 percent are women.

“Pioneer is an engine for finding, funding and mentoring underrated people, many of whom I suspect are female. Our minds are constantly spinning on ways to raise awareness amongst female founders and we’re working with our community to improve female representation,” Gross wrote in an email response. “The world could stand to have many more founders like Mathilde Collin (of Front) and Laura Behrens Wu (of Shippo), and we are eager to find them.”

One of Pioneer’s livestream discussions during its remote program.

Pioneer’s existence is partially the result of an advent of remote work and communication tools, but another real enabler is the competitive market for early stage investing. Mega VC funds are competing over pre-seed deals for the buzziest startups and Y Combinator’s batch sizes are ballooning, leaving little room for accelerators with similar pitches. As the world of early stage startup investing gets more crowded, investors are having to get creative. For Gross and his investors, Pioneer also represents an opportunity to scout deal flow earlier in the pipeline.

Gross has a weighty portfolio of his own angel investments including GitHub, Figma, Uber, Gusto, Notion, Opendoor, Cruise Automation and Coinbase.

An earlier structure gave Pioneer the right to invest up to $100K in startups emerging from the program if they went onto raise, but just 30% of grant awardees went on to found companies, Gross tells me. In its 2.0 form, Pioneer wants participants to give up 1% of their company to join the one-month remote program. The accelerator won’t give them cash but will help founders incorporate their startups, give them guidance via a network of experts, and toss some other substantial perks like $100K worth of cloud credits and a roundtrip ticket to San Francisco to inject a bit of face-to-face time into the process.

Greatly enjoyed the first Pioneer (@pioneerdotapp) Summit! pic.twitter.com/fIvdA24Kdf

— Patrick Collison (@patrickc) October 26, 2019

The biggest evolution is the more formalized investment structure for founders exiting the program. If Pioneer is excited about the progress of a particular startup, they may give it the option to raise directly from Pioneer upon completion, sticking it in one of three investment buckets and investing between $20K and $1 million.

Gross acknowledges that Pioneer will largely be making bets closer to the $20K mark as the accelerator scales its portfolio. Pioneer is relying an undisclosed amount of early funding from Gross, Andreessen and Stripe for both its investments and operating expenses. Gross says that the company has additional funding sources lined up to facilitate some of these larger investments, but that he’s reticent to raise too much too early. “This being my second rodeo, I’m well aware of the downsides of over-capitalizing and so I think we’re going to remain nimble and frugal,” Gross says.

Gross isn’t looking to replace Y Combinator, and realizes that for founders with plenty of options, Pioneer’s investments might not be the most enticing. Y Combinator invest $150K in startups for a 7% slice of equity, by comparison, a $20K investment from Pioneer will cost founders 5% of their company plus the 1% they gave up to join the accelerator in the first place. Nevertheless, Gross hopes that plenty of founders sitting on great ideas will want to take advantage of this deal.

“I think there are a lot of great companies that instead of being listed on the S&P 500 are stuck at the phase where they’re just a Python script.”

VCs to antitrust officials: We’d rather take our chances

By Connie Loizos

Last week at Stanford, antitrust officials from the U.S. Department of Justice organized a day-long conference that engaged numerous venture capitalists in conversations about big tech. The DOJ wanted to hear from VCs about whether they believe there’s still an opportunity for startups to flourish alongside the likes of Facebook and Google and whether they can anticipate what — if anything — might disrupt the inexorable growth of these giants.

Most of the invited panelists acknowledged there is a problem, but they also said fairly uniformly that they doubted if more regulation was the solution.

Some of the speakers dismissed outright the idea that today’s tech incumbents can’t be outmaneuvered. Sequoia’s Michael Moritz talked about various companies that ruled the world across different decades and later receded into the background, suggesting that we merely need to wait and see which startups will eventually displace today’s giants.

He added that if there’s a real threat lurking anywhere, it isn’t in an overly powerful Google, but rather American high schools that are, according to Moritz, a poor match for their Chinese counterparts. “We’re killing ourselves; we’re killing the future technologists… we’re slowly killing the potential for home-brewed invention.”

Renowned angel investor Ram Shriram similarly downplayed the DOJ’s concerns, saying specifically he didn’t think that “search” as a category could never be again disrupted or that it doesn’t benefit from network effects. He observed that Google itself disrupted numerous search companies when it emerged on the scene in 1998.

Somewhat cynically, we would note that those companies — Lycos, Yahoo, Excite — had a roughly four-year lead over Google at the time, and Google has been massively dominant for nearly all of those 22 years since (because of, yes, its network effects).

Expanding its women’s health benefits offerings for employers, Maven raises $45 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Over the past twelve months, Maven, the benefits provider focused on women’s health and family planning, has expanded its customer base to include over 100 companies and grown its telehealth services to include 1,700 providers across 20 specialties — for services like shipping breast milk, finding a doula and egg freezing, fertility treatments, surrogacy and adoption.

The New York-based company which offers its healthcare services to individuals, health plans, and employers has now raised an additional $45 million to expand its offerings even further.

Its new money comes from a clutch of celebrity investors like Mindy Kaling, Natalie Portman, and Reese Witherspoon and institutional investors led by Icon Ventures and return backers Sequoia Capital, Oak HC/FT, Spring Mountain Capital, Female Founders Fund and Harmony Partners. Anne Wojcicki, the founder of 23andMe, is also an investor in the company.

Maven is addressing critical gaps in care by offering the largest digital health network of women’s and family health providers,” said Tom Mawhinney, lead investor from Icon Ventures, who will join the Maven board of directors, in a statement. “With its virtual care and services, Maven is changing how global employers support working families by focusing on improving maternal outcomes, reducing medical costs, retaining more women in the workplace, and ultimately supporting every pathway to parenthood.”

In the six years since founder Katherine Ryder first launched Mayven, the company has raised more than $77 million for its service and become a mother of two boys.

“You go through this enormous life experience; it’s hugely transformative to have a child,” she told TechCrunch after announcing the company’s $27 million Series B round, led by Sequoia. “You do it when your careers is moving up — they call it the rush hour of life — and with no one supporting you on the other end, it’s easy to say ‘screw it, I’m going home to my family’ … If someone leaves the workforce, that’s fine, it’s their choice but they shouldn’t feel forced to because they don’t have support.”

Some of Maven’s partners include Snap and Bumble to provide employees access to its women’s and family health provider network. The company connects users with OB-GYNs, pediatricians, therapists, career coaches and other services around family planning.

Announcing the final agenda for Robotics + AI — March 3 at UC Berkeley

By Richard Smith

TechCrunch is returning to U.C. Berkeley on March 3 to bring together some of the most influential minds in robotics and artificial intelligence. Each year we strive to bring together a cross-section of big companies and exciting new startups, along with top researchers, VCs and thinkers.

In addition to a main stage that includes the likes of Amazon’s Tye Brady, U .C. Berkeley’s Stuart Russell, Anca Dragan of Waymo, Claire Delaunay of NVIDIA, James Kuffner of Toyota’s TRI-AD, and a surprise interview with Disney Imagineers, we’ll also be offering a more intimate Q&A stage featuring speakers from SoftBank Robotics, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and more.

Alongside a selection of handpicked demos, we’ll also be showcasing the winners from our first-ever pitch-off competition for early-stage robotics companies. You won’t get a better look at exciting new robotics technologies than that. Tickets for the event are still available. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks at Zellerbach Hall.

Agenda

8:30 AM – 4:00 PM

Registration Open Hours

General Attendees can pick up their badges starting at 8:30 am at Lower Sproul Plaza located in front of Zellerbach Hall. We close registration at 4:00 pm.

10:00 AM – 10:05 AM

Welcome and Introduction from Matthew Panzarino (TechCrunch) and Randy Katz (UC Berkeley)

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.

10:25 AM – 10:45 AM

Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)

Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

10:45 AM – 11:05 AM

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)

Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space. 

11:05 AM – 11:15 AM

Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club 

11:30 AM – 12:00 PM

Book signing with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

Join one of the foremost experts in artificial intelligence as he signs copies of his acclaimed new book, Human Compatible.

11:35 AM – 12:05 PM

Building the Robots that Build with Daniel Blank (Toggle Industries), Tessa Lau (Dusty Robotics), Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics) and Brian Ringley (Boston Dynamics)

Can robots help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper? Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete, Dusty builds robot-powered tools and longtime robotics pioneers Boston Dynamics have recently joined the construction space. We’ll talk with the founders and experts from these companies to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.

12:15 PM – 1:00 PM

Q&A: Corporate VC, Partnering and Acquisitions with Kass Dawson (SoftBank Robotics America), Carlos Kokron (Qualcomm Ventures), and Gen Tsuchikawa (Sony Innovation Fund)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with three of the top minds in corporate VC.

1:00 PM – 1:25 PM

Pitch-off 

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have five minutes to present their wares.

1:15 PM – 2:00 PM

Q&A: Founding Robotics Companies with Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) and Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics)

Your chance to ask questions of some of the most successful robotics founders on our stage

1:25 PM – 1:50 PM

Investing in Robotics and AI: Lessons from the Industry’s VCs with Dror Berman (Innovation Endeavors), Kelly Chen (DCVC) and Eric Migicovsky (Y Combinator)

Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.

1:50 PM – 2:15 PM

Facilitating Human-Robot Interaction with Mike Dooley (Labrador Systems) and Clara Vu (Veo Robotics)

As robots become an ever more meaningful part of our lives, interactions with humans are increasingly inevitable. These experts will discuss the broad implications of HRI in the workplace and home.

2:15 PM – 2:40 PM

Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (UC Berkeley/Waymo), Jinnah Hosein (Aurora) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)

Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

2:15 PM – 3:00 PM

Q&A: Investing in Robotics Startups with Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures), Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta Venture Partners) and Aaron Jacobson (New Enterprise Associates)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest investors in robotics and AI

2:40 PM – 3:10 PM

Disney Robotics

Imagineers from Disney will present start of the art robotics built to populate its theme parks.

3:10 PM – 3:35 PM

Bringing Robots to Life with Max Bajracharya and James Kuffner (Toyota Research Institute Advanced Development)

This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for Toyota’s TRI-AD. Executive James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.

3:15 PM – 4:00 PM

Q&A: Building Robotics Platforms with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA) and Steve Macenski (Samsung Research America)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest engineers in robotics and AI.

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM

The Next Century of Robo-Exoticism with Abigail De Kosnik (UC Berkeley), David Ewing Duncan, Ken Goldberg (UC Berkeley), and Mark Pauline (Survival Research Labs)

In 1920, Karl Capek coined the term “robot” in a play about mechanical workers organizing a rebellion to defeat their human overlords. One hundred years later, in the context of increasing inequality and xenophobia, the panelists will discuss cultural views of robots in the context of “Robo-Exoticism,” which exaggerates both negative and positive attributes and reinforces old fears, fantasies and stereotypes.

4:00 PM – 4:10 PM 

Live Demo from Somatic

4:10 PM – 4:35 PM

Opening the Black Box with Explainable AI with Trevor Darrell (UC Berkeley), Krishna Gade (Fiddler Labs) and Karen Myers (SRI International)

Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.

4:35 PM – 5:00 PM 

Cultivating Intelligence in Agricultural Robots with Lewis Anderson (Traptic), Sebastian Boyer (FarmWise) and Michael Norcia (Pyka)

The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields respectively, and Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.

5:00 PM – 5:25 PM

Fostering the Next Generation of Robotics Startups with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA), Scott Phoenix (Vicarious) and Joshua Wilson (Freedom Robotics

Robotics and AI are the future of many or most industries, but the barrier of entry is still difficult to surmount for many startups. Speakers will discuss the challenges of serving robotics startups and companies that require robotics labor, from bootstrapped startups to large scale enterprises.

5:30 PM – 7:30 PM

Unofficial After Party, (Cash Bar Only) 

Come hang out at the unofficial After Party at Tap Haus, 2518 Durant Ave, Ste C, Berkeley

Final Tickets Available

We only have so much space in Zellerbach Hall and tickets are selling out fast. Grab your General Admission Ticket right now for $350 and save 50 bucks as prices go up at the door.

Student tickets are just $50 and can be purchased here. Student tickets are limited.

Startup Exhibitor Packages are sold out!

Founders Fund confirms $3 billion in new capital across two funds

By Jonathan Shieber

Founders Fund, the investment firm led by its controversial co-founder Peter Thiel and partners Keith Rabois and Brian Singerman, has closed on $3 billion in new capital across two investment funds, TechCrunch confirmed.

News of the firm’s latest fundraising close was first reported in Axios.

The firm’s $1.2 billion Founders Fund VII closed in December and follows on the heels of a $1.3 billion Fund VI, which closed in 2016. The firm’s first growth fund, which raked in $1.5 billion, closed on Monday as well, according to a spokesperson for the investment firm. An additional $300 million in commitments is coming from the firm’s partnership to round out the $3 billion figure.

Fundraising for the new investment vehicles was first reported in The Wall Street Journal last October. And it follows the reunion earlier in 2019 of Rabois and Thiel — two of the most notorious members of the “PayPal mafia” that’s produced a number of billionaire entrepreneurs and investors.

The speed with which Founders Fund has been able to raise new capital is matched by the firm’s alacrity in deploying new dollars, according to industry watchers. Rabois in particular has made a splash at Founders Fund since joining the firm — investing large sums in competitive rounds, investors said.

But the firm’s success in fundraising is likely due to the returns it has been able to reap for its limited partners. For its 2011-vintage fund four, Founders Fund has more than quadrupled every dollar that the fund committed, to $4.60, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal (thanks to investments in Airbnb and Stripe Inc.). That figure compares favorably to the industry average of $2.11. Meanwhile, the firm’s third fund saw its returns increase to $3.80, 75 cents more than the industry average.

Founders Fund partner Cyan Banister described how the firm’s investment practices differ from other venture capital investors in a wide-ranging interview with TechCrunch last year:

As for how decisions get made, Banister explained that the voting structure is dependent on the size of the check. “So you’d meet with one or two or three or four partners, depending on your [investing] stage,” she told attendees. Because she’s looking at very early-stage startups, for example, she doesn’t have to meet with many people to make a decision. As “dollar amounts gets larger,” she continued, “you’re looking at full GP oversight,” including the involvement of senior members like Brian Singerman and Keith Rabois, and “that can a little more difficult.”

At Axios, Dan Primack reported that the growth fund would write checks of $100 million at least. The firm’s investment decisions would be structured with any two investment team members agreeing to back deals under $1.5 million. Any deal above $1.5 million requires approval from one partner and a general partner; deals above $5 million require one partner and two general partners; and deals above $10 million require approvals from two partners and the unanimous approval of Singerman, Thiel and Rabois. Any deal requiring the approval of the general partners means that the startup that is pitching has to at least talk on the phone or meet in person with the general partners.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the firm’s Fund VII was $1.2 billion and its Growth Fund was $1.5 billion. 

SentinelOne raises $200M at a $1.1B valuation to expand its AI-based endpoint security platform

By Ingrid Lunden

As cybercrime continues to evolve and expand, a startup that is building a business focused on endpoint security has raised a big round of funding. SentinelOne — which provides a machine learning-based solution for monitoring and securing laptops, phones, containerised applications and the many other devices and services connected to a network — has picked up $200 million, a Series E round of funding that it says catapults its valuation to $1.1 billion.

The funding is notable not just for its size but for its velocity: it comes just eight months after SentinelOne announced a Series D of $120 million, which at the time valued the company around $500 million. In other words, the company has more than doubled its valuation in less than a year — a sign of the cybersecurity times.

This latest round is being led by Insight Partners, with Tiger Global Management, Qualcomm Ventures LLC, Vista Public Strategies of Vista Equity Partners, Third Point Ventures, and other undisclosed previous investors all participating.

Tomer Weingarten, CEO and co-founder of the company, said in an interview that while this round gives SentinelOne the flexibility to remain in “startup” mode (privately funded) for some time — especially since it came so quickly on the heels of the previous large round — an IPO “would be the next logical step” for the company. “But we’re not in any rush,” he added. “We have one to two years of growth left as a private company.”

While cybercrime is proving to be a very expensive business (or very lucrative, I guess, depending on which side of the equation you sit on), it has also meant that the market for cybersecurity has significantly expanded.

Endpoint security, the area where SentinelOne concentrates its efforts, last year was estimated to be around an $8 billion market, and analysts project that it could be worth as much as $18.4 billion by 2024.

Driving it is the single biggest trend that has changed the world of work in the last decade. Everyone — whether a road warrior or a desk-based administrator or strategist, a contractor or full-time employee, a front-line sales assistant or back-end engineer or executive — is now connected to the company network, often with more than one device. And that’s before you consider the various other “endpoints” that might be connected to a network, including machines, containers and more. The result is a spaghetti of a problem. One survey from LogMeIn, disconcertingly, even found that some 30% of IT managers couldn’t identify just how many endpoints they managed.

“The proliferation of devices and the expanding network are the biggest issues today,” said Weingarten. “The landscape is expanding and it is getting very hard to monitor not just what your network looks like but what your attackers are looking for.”

This is where an AI-based solution like SentinelOne’s comes into play. The company has roots in the Israeli cyberintelligence community but is based out of Mountain View, and its platform is built around the idea of working automatically not just to detect endpoints and their vulnerabilities, but to apply behavioral models, and various modes of protection, detection and response in one go — in a product that it calls its Singularity Platform that works across the entire edge of the network.

“We are seeing more automated and real-time attacks that themselves are using more machine learning,” Weingarten said. “That translates to the fact that you need defence that moves in real time as with as much automation as possible.”

SentinelOne is by no means the only company working in the space of endpoint protection. Others in the space include Microsoft, CrowdStrike, Kaspersky, McAfee, Symantec and many others.

But nonetheless, its product has seen strong uptake to date. It currently has some 3,500 customers, including three of the biggest companies in the world, and “hundreds” from the global 2,000 enterprises, with what it says has been 113% year-on-year new bookings growth, revenue growth of 104% year-on-year, and 150% growth year-on-year in transactions over $2 million. It has 500 employees today and plans to hire up to 700 by the end of this year.

One of the key differentiators is the focus on using AI, and using it at scale to help mitigate an increasingly complex threat landscape, to take endpoint security to the next level.

“Competition in the endpoint market has cleared with a select few exhibiting the necessary vision and technology to flourish in an increasingly volatile threat landscape,” said Teddie Wardi, MD of Insight Partners, in a statement. “As evidenced by our ongoing financial commitment to SentinelOne along with the resources of Insight Onsite, our business strategy and ScaleUp division, we are confident that SentinelOne has an enormous opportunity to be a market leader in the cybersecurity space.”

Weingarten said that SentinelOne “gets approached every year” to be acquired, although he didn’t name any names. Nevertheless, that also points to the bigger consolidation trend that will be interesting to watch as the company grows. SentinelOne has never made an acquisition to date, but it’s hard to ignore that, as the company to expand its products and features, that it might tap into the wider market to bring in other kinds of technology into its stack.

“There are definitely a lot of security companies out there,” Weingarten noted. “Those that serve a very specific market are the targets for consolidation.”

Talking cybersecurity, SaaS and early-stage valuations with ForgePoint Capital

By Alex Wilhelm

Earlier today TechCrunch covered the launch of a new, $450 million cybersecurity-focused fund, the second from venture group ForgePoint Capital.

The new vehicle, inventively named Fund II, will mostly focus on early-stage companies in the cybersecurity space. The fund’s timing is somewhat unsurprising. As we noted in our earlier coverage, the recent IPOs of Cloudflare (more here) and CrowdStrike (more here) have given cybsersecurity a halo, showing founders and investors alike that outsize returns are possible in the space. Such successes can’t hurt VCs looking for fresh capital.

To get a stronger grip on how ForgePoint sees the market, TechCrunch corresponded with the group, asking about fund mechanics (check sizes, investing pace), the cybersecurity sector itself (business models, valuations) and recent liquidity events (CrowdStrike in particular). ForgePoint’s Alberto Yépez, a co-founder and managing director at the group, answered our questions.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. Let’s have some fun:

TechCrunch: The new fund is $150 million larger than its predecessor. Why raise 50% more for the new vehicle? What is the target number of checks per year? Will it be faster than the preceding fund?

ForgePoint Capital: We were one of the first investors to focus on cybersecurity when we raised our first fund. Since then, the cybersecurity market has grown by more than 50%, driven by the constantly evolving challenges facing businesses, governments and individuals. We’ve also doubled our investment team. Our team has a singular focus on the market, driving unparalleled domain expertise and insights into emerging industry trends.

We will continue to invest in six to ten new cybersecurity companies per year, and find great opportunities with leading entrepreneurs.

Putting capital to work in “early-stage and select growth companies” is delightfully flexible. What check size range is the fund targeting, and what is the target deal size for growth-oriented deals?

We target up to $25 million for early-stage ventures throughout the life of an investment, and up to $50 million for growth-oriented companies achieving considerable revenue growth.

How much did Crowdstrike’s successful IPO boost cybersecurity-focused startup valuations and fundraising last year?

A rising tide lifts all boats. In cybersecurity, as elsewhere, the market rewards rapid growth and valuations reflect [that]. We target companies with great teams building innovative solutions that are poised for high growth. While the Crowdstrike IPO certainly boosted attention on the market, over 90% of successful cybersecurity exits are through M&A. Strategic buyers and financial sponsors pay up for companies that can scale.

India’s Swiggy raises $113M led by Prosus

By Manish Singh

Weeks after Zomato acquired Uber’s food delivery business in India, its chief local rival is bulking up some ammunition of its own.

Swiggy, India’s largest food delivery startup, announced on Wednesday it has raised $113 million as part of its Series I financing round. Prosus Ventures, the biggest venture capital for food delivery startups, led the round.

Meituan Dianping and Wellington Management Company also participated. The new round values Swiggy at about $3.6 billion, only slightly above its $3.3 billion valuation from the previous round, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The startup has raised about $1.57 billion to date.

Sriharsha Majety, co-founder and chief executive of Swiggy, said the startup will use the fresh capital to invest in “new lines of business” such as cloud kitchens and delivery beyond food items, and get on a “sustainable path to profitability.”

Prosus Ventures, formerly known as Naspers Ventures and Food, first wrote a check to Swiggy three years ago. Since then, it has become its biggest investor — having pumped in more than $700 million alone in the startup’s $1 billion financing round in December 2018.

“Swiggy continues to exhibit strong execution and a steadfast commitment to delivering the best service to consumers and has one of the best operational teams in food delivery globally. We are confident Swiggy will continue on a path to earn a significant place in the daily lives of Indians,” said Larry Illg, chief executive of Prosus Ventures and Food, in a statement.

The Bangalore-headquartered firm, which is operational in 520 cities, said it has witnessed a 2.5x growth in the volume of transactions in the past year. Its restaurant partners base has also grown to 160,000 and more than 10,000 are joining the platform each month.

Some analysts say that it will be very challenging for Swiggy and Zomato, both of which are spending over $20 million a month to win customers, to reach profitability.

Unlike in the developed markets like the U.S., where the order value of each delivery is about $33, in India, a similar item carries the price tag of $4.

Anand Lunia, a VC at India Quotient, said in a recent podcast that the food delivery firms have little choice but to keep subsidizing the cost of food items on their platform as otherwise most of their customers can’t afford to get their lunch and dinner from them.

The exit of Uber from India’s food delivery space has, however, made the market a duopoly play, so investors remain bullish. At stake is a $4.2 billion opportunity, according to research firm Redseer. But Zomato, which raised $150 million earlier this year, and Swiggy have alone picked up more than $2.1 billion from the market already.

Fintech VC sets records in Q4 despite early-stage slowdown

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Fintech is what you hear about constantly, but probably aren’t as read up on as you’d like to be. Neither am I.

Luckily we have a new report concerning fintech investing to unpack and explore. Thanks to a dataset from startup and venture data provider CB Insights, we have a fresh, deep look into the world of startup fintech investment. 

Here’s what we want to know:

  • Did fintech venture activity rise in 2019?
  • How are the various venture stages of fintech investing performing
  • Are early-stage fintech startups able to attract capital at similar velocity to their much-lauded, late-stage counterparts?

Let’s find out!

2019: A (near) record

BluBracket scores $6.5M seed to help secure code in distributed environments

By Ron Miller

BluBracket, a new security startup from the folks who brought you Vera, came out of stealth today and announced a $6.5 million seed investment. Unusual Ventures led the round with participation by Point72 Ventures, SignalFire and Firebolt Ventures.

The company was launched by Ajay Arora and Prakash Linga, who until last year were CEO and CTO respectively at Vera, a security company that helps companies secure documents by having the security profile follow the document wherever it goes.

Arora says he and Linga are entrepreneurs at heart and they were itching to start something new after more than five years at Vera. While Arora still sits on the Vera board, they decided to attack a new problem.

He says that the idea for BluBracket actually came out of conversations with Vera customers, who wanted something similar to Vera, except to protect code.”About 18-24 months ago, we started hearing from our customers, who were saying, ‘Hey you guys secure documents and files. What’s becoming really important for us is to be able to share code. Do you guys secure source code?'”

That was not a problem Vera was suited to solve, but it was a light bulb moment for Arora and Linga, who saw an opportunity and decided to seize it. Recognizing the way development teams operated has changed, they started BluBracket and developed a pair of products to handle the unique set of problems associated with a distributed set of developers working out of a Git repository — whether that’s GitHub, GitLab or BitBucket.

The first product is BluBracket CodeInsight, which is an auditing tool, available starting today. This tool gives companies full visibility into who has withdrawn the code from the Git repository. “Once they have a repo, and then developers clone it, we can help them understand what clones exist on what devices, what third parties have their code, and even be able to search open source projects for code that might have been pushed into open source. So we’re creating what’s called a we call it a blueprint of where an enterprise code is,” Arora explained.

The second tool, BluBracket CodeSecure, which won’t be available until later in the year, is how you secure that code including the ability to classify code by level importance. Code tagged with the highest level of importance will have special status and companies can attach rules to it like that it can’t be distributed to an open source folder without explicit permission.

They believe the combination of these tools will enable companies to maintain control over the code, even in a distributed system. Arora says they have taken care to make sure that the system provides the needed security layer without affecting the operation of the continuous delivery pipeline.

“When you’re compiling or when you’re going from development to staging to production, in those cases because the code is sitting in Git, and the code itself has not been modified, BluBracket won’t break the chain,” he explained. If you tried to distribute special code outside the system, you might get a message that this requires authorization, depending on how the tags have been configured.

This is very early days for BluBracket, but the company takes its first steps as a startup this week as it emerges from stealth at the RSA security conference in San Francisco. It will be participating in the RSA Sandbox competition for early security startups at the conference, as well.

Facebook backs Indian education startup Unacademy

By Manish Singh

Unacademy, one of India’s fastest growing education startups, has just received the backing of a major technology giant: Facebook.

The social juggernaut has participated in the four-year-old Indian startup’s Series E financing round, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

General Atlantic is leading the round, the size of which is about $100 million, the sources said. It wasn’t immediately clear to us exactly how big of a check Facebook has cut, but a source said it was under $20 million. The round values the startup, which had raised $90 million prior to the ongoing round, at over $350 million, the source said.

Unacademy is aimed at students who are preparing for competitive exams to get into a college and those who are pursuing graduation-level courses. It allows students to watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail.

A year ago, the startup launched a subscription service that offers students access to all live classes. Gaurav Munjal, co-founder and chief executive of Unacademy, tweeted earlier this month that the subscription service had become a $30 million ARR business.

This is the second time Facebook is investing in an Indian startup. Last year, it participated in social commerce Meesho’s $125 million financing round led by Prosus Ventures.

Facebook and Unacademy did not respond to a request for comment.

Ajit Mohan, VP and managing director of Facebook India, told TechCrunch in an interview last year that the company was open to engaging with startups that are building solutions for the Indian market.

“Wherever we believe there is opportunity beyond the work we do today, we are open to exploring further investment deals,” he said.

Indian newspaper Mint first reported in December that Unacademy was in talks with General Atlantic and GGV Capital to raise as much as $100 million. TechCrunch understands that GGV Capital, which earlier this month invested in edtech startup Vedantu, is not participating in Unacademy’s funding round.

Vedantu and Unacademy compete with Byju’s, an Indian startup that counts General Atlantic as an investor and is valued at $8 billion. Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has invested in Byju’s, but has sold at least some of its stake, according to a regulatory filing analyzed by business outlet Entrackr.

As India’s startup ecosystem begins to mature, it has started to attract corporate giants. Google, Amazon and Twitter also have made investments in Indian startups. While Twitter has backed social platform ShareChat, Google has invested in hyperlocal concierge app Dunzo.

Fifth Wall’s Brendan Wallace on coronavirus, WeWork and what’s shaking up proptech

By Connie Loizos

Last week, we interviewed Brendan Wallace, a real estate-focused venture capitalist whose portfolio companies include Opendoor, which buys and sell homes, and scooter company Lime, which helps building owners navigate around parking requirements by installing docking stations instead.

We first talked with Wallace almost exactly three years ago when he and partner Brad Greiwe took the wraps off their venture firm Fifth Wall Ventures and its $212 million debut fund. What really stood out to us at the time is that it was backed by a long list of real estate heavyweights. They’re understandably eager to get a peek at up-and-coming technologies and, in some cases, deploy them.

Wallace and Greiwe have been awfully busy since that initial conversation. Last year, they closed a second flagship fund with $503 million in capital commitments. Fifth Wall is also working to close two other funds, including a $200 million retail fund focused on matching online brands with real-world real estate and a reported $500 million carbon impact fund whose capital will enable its limited partners to expressly invest in sustainable technology.

Wallace declined to discuss the last two funds, presumably owing to SEC regulations, but he did talk with us about what he says is the biggest thing to shake up the real estate industry in “the last five decades.” We also chatted about how the coronavirus impacted a recent fundraising trip to Singapore and how WeWork’s public retrenching has affected how investors feel about real estate startups right now (he suggests WeWork’s fall definitely made an impression). Some excerpts from our conversation follow, edited lightly for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: We’d read that you were recently in Singapore meeting with new investors.

Brendan Wallace: Yes, I was in Singapore meeting with our existing investors and it was a pretty unique time to be there. When I went, which was about two weeks ago, the outbreak of coronavirus was fairly contained in China. But then as you probably read, it spread pretty rapidly in Singapore, so at the moment, I’m actually kind of self-quarantining myself in my own house.

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Join the Q&A with top speakers at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI (March 3)

By Brian Heater

Over the past four years, TechCrunch has brought together some of the biggest names in robotics — founders, CEOs, VCs and researchers — for TC Sessions: Robotics + AI. The show has provided a unique opportunity to explore the future and present of robotics, AI and the automation technologies that will define our professional and personal lives.

While the panels have been curated and hosted by our editorial staff, we’ve also long been interested in providing show-goers an opportunity to engage with guests. For this reason, we introduced the Q&A stage, where some of the biggest names can more directly engage with attendees.

This year, we’ve got top names from SoftBank, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, Nvidia and more joining us on the stage to answer questions. Here’s the full agenda of this year’s Q&A stage:

11:30 – 12:00 Russell Book signing
Stuart Russell

12:15 – 1:00 Corporate VC, Partnering and Acquisitions
Carlos Kocher (Qualcomm)
/> Kass Dawson (SoftBank)
Gen Tsuchikawa (Sony Innovation Fund)

1:15 – 2:00 Founders
Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise)
Noah Campbell-Ready (Built Robotics)

2:15 – 3:00 VC
Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta Venture Partners)
/> Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures)
Aaron Jacobson (New Enterprise Associates)

3:15 – 4:00 Building Robotics Platforms
Steven Macenski (Samsung)
Claire Delaunay (Nvidia)

$345 General admission tickets are still on sale — book yours here and join 1,000+ of today’s leading minds in the business for networking and discovery. The earlier you book the better, as prices go up at the door.

Students, save big with a $50 ticket and get full access to the show. Student tickets are available to current students only. Book yours here.

Noom competitor OurPath rebrands as Second Nature, raises $10M Series A

By Mike Butcher

Back in 2018, OurPath emerged as a startup in the U.K. tackling the problem of diabetes. The company helped customers tackle the disease, and raised a $3 million round of funding by combining advice from health experts with tracking technology via a smartphone app to help people build healthy habits and lose weight.

Now rebranded as Second Nature, it has raised a fresh $10 million in Series A funding.

New investors include Uniqa Ventures, the venture capital fund of Uniqa, a European insurance group, and the founders of mySugr, the digital diabetes management platform which was acquired by health giant Roche .

The round also secured the backing of existing investors including Connect and Speedinvest, two European seed funds, and Bethnal Green Ventures, the early-stage Impact investor, as well as angels including Taavet Hinrikus, founder of Transferwise.

This new injection takes the total investment in the company to $13m.

Competitors to the company include Weight Watchers and Noom, which provides a similar program and has raised $114.7M.

Second Nature claims to have a different, more intensive and personalized, approach to create habit change. The startup claims 10,000 of its participants revealed an average weight loss of 5.9kg at the 12-week mark. Separate peer-reviewed scientific data published by the company showed that much of this weight-loss is sustained at the 6-month and 12-month mark

Under its former guise as OurPath, the startup was the first ‘lifestyle change program’ to be commissioned by the NHS for diabetes management.

Second Nature was founded in 2015 by Chris Edson and Mike Gibbs, former healthcare strategy consultants, who designed the program to provide people with personalized support in order to make lifestyle changes.

Participants receive a set of ‘smart’ scales and an activity tracker that links with the app, allowing them to track their weight loss progress and daily step count. They are placed in a peer support group of 15 people starting simultaneously. Each group is coached by a qualified dietitian or nutritionist, who provides participants with daily 1:1 advice, support and motivation to via the app. Throughout the 12-week program, people have access to healthy recipes and daily articles covering topics like meal planning, how to sleep better, and overcoming emotional eating.

Gibbs said: “Our goal as Second Nature is to solve obesity. We need to rise above the confusing health misinformation to provide clarity about what’s really important: changing habits. Our new brand and investment will help us realize that.”

Philip Edmondson-Jones, Investment Manager at Beringea, who led the investment and joins the Board of Directors of Second Nature said: “Healthcare systems are struggling to cope with spiraling rates of obesity and associated illnesses, which are projected to cost the global economy $1.2tn annually by 2025. Second Nature’s pioneering approach to lifestyle change empowers people to address these conditions.”

Aisera, an AI tool to help with customer service and internal operations, exits stealth with $50M

By Ingrid Lunden

Robotic process automation — the ability to automate certain repetitive software-based tasks to free up people to focus on work that computers cannot do — has become a major growth area in the world of IT. Today, a startup called Aisera that is coming out of stealth has taken this idea and supercharged it by using artificial intelligence to help not just workers with internal tasks, but in customer-facing environments, too.

Quietly operating under the radar since 2017, Aisera has picked up a significant list of customers, including Autodesk, Ciena, Unisys and McAfee — covering a range of use cases from “computer geeks with very complicated questions through to people who didn’t grow up in the computer generation,” says CEO Muddu Sudhakar, the serial entrepreneur (three previous startups, Kazeon, Cetas and Caspida, were respectively acquired by EMC, VMware and Splunk) who is Aisera’s co-founder.

With growth of 350% year-on-year, the company is also announcing today that it has raised $50 million to date, including most recently a $20 million Series B led by Norwest Venture Partners with Menlo Ventures, True Ventures, Khosla Ventures, First Round Capital, Ram Shriram and Maynard Webb Investments also participating.

(No valuation is being disclosed, said Sudhakar.)

The crux of the problem that Aisera has set out to solve is that, while RPA has identified that there is a degree of repetition in certain back-office tasks — which, if that work can be automated, can reduce operational costs and be more efficient for an organization — the same can be said for a wide array of IT processes that cover sales, HR, customer care and more.

There have been some efforts made to apply AI to solving different aspects of these particular use cases, but one of the issues has been that there are few solutions that sit above an organization’s software stack to work across everything that the organization uses, and does so in an “unsupervised” way — that is, uses AI to “learn” processes without having an army of engineers alongside the program training it.

Aisera aims to be that platform, integrating with the most popular software packages (for example in service desk apps, it integrates with Salesforce, ServiceNow, Atlassian and BMC), providing tools to automatically resolve queries and complete tasks. Aisera is looking to add more categories as it grows: Sudhakar mentioned legal, finance and facilities management as three other areas it’s planning to target.

Matt Howard, the partner at Norwest that led its investment in Aisera, said one of the other things that stands out for him about the company is that its tools work across multiple channels, including email, voice-based calls and messaging, and can operate at scale, something that can’t be said in actual fact for a lot of AI implementations.

“I think a lot of companies have overstated when they implement machine learning. A lot of times it’s actually big data and predictive analytics. We have mislabeled a lot of this,” he said in an interview. “AI as a rule is hard to maintain if it’s unsupervised. It can work every well in a narrow use case, but it becomes a management nightmare when handling the stress that comes with 15 million or 20 million queries.” Currently Aisera said that it handles about 10 million people on its platform. With this round, Howard and Jon Callaghan of True Ventures are both joining the board.

There is always a paradox of sorts in the world of AI, and in particular as it sits around and behind processes that have previously been done by humans. It is that AI-based assistants, as they get better, run the risk of ultimately making obsolete the workers they’re meant to help.

While that might be a long-term question that we will have to address as a society, for now, the reward/risk balance seems to tip more in the favour of reward for Aisera’s customers. “At Ciena, we want our employees to be productive,” said Craig Williams, CIO at Ciena, in a statement. “This means they shouldn’t be trying to figure out how a ticketing tool works, nor should they be waiting around for a tech to fix their issues. We believe that 75 percent of all incidents can be resolved through Aisera’s technology, and we believe we can apply Aisera across multiple platforms. Aisera doesn’t just make great AI technology, they understand our problems and partner with us closely to achieve our mission.”

And Sudhakar doesn’t feel that obsolescence is the end game, either.

“There are billions of people in call centres today,” he said in an interview. “If I can automate [repetitive] functions they can focus on higher-level work, and that’s what we wanted to do. Those trying to solve simple requests shouldn’t. It’s one example where AI can be put to good use. Help desk employees want to work and become programmers, they don’t want to do mundane tasks. They want to move up in their careers, and this can help give them the roadmap to do it.”

New Early Stage speakers to talk fundraising strategies, growth marketing and PR

By Jordan Crook

TC Early Stage SF goes down on April 28, and we are getting pretty damn excited about it!

The show will bring together 50+ experts across startup core competencies, such as fundraising, operations and marketing. We’ll hear from VCs on how to create the perfect pitch deck and how to identify the right investors for you. We’ll hear from lawyers on how to navigate the immigration process when hiring, and how to negotiate the cap table. And we’ll hear from growth hackers on how to build a high-performance SEO engine, and PR experts on how to tell your brand’s story.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Today, I’m pleased to announce four more breakout sessions.


Lo Toney

Toney is the founding managing partner of Plexo Capital, which was incubated and spun out from GV. Before Plexo, Toney was a partner with Comcast Ventures, where he led the Catalyst Fund, and then moved to GV where he focused on marketplace, mobile and consumer products. Toney also has operational experience, having served as the GM of Zynga Poker, the company’s largest franchise at the time.

Think Like a PM for VC Pitch Success

Your pitchdeck is not just a reflection of your business, it’s a product unto itself. Your startup’s success, and avoiding the end of your runway, depends on the conversion rate of that product. Hear from Plexo Capital founding partner Lo Toney about how thinking like a PM when crafting your pitch deck can produce outstanding results.


Krystina Rubino and Lindsay Piper Shaw

Shaw and Rubino are marketing consultants for Right Side Up, a growth marketing consultancy. Prior to Right Side Up, Shaw scaled podcast campaigns for brands like quip, Lyft and Texture, and has worked with brands like McDonald’s, Honda, ampm, and Tempur Sealy. Rubino has worked with companies across all stages and sizes, including Advil, DoorDash, P&G, Lyft and Stitch Fix.

Why You Need Podcasts in Your Growth Marketing Mix

Podcast advertising is widely viewed as a nascent medium, but smart companies know it can be a powerful channel in their marketing mix. Opportunity is ripe — get in early and you can own the medium, box out competitors and catapult your growth. Krystina Rubino and Lindsay Piper Shaw have launched and scaled successful podcast ad campaigns for early-stage startups and household name brands and will be sharing their strategies for companies to succeed in this often misunderstood channel.


Jake Saper

Jake Saper, the son of serial co-founders, has been obsessed with entrepreneurialism from a young age. His origin in venture capital started at Kleiner Perkins, and he moved on to become a partner at Emergence in 2014, where he became a Kauffman Fellow. He serves on the boards of Textio, Guru, Ironclad, DroneDeploy, and Vymo, and his self-described “nerdy love” of frameworks has only grown over the years.

When It Comes to Fundraising, Timing Is Everything

There are some shockingly common timing mistakes founders make that can turn an otherwise successful fundraise into a failure. We’ll talk through how to avoid them and how to sequence efforts from the time you close your seed to ensure you find the right partner (at the right price!) for Series A and beyond.


April Conyers

Conyers has been in the communications industry for 15 years, currently serving as the senior director of Corporate Communications at Postmates . Before Postmates, Conyers served as a VP at Brew PR, working with clients like Automattic, NetSuite, Oracle, Doctor on Demand and about.me. During that time, she also found herself on BI’s “The 50 Best Public Relations People In The Tech Industry In 2014” list.

The Media Is Misunderstood, But Your Company Shouldn’t Be

With the media industry in a state of flux, navigating the process of telling your story can be confusing and overwhelming. Hear from Postmates Senior Director of Corporate Communication April Conyers on how startups should think about PR, and how to get your message across in a hectic media landscape.


Early Stage SF goes down on April 28, with more than 50 breakout sessions to choose from. However, don’t worry about missing a breakout session, because transcripts from each will be available to show attendees. And most of the folks leading the breakout sessions have agreed to hang at the show for at least half the day and participate in CrunchMatch, TechCrunch’s great app to connect founders and investors based on shared interests.

Here’s the fine print. Each of the 50+ breakout sessions is limited to around 100 attendees. We expect a lot more attendees, of course, so signups for each session are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Buy your ticket today and you can sign up for the breakouts we are announcing today, as well as those already announced. Pass holders will also receive 24-hour advance notice before we announce the next batch. (And yes, you can “drop” a breakout session in favor of a new one, in the event there is a schedule conflict.)

So get your TC Early Stage: San Francisco pass today, and get the inside track on the sessions we announced today, as well as the ones to be announced in the coming weeks.

Possible sponsor? Hit us up right here.

SpaceX and a new partner announce space tourism launches on Dragon starting as early as 2021

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has a new partner for commercial private astronaut flights aboard its Dragon spacecraft: Space Adventures, a private space tourism company that has already launched private astronauts including Anousheh Ansari, Guy Laliberté and Mark Shuttleworth to space.

Space Adventures has worked with seven clients across eight separate missions to the International Space Station (ISS) for private paying commercial space missions, using paid seats on the Russian Soyuz rocket to get its clients to their destination. Its experience means it’s uniquely positioned in the commercial space tourism industry to actually make this happen, which means SpaceX likely will start flying paying customers as soon as its able to human-rate its Dragon spacecraft and begin scheduling flights.

This is not exactly a surprising development: SpaceX has been working towards certifying Dragon for human flight through the Commercial Crew program with NASA. This program has involved testing and development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for carrying human astronauts, and it’s only a few months away from actually carrying NASA astronauts for the first time during a demonstration mission to the ISS.

SpaceX and NASA have both discussed how they envision the agency being only one of multiple customers for the company’s human-rated space travel service, since the entire purpose of the program is to help the agency defray the cost of transporting its astronauts by becoming one among many clients of a revenue-generating commercial spaceflight service.

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk has previously discussed flying space tourists aboard Crew Dragon, which can carry up to four passengers per flight. He brought up the prior example of Soyuz as a model that could work for Crew Dragon once it’s operational. Musk and SpaceX have also already booked a Moon pass-by trip for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa in 2023 on its forthcoming Starship spacecraft.

The Space Adventures Crew Dragon private astronaut trips are expected to begin sometime in either late 2021 or 2022 (likely around the same time or just after SpaceX will begin regular astronaut service for NASA if all goes well), and it will take off from SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida. They won’t actually go to the ISS, like the Soyuz missions that Space Adventures has flown previously. But it will fly higher than any previous private citizen has flown before during a trip to space and offer obviously spectacular Earth views. No word yet on pricing, but expect it to be steep – likely much steeper than tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s much lower altitude trip, for instance.

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