Over the past several years I’ve covered my fair share of upstart avatar companies that were all chasing the same dream — building out a customizable platform for a digital persona that gained wide adoption across games and digital spaces. Few of those startups I’ve covered in the past are still around. But by netting a string of successful partnerships with celebrity musicians, LA-based Genies has come closer than any startup before it to realizing the full vision of a wide-reaching avatar platform.
The company announced today that they’ve closed a $65 million Series B led by Mary Meeker’s firm Bond. NEA, Breyer Capital, Tull Investment Group, NetEase, Dapper Labs and Coinbase Ventures also participated in the deal. Mary Meeker will be joining the Genies board. The company didn’t disclose the Genies’ most recent valuation.
This funding comes at an inflection point for the eight-year-old company, evidenced by the investments from NBA Top Shot-maker Dapper Labs and crypto giant Coinbase. As announced last week, the company is rolling out an NFT platform on Dapper Labs’ Flow blockchain, partnering closely with the startup, which will be building out the backend for a Genies avatar accessories storefront. Like Dapper Labs has leveraged its exclusive deals with sports leagues to ship NFTs with official backing, Genies is planning to capitalize on its partnerships with celebrities in its roster, including Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Cardi B and others to create a platform for buying and trading avatar accessories en masse.
In October, the company announced a brand partnership with Gucci, opening the startup to another big market opportunity.
Genies’ business has largely focused on leveraging high-profile partnerships to give its entertainer clients a digital presence that can spice up what they’re sharing on social media and beyond. As they’ve rolled out avatar creation to all users through beta mobile apps, Genies has been focusing on one of the more explicit dreams of the avatar companies before it; building out a broad network of avatar users and a broad network of compatible platforms through its SDK.
“An avatar is a vehicle to be able to showcase more of your authentic self,” Genies CEO Akash Nigam tells TechCrunch. “It’s not limited by real-world constraints, it’s an alter-ego personality.”
Trends in the NFT world have provided new realms of exploration for Genies, but so have broader pandemic-era trends that have pushed more users to wholly digital spaces where they socialize and connect. “The pandemic accelerated everything,” Nigam says.
Nigam emphasizes that despite the major opportunity its upcoming NFT platform will present, Genies is still an avatar company first-and-foremost, not an NFT startup, though he does say he is believes crypto-backed digital goods are going to be around for a long time. He has few doubts that the current environment around digital goods helped juice Genies’ funding round, which he says was “6-8X oversubscribed” and was an opportunistic play for the startup, which “could have gone years without having to raise.”
The company says their crypto marketplace will launch in the coming months, as early as this summer.
Zoomo, the Australian startup with a mission to electrify delivery fleets through e-bike subscriptions, announced a $12 million interim capital raise on Monday.
The company made a name for itself through partnerships with UberEats and DoorDash to help delivery workers access e-bikes through weekly subscriptions at discounted rates. Zoomo then grew to offer monthly subscriptions to corporate partners in Australia, the U.S. and London for last mile delivery, with a fleet that has expanded beyond 10,000 units globally.
Now, the startup hopes to expand its service outward towards continental Europe and other states across the U.S. It currently operates in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Zoomo also wants to build up its consumer model, which mainly serves couriers but is extending to commuters, and will invest in the development of its next generation of vehicle offerings.
“We initially built our products to service the demands of gig workers in the food delivery industry,” Mina Nada, Zoomo CEO and co-founder said in a statement. “Their expectations for quality commercial vehicles, on demand service, flexible financing and tech enabled security features spurred us to innovate. We’re now seeing enterprises and fleet managers benefiting from the platform we have built. Enterprise fleet managers looking for clean and efficient vehicles are choosing us.”
Zoomo’s focus on e-bikes for food delivery makes it unique in the electric bike rental space. Its business model offers a full-stack e-bike, from the hardware and software to same-day servicing and financing options, which especially helps big business partners deploy and manage large fleets of vehicles at scale. It’s a tall order, and Zoomo’s strategy could be leading a new trend in micromobility of being a one-stop-shop that promises quick scalability.
German mobility software provider Wunder Mobility recently announced its efforts to offer a souped up e-moped that’s been co-designed with Chinese consumer manufacturer Yadea for the dockless sharing market. It also launched a new subsidiary to finance the vehicles, along with its software, to shared micromobility providers. Wunder Mobility plans to offer e-scooters and e-bikes for financing in the future, but it doesn’t design its own vehicles or sell them outright. While the business models and target customers don’t perfectly align, the blueprint is the same: Corner a market, provide top quality hardware and software and make it as accessible as possible.
Coronavirus spurred a demand for delivery in all industries, and we can see companies like FluidTruck and Rivian stepping up to the plate to meet the needs of eco-conscious e-commerce giants with their electric delivery vans. The online food delivery industry is no different with a market that’s expected to reach $192.16 billion in 2025 at a compound annual growth rate of 11%. But for delivery within cities, e-bikes offer a smarter solution for meeting climate change goals while dodging traffic congestion.
Zoomo’s custom designed bikes can bear more than 200 kilograms of load via various cargo options, according to a Zoomo spokesperson. For enterprise customers, like health food company Cornucopia, e-cargo delivery vehicles like a Trailer Trike or a Covered Trike are used to deliver goods sustainably. Gorillas, an on-demand grocery delivery company, and Just Eat Takeaway, acquirer of Grubhub and Seamless, are also clients of Zoomo’s.
“At Just Eat Takeaway.com, we want to build a sustainable future for food delivery, and are committed to doing our bit to help keep carbon emissions to a minimum, as well as providing an efficient customer experience from order to delivery,” said a Just Eat Takeaway spokesperson in a statement. “E-Vehicles are an integral part of the Scoober model and we are pleased to work in cooperation with Zoomo.”
Zoomo’s newest funding round, led by Australian VC AirTree, follows an $11 million Series A raised in August 2020, with support in both rounds from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Maniv Mobility and Contrarian Ventures. Withrop Square and Wisdom VC, mobility and clean tech-focused investors, also joined this round.
Remote work is no longer a new topic, as much of the world has now been doing it for a year or more because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Companies — big and small — have had to react in myriad ways. Many of the initial challenges have focused on workflow, productivity and the like. But one aspect of the whole remote work shift that is not getting as much attention is the culture angle.
A 100% remote startup that was tackling the issue way before COVID-19 was even around is now seeing a big surge in demand for its offering that aims to help companies address the “people” challenge of remote work. It started its life with the name Icebreaker to reflect the aim of “breaking the ice” with people with whom you work.
“We designed the initial version of our product as a way to connect people who’d never met, kind of virtual speed dating,” says co-founder and CEO Perry Rosenstein. “But we realized that people were using it for far more than that.”
So over time, its offering has evolved to include a bigger goal of helping people get together beyond an initial encounter –– hence its new name: Gatheround.
“For remote companies, a big challenge or problem that is now bordering on a crisis is how to build connection, trust and empathy between people that aren’t sharing a physical space,” says co-founder and COO Lisa Conn. “There’s no five-minute conversations after meetings, no shared meals, no cafeterias — this is where connection organically builds.”
Organizations should be concerned, Gatheround maintains, that as we move more remote, that work will become more transactional and people will become more isolated. They can’t ignore that humans are largely social creatures, Conn said.
The startup aims to bring people together online through real-time events such as a range of chats, videos and one-on-one and group conversations. The startup also provides templates to facilitate cultural rituals and learning & development (L&D) activities, such as all-hands meetings and workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Gatheround’s video conversations aim to be a refreshing complement to Slack conversations, which despite serving the function of communication, still don’t bring users face-to-face.
Image Credits: Gatheround
Since its inception, Gatheround has quietly built up an impressive customer base, including 28 Fortune 500s, 11 of the 15 biggest U.S. tech companies, 26 of the top 30 universities and more than 700 educational institutions. Specifically, those users include Asana, Coinbase, Fiverr, Westfield and DigitalOcean. Universities, academic centers and nonprofits, including Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are also customers. To date, Gatheround has had about 260,000 users hold 570,000 conversations on its SaaS-based, video platform.
All its growth so far has been organic, mostly referrals and word of mouth. Now, armed with $3.5 million in seed funding that builds upon a previous $500,000 raised, Gatheround is ready to aggressively go to market and build upon the momentum it’s seeing.
Venture firms Homebrew and Bloomberg Beta co-led the company’s latest raise, which included participation from angel investors such as Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson, Meetup co-founder Scott Heiferman, Li Jin and Lenny Rachitsky.
Co-founders Rosenstein, Conn and Alexander McCormmach describe themselves as “experienced community builders,” having previously worked on President Obama’s campaigns as well as at companies like Facebook, Change.org and Hustle.
The trio emphasize that Gatheround is also very different from Zoom and video conferencing apps in that its platform gives people prompts and organized ways to get to know and learn about each other as well as the flexibility to customize events.
“We’re fundamentally a connection platform, here to help organizations connect their people via real-time events that are not just really fun, but meaningful,” Conn said.
Homebrew Partner Hunter Walk says his firm was attracted to the company’s founder-market fit.
“They’re a really interesting combination of founders with all this experience community building on the political activism side, combined with really great product, design and operational skills,” he told TechCrunch. “It was kind of unique that they didn’t come out of an enterprise product background or pure social background.”
He was also drawn to the personalized nature of Gatheround’s platform, considering that it has become clear over the past year that the software powering the future of work “needs emotional intelligence.”
“Many companies in 2020 have focused on making remote work more productive. But what people desire more than ever is a way to deeply and meaningfully connect with their colleagues,” Walk said. “Gatheround does that better than any platform out there. I’ve never seen people come together virtually like they do on Gatheround, asking questions, sharing stories and learning as a group.”
James Cham, partner at Bloomberg Beta, agrees with Walk that the founding team’s knowledge of behavioral psychology, group dynamics and community building gives them an edge.
“More than anything, though, they care about helping the world unite and feel connected, and have spent their entire careers building organizations to make that happen,” he said in a written statement. “So it was a no-brainer to back Gatheround, and I can’t wait to see the impact they have on society.”
The 14-person team will likely expand with the new capital, which will also go toward helping adding more functionality and details to the Gatheround product.
“Even before the pandemic, remote work was accelerating faster than other forms of work,” Conn said. “Now that’s intensified even more.”
Gatheround is not the only company attempting to tackle this space. Ireland-based Workvivo last year raised $16 million and earlier this year, Microsoft launched Viva, its new “employee experience platform.”
What moves the needle for digital lenders is serving loans to their respective customers. But where does this money come from? The pool is usually equity or debt. While some lenders use the former, it can be seen as folly because, over time, the founders tend to lose ownership of their businesses after giving out too much equity to raise capital for loans. Hence the reason why most lending companies secure debt facilities.
TechCrunch has recently reported on two prominent digital lenders (also digital banks in their own rights) gaining steam in Africa — Carbon and FairMoney. In 2019, Carbon secured $5 million in debt financing and the following year, FairMoney did the same but raised a higher sum, $13 million.
Enter Lendable, the UK-based firm responsible for supplying both lenders with debt finance.
The company with offices in Nairobi, New York, and Singapore advances loans to fintechs across eight markets in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Since launching in 2014, the company has disbursed over $125 million to these fintechs — SME lenders, payment platforms, asset lenders, marketplaces, and consumer lenders.
In a phone conversation with TechCrunch, Samuel Eyob, a principal at the firm, said the company is raising almost $180 million to continue its investment efforts across the three continents.
“We want to raise more than $180 million and we have investors that have committed cash to us,” he said. “Right now, we’re already investing out of that amount because we’ve already closed on a bunch of it. Ideally, the goal is to invest that amount over this year.”
Lendable was founded by Daniel Goldfarb and Dylan Friend. It was based on an insight that they had while Daniel was a partner at Greenstart, a venture capital firm focused on data, finance and energy. That insight was that the poorest people in the world pay the most for goods and services, so if capital markets could provide a path to ownership, that could help individuals build assets. So the pair set out to solve this by providing capital to fintechs catering to the needs of these people.
Eyob, a first-generation American from Ethiopia, knows what a lack of access to fair finance does to people and countries. Given the millions of people and businesses not effectively served by banks and MFIs, Eyob joined the team to drive financial inclusion in these markets.
“Over a billion people still lack access to financial services and multiple reports indicate that the financing gap for micro and small businesses is trillions of dollars and growing. We believe this is a massive opportunity. So, whilst we started in Africa, the lack of access to fair financing solutions is a problem across all emerging markets, which we want to address,” he said.
Samuel Eyob (Principal, Lendable)
So in 2014, Lendable started as a SaaS platform to democratize access to African capital markets by providing risk and analytics software. “We hoped to do this by bringing the securitization market from the Global North into Africa,” Eyob added.
The company built an analytics platform to analyze loans and used machine learning to predict loan portfolio cashflows. In addition to that, they created an automated investment platform helping ventures to raise nondilutive (not equity) capital to help scale their businesses.
After sufficiently proving out its tech, the firm made a pivot. According to Eyob, the previous model wasn’t experiencing enough growth and was incurring unsustainable costs. So the company began raising capital based on its own analytics in 2016. It had only raised $600,000 and was focused on East African startups with SME financing and Pay-Go solar home models. That number has since increased to over $125 million across Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.
So why do these companies actually need debt financing? Here’s a clearer picture of the instance used at the beginning of this piece.
Imagine a VC-backed startup whose ultimate goal is to help scale up female-founded SMEs with one-year loans. The startup could easily use its equity to provide the capital for all the one-year loans. The payoff from the loans, after one year, would be the interest due to them. Or, it could put that capital into hiring developers, build a go-to-market strategy, hire a CTO, all of which would likely have payoffs that are up to a 100x multiple of the interest they would have made on the single SME loan that is tied up for an entire year.
So ultimately, debt would be an ideal source of nondilutive capital for the startup as they wouldn’t have to tie up equity for one year. Therefore, debt would be a much cheaper source of capital to scale up their operations, especially if it has scaled up to having tens of thousands of one-year loans. If it were equity, they would have to raise an endless amount with constant dilution as they scale.
In its five years of official operations, Lendable has given debt facilities to more than 20 startups. While the stage at which Lendable gives money differs, it is particular about startups that are post Series A.
Apart from Carbon and FairMoney, some startups to have raised debt from Lendable include Tugende, Uploan, KoinWorks, Planet42, TerraPay, Watu Credit, Trella, Amartha, Payjoy, Solar Panda, Cars45 and MFS Africa. Collectively, Eyob said, Lendable has reached 1.2 million end borrowers through its partners and helped finance up to 290,000 SMEs.
Of the $125 million disbursed so far as debt, Eyob said the company has a default rate of about 0.01%. The reason behind this low number, Eyob reckons, is because Lendable ensures to be in constant conversation with the companies offering help, advice or connections when necessary.
“We view lending as a partnership and typically when both parties act in good faith, there are ways to solve problems,” Eyob said.
The debt facilities start at $2 million but can go up to over $15 million, Eyob said. But while the global standard at which lenders pay back their debt investments is typically 4 to 6 years, Lendable expects the companies it gives cash to do so in 3 to 4 years.
Eyob pushes that founders in emerging markets should be willing to take more debt financing to scale their startups. These days, startups tend to be high on giving out equity instead of weighing options on effectively using debt in critical points when scaling.
Equity could be used to help attract the best talent or expand into new markets. Still, debt proves essential when scaling up capital-intensive operations like working capital or pre-funding activities. More often than not, debt and equity are complementary to one another, and Lendable is hoping to use the new funds it’s raising to push that notion.
“I think, just like everywhere else in the world, debt and equity are tools that should be used to support one another, supporting the venture’s ultimate mission. We have lasting relationships with multiple VC teams across emerging markets that we work with to ultimately support one another’s partner investees.”
Many fintech startups have tried to become a market-maker between investors and investment opportunities. However, the challenge with this two-sided market is: How do you get the investors to show up? It’s hard enough to get retail investors, but family offices and other large check writers are even more challenging to lure.
I’ve been meeting lately with an increasing number of family offices interested in investing directly into companies in lieu of via funds. As a result, I’ve started investigating some of the online platforms that enable direct investing, for instance, those focused on:
Tim Friedman, the founder of PEStack, observes that the interest in direct access to alternatives has been so strong that “platforms like Delio have emerged, which provide technology to allow institutions that already have relationships with buy- and sell-sides to quickly launch robust private investment platforms. Delio built a ESG-focused direct private investment platform for Barclays’ wealth management division, for example.”
Note that I’m specifically excluding from this analysis firms that help investors access investment funds, for instance CAIS, Context365, iCapital Network, OurCrowd, Palico, PrimeAlpha, and Trusted Insight. Investors there are outsourcing the decision-making about individual investments to the general partners.
Jay-Z’s Roc Nation announced in 2017 that it was forming a venture investment arm called Arrive. And the firm has been busy since then — co-founder and President Neil Sirni said Arrive has made 29 investments thus far.
At the same time, Sirni hasn’t really said much about those investments publicly, or about the broader strategy. So he reached out to me a few months ago, suggesting that he was ready to provide more details about Arrive.
“We’re now three years, 29 investments in and expanding – so it felt like the right time to start opening up a bit,” he said.
Over the course of a few back-and-forth emails, we discussed how Arrive fits into the larger aims of Roc Nation, how Sirni (a former Goldman Sachs executive) makes investment decisions and where he’s focusing next. (Spoiler: Southeast Asia is a big part of that answer.)
He was also eager to provide testimonials from Arrive’s portfolio companies — for example, Outlier.org founder Aaron Rasmussen said that “when Arrive commits to your mission, they commit,” while Helm co-founder and CEO Giri Sreenivas said that the firm “brings something that I don’t see in traditional institutional investors – legitimate operational expertise around brand and marketing.”
You can read our email Q&A, lightly edited for length and style, below.
What is Arrive and how does it fit into the larger Roc Nation umbrella?
Arrive is Roc Nation’s venture platform. Roc Nation is a full-service music and sports management, music publishing and entertainment company founded by Jay-Z. Roc Nation and its affiliated companies have built a diversified business that employs several hundred people. These businesses include artist and athlete representation, a portfolio of spirit brands, an apparel line, a philanthropy division that manages four charitable organizations, a content streaming service, a digital team that oversees social media accounts with over 1.4 billion followers, a sales and marketing division that works on countless partnerships with Fortune 500 companies, communications, video production and live event production, among others.
The Roc Nation infrastructure can add value to many different types of businesses across various stages, which is why we created Arrive. For consumer-facing businesses, Arrive leverages the Roc Nation infrastructure to help companies with branding, creative, marketing, communications, and other services. For enterprise, we use our broad network of B2B relationships to help with business development.
Being a strategic venture investor on the cap table of a portfolio company is not only about the investment but also how much human capital a fund can deploy to drive long-term, real and unique value for entrepreneurs and their businesses. So, we’re leveraging the broader Roc Nation platform to help portfolio companies and, in turn, receiving access to great entrepreneurs.
What kinds of investments do you normally make — types of companies, size of investment, etc?
We’re relatively sector and stage agnostic. We have dedicated capital in an early-stage fund that tends to focus on Series A to Series C, but we’ve also started to SPV growth and pre-IPO investments as we lay the foundation for a dedicated growth vehicle later this year.
How do you make investment decisions? Is Jay-Z involved in the process?
We gravitate toward companies that we can provide meaningful assistance to but that are outside of Roc Nation’s core industries of music and traditional sports. Thanks to our platform, that is an extremely broad opportunity set. To date, we’ve made 29 investments under the Arrive umbrella in everything from fintech, insurtech, edtech, health & wellness, social, and gaming. Geographically, we’re investing roughly 80% in North America, primarily the US, and 20% across Southeast Asia, namely, Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam. As a strategic investor, we never lead deals and always co-invest.
Our long-term focus is on driving real and unique value for our portfolio companies. If we remain hyper-focused on this mission, we believe we have the opportunity to build an enduring brand as a top tier strategic investor.
Jay-Z approves every Arrive opportunity; he, Juan Perez, and Desiree Perez are overwhelmingly supportive of Arrive and what we’re collectively trying to accomplish.
TechCrunch: What’s your biggest success story so far?
Neil Sirni: I’m very proud of being co-founder of Arrive and what it took to get here. In the grand scheme of things, we’re just getting started, but I’ve been an entrepreneur — after leaving a large public company — for over 10 years now. It’s been a roller coaster with many sacrifices, but I can understand and relate to our founders and their journey which makes this experience even more rewarding. The founders of Roc Nation have built their businesses brick by brick as well, so the entire organization is united by this entrepreneurial mindset. I still consider myself a founder and operator first, whose business happens to be making investments.
NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 20: Jay Z performs during Tidal X: 1020 at Barclays Center on October 20, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
Given that Arrive has been around for a few years, what made you feel like this is the time to start talking more openly about the fund?
When Arrive launched a few years ago, I hated the idea of talking about what we’re going to do. Instead, we wanted to quietly actually go do it; learn, improve, build and, in the process, demonstrate that we’re not, and never will be, tourists in the venture ecosystem. We’re now three years, 29 investments in and expanding – so it felt like the right time to start opening up a bit.
What’s an example of an investment where working with Arrive/Roc Nation led to gains beyond the financial investment?
Arrive functions like many other investors in that we spend time understanding a company’s vision and then try to provide them meaningful levers to pull to help drive their success. Our toolkit is unique thanks to the Roc Nation platform and network. We’ve found that both our portfolio companies and their other investors, typically traditional venture funds, find those levers complementary and additive to the cap table.
Arrive typically works with portfolio companies across three main areas. The first is creative and brand marketing. The second is business development and partnerships. The third is communications.
Communications efforts are generally focused on driving short-term or immediate awareness. Many of our portfolio companies receive broader press coverage when we invest in them. That initial attention typically dies down within a week or two although those news stories remain as searchable assets that the company might not otherwise have. While this can be of some value, especially for consumer businesses, we believe it’s at the bottom of the list compared to the long-term benefits that can be derived from Roc Nation’s underlying infrastructure in brand marketing and business development.
In terms of creative and brand marketing, we’ve likely saved our earlier stage portfolio, in aggregate, over a million dollars by providing brand and agency work at no cost. Examples of this include campaign ideation, graphic design, video production, hosting live events, and product integrations, among other activities.
For business development and partnerships support, we have leveraged our network to help portfolio companies launch their own internal philanthropic platforms, leveraged our B2B relationships to introduce new partners and customers, brought in other strategic investors in a targeted way, helped companies navigate endorsement deals, and recruited non-technical executive talent to join their companies.
We don’t pretend to be a magic bullet, no investor can be, but we’re focused on continuously improving and building on the services that we provide to our portfolio companies. The founder journey is never a straight line and we pride ourselves on being willing to do whatever we can on their behalf. Stephen Francis, SVP at Arrive, and I are accessible to our portfolio companies any day and time.
Do you see these investments as primarily strategic for Roc Nation, or are you focused on financial returns?
‘Strategic’ investor, in the context of Arrive, refers to the strategic value that we bring to the cap table of a portfolio company. We leverage that strategic value to get into deals and form relationships with entrepreneurs in whom we have high conviction. Our ultimate goal is financial return and Arrive’s investments are not meant to be strategic in nature for Roc Nation as an operating company. Instead, an investment from Arrive is meant to be strategic for the portfolio company.
You said you’re stage agnostic with capital devoted to different stages. Can you say anything more what the breakdown is in terms of early stage vs. later growth deals, and how that might change with the new growth fund?
Of our 29 investments, I would classify 25 as early stage and 4 as growth. In regards to percentage of capital, the 4 growth investments account for a little over 35% of total capital deployed. When we do have a dedicated growth fund, I expect the volume of growth investments to pick up to roughly 3 – 6 per year.
What are your priorities for 2021?
At a high level our priorities are to build out a larger team to ensure that we’re staying very engaged with the portfolio as we scale and to continue being aggressive in deploying more capital to back great companies.
On a more granular level I’m looking forward to physically getting back to Southeast Asia, namely Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam, on a regular basis. We’re really bullish on the region and believe it’s only a matter of time before more venture funds deploy significant capital there. We started to invest a lot of time there in 2019 as part of our plan to deploy roughly 30% of our early-stage fund in the region. That expansion has been hindered by COVID-19. However, I’ll make quarterly trips once travel normalizes. There is nothing like in-person interaction to build relationships and trust, especially internationally.
Mix in the impending SPAC-led debut of eToro, general bullishness in the cryptocurrency space, record highs for some equities markets, and recent rounds from Public.com, M1 Finance and U.K.-based Freetrade, and you could be excused for expecting the boom in consumer asset trading to keep going up and to the right.
But will it? There are data in both directions. While recent information could indicate that some of the most lucrative trading activity at companies like Robinhood could be slowing, there’s also encouraging app download information that paints a more bullish picture regarding the durability of the boom in consumer interest regarding savings and investing, which The Exchange has had an eye on for some time.
Our question today is this: How bullish are companies in the space about continued consumer interest in equities and other asset trading? And why? We’ll also put similar questions to their backers.
We’ve compiled notes from Accel’s Sameer Gandhi about views concerning Public as one of its backers and Index’s Jan Hammer about Robinhood and its market, as well as comments from Public.com and M1 Finance about what they see regarding consumer trading interest in the future. Thoughts from Robert Le, PitchBook’s senior emerging technology analyst, cap things off.
We’ll start with a short look at some data to help ground ourselves regarding where consumer trading demand appears to be today, then consider what the companies in the ring and their backers are thinking. We’ll close with a synthesis of all the perspectives to come up with hype-adjusted expectations for the rest of 2021.
Coinbase executed its direct listing on the back of one of the most impressive quarters we’ve ever seen in the realm of business results, meaning it began to trade when it looked just about as good as a company can. Will the same hold true for Robinhood and company?
A US/Israeli startup, Sorbet — which is tackling what companies do with the financial risks as employees accrue Paid Time Off (PTO) — has raised $6 million in a Seed funding round led by Viola Ventures, with participation by Global Founders Capital, Meron Capital.
The economics of Paid Time Off is relatively hidden in the business world, but essentially,
Sorbet takes on the burden of this PTO from employers and then allows employees to spend it. This gives the employers far more control over the whole process and the ability to forecast its impact on the business.
Sorbet says that in the US, employees use only 72% PTO balances, even though it’s the most sought-after benefit. But this, effectively, comes out at 768 million unused days off a year, worth around $224 billion. This creates a difficult problem for CFO’s and accountants because its creates balance sheet liabilities on the company’s books, says Sorbet. If the employee doesn’t use all of their PTO, the employer can end up owing them a lot of money which creates a cash flow liability on the company’s books. So Sorbet buys out these PTO liabilities from employees, then loads the cash value of the PTO on prepaid Credit Cards for the employees.
Speaking to me on a call, CEO and cofounder Veetahl Eilat-Raichel, said: “We researched this whole idea of paid time off and found this huge, massive market failure and inefficiency around the way that PTO is constructed. It’s kind of one of those things where, on the face of it, there’s this boring bureaucratic payroll item that turns into a boring balance sheet item. But under it is a $224 billion problem for US businesses… If you think about it, employers are borrowing money from their employees at the worst terms possible and employees aren’t benefitting either. So everyone’s hurting here.”
She said: “Sorbet assumes the liability on ourselves and so then we can allow the company to control their cash flow and decide when they want to pay us back. They gain a lot of financial value because we are able to be very, very attractive on our funding. So it saves costs, it provides them with complete control of their cash flow, and it allows them to give out amazing financial benefits to employees at a time where we can all use some extra cash right now.”
The platform Sorbet has built will, it says, sync with calendars, HR, and payroll systems, identifies habits, and then proactively suggests personalized, pre-approved 3-6 hour “Micro Breaks”, 1-4 day “Micro Vacations” and +1 week Vacations. This, says the startup, increases PTO used by as much as 15%.
Employers can constantly renegotiate the terms of the loan with Sorbet, thus matching future cash flow, insulating themselves against salary raises (wage inflation), and take advantage of other benefits.
The cofounders are Eilat-Raichel, who previously worked at L’Oreal and Lockheed Martin, and a Fintech entrepreneur; Eliaz Shapira, co-founder and CPO; and Rami Kasterstein co-founder and board Member.
Tapping the geothermal energy stored beneath the Earth’s surface as a way to generate renewable power is one of the new visions for the future that’s captured the attention of environmentalists and oil and gas engineers alike.
That’s because it’s not only a way to generate power that doesn’t rely on greenhouse gas emitting hydrocarbons, but because it uses the same skillsets and expertise that the oil and gas industry has been honing and refining for years.
At least that’s what drew the former completion engineer (it’s not what it sounds like) Tim Latimer to the industry and to launch Fervo Energy, the Houston-based geothermal tech developer that’s picked up funding from none other than Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures (that fund… is so busy) and former eBay executive, Jeff Skoll’s Capricorn Investment Group.
With the new $28 million cash in hand Fervo’s planning on ramping up its projects which Latimer said would “bring on hundreds of megawatts of power in the next few years.”
Latimer got his first exposure to the environmental impact of power generation as a kid growing up in a small town outside of Waco, Texas near the Sandy Creek coal power plant, one of the last coal-powered plants to be built in the U.S.
Like many Texas kids, Latimer came from an oil family and got his first jobs in the oil and gas industry before realizing that the world was going to be switching to renewables and the oil industry — along with the friends and family he knew — could be left high and dry.
It’s one reason why he started working on Fervo, the entrepreneur said.
“What’s most important, from my perspective, since I started my career in the oil and gas industry is providing folks that are part of the energy transition on the fossil fuel side to work in the clean energy future,” Latimer said. “I’ve been able to go in and hire contractors and support folks that have been out of work or challenged because of the oil price crash… And I put them to work on our rigs.”
Fervo Energy chief executive, Tim Latimer, pictured in a hardhat at one of the company’s development sites. Image Credits: Fervo Energy
When the Biden administration talks about finding jobs for employees in the hydrocarbon industry as part of the energy transition, this is exactly what they’re talking about.
And geothermal power is no longer as constrained by geography, so there’s a lot of abundant resources to tap and the potential for high paying jobs in areas that are already dependent on geological services work, Latimer said (late last year, Vox published a good overview of the history and opportunity presented by the technology).
“A large percentage of the world’s population actually lives next to good geothermal resources,” Latimer said. “25 countries today that have geothermal installed and producing and another 25 where geothermal is going to grow.”
Geothermal power production actually has a long history in the Western U.S. and in parts of Africa where naturally occurring geysers and steam jets pouring from the earth have been obvious indicators of good geothermal resources, Latimer said.
“Fervo’s technology unlocks a new class of geothermal resource that is ready for large-scale deployment. Fervo’s geothermal systems use novel techniques, including horizontal drilling, distributed fiber optic sensing, and advanced computational modelling, to deliver more repeatable and cost effective geothermal electricity,” Latimer wrote in an email. “Fervo’s technology combines with the latest advancements in Organic Rankine Cycle generation systems to deliver flexible, 24/7 carbon-free electricity.”
Initially developed with a grant from the TomKat Center at Stanford University and a fellowship funded by Activate.org at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s Cyclotron Road division, Fervo has gone on to score funding from the DOE’s Geothermal Technology Office and ARPA-E to continue work with partners like Schlumberger, Rice University and the Berkeley Lab.
The combination of new and old technology is opening vast geographies to the company to potentially develop new projects.
Other companies are also looking to tap geothermal power to drive a renewable power generation development business. Those are startups like Eavor, which has the backing of energy majors like bp Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, Temasek, BDC Capital, Eversource and Vickers Venture Partners; and other players including GreenFire Energy, and Sage Geosystems.
Demand for geothermal projects is skyrocketing, opening up big markets for startups that can nail the cost issue for geothermal development. As Latimer noted, from 2016 to 2019 there was only one major geothermal contract, but in 2020 there were ten new major power purchase agreements signed by the industry.
For all of these projects, cost remains a factor. Contracts that are being signed for geothermal that are in the $65 to $75 per megawatt range, according to Latimer. By comparison, solar plants are now coming in somewhere between $35 and $55 per megawatt, as The Verge reported last year.
But Latimer said the stability and predictability of geothermal power made the cost differential palatable for utilities and businesses that need the assurance of uninterruptible power supplies. As a current Houston resident, the issue is something that Latimer has an intimate experience with from this year’s winter freeze, which left him without power for five days.
Indeed, geothermal’s ability to provide always-on clean power makes it an incredibly attractive option. In a recent Department of Energy study, geothermal could meet as much as 16% of the U.S. electricity demand, and other estimates put geothermal’s contribution at nearly 20% of a fully decarbonized grid.
“We’ve long been believers in geothermal energy but have waited until we’ve seen the right technology and team to drive innovation in the sector,” said Ion Yadigaroglu of Capricorn Investment Group, in a statement. “Fervo’s technology capabilities and the partnerships they’ve created with leading research organizations make them the clear leader in the new wave of geothermal.”
Fervo Energy drilling site. Image Credits: Fervo Energy
Restoring and preserving the world’s forests has long been considered one of the easiest, lowest cost, and simplest ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
It’s by far the most popular method for corporations looking to take an easy first step on the long road to decarbonizing or offsetting their industrial operations. But in recent months the efficacy, validity, and reliability of a number of forest offsets have been called into question thanks to some blockbuster reporting from Bloomberg.
It’s against this uncertain backdrop that investors are coming in to shore up financing for Pachama, a company building a marketplace for forest carbon credits that it says is more transparent and verifiable thanks to its use of satellite imagery and machine learning technologies.
That pitch has brought in $15 million in new financing for the company, which co-founder and chief executive Diego Saez Gil said would be used for product development and the continued expansion of the company’s marketplace.
Launched only one year ago, Pachama has managed to land some impressive customers and backers. No less an authority on things environmental than Jeff Bezos (given how much of a negative impact Amazon operations have on the planet), gave the company a shoutout in his last letter to shareholders as Amazon’s outgoing chief executive. And the largest ecommerce company in Latin America, Mercado Libre, tapped the company to manage an $8 million offset project that’s part of a broader commitment to sustainability by the retailing giant.
Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund is an investor in the latest round, which was led by Bill Gates’ investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Other investors included Lowercarbon Capital (the climate-focused fund from über-successful angel investor, Chris Sacca), former Über executive Ryan Graves’ Saltwater, the MCJ Collective, and new backers like Tim O’Reilly’s OATV, Ram Fhiram, Joe gebbia, Marcos Galperin, NBA All-star Manu Ginobilli, James Beshara, Fabrice Grinda, Sahil Lavignia, and Tomi Pierucci.
That’s not even the full list of the company’s backers. What’s made Pachama so successful, and given the company the ability to attract top talent from companies like Google, Facebook, SapceX, Tesla, OpenAI, Microsoft, Impossible Foods and Orbital Insights, is the combination of its climate mission applied to the well-understood forest offset market, said Saez Gil.
“Restoring nature is one of the most important solutions to climate change. Forests, oceans and other ecosystems not only sequester enormous amounts of CO2from the atmosphere, but they also provide critical habitat for biodiversity and are sources of livelihood for communities worldwide. We are building the technology stack required to be able to drive funding to the restoration and conservation of these ecosystems with integrity, transparency and efficiency” said Diego Saez Gil, Co-founder and CEO at Pachama. “We feel honored and excited to have the support of such an incredible group of investors who believe in our mission and are demonstrating their willingness to support our growth for the long term”.
Customers outside of Latin America are also clamoring for access to Pachama’s offset marketplace. Microsoft, Shopify, and Softbank are also among the company’s paying buyers.
It’s another reason that investors like Y Combinator, Social Capital, Tobi Lutke, Serena Williams, Aglaé Ventures (LVMH’s tech investment arm), Paul Graham, AirAngels, Global Founders, ThirdKind Ventures, Sweet Capital, Xplorer Capital, Scott Belsky, Tim Schumacher, Gustaf Alstromer, Facundo Garreton, and Terrence Rohan, were able to commit to backing the company’s nearly $24 million haul since its 2020 launch.
“Pachama is working on unlocking the full potential of nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Carmichael Roberts from BEV, in a statement. “Their technology-based approach will have an enormous multiplier effect by using machine learning models for forest analysis to validate, monitor and measure impactful carbon neutrality initiatives. We are impressed by the progress that the team has made in a short period of time and look forward to working with them to scale their unique solution globally.”
Two years ago, we talked with Lior Susan, the founder of now six-year-old Eclipse Ventures in Palo Alto, Ca. At the time, the outfit believed that the next big thing wasn’t another social network but instead the remaking of old-line industries through full tech stacks — including hardware, software and data — capable of bring them into the 21st century.
Fast forward, and nothing has changed, not inside of Eclipse anyway. While the world has gone through a dramatic transformation owing to the coronavirus pandemic — never has the U.S.’s crumbling infrastructure been so apparent to so many – Eclipse is backing exactly the same kinds of companies that it always has and with the same size fund. Indeed, after closing its second and third funds with $500 million, the firm quietly closed its fourth vehicle earlier this month with $500 million in capital commitments from predominately endowments.
This morning, we talked with Susan about Eclipse’s focus on revitalizing old industries that remain largely untouched by tech, and why the pitch of Lior and the rest of Eclipse’s team has never been more powerful. Excerpts from that conversation follow, edited lightly for length and clarity.
TC: Because of where Eclipse focuses, you were long aware of the coming supply chain crises that the pandemic brought to the fore. Have your priorities changed at all as an investor? Did you have a to-do list going into 2020 and has that changed?
LS: Not really. We’ve been saying from inception that the infrastructure that we are living in is 50 to 60 years old across the board. We’ve been all of this time in those social software and fintech, new ideas and consumer trends. But we don’t live in the internet, we actually live in the physical world. And the physical world is not [receiving investment] at all. But much of that innovation can be applied to the world in which we are living, and what we want to do is bring that $65 trillion backstage economy into the digital age.
TC: In this go-go market, not a lot of funds are raising the same amounts as they have previously. Why did you choose to do so?
LS: We have a very specific strategy. We only lead early-stage investments in around 22 companies per fund, we [want] 20% to 25% with our initial check, and we double down on companies that we think are breaking out and try to lead two or three rounds in a row. And we know how to run the spreadsheets and we know how to make an assumption [about] what is the enterprise value we need to create in order to deliver alpha returns, and [that math leads us to] $500 million.
TC: The last time we’d talked, Eclipse had also helped created and funded a company, Bright Machines, which primarily develops software for robotic systems inside of manufacturing companies. Have you launched any other companies in the last couple of years? I remember you don’t like the word ‘incubate.’
LS: We call it venture equity internally, but basically, we are very thesis oriented, so a lot of our investments start with us [circling around] an investment thesis and an area that we believe is getting really interesting. I’m right now working on a thesis around insurance in the manufacturing space [that will cover] working comp, facilities, assets . . . It [always] will start with a one-page thesis and we’ll talk inside the firm about it, and we’ll go hunt. But we don’t find what we like in a lot of cases. This is where we’re like, ‘Okay, we come from operating backgrounds. Why not roll up our sleeves and figure out how we can go and build these companies?’
You’re right that we did Bright Machines. We’ve also done Bright Insight (an IoT platform for biopharma and medtech that just raised $101 million in Series C funding led by General Catalyst), Chord (a commerce-as-a-service software for direct-to-consumer brands that just raised $18 million in Series A funding), and Metrolink (a new company that helps organizations design and manage their data flows). We’ve done [this model] a [few] times where we didn’t just invest in the company but we’re part of the founding team or we’re carving out assets. We’re trying to keep it very flexible.
TC: Interesting that you couldn’t find an insurance company focused on the manufacturing industry that you like.
LS: We have a lot of theses like that. We see a lot of horizontal business models and tech that [could work well] in the verticals where we’re playing and that we know need solutions. So, can you do a Slack for construction, or can you find the right people to build a Lemonade for manufacturing, or can you find the Shopify for industrial assets or spare parts?
TC: What size checks are you writing?
LS: I’d say $3 million to $4 million initial checks and up to $20 million or $25 million in a Series B, but you will find a lot of our companies where we invested $150 million plus over the lifetime of the company.
TC: Which company has attracted the most from Eclipse?
LS: I’d guess Cerebras [Systems, which reportedly makes the world’s largest computer chip].
TC: What do you make of what we’re hearing from the new administration in the U.S. on the infrastructure front. Do you think it’s talking about pouring money into the right verticals?
LS: I was on a call with the manufacturing task force on Monday, and I will tell you — without getting into politics at all, because that’s above my pay grade — that the current administration is going to pour hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions of dollars, into upgrading the infrastructure of this country. And it’s going to be semiconductors, batteries, manufacturing, industrial infrastructure as a whole . . .
[I think last year’s ventilator shortage made clear] that we’d lost 100% of the manufacturing capabilities of this country and Western countries as a whole. And I think everyone now understands that you’re going to see a massive swing of investment in infrastructure and the only way to do it is through technology, because we actually don’t have a million people here that want to [work on an assembly line]. We actually need automation lines and software and computer vision and machine learning and everything that Silicon Valley is really good at.
TC: You have insight into what’s happening on the semiconductor front through Cerebras and other bets. There’s obviously a huge chip shortage that’s impacting everyone, including the auto industry. How long will it take for supply to catch up to demand?
LS: I think we’re going to see some big changes, but it’s going to take many, many, many years. This is not software, we cannot bring everything up [to speed overnight] as you actually need fabs and cleaning rooms and assets. It’s pretty complicated.
It’s going to get worse in the next couple of quarters. It’s good for some of our companies that are working on the problem, but overall, as an economy, it’s pretty bad news.
One of the key ingredients in effective product development is receiving timely and relevant notifications about customer use, engagement, potential issues and more. Engineers, developers and product managers rely on that flow of information, but it’s typically delivered either via legacy email tools, or through notification systems built into product management dashboards that devs have to hand-code themselves. MagicBell, a startup that just went through Y Combinator’s most recent Winter cohort, has raised a $1.9 million seed round to deliver a rich notification platform for product teams that’s easy to integrate and use.
The round was led by Cherry Ventures, and includes participation by a number of angel investors including Algolia co-founder Nicolas Dessaigne, Twitter Director of Product Management Marie Outtier, and Wunderlist and Pitch co-founder Christian Reber. This list itself is a great endorsement of the need for what MagicBell’s building, since it’s a storied collection of veteran experts who have ample experience actually building some of the world’s most engaging software products.
“Sofia [Bendz], Partner at Cherry Ventures], of course, worked at Spotify,” explained MagicBell CEO and co-founder Hana Mohan in an interview. “She has built a consumer product, and she has invested in a lot of startups […] we followed YC’s advice in this batch, which was to definitely leave some room in the round for strategic angels.”
That deep product experience on the cap table should serve MagicBell well as it seeks to grow the team, which currently consists of Mohan and co-founder Josue Montano. She and Montano previously worked on customer support ticketing system startup SupportBee, but found they were spending a lot of their time and effort on just building a notifications system for the platform. The greater opportunity, they realized, was in making that process plug-and-play, and scalable, since it’s something that can be intensely cost- and effort-intensive in setting up a new product, even though it’s also not anyone’s primary focus when building their software.
Long term, the plan is to build MagicBell into a full-featured notification platform that offers a highly-customizable means of keeping your product team informed and in sync. Accordingly, the startup’s first priority with this initial funding is to hire engineers to help it build, says Mohan, and it’s also being driven by the product roadmaps of some of its initial customers — which coincidentally, includes a number of its investors.
“One of the cool things for us was definitely that three or four of our customers ended up investing,” Mohan said, noting that Reber’s startup Pitch was actually a customer before he decided to invest. “The other great thing about [Pitch] is that they have a pretty extensive roadmap themselves of launching a mobile offering, both on iOS and Android. So they’re really pushing the product forward, which is great for us.”
Mohan is also one of the inaugural guests on our new podcast Found, and you can subscribe now to get our episode with her when it becomes available on Friday. She goes into a lot more detail about YC, and the process of identifying the need for MagicBell in the market, plus plenty more, so be sure to tune in.
A startup that is helping over 125,000 neighborhood stores in India secure working capital, inventory from top brands, and work with e-commerce firms to boost revenues said on Thursday it has raised a new financing round as it looks to further its reach in the world’s second largest internet market.
Pune-based ElasticRun said it has raised $75 million in its Series D financing round co-led by existing investors Avataar Ventures and Prosus Ventures. Existing investor Kalaari Capital also participated in the round, which takes the four-year-old startup’s to-date raise to $130.5 million.
Millions of neighborhood stores that dot large and small cities, towns and villages in India and have proven tough to beat for e-commerce giants and super-chain retailers are at the center of a new play in the country.
A score of e-commerce companies, offline retail chains and fintech startups are now racing to work with these mom and pop stores as they look to tap a massive untapped opportunity.
Sandeep Deshmukh, co-founder and CEO of ElasticRun, talking about the startup’s business at a conference in 2019.
ElasticRun helps merchants operating these stores, who typically have to spend a few days a month visiting bigger cities to secure inventory, get reliable and more affordable goods directly from big brands. (Big brands love this because this enables them to significantly expand their reach.)
These store owners also spend a number of hours a day not doing much when the business is slow. ElasticRun is also addressing this by partnering with some of the biggest e-commerce firms including Amazon and Flipkart to utilize this workforce to make deliveries to customers. (E-commerce firms find value in this because neighborhood stores have a larger presence in the country, can reach a customer much faster, and also often have their own inventory.)
Ashutosh Sharma, Head of Investments for India at Prosus Ventures, told TechCrunch that ElasticRun has built a variable capacity, crowdsourced delivery model, which distinguishes the startup from other players in the market that have a fixed number of people on payrolls making these deliveries. He said as the startup has developed the railroads, a number of new opportunities has unlocked.
One such opportunity is providing working capital to these neighborhood stores. Their operators typically don’t have savings, and need to sell the existing inventory to secure funds to refill the stock. In recent years, ElasticRun has struck partnerships with banks and NBFCs to provide credit to these merchants.
ElasticRun today operates in over 300 cities in nearly all Indian states. The startup works with over 125,000 neighborhood stores, and plans to expand to reach 1 million in 18 to 24 months, said Shitiz Bansal, co-founder and chief technology officer of ElasticRun, in an interview with TechCrunch.
The startup’s current run rate is about $350 million, a figure it plans to grow to over $1 billion in the next 12 months, he said.
Saurabh Nigam, co-founder and chief operating officer, said the new financing round has also enabled the startup to offer early employees access to “tangible benefits” of the firm’s growth over the last five years.
Consumer technology is an inherently risky investment sector: even the best idea can fall flat if the story of the product is not sold properly to the end user. The stats can only take you so far, and, eventually, customers want to believe in the product.
Traditionally, companies that have successfully told their story and become market leaders have taken the initial public offering route — pitching their story to institutional investors on banker-led roadshows rather than to the people that buy their products.
But the last 18 months have seen a new door open for companies seeking to skip the bankers, partner with good managers, and gain a more direct route to public capital: merging with a Special Purpose Acquisition Company, or SPAC.
For the right consumer technology companies — for which the story is often just as, if not more, important than the financial figures — a SPAC deal offers a more direct access to public capital. Instead of walking institutional investors through the P&L, these companies can spend more time telling investors, including the retail investors using the products, what the company can be long-term.
There is no denying the growing popularity of this avenue to public exchanges: more than 200 companies went public via a SPAC deal in 2020. But as with any asset that grows hot, there will be parties out there expecting it to blow up.
Lessons have been learned and we probably have more coming, but those who treat SPACs as a sign of the end-days of economic recovery are wrong. These vehicles offer a legitimate route to the public markets while stripping out traditional gatekeepers and allowing individual investors to decide if they want to buy — or sell — a company’s story.
First, it is important to address the naysayers’ concerns. Given the meteoric rise in SPAC activity, analysts speculate that the trend is overblown; they argue that companies are listing too early and that money losers are getting access to public capital before they deserve it.
But when is it “too early” to enter the public market? DraftKings, one of the most successful SPAC stories of 2020, went public about eight years after it was founded, and Facebook was private for a similar length of time before its IPO. Meanwhile, Apple, the most profitable company in the world, listed less than four years after its founding. Tenure may be a factor in investors’ minds, but lack thereof has never stopped a company from listing on the public markets.
Profitability has also rarely been a requirement for an IPO. Uber, Tesla, and Amazon are all prime examples of unprofitable businesses that listed while reporting losses.
In all these examples, clear, coherent visions, strong leadership teams, and patience from investors to see leaders execute on their vision overcame the traditional financial barometers of success.
The public markets are obsessed with quarterly results. A company can miss analysts’ expectations for earnings per share by just a cent and its stock will be sent tumbling. However, not all companies are assessed this way: Many companies are valued on their vision for the future and their progress towards their goals. SPACs are an effective way to invest in a strong team or vision even when there’s not enough financial data to back a traditional investment.
Biotech firms are an excellent and timely example of the way investors are looking at the market, especially post-pandemic. Biotechs usually describe a treatment they are developing and the patients it could help; they provide estimates of the addressable market, the price they could charge, and the timeline they could expect to get through clinical trials. However, an early-phase biotech could be years away from selling any drugs, let alone turning a profit. The FDA estimates the time to complete Phase II and Phase III trials, the final phases before applying for approval, can total up to six years.
Yet, investors pour money into these companies. Analysts estimate the likelihood of a drug advancing in its trials after detailed scrutiny, but these companies can see their stocks rise for years while losing money. The markets will expect high returns for taking these risks, but they can arrive at a price nonetheless.
The SPAC route is a match made in heaven for consumer tech companies: SPACs put more of a focus on the management team and the vision than traditional IPOs, which is a boon for the sector, as this industry has always been dominated by visionaries.
Looking ahead, the savviest investors in SPACs will be paying close attention to direct-to-consumer technology, but not in the traditional, limited sense of D2C.
Consumers are looking for goods and services that they can access more quickly and reliably than ever before. Conveniently, the companies that tend to succeed in ramping up these options through technology are natural storytellers that know how to bring their product directly to the end-user. Inevitably, these firms are going to be on the radar of SPAC investors.
For example, fintech, in many ways, has become direct-to-consumer because it offers customers banking features directly on their phones. In just the last year, innovation in telemedicine has brought most health appointments from the waiting room to the living room, and forced outdated healthcare administration practices to embrace digital systems.
Products you could only buy at physical stores, like mattresses, can now be delivered straight to your door with companies like Casper and Purple. Certain auto companies will allow you to even design and buy a car as easily as ordering a pizza.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend by exposing the need for faster, tech-driven access to services, and our “return to normal” means this trend is only going upwards. SPACs will be around to bring these ideas to market faster and provide the capital these companies need to meet the demand.
Despite the speculation, naysaying and “bubble” talk, SPACs have been around for decades and aren’t going to disappear in a flash. Indeed, the pace of SPAC deals might cool down and carry a higher risk premium as the trend continues, but just like the changes in consumer technology, SPACs themselves will evolve to best serve their consumers.
In many ways, the SPAC model is very similar to the way consumer technology has developed: It encourages disruption of established constructs. What’s more, investors in pre-acquisition SPACs get access to venture-like opportunities without the capital traditionally required for such investments.
In the end, a company’s success will depend on it meeting or exceeding targets, or if something pulls demand forward. The rules have not changed, and neither has the risk or the reward.
I was a first-time CEO who had just finished Techstars with my co-founders when the pandemic hit last March. I remember sitting alone in my basement room in Boulder, Colorado, in sweatpants, while connecting with my advisers. They confirmed my biggest fear: Warmly, our startup, had just three months of runway left in the bank.
It was every founder’s nightmare around that time: I’d be forced to fundraise amid a global pandemic.
Of course, venture capital investors weren’t taking in-person meetings then, which meant pitching over Zoom. As opposed to late-night drinks, coffee chats while strolling along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and Sand Hill boardroom meetings (environments where I thought I could excel), I was stuck in a basement.
You should definitely have two versions of your deck: The pre-meeting deck you send to potential investors and the “Zoom deck” you use during your livestream meeting.
Whether I asked friends, mentors or Google, no one seemed to have any good tips for connecting with investors virtually. But I learned as I went, adopting new technology to assist in the VC fundraising process, and we were able to close a $2.1 million seed round in August. Phew.
While we might have thought virtual fundraising would impossible when the world shut down one year ago, I don’t think anyone believes that anymore. Not only is it more efficient — no expensive trips to San Francisco or trouble fitting investor meetings into one day — virtual fundraising helps democratize access to venture capital.
Founders can raise money from investors based anywhere in the world, and investors can consider startups from anywhere, too. My investors today are from California, Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and the U.K. And so far, I haven’t met a single one of them in person.
There’s a disconnect between reality and the added value investors are promising entrepreneurs. Three in five founders who were promised added value by their VCs felt duped by their negative experience.
While this feels like a letdown by investors, in reality, it shows fault on both sides. Due diligence isn’t a one-way street, and founders must do their homework to make sure they’re not jumping into deals with VCs who are only paying lip service to their value-add.
Looking into an investor’s past, reputation and connections isn’t about finding the perfect VC, it’s about knowing what shaking certain hands will entail — and either being ready for it or walking away.
Entrepreneurs are increasingly demanding more than a blank check: They want mentorship, product understanding and emotional support, as well as industry connections and expertise. If VCs can’t bring that value, founders now have plenty of other funding routes to choose from, like crowdfunding, angel syndicates, tokenization and SPACs.
To stay competitive, VCs have to at least advertise that they have more than deep pockets. But what if it stops there? Founders have to know exactly what they’re looking for in a VC, which means looking past the front page and vetting their investors.
The ideal investor for modern startups is an operator VC — someone who was a founder or operator at a company before becoming an investor. But even then, ticking boxes isn’t enough to ensure the investor won’t come with their own challenges, like being too hands-on or less strategically minded.
Looking into an investor’s past, reputation and connections isn’t about finding the perfect VC, it’s about knowing what shaking certain hands will entail — and either being ready for it or walking away. There is no single solution to this issue, but here are my recommendations to founders seeking a successful investor relationship in 2021.
No founder-investor relationship can survive misalignment. Because you share responsibility on so many processes, both parties have to be on the same page. So before you even start fundraising, nail down the expectations you need your future investor to meet. What do you need the most? What does your dream investor look like?
Disasters are, unfortunately, a growth business, and the frontlines that were once distant have moved much closer to home. Wildfires, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes — let alone a pandemic — has forced much of the United States and increasingly large swaths of the world to confront a new reality: few places are existentially secure.
How we respond to crises can radically adjust the ledger of mortality for the people slammed by these catastrophes. Good information, fast response, and strong execution can mean the difference between life and death. Yet, frontline workers often can’t get the tools and training they need, particularly new innovations that may not wind their way easily through the government supply chain. Perhaps most importantly, they often need post-traumatic care far after a disaster his dissipated.
Risk & Return is a unique venture fund and philanthropic hybrid that has set its mission to seek and finance the next-generation of technologies to help first responders not only on the frontlines, but even after as they confront the strains both physical and mental from missions they undertake.
The family of organizations sees a spectrum from emergency workers in the United States to U.S. military veterans, all of whom share similar challenges and need solutions today — solutions that can often be hard to finance for traditional VCs who aren’t aware of the unique needs of this community.
The group was founded by Robert Nelsen, who made his name as a co-founder and managing director of biotech VC leader ARCH Venture Partners, which last year announced a $1.5 billion pair of funds. He’s joined by board chairman Bob Kerrey, the former co-chair of the 9/11 Commission as well as former governor and senator of Nebraska, and managing director Jeff Eggers, a Navy SEAL who served as senior director of Afghanistan and Pakistan on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
Nelsen had been thinking through the idea when he met Kerrey, who recalled the conversation happening during a fundraising event for Navy SEALs. “There has been a lot of suffering for those who have been on the frontlines,” Kerrey said. “Bob had this idea, and I thought it was a really smart idea, to try to take a different approach to philanthropic efforts.” They linked up with Eggers and the trio brought Risk & Return to fruition.
The venture fund is $25 million, with about 35% of it already deployed. The fund has had a big emphasis on mental health for first responders, with 75% of the companies funded broadly in that category.
The fund’s first investment was into Alto Neuroscience, which is developing precision medicine tools to treat post-traumatic stress. The fund has also invested in behavioral management startup NeuroFlow; alternative well-being assessment tool Qntfy; Spear Human Performance, which is a brand-new spinout focused on connecting commercial and health data sources to optimize human performance; and Xtremity, which is designing better connection sockets for prosthetics. The fund has invested in another six startups including Perimeter, which I profiled a few weeks ago.
This isn’t your typical venture portfolio, and that’s exactly what Risk & Return wants to focus on. Eggers said that “We love that type of technology since it has that dual purpose: going to serve the first responder on the ground, but the community is also going to benefit.”
While many of the startups the firm has invested in obviously have a focus on first responders, the technologies they develop don’t have to be limited to just that market. Kerrey noted that “Every veteran is a civilian, [and] these aren’t businesses targeting the military market.” Given the last year, “it’s hard to find a human being in this pandemic that hasn’t suffered at least some PTSD,” referencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Sales to governments can be incredibly challenging, and the ultimate market for the kinds of specialized mental health services that frontline workers need may not be as commercially viable as one would hope.
While the government does research and innovation in this category, Kerrey sees a huge opportunity for the private sector to get more involved. “One thing that you could do in the private sector that is difficult in the public sector is look for alternative therapies for PTSD,” he said, noting that areas like psychedelics have intrigued the private sector even while the government would mostly not touch the category today. Risk & Return has not made an investment in that space at this time though.
Half of the returns from the fund will stream into Risk & Return’s philanthropic arm, which writes grants to charities along the same thesis of aiding frontline workers both on the job and after it. The organizations hope that by approaching the complicated response space with a multi-pronged approach, they can match potential needs with different sources of capital that are most appropriate.
We’ve increasingly seen this hybrid for-profit/non-profit venture model in other areas. Norrsken is a Swedish foundation and venture fund that is investing in areas like mental health, climate change, and other categories from the UN Sustainable Development Goals. MIT Solve is another program that is working on hybrid approaches to startup innovation, such as in pandemics and health security. While disasters are always looming, it’s great to see more innovation in financing this critical category of technology, such as in pandemics and health security.
Weav, which is building a universal API for commerce platforms, is emerging from stealth today with $4.3 million in funding from a bevy of investors, and a partnership with Brex.
Founded last year by engineers Ambika Acharya, Avikam Agur and Nadav Lidor after participating in the W20 YC batch, Weav joins the wave of fintech infrastructure companies that aim to give fintechs and financial institutions a boost. Specifically, Weav’s embedded technology is designed to give these organizations access to “real time, user-permissioned” commerce data that they can use to create new financial products for small businesses.
Its products allow its customers to connect to multiple platforms with a single API that was developed specifically for the commerce platforms that businesses use to sell products and accept payments. Weav operates under the premise that allowing companies to build and embed new financial products creates new opportunities for e-commerce merchants, creators and other entrepreneurs.
Left to right: Co-founders Ambika Acharya, Nadav Lidor and Avikam Agur; Image courtesy of Weav
In a short amount of time, Weav has seen impressive traction. Recently, Brex launched Instant Payouts for Shopify sellers using the Weav API. It supports platform integrations such as Stripe, Square, Shopify and PayPal. (More on that later.) Since its API went live in January, “thousands” of businesses have used new products and services built on Weav’s infrastructure, according to Lidor. Its API call volume is growing 300% month over month, he said.
And, the startup has attracted the attention of a number of big-name investors, including institutions and the founders of prominent fintech companies. Foundation Capital led its $4.3 million seed round, which also included participation from Y Combinator, Abstract Ventures, Box Group, LocalGlobe, Operator Partners, Commerce Ventures and SV Angel.
A slew of founders and executives also put money in the round, including Brex founders Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi; Ramp founder Karim Atiyeh; Digits founders Jeff Seibert and Wayne Chang; Hatch founder Thomson Nguyen; GoCardless founder Matt Robinson and COO Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas; Vouch founder Sam Hodges; Plaid’s Charley Ma as well as executives from fintechs such as Square, Modern Treasury and Pagaya.
Foundation Capital’s Angus Davis said his firm has been investing in fintech infrastructure for over a decade. And personally, before he became a VC, Davis was the founder and CEO of Upserve, a commerce software company. There, he says, he witnessed firsthand “the value of transactional data to enable new types of lending products.”
Foundation has a thesis around the type of embedded fintech that Weav has developed, according to Davis. And it sees a large market opportunity for a new class of financial applications to come to market built atop Weav’s platform.
“We were excited by Weav’s vision of a universal API for commerce platforms,” Davis wrote via email. “Much like Plaid and Envestnet brought universal APIs to banking for consumers, Weav enables a new class of B2B fintech applications for businesses.”
Weav says that by using its API, companies can prompt their business customers to “securely” connect their accounts with selling platforms, online marketplaces, subscription management systems and payment gateways. Once authenticated, Weav aggregates and standardizes sales, inventory and other account data across platforms and develops insights to power new products across a range of use cases, including lending and underwriting; financial planning and analysis; real-time financial services and business management tools.
For the last few years, there’s been a rise of API companies, as well as openness in the financial system that’s largely been focused on consumers, Lidor points out.
“For example, Plaid brings up very rich data about consumers, but when you think about businesses, oftentimes that data is still locked up in all kinds of systems,” he told TechCrunch. “We’re here to provide some of the building blocks and the access to data from everything that has to do with sales and revenue. And, we’re really excited about powering products that are meant to make the lives of small businesses and e-commerce, sellers and creators much easier and be able to get them access to financial products.”
In the case of Brex, Weav’s API allows the startup to essentially offer instant access to funds that otherwise would take a few days or a few weeks for businesses to access.
“Small businesses need access as quickly as possible to their revenue so that they can fund their operations,” Lidor said.
Brex co-CEO Henrique Dubugras said that Weav’s API gives the company the ability to offer real-time funding to more customers selling on more platforms, which saved the company “thousands of engineering hours” and accelerated its rollout timeline by months.
Clearly, the company liked what it saw, considering that its founders personally invested in Weav. Is Weav building the “Plaid for commerce”? Guess only time will tell.
The two founders of Crusoe Energy think they may have a solution to two of the largest problems facing the planet today — the increasing energy footprint of the tech industry and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the natural gas industry.
Crusoe, which uses excess natural gas from energy operations to power data centers and cryptocurrency mining operations, has just raised $128 million in new financing from some of the top names in the venture capital industry to build out its operations — and the timing couldn’t be better.
Methane emissions are emerging as a new area of focus for researchers and policymakers focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and keeping global warming within the 1.5 degree targets set under the Paris Agreement. And those emissions are just what Crusoe Energy is capturing to power its data centers and bitcoin mining operations.
The reason why addressing methane emissions is so critical in the short term is because these greenhouse gases trap more heat than their carbon dioxide counterparts and also dissipate more quickly. So dramatic reductions in methane emissions can do more in the short term to alleviate the global warming pressures that human industry is putting on the environment.
And the biggest source of methane emissions is the oil and gas industry. In the U.S. alone roughly 1.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas is flared daily, said Chase Lochmiller, a co-founder of Crusoe Energy. About two thirds of that is flared in Texas with another 500 million cubic feet flared in North Dakota, where Crusoe has focused its operations to date.
For Lochmiller, a former quant trader at some of the top American financial services institutions, and Cully Cavmess, a third generation oil and gas scion, the ability to capture natural gas and harness it for computing operations is a natural combination of the two men’s interests in financial engineering and environmental preservation.
NEW TOWN, ND – AUGUST 13: View of three oil wells and flaring of natural gas on The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near New Town, ND on August 13, 2014. About 100 million dollars worth of natural gas burns off per month because a pipeline system isn’t in place yet to capture and safely transport it . The Three Affiliated Tribes on Fort Berthold represent Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations. It’s also at the epicenter of the fracking and oil boom that has brought oil royalties to a large number of native americans living there. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The two Denver natives met in prep-school and remained friends. When Lochmiller left for MIT and Cavness headed off to Middlebury they didn’t know that they’d eventually be launching a business together. But through Lochmiller’s exposure to large scale computing and the financial services industry, and Cavness assumption of the family business they came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way to address the massive waste associated with natural gas.
Conversation around Crusoe Energy began in 2018 when Lochmiller and Cavness went climbing in the Rockies to talk about Lochmiller’s trip to Mt. Everest.
When the two men started building their business, the initial focus was on finding an environmentally friendly way to deal with the energy footprint of bitcoin mining operations. It was this pitch that brought the company to the attention of investors at Polychain, the investment firm started by Olaf Carlson-Wee (and Lochmiller’s former employer), and investors like Bain Capital Ventures and new investor Valor Equity Partners.
(This was also the pitch that Lochmiller made to me to cover the company’s seed round. At the time I was skeptical of the company’s premise and was worried that the business would just be another way to prolong the use of hydrocarbons while propping up a cryptocurrency that had limited actual utility beyond a speculative hedge against governmental collapse. I was wrong on at least one of those assessments.)
“Regarding questions about sustainability, Crusoe has a clear standard of only pursuing projects that are net reducers of emissions. Generally the wells that Crusoe works with are already flaring and would continue to do so in the absence of Crusoe’s solution. The company has turned down numerous projects where they would be a buyer of low cost gas from a traditional pipeline because they explicitly do not want to be net adders of demand and emissions,” wrote a spokesman for Valor Equity in an email. “In addition, mining is increasingly moving to renewables and Crusoe’s approach to stranded energy can enable better economics for stranded or marginalized renewables, ultimately bringing more renewables into the mix. Mining can provide an interruptible base load demand that can be cut back when grid demand increases, so overall the effect to incentivize the addition of more renewable energy sources to the grid.”
Other investors have since piled on including: Lowercarbon Capital, DRW Ventures, Founders Fund, Coinbase Ventures, KCK Group, Upper90, Winklevoss Capital, Zigg Capital and Tesla co-founder JB Straubel.
The company now operate 40 modular data centers powered by otherwise wasted and flared natural gas throughout North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Next year that number should expand to 100 units as Crusoe enters new markets such as Texas and New Mexico. Since launching in 2018, Crusoe has emerged as a scalable solution to reduce flaring through energy intensive computing such as bitcoin mining, graphical rendering, artificial intelligence model training and even protein folding simulations for COVID-19 therapeutic research.
Crusoe boasts 99.9% combustion efficiency for its methane, and is also bringing additional benefits in the form of new networking buildout at its data center and mining sites. Eventually, this networking capacity could lead to increased connectivity for rural communities surrounding the Crusoe sites.
Currently, 80% of the company’s operations are being used for bitcoin mining, but there’s increasing demand for use in data center operations and some universities, including Lochmiller’s alma mater of MIT are looking at the company’s offerings for their own computing needs.
“That’s very much in an incubated phase right now,” said Lochmiller. “A private alpha where we have a few test customers… we’ll make that available for public use later this year.”
Crusoe Energy Systems should have the lowest data center operating costs in the world, according to Lochmiller and while the company will spend money to support the infrastructure buildout necessary to get the data to customers, those costs are negligible when compared to energy consumption, Lochmiller said.
The same holds true for bitcoin mining, where the company can offer an alternative to coal powered mining operations in China and the construction of new renewable capacity that wouldn’t be used to service the grid. As cryptocurrencies look for a way to blunt criticism about the energy usage involved in their creation and distribution, Crusoe becomes an elegant solution.
Institutional and regulatory tailwinds are also propelling the company forward. Recently New Mexico passed new laws limiting flaring and venting to no more than 2 percent of an operator’s production by April of next year and North Dakota is pushing for incentives to support on-site flare capture systems while Wyoming signed a law creating incentives for flare gas reduction applied to bitcoin mining. The world’s largest financial services firms are also taking a stand against flare gas with BlackRock calling for an end to routine flaring by 2025.
“Where we view our power consumption, we draw a very clear line in our project evaluation stage where we’re reducing emissions for an oil and gas projects,” Lochmiller said.
Main Sequence’s team (top row from left to right) Virginia Crawter, Bill Bartee, Mike Nicholls, Phil Morle; (bottom row from left to right) Stella Xu, Mike Zimmerman and Jen Baxter. Image Credits: Main Sequence
Main Sequence, the venture firm founded by Australia’s national science agency, announced today a new $250 million AUD (about $194.3 million USD) fund to invest in deep-tech startups. This is Main Sequence’s second fund and its oversubscribed raised included returning investors Horizons Ventures, Hostplus, Lockheed Martin, Temasek, private investors from Morgan Stanley Wealth Management and Mutual Trust, and family offices.
Launched in 2017 by government agency CSIRO (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), Main Sequence now manages a total of $490 million AUD, including the CSIRO Innovation Fund. The firm works closely with scientists and researchers to commercialize their technology through its “venture science” model.
It starts by identifying challenges, then brings together scientists, a team, industry partners and investors to launch startups. Main Sequence’s second fund will look at issues including healthcare accessibility, increasing the world’s food supply, industrial productivity and space. One major focus will be decarbonization and addressing climate change, and that investment area will be led by Main Sequence partner Martin Duursma.
“Especially in the deep tech space, you don’t always have a company for every problem you’re trying to solve. So in addition to backing great founders who are working in one of our thesis areas, we will create companies to solve the problems and we do that as a partnership instead of on our own,” Main Sequence partner Mike Zimmerman told TechCrunch. Its works with universities, CSIRO’s networks of 3,500 scientists across different sectors and other research agencies to find potential founders.
“We’ll work with a research organization, get an entrepreneur-in-residence in and work with them. Something that is quite different is we’ll also work with industry partners,” Zimmerman added. “We’ll partner with an industry leader and get them fully committed and on the cap table from day one. The idea is that you can go faster when you have all these parties together and everyone is on the cap table.”
For example, Main Sequence helped launched v2food, a plant-based meat company, in January 2019. By October 2019, v2food had started shipping its products to Burger King in Australia, after spending about $2 million AUD. V2food’s other investors include Horizons Ventures, Temasek, Sequoia Capital China and China Renaissance.
“Companies are moving very quickly out of Australia and into China and other parts of Asia, all from the venture science model,” said Zimmerman. “Now that we have locked that down as a methodology, we’ve done several venture science deals already and will be a doing a lot more of that.”
Other Main Sequence portfolio companies include telehealth software platform Coviu, subterrenean drone technology developer Emesent, IoT satellite connectivity startup Myriota and quantum computing firmware designer Q-CTRL.
Main Sequence’s close relationship with CSIRO also gives its startups access to the agency’s ecosystem of research and facilities, including ones that can be used to produce new food tech, synthetic biology or laser tuning. Some of the things the new fund will focus on include ingredients and flavorings for plant-based meat, reversing climate change, agricultural tech for more sustainable farming practices, and synthetic biology like enzymes that can be used for the “circular economy,” or breaking down waste products into new materials.