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Backed by Nas and Dapper Labs CEO, SportsIcon launches to deliver NFTs bundled with exclusive athlete content

By Darrell Etherington

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have a natural fit with sports memorabilia, another category of speculative asset whose value is primarily dependent on the prices its adherents are willing to pay. A new startup called SportsIcon aims to deliver even more value via sports-focused NFTs, with direct collaboration with athletes and lessons from the pros to accompany the one-off digital collectibles.

SportsIcon has backing from Roham Gharegozlou, the CEO of Dapper Labs, which was at the very forefront of the NFT craze and which powers NBA Top Shot. It’s also funded by rapper Nas, whose portfolio includes a number of prescient early bets, former NBA player Andrew Bogut, Eniac Ventures’ Partner Nihal Mehta and more. The company announced its initial round of funding along with its public launch, but declined to disclose the total amount, noting only that it was “in the seven figures.”

Initially, SportsIcon will be debuting between 15 and 20 NFTs, created in collaboration with athletes, that commemorate specific, historic moments from their sporting careers. Accompanying these NFTs will be “two-hour masterclasses,” which the company said in a press release will give “fans access to their mental and physical training methods, techniques and best practices.”

That masterclass approach is due in part to the background of co-founder Chris Worsey, who previously built a number of edtech startups including Coursematch. Worsey told TechCrunch that the key to its approach lies in the exclusive content that will be packaged along with the NFTs it’s bringing to market. SportsIcon is differentiated because it’s creating unique content, shooting for two days with the athlete — the first day will be “interviews about their journey and their past,” the second day will be shooting them on the training field, he said.

“This is the key: The beauty is the built-in scarcity of this content,” Worsey added. “We won’t be releasing it elsewhere.”

The hope is to build a “long-term relationship with the icons,” he explained, while the exact financial details/split will differ from deal to deal. In some cases, the athlete is donating their proceeds to the charity of their choice. Each unique art piece will be auctioned off, and the packs will sell for anywhere from $10 to $999. The more expensive packs will be “the really rare, scarce moments where the icon’s talking about their greatest moments,” according to Worsey. Packs can also include real-world prizes like signed memorabilia or box seats at a game.

The real differentiator for SportsIcon, he says, is down to the focus on content, and creating something that’s not only unique, but also high-quality.

“SportsIcon is different because we invest in the content,” Worsey told TechCrunch. “We hire world-class directors and we make world-class content.”

While the startup isn’t yet revealing any of the athletes its working with on its debut NFTs, it says the first sports stars that will appear on the platform will come from soccer, tennis, MMA, basketball and baseball, with agreements with stars in each of those areas currently in progress.

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

By Ron Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Zack Whittaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medchart raises $17M to help businesses more easily access patient-authorized health data

By Darrell Etherington

Electronic health records (EHR) have long held promise as a means of unlocking new superpowers for caregiving and patients in the medical industry, but while they’ve been a thing for a long time, actually accessing and using them hasn’t been as quick to become a reality. That’s where Medchart comes in, providing access to health information between businesses, complete with informed patient consent, for using said data at scale. The startup just raised $17 million across Series A and seed rounds, led by Crosslink Capital and Golden Ventures, and including funding from Stanford Law School, rapper Nas and others.

Medchart originally started out as more of a DTC play for healthcare data, providing access and portability to digital health information directly to patients. It sprung from the personal experience of co-founders James Bateman and Derrick Chow, who both faced personal challenges accessing and transferring health record information for relatives and loved ones during crucial healthcare crisis moments. Bateman, Medchart’s CEO, explained that their experience early on revealed that what was actually needed for the model to scale and work effectively was more of a B2B approach, with informed patient consent as the crucial component.

“We’re really focused on that patient consent and authorization component of letting you allow your data to be used and shared for various purposes,” Bateman said in an interview. “And then building that platform that lets you take that data and then put it to use for those businesses and services, that we’re classifying as ‘beyond care.’ Whether those are our core areas, which would be with your, your lawyer, or with an insurance provider, or clinical researcher — or beyond that, looking at a future vision of this really being a platform to power innovation, and all sorts of different apps and services that you could imagine that are typically outside that realm of direct care and treatment.”

Bateman explained that one of the main challenges in making patient health data actually work for these businesses that surround, but aren’t necessarily a core part of a care paradigm, is delivering data in a way that it’s actually useful to the receiving party. Traditionally, this has required a lot of painstaking manual work, like paralegals poring over paper documents to find information that isn’t necessarily consistently formatted or located.

“One of the things that we’ve been really focused on is understanding those business processes,” Bateman said. “That way, when we work with these businesses that are using this data — all permissioned by the patient — that we’re delivering what we call ‘the information,’ and not just the data. So what are the business decision points that you’re trying to make with this data?”

To accomplish this, Medchart makes use of AI and machine learning to create a deeper understanding of the data set in order to be able to intelligently answer the specific questions that data requesters have of the information. Therein lies their longterm value, since once that understanding is established, they can query the data much more easily to answer different questions depending on different business needs, without needing to re-parse the data every single time.

“Where we’re building these systems of intelligence on top of aggregate data, they are fully transferable to making decisions around policies for, for example, life insurance underwriting, or with pharmaceutical companies on real world evidence for their phase three, phase four clinical trials, and helping those teams to understand, you know, the the overall indicators and the preexisting conditions and what the outcomes are of the drugs under development or whatever they’re measuring in their study,” Bateman said.”

According to Ameet Shah, Partner at co-lead investor for the Series A Golden Ventures, this is the key ingredient in what Medchart is offering that makes the company’s offering so attractive in terms of long-term potential.

“What you want is you both depth and breadth, and you need predictability — you need to know that you’re actually getting like the full data set back,” Shah said in an interview. “There’s all these point solutions, depending on the type of clinic you’re looking at, and the type of record you’re accessing, and that’s not helpful to the requester. Right now, you’re putting the burden on them, and when we looked at it, we were just like ‘Oh, this is just a whole bunch of undifferentiated heavy lifting that the entire health tech ecosystem is trying to like solve for. So if [Medchart] can just commoditize that and drive the cost down as low as possible, you can unlock all these other new use cases that never could have been done before.”

One recent development that positions Medchart to facilitate even more novel use cases of patient data is the 21st Century Cures Act, which just went into effect on April 5, provides patients with immediate access, without charge, to all the health information in their electronic medical records. That sets up a huge potential opportunity in terms of portability, with informed consent, of patient data, and Bateman suggests it will greatly speed up innovation built upon the type of information access Medchart enables.

“I think there’s just going to be an absolute explosion in this space over the next two to three years,” Bateman said. “And at Medchart, we’ve already built all the infrastructure with connections to these large information systems. We’re already plugged in and providing the data and the value to the end users and the customers, and I think now you’re going to see this acceleration and adoption and growth in this area that we’re super well-positioned to be able to deliver on.”

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

By Mary Ann Azevedo

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Pincince, the market is clearly underserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Budweiser brew eggs and will Post cereal make meat?

By Jonathan Shieber

Corporations are quickly waking up to the market potential of alternative proteins with the nation’s biggest consumer brands continuing to make investments and create partnerships with startup companies helping consumers transition to healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets.

As Earth Week draws to a close (thankfully) new partnerships announced over the past week show the potential for new technologies to transform old businesses.

Yesterday the New York-based ZX Ventures, the investment and innovation arm of AB InBev, said that it would be partnering with Clara Foods, a developer of protein production technologies including (but not limited to), brewing egg substitutes. That’s right, the makers of Budweiser are hatching a scheme to make other kinds of liquids that are less potable and more poachable.

In that case, the yolk would definitely be on you, future consumer.

“Since day one, Clara has been on a mission to accelerate the world’s transition to animal-free protein, starting with the egg. More than one trillion eggs are consumed globally every year and corporate commitments for cage-free aren’t enough,” said Arturo Elizondo, the chief executive and co-founder of Clara Foods. “We’re thrilled to be partnering with the world’s largest fermentation company to work together to enable a kinder, greener, and more delicious future. This partnership is a major step towards realizing our vision.”

Graph showing the increasing size of investments into alternative proteins in 2020. From 2019 to 2020 investments in alternative proteins soared from just over $1 billion to $3 billion led by investments in plant protein products. Image Credit: Good Food Institute

There are market-driven reasons for the partnership. Demand for high quality proteins is expected to jump up to 98% by 2050, according to research cited by the two companies.

“Meeting the increased demand for food requires breakthrough solutions built on collaboration and innovation that spans several industry domains – both old and new. The ancient and natural process of fermentation can be further harnessed to help meet future demands in our global food system,” said Patrick O’Riordan, founder & CEO at BioBrew, ZX Ventures’ new business line trying to apply large-scale fermentation and downstream processing expertise beyond beer. “We look forward to exploring the development of highly-functional, animal-free egg proteins with Clara Foods in a scalable, sustainable and economically viable manner.”

Meanwhile, there’s a meeting of the minds happening in St. Louis where cereal giant Post is investing in Hungry Planet, a startup making meat a range of meat replacements.

Formed from the same Seventh Day Adventist focus on plant-based diet and health as a core of spirituality that launched the Kellogg’s cereal empire, Post has long been a rival to the corn flake king with its grape nuts cereal and other grain-based breakfast offerings.

Now the company has led a $25 million investment in Hungry Planet, which aims to provide meat-based replacements for crab cakes, lamb burgers, chicken, pork, and beef. Additional investors included the Singapore-based environmentally sustainable holding company, Trirec.

Alternative proteins are a big business. Last year, companies developing technologies and businesses to commercialize alternative sources of protein raised over $3 billion, according to the industry tracker, the Good Food Institute.

“Over the past year, the alternative protein industry has demonstrated not only resilience but acceleration, raising significantly more investment capital in 2020 than in prior years,” said GFI director of corporate engagement Caroline Bushnell, in a statement. “These capital infusions and the funding still to come will facilitate much-needed R&D and capacity building to enable these companies to scale and reach more consumers with delicious, affordable, and accessible alternative protein products.”

It’s all part of a push to provide more plant-based alternatives to animal proteins in a bid to halt planetary deforestation and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal husbandry.

“Humanity needs solutions that match the scale and urgency of our problems,” said Elizondo. “

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

By Connie Loizos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Anthony Ha

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

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

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

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

Per Diem

Image Credits: Per Diem

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

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

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

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

Per Diem founders Doron Segal and Tomer Molovinsky

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

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

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

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

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Soona raises $10.2M to make remote photo and video shoots easy

By Anthony Ha

Soona, a startup aiming to satisfy the growing content needs of the e-commerce ecosystem, is announcing that it has raised $10.2 million in Series A funding led by Union Square Ventures.

When I wrote about Soona in 2019, the model focused on staging shoots that can deliver videos and photos in 24 hours or less. The startup still operates studios in Austin, Denver and Minneapolis, but co-founder and CEO Liz Giorgi told me that during the pandemic, Soona shifted to a fully virtual/remote model — customers ship their products to Soona, then then watch the shoot remotely and offer immediate feedback, and only pay for the photos ($39 each) and video clips ($93 each) that they actually want.

In some cases, the studio isn’t even necessary — Giorgi said that 30% of Soona’s photographers and crew members are working from home.

Soona has now worked with more than 4,000 customers, including Lola Tampons, The Sill, and Wild Earth, with revenue growing 400% last year. Giorgi said that even as larger in-person shoots become possible again, this approach still makes sense for many clients.

“There’s nothing we sell online that does not require a visual, but not every single visual requires a massive full day shoot,” she said.

Soona

Image Credits: Soona

Giorgi also suggested that Soona’s approach has unlocked a “new level of scalability,” adding, “Internally at Soona, we really believe in the remote shoot experience. It’s not only more efficient, it’s a lot more fun not having to fly a brand manager from Miami and have them spend a full day at a warehouse in New York. That’s not only cost-prohibitive, it’s also a time-consuming and exhausting process for everyone.”

The new funding follows a $1.2 million seed round. Giorgi said the Series A will allow Soona to develop a subscription product with more collaboration tools and more data about what kinds of visual content is most effective.

“There’s an opportunity to own the visual ecosystem of e-commerce from beginning to end,” she said.

Giorgi also noted that Soona continues to employ its “candor clause” requiring investors to disclose whether they’ve ever faced complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination. In fact, the clause has been expanded to cover complaints around racism, ableism or anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

“In some ways it’s a gate that prevents bad actors from being involved […] but it really drives a deeper connection with the investor and the founder,” Giorgi said. “We can have conversation about our values and how we see the world. We get to have a conversation about equality and justice at at time when we’re talking a lot about equity and the cap table.”

Level raises $27M from Khosla, Lightspeed ‘to rebuild insurance from the ground up’

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Level, a startup that aims to give companies a more flexible way to offer benefits to employees, has raised $27 million in a Series A funding round led by Khosla Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

Operator Collective and leading angels also participated in the financing, along with previous backers First Round Capital and Homebrew. The round was raised at a “nine-figure” valuation, according to founder and CEO Paul Aaron, who declined to be more specific.

Founded in 2018, New York City-based Level says it’s “rebuilding insurance from the ground up” via flexible networks and real-time claims with the goal of helping employers and employees get the most out of their benefit dollars. 

Employers can customize plans to do things like offer 100% coverage across treatments. The company also touts the ability to process claims in four hours. 

“That’s lightning fast when compared to 30- to 60-day claims often processed by traditional payers,” said Aaron, who as one of the first employees at Square, led the network team at Oscar Health and is an inventor of several patents in the payments space.

Level first launched employer-sponsored dental benefits in the summer of 2019 and started serving its first beta customers that fall. It also now offers vision plans. The company has more than 10,000 members from companies such as Intercom, Udemy, KeepTruckin and Thistle that have paid for care via its platform. 

“Insurance is confusing and often feels unfair. Networks restrict where you can go, billing takes weeks and you always seem to owe more than you expect,” Aaron said. “We believe paying with insurance should be as easy as any other purchase.”

Level says it is taking a full-stack approach and building end-to-end tools, from automated underwriting to real-time benefit analytics. 

It plans to launch a new insurance product aimed at “helping smaller businesses offer bigger benefits” that typically only enterprises have the ability to offer. The company also aims to help employers get money back for any unused benefits after paying a fixed amount each month. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to offer a full suite of products that will allow companies of all sizes — from two employees to 20,000 — provide better benefits for their teams. 

Level claims that its self-insured dental and vision products let companies offer more coverage to their teams while often cutting nearly 20% from their benefits budget. 

“Employers already spend so much money on benefits, and neither they nor their teams get enough out of it,” said Jana Messerschmidt from Lightspeed Venture Partners, in a written statement. “Businesses of all sizes need to compete for talent with innovative benefits that help people get more from their paychecks. Level offers a far superior employee experience, and you’re getting bang for your buck.” 

Meanwhile, Khosla’s Samir Kaul said he believes Level can do for insurance and benefits “what Square Cash did for person-to-person payments.”

Investor First Round Capital claims to have saved 47% by switching from fully insured to Level. And, Thistle says it saw 41% in savings by switching to Level. 

1Doc3, a Colombian telemedicine startup, raises $3 million

By Marcella McCarthy

The pandemic has made telemedicine video visits in the U.S. almost commonplace, but in Latin America, where broadband isn’t widely available, 1Doc3 is using text and chat to provide access to care. Today, the Colombia-based company announced a $3 million pre-Series A led by MatterScale Ventures and Kayyak Ventures.

“I’m on a nice MacBook for this interview, but that’s not the case of most people in LatAm,” said Javier Cardona, co-founder and CEO of 1Doc3. The company’s name is a play on the phonetics of 1, 2, 3 in Spanish.

Reaching your primary care doctor when you’re not feeling well is getting harder and harder, and 1Doc3 aims to solve that problem in LatAm by offering a telemedicine platform powered by AI that does symptom assessment, triage and pre-diagnosis before connecting the patient to a doctor.

“In 97% of our consultations, you’re connected to a doctor in a matter of minutes,” Cardona said.

After seeing the doctor, the patient can also get their prescriptions delivered to their home through 1Doc3. The startup, like others in the space, is trying to close the loop so patients can get care quickly without having to leave their homes.

In addition to Colombia, the company already has operations in Mexico and plans to use part of the funding to expand further in the region as well as building out a marketing and sales team, which it hasn’t had thus far. 

1Doc3 reaches customers directly and by establishing corporate partnerships where the companies themselves pay for their employees’ medical care through the startup. One of Cardona’s goals is to bring the unit economics down so that smaller businesses can also afford 1Doc3, which for corporates, now charges between $3-4 a month/employee.

“For big companies, the money isn’t an issue, but our region is comprised of small to medium-sized businesses,” Cardona said.

The company, which was founded in 2013 and was a finalist in TechCrunch’s Latin American Battlefield in 2018, experienced massive growth in 2020, going from 2,500 to 35,000 consultations per month from February to December 2020, respectively, which led the company to be cashflow positive last year. In March of 2021, the company had $120,000 in MRR.

Like many startups, the jolt to found 1Doc3 came from a personal experience faced by the founder.  

“When I was in Tanzania I had a medical need and I was definitely not going to go to a doctor in Tanzania, and I couldn’t reach any doctor online, not even in the U.S., and I became a little obsessed with this problem,” said Cardona, who was working in the Middle East and Africa at the time. 

This round brings the total raised by 1Doc3 to $5 million. Other investors that participated in the round include Swanhill Capital, Simma Capital and existing investors The Venture City, EWA capital (previously Mountain Nazca Colombia) and Startup Health.

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

By Annie Siebert
Dharmesh Thakker Contributor
Dharmesh Thakker is a general partner at Battery Ventures and a former managing director at Intel Capital.

More than half a decade ago, my Battery Ventures partner Neeraj Agrawal penned a widely read post offering advice for enterprise-software companies hoping to reach $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

His playbook, dubbed “T2D3” — for “triple, triple, double, double, double,” referring to the stages at which a software company’s revenue should multiply — helped many high-growth startups index their growth. It also highlighted the broader explosion in industry value creation stemming from the transition of on-premise software to the cloud.

Fast forward to today, and many of T2D3’s insights are still relevant. But now it’s time to update T2D3 to account for some of the tectonic changes shaping a broader universe of B2B tech — and pushing companies to grow at rates we’ve never seen before.

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

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

In the past several years, we’ve seen a pioneering group of B2B standouts — Twilio, Shopify, Atlassian, Okta, Coupa*, MongoDB and Zscaler, for example — approach or exceed the $1 billion revenue mark and see their market capitalizations surge 10 times or more from their IPOs to the present day (as of March 31), according to CapIQ data.

More recently, iconic companies like data giant Snowflake and video-conferencing mainstay Zoom came out of the IPO gate at even higher valuations. Zoom, with 2020 revenue of just under $883 million, is now worth close to $100 billion, per CapIQ data.

Graphic showing market cap at IPO and market cap today of various companies.

Image Credits: Battery Ventures via FactSet. Note that market data is current as of April 3, 2021.

In the wings are other B2B super-unicorns like Databricks* and UiPath, which have each raised private financing rounds at valuations of more than $20 billion, per public reports, which is unprecedented in the software industry.

Tamika Butler, Remix’s Tiffany Chu and Revel’s Frank Reig to discuss how to balance equitability and profitability at TC Sessions Mobility

By Kirsten Korosec

The race among mobility startups to become profitable by controlling market share has produced a string of bad results for cities and the people living in the them.

City officials and agencies learned from those early deployments of ride-hailing and shared scooter services and have since pushed back with new rules and tighter control over which companies can operate. This correction has prompted established companies to change how they do business and fueled a new crop of startups, all promising a different approach.

But can mobility be accessible, equitable and profitable? And how?

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, a virtual event scheduled for June 9, aims to dig into those questions. Luckily, we have three guests who are at the center of cities, equity and shared mobility: community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.

Butler, a lawyer and founder and principal of her own consulting company, is well known for work in diversity and inclusion, equity, the built environment, community organizing and leading nonprofits. She was most recently the director of planning in California and the director of equity and inclusion at Toole Design. She previously served as the executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust and was the executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Butler also sits on the board of Lacuna Technologies.

Chu is the CEO and co-founder of Remix, a startup that developed mapping software used by cities for transportation planning and street design. Remix was recently acquired by Via for $100 million and will continue to operate as a subsidiary of the company. Remix, which was backed by Sequoia Capital, Energy Impact Partners, Y Combinator, and Elemental Excelerator has been recognized as both a 2020 World Economic Forum Tech Pioneer and BloombergNEF Pioneer for its work in empowering cities to make transportation decisions with sustainability and equity at the forefront. Chu currently serves as Commissioner of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and sits on the city’s Congestion Pricing Policy Advisory Committee. Previously, Tiffany was a Fellow at Code for America, the first UX hire at Zipcar and is an alum of Y Combinator. Tiffany has a background in architecture and urban planning from MIT.

Early Bird tickets to the show are now available — book today and save $100 before prices go up.

Reig is the co-founder and CEO of Revel, a transportation company that got its start launching a shared electric moped service in Brooklyn. The company, which launched in 2018, has since expanded its moped service to Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, Washington, D.C., Miami, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco. The company has since expanded its focus beyond moped and has started to build fast-charging EV Superhubs across New York City and launched an eBike subscription service in four NYC boroughs. Prior to Revel, Reig held senior roles in the energy and corporate sustainability sectors.

The trio will join other speakers TechCrunch has announced, a list that so far includes Joby Aviation founder and CEO JonBen Bevirt, investor and Linked founder Reid Hoffman, whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby, as well as investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital and Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla. Stay tuned for more announcements in the weeks leading up to the event.

Autonomous aviation startup Xwing hits $400M valuation after latest funding round

By Aria Alamalhodaei

The safety pilot has his hands off the controls during an Xwing demonstration flight. Image Credits: Xwing

Xwing has scored another win two months after it completed its first gate-to-gate autonomous demonstration flight of a commercial cargo aircraft. The company said Thursday it has raised $40 million at a post-money valuation of $400 million.

The company is setting its sights on expansion — not only tripling its engineering team, but eventually running regular fully unmanned commercial cargo flights.

Xwing has been developing a technology stack to convert aircraft, including a widely used Cessna Grand Caravan 208B, to function autonomously. But it’s had to solve a few problems first: “the perception problem, the planning problem and the control problem,” Xwing founder Marc Piette explained to TechCrunch. The company has come up with a whole suite of solutions to solve for these problems, including integrating lidar, radar and cameras on the plane; retrofitting the servomotors that control the rudder, braking and other functions; and ensuring all of these are communicating properly so the plane understands where it is in space and can execute its flight.

The company has already performed close to 200 missions with its AutoFlight system. For all these flights, there’s been a safety pilot on board. In addition, a ground control operator sits in a control center and acts as a go-between from the autonomous aircraft to the human air traffic control operator.

“We don’t anticipate automating [communication with air traffic control], trying to do natural language processing and having a computer make the response to the air traffic controller,” Piette said. “For safety critical applications, we don’t view that as a useful path…but what we do, though, is we have a ground operator in our control room that just talks to air traffic control on behalf of the aircraft. So for the air traffic controller, it’s seamless. As far as they’re concerned, they are just talking to a pilot onboard the aircraft.”

Image Credits: Xwing

For its autonomous flight activities, the company has authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly under an experimental airworthiness certificate for research and development that was expanded in August of last year to include a special flight permit for optionally piloted aircraft (OPA).

The company is looking to eventually remove the safety pilot, but only once full safety redundancies are in place, Piette added. That includes redundancies across all sensors and computer systems. Fortunately for all of us that fly, commercial aviation safety levels are extremely high. It means a high airworthiness standard for aviation startups. Smaller Class III aircraft like the ones Xwing is targeting must demonstrate a risk of one catastrophic failure per hundred million flight hours.

Xwing’s activities have garnered attention from investors. This most recent funding round was led by Blackhorn Ventures, with participation from ACME Capital, Loup Ventures, R7 Partners, Eniac Ventures, Alven Capital and Array Ventures. Including this round, the company has raised $55 million in total capital.

The autonomous flights are only one part of Xwing’s business activities. It’s also been flying manned commercial cargo operations under a contract with a large logistics company signed December 1.

“We set up what’s effectively an airline,” Piette said. By modifying these aircraft with sensors to collect data, Xwing is able to feed this valuable flight time into a training algorithm, and collect other useful data, such as how often the pilots communicate with air traffic controllers and the types of directions the craft receives.

Looking ahead, the company will be significantly scaling its workforce over the next 12 months, in addition to increasing its commercial operations in parallel. On the technology side, Xwing is looking to fly autonomous commercial cargo flights, with a safety pilot onboard, under an experimental ticket and exemption from the FAA. The company will likely reach this milestone also within the next 12 months, Piette said. After that, it would look to remove the safety pilot from the aircraft. Even then, the company would still need to get its systems certified to completely remove any constraints on its movements in airspace.

Sales scheduling platform Chili Piper raises $33M Series B funding led by Tiger Global

By Mike Butcher

Chili Piper, which has a sophisticated SaaS appointment scheduling platform for sales teams, has raised a $33 million B round led by Tiger Global. Existing investors Base10 Partners and Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI-focused VC) also participated. This brings the company’s total financing to $54 million. The company will use the capital raised to accelerate product development. The previous $18M A round was led by Base10 and Google’s Gradient Ventures 9 months ago.

It’s main competitor is Calendly, started 21/2 years previously, which recently achieved a $3Bn valuation.

Launched in 2016, Chili Piper’s software for B2B revenue teams is designed to convert leads into attended meetings. Sales teams can also use it to book demos, increase inbound conversion rates, eliminate manual lead routing, and streamline critical processes around meetings. It’s used by Intuit, Twilio, Forrester, Spotify, and Gong.

Chili Piper has a number of different tools for businesses to schedule and calendar accountments, but its key USP is in its use by ‘inbound SDR Sales Development Representatives (SDR)’, who are responsible for qualifying inbound sales leads. It’s particularly useful in scheduling calls when customers hit websites ask for a salesperson to call them back.

Nicolas Vandenberghe, CEO, and co-founder of Chili Piper said: “When we started we sold the house and decided to grow the company ourselves. So all the way until 2019 we bootstrapped. Tiger gave us a valuation that we expected to get at the end of this year, which will help us accelerate things much faster, so we couldn’t refuse it.”

Alina Vandenberghe, CPO, and Co-founder said: “We’re proud to have so many customers scheduling meetings and optimizing their calendars with Chili Piper’s Instant Booker.”

Since the pandemic hit, the husband-and-wife founded company has gone fully remote, with 93 employees in 81 cities and 21 countries.

John Curtius, Partner at Tiger Global said: “When we met Nicolas and Alina, we were fired up by their product vision and focus on customer happiness.”

TJ Nahigian, Managing Partner at Base10 Partners, added: “We originally invested in Chili Piper because we knew customers needed ways to add fire to how they connected with inbound leads. We’ve been absolutely blown away with the progress over the past year, 2020 has been a step-change for this company as business went remote.”

Goldman Sachs leads $23M in funding for Brazilian e-commerce startup Olist

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Olist, a Brazilian e-commerce marketplace integrator, has raised $23 million in a Series D round extension led by new investor Goldman Sachs Asset Management that brings its total Series D financing to $80 million.

Existing backer Redpoint Ventures, which first put money in Olist in 2015, also participated in the latest round. With this latest infusion, Olist has now raised over $126 million since its 2015 inception. This round is reportedly its last before the company plans to go public, according to Bloomberg.

SoftBank led the first tranch of Olist’s Series D in November as well as the company’s $46 million Series C in 2019. Valor Capital, Velt Partners, FJ Labs, Península and angel Kevin Efrusy had previously invested in the first tranche of the Series D.

Olist connects small businesses to larger product marketplaces to help entrepreneurs sell their products to a larger customer base. The company was founded with the mission of helping small merchants gain market share across the country through a SaaS licensing model to small brick and mortar businesses.

As of October 2019, Olist had more than 7,000 customers and used a drop-shipping model to send products directly from stores to clients around the country, allowing them to grow with a capital-light model.

Today, Olist says its platform provides tools that support “all the stages of an e-commerce operation” with the goal of helping merchants see “rapid increases in sales volume.” It currently has about 25,000 merchants on its platform.

The startup is no doubt benefiting from the pandemic-fueled e-commerce boom taking place all over the world as more people have turned to online shopping. Latin America, in general, has been home to increased e-commerce adoption.

Olist says its revenue tripled to a record number in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the previous year, although it did not provide hard figures. It also reportedly doubled revenue in 2020, according to Bloomberg.

Olist Store, the company’s flagship product, gives merchants a way to manage product listings, logistics and store payments. It also offers “a unique sales experience” through channels such as Mercado Livre, B2W and Via Varejo. The product saw a record GMV in the first half of the year, which was up 2.5 times over the same period in the prior year, the company said.

Last year, Olist launched a new product, Olist Shops, giving users the ability to create a virtual showcase “in less than 3 minutes” that also offers payment checkout tools and integration with logistics operators. Shops has interfaces in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, and since its launch, it has attracted more than 200,000 users in 180 countries, according to Olist.

“The pandemic has accelerated digitalizing business processes around the world, thus spurring e-commerce growth in a surprising way,” said Tiago Dalvi, Olist’s founder and CEO, in a written statement. 

The company plans to use its new capital to invest in technology and products, pursuing new mergers and acquisitions and boosting its internationalization process. This is on top of two acquisitions Olist made last year — Clickspace and Pax Logistica, which gave Olist entry into the heated logistics space with more than 4,000 registered drivers.

Specifically, CFO Eduardo Ferraz said the company is in preliminary discussions with ERPs, retailers, and companies with complementary solutions to its own.

“That is why we also decided to expand the investment in our Series D and bring Goldman Sachs as another relevant investor to our cap table,” he said.

David Castelblanco, managing director and head of Latin America Corporate and Growth Equity Investing for the Goldman Sachs Asset Management, said his firm was impressed with how Olist empowers SMBs to generate more revenue.

“Tiago and the Olist team are incredibly customer oriented and have created an innovative technological solution for their e-commerce clients,” he added.

Olist is operating in an increasingly crowded space. In March, we covered São Paulo-based Nuvemshop’s $90 million raise that was led by Silicon Valley venture firm Accel. That company has developed an e-commerce platform that aims to allow SMBs and merchants to connect more directly with their consumers. 

Pearpop raises from The Chainsmokers, Alexis Ohanian, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, Mark Cuban, Marshmello, and Snoop Dogg

By Jonathan Shieber

Pearpop, the marketplace for social collaborations between the teeming hordes of musicians, craftspeople, chefs, clowns, diarists, dancers, artists, actors, acrobats, aspiring celebrities and actual celebrities, has raised $16 million in funding that includes what seems like half of Hollywood, along with Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six venture firm and Bessemer Venture Partners.

The funding was actually split between a $6 million seed funding round co-led by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures and Slow Ventures, with participation from Atelier Ventures and Chapter One Ventures and a $10 million additional investment led by Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six with participation from Bessemer.

TechCrunch first covered pearpop last year and there’s no denying that the startup is on to something. It basically takes Cameo’s celebrity marketplace for private shout-outs and makes it public. Allowing social media personalities to boost their followers by paying more popular personalities to shout out, duet, or comment on their posts.

“I’ve invested in pearpop because it’s been on my mind for a while that the creator economy has resulted in a lot of not equitable outcomes for creators. Where i talked about the missing middle class of the creator economy,” said Li Jin, the founder of Atelier Ventures and author of a critical piece on creator economics, “The creator economy needs a middle class“. 

“When I saw pearpop I felt like there was a really big potential for pearpop to be the one of the creators of the creative middle class. They’ve introduced this mechanism by which larger creators can help smaller creators and everyone has something of value to offer something to everyone else in the ecosystem.”

Jin discovered pearpop through the TechCrunch piece, she said. “You wrote that article and then i reached out to the team,” said Jin.

The idea was so appealing, it brought in a slew of musicians, athletes, actors and entertainers, including: Abel Makkonen (The Weeknd), Amy Schumer, The Chainsmokers, Diddy, Gary Vaynerchuk, Griffin Johnson, Josh Richards, Kevin Durant (Thirty 5 Ventures), Kevin Hart (HartBeat Ventures), Mark Cuban, Marshmello, Moe Shalizi, Michael Gruen (Animal Capital), MrBeast (Night Media Ventures), Rich Miner (Android co-founder) and Snoop Dogg.

“Pearpop has the potential to benefit all social media platforms by delivering new users and engagement, while simultaneously leveling the playing field of opportunity for creators,” said Alexis Ohanian, Founder, Seven Seven Six, in a statement. “The company has created a revolutionary new marketplace model that is set to completely reimagine how we think of social media monetization. As both a social media founder and an investor, I’m excited for what’s to come with pearpop.”

Already Heidi Klum, Loren Gray, Snoop Dogg, and Tony Hawk have gotten paid to appear in social media posts from aspiring auteurs on the social media platform TikTok.

Using the platform is relatively simple. A social media user (for now, that means just TikTok) sends a post that exists on their social feed and requests that another social media user interacts with it in some way — either commenting, posting a video in response, or adding a sound. If the request seems okay, or “on brand”, then the person who accepts the request performs the prescribed action.

Pearpop takes a 25% cut of all transactions with the social media user who’s performing the task getting the other 75%.

The company wouldn’t comment on revenue numbers, except to say that it’s on track to bring in seven figures this year.

Users on the platform set their prices and determine which kinds of services they’re willing to provide to boost the social media posts of their contractors.

Prices range anywhere from $5 to $10,000 depending on the size of a user’s following and the type of request that’s being made. Right now, the most requested personality on the marketplace is the TikTok star, Anna Banana.

These kinds of transactions do have impacts. The company said that personalities on the platform were able to increase their follower count with the service. For instance, Leah Svoboda went from 20K to 141K followers, after a pearpop duet with Anna Shumate.

If this all makes you feel like you’ve tripped and fallen through a Black Mirror into a dystopian hellscape where everything and every interaction is a commodity to be mined for money, well… that’s life.

“What I appreciate most about pearpop is the control it gives me as a creator,” said Anna Shumate, TikTok influencer @annabananaxdddd. “The platform allows me to post what I want and when I want. My followers still love my content because it’s authentic and true to me, which is what sets pearpop apart from all of the other opportunities on social media.”

Talent agencies, too, see the draw. Early adopters include Talent X, Get Engaged, and Next Step Talent and The Fuel Injector, which has added its entire roster of talent to pearpop, which includes Kody Antle, Brooke Monk and Harry Raftus, the company said.

“The initial concept came out of an obvious gap within the space: no marketplace existed for creators of all sizes to monetize through simple, authentic collaborations that are mutually beneficial,” said Cole Mason, co-founder & CEO, pearpop.  “It soon became clear that this was a product that people had been waiting for, as thousands of people rely on our platform today to gain full control of their social capital for the first time starting with TikTok.”

Building tech for worker safety, Guardhat Technologies is a company that could only come from Detroit

By Jonathan Shieber

Saikat Dey, the founder of Detroit’s own Guardhat Technologies, got his start working in the steel industry. His last job, before founding Guardhat, was serving as the chief executive officer of Severstal International, the multinational steel conglomerate whose headquarters were in Dearborn, Mich.

There, managing the global business of the fourth largest steelmaker by volume and revenue, with 3,600 employees in Mississippi, Michigan, and the coal mines of West Virginia, Dey became obsessed with safety, he said.

Beyond tracking cash flow and EBITDA, the typical numbers companies use, Dey said that worker safety was another measurement that effected compensation. “One of the key metrics is how well and how safe we keep our frontline workers,” Dey said. 

Dey’s concerns over safety at his plants is what led him to reach out to union leadership and begin developing the technology that would form the core of Guardhat’s offerings.

The company pitches a multi-product intelligent safety system that integrates wearable technology and proprietary software to detect, alert, and prevent hazardous industrial work-related incidents.

Investors including Dan Gilbert’s Detroit Venture Partners, General Catalyst, and RTP Ventures, the venture investment firm led by Ru-Net Holdings co-founder, Leonid Boguslavsky, are backing Dey’s vision, which also has buy-in from the most important audience of all, the unions representing the workers that use the company’s tech.

Notes on the first day brainstorming session for Guardhat’s industrial wearable. Image Credit: Guardhat

Made in Detroit, built for the world’s industrial workers

Roughly fifteen workers are killed every day on the job in industrial jobs like mining, metals and oil and gas and another 3 million people are injured every year. For executives in the industry, the issue is as much a financial concern as it is an ethical one. At Severstal, 40 percent of Dey’s salary was tied to worker safety, he said.

In fact, the idea for Guardhat hit Dey while he was walking the floor of the company’s Detroit-area steel plant. On one of his regular walks through the factory Dey said he wandered past a man working on a piece of equipment when the employee’s carbon monoxide alarm started to buzz. Instead of trying to find the source of the leak, the man turned off his monitor.

“You’re taking about a steel facility in the heart of Detroit having the largest blast furnace in North America,” said Dey. “Whatever that individual was doing, it could have led to a catastrophic accident.”

That’s what inspired Guardhat’s technology that Dey said was designed to answer a few simple, situational questions that apply to any factory anywhere in the world: Where are you? What conditions do you face? When can help get to you? Those are the questions that Guardhat’s technology is designed to answer.

“We didn’t have effective means to prevent or if an accident happens to intervene with timely information,” Dey said. 

The technology may have been designed by executives, but it was made in consultation with the heads of the Detroit area unions, to ensure that workers would actually use the product.

We decided that we wanted to do this in September 2014,” Dey said. “And when I was struggling with whether to scratch that itch and start the business, the union guys said go for it and do it…. I was a person of color with a $6 billion P&L running one of the six largest steelmakers in the U.S. building this literally out of the garage. It took a lot of guts, stupidity, and it took a lot of support from regular friends at the UAW.” 

That collaboration ensured that the union’s workers were comfortable that the information wasn’t being generated and stored in a way that employees would not feel that they were being monitored unnecessarily or punitively.

Guardhat Technologies wearable safety helmet. Image Credit Guardhat Technologies

From prototype to product

The company’s first product was the HC1 — a helmet that comes jam-packed with sensor equipment. “You want to put it on something that everyone wears and is mandated to wear,” Dey said.

Initially the thought was to just create the wearable, but over time Dey and his team realized that the device alone wouldn’t be enough. “The helmet is just another form factor… [and] whatever the form factor, you need to know how you make this information the single source of truth for the platform of all things that surround the worker.”

Like dozens of other Detroit-area startups that came before them, when Dey and his team needed to raise cash, they first turned to Dan Gilbert.

Gilbert tested the prototype by running around a building and asking the GuardHat team if they could find him and tell him where they thought he was.

With Gilbert on board, the product design firm frog labs came into the picture and so did 3M. By then, it was time to test the prototype.

“I still remember the first day we were in testing in a third party certified lab in Akron, Ohio,” sad Dey. These guys were dropping a metal ball from 5 meters and each one of those puppies was $3,000 a-piece and 27 of those hats got ground down to powder,” Dey said. “We failed every test because we didn’t know how to build a helmet.”

Assistance from frog and others brought the device over the finish line and it’s now being used by over 5,000 workers and prevented or alerted workers to at least 2,000 potentially dangerous incidents. 

For Dey, the business could only have come from Detroit. “The Detroit thing is symbolic,” he said. It’s a symbol of the school of hard knocks that educated its founding team in the ways these heavy industries.

SoftBank in talks to invest up to $500 million in Swiggy

By Manish Singh

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 is in advanced stages of talks to invest up to half a billion dollars into food delivery startup Swiggy, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The new investment values the Indian startup at about $5.5 billion, the sources said.

The new investment would add to the $800 million fundraise Swiggy unveiled earlier this month. SoftBank began exploring investment in India’s food delivery space earlier this year, and also looked at Swiggy’s rival Zomato. But the investment firm picked Swiggy earlier this week, a person familiar with the matter said.

Swiggy and SoftBank declined to comment.

The new investment talks come amid Zomato raising $910 million in recent months as the Gurgaon-headquartered firm prepares for an IPO this year. The last tranche of investment valued Zomato at $5.4 billion. During its fundraise, Zomato said it was raising money partially to fight off “any mischief or price wars from our competition in various areas of our business.”

A third player, Amazon, also entered the food delivery market in India last year, though its operations are still limited to parts of Bangalore.

At stake is India’s food delivery market, which analysts at Bernstein expect to balloon to be worth $12 billion by 2022, they wrote in a report to clients earlier this year.

After raising $800 million, Swiggy co-founder and chief executive Sriharsha Majety told employees in a memo that the new fundraise “gives us a lot more firepower than the planned investments for our current business lines. Given our unfettered ambition though, we will continue to seed/experiment new offerings for the future that may be ready for investment later. We will just need to now relentlessly invent and execute over the next few years to build an enduring iconic company out of India.”

He added in that memo that the long-term goal for the startup is to serve 500 million users in the next 10-15 years, pointing to Chinese food giant Meituan, which had 500 million transacting users last year and is valued at over $100 billion.

“We’re coming out of a very hard phase during the last year given Covid and have weathered the storm, but everything we do from here on needs to maximise the chances of our succeeding in the long-term,” he wrote.

Swiggy, which counts Prosus Ventures among its largest investors, last year eliminated some jobs — so did Zomato — and scaled down its cloud kitchen efforts as it attempted to stay afloat during the pandemic, which had prompted New Delhi to enforce a months-long lockdown.

Swiggy's performance this year, per Prosus Ventures. pic.twitter.com/AqcKYQ8ml1

— Manish Singh (@refsrc) December 23, 2020

TechCrunch reported on Wednesday that SoftBank Vision Fund 2 is also in talks to invest in Zeta. The investment firm, which has also written checks to e-commerce giant Flipkart, ride-hailing firm Ola, and budget hospitality startup Oyo, earlier this month backed social commerce Meesho.

Grocery startup Mercato spilled years of data, but didn’t tell its customers

By Zack Whittaker

A security lapse at online grocery delivery startup Mercato exposed tens of thousands of customer orders, TechCrunch has learned.

A person with knowledge of the incident told TechCrunch that the incident happened in January after one of the company’s cloud storage buckets, hosted on Amazon’s cloud, was left open and unprotected.

The company fixed the data spill, but has not yet alerted its customers.

Mercato was founded in 2015 and helps over a thousand smaller grocers and specialty food stores get online for pickup or delivery, without having to sign up for delivery services like Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Mercato operates in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where the company is headquartered.

TechCrunch obtained a copy of the exposed data and verified a portion of the records by matching names and addresses against known existing accounts and public records. The data set contained more than 70,000 orders dating between September 2015 and November 2019, and included customer names and email addresses, home addresses, and order details. Each record also had the user’s IP address of the device they used to place the order.

The data set also included the personal data and order details of company executives.

It’s not clear how the security lapse happened since storage buckets on Amazon’s cloud are private by default, or when the company learned of the exposure.

Companies are required to disclose data breaches or security lapses to state attorneys-general, but no notices have been published where they are required by law, such as California. The data set had more than 1,800 residents in California, more than three times the number needed to trigger mandatory disclosure under the state’s data breach notification laws.

It’s also not known if Mercato disclosed the incident to investors ahead of its $26 million Series A raise earlier this month. Velvet Sea Ventures, which led the round, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

In a statement, Mercato chief executive Bobby Brannigan confirmed the incident but declined to answer our questions, citing an ongoing investigation.

“We are conducting a complete audit using a third party and will be contacting the individuals who have been affected. We are confident that no credit card data was accessed because we do not store those details on our servers. We will continually inform all authoritative bodies and stakeholders, including investors, regarding the findings of our audit and any steps needed to remedy this situation,” said Brannigan.


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